The mitzvah of living in Eretz Yisrael

This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah for her neshama.

North Israel-Mt Hermon
Many new immigrants who move to Israel are often met with astonishment from Israelis (and more than a few Americans) as to why they would leave the US to make a new life for themselves in Israel. Of course, there is something exciting about being part of the 'Start-Up Nation'. There are mystical reasons to live here: according to tradition, while the rest of the world was flooded in the mabul, no waters crossed over the boundaries of Israel, leaving the land and air here with the original qualities imbued with the whole world during creation. Related to this, the Jewish Sages say that just breathing the air of the land makes people wise and that Divine Intervention is felt more strongly here. Beyond good food, and holy air, many people actually move here for a more substantial reason: because it's a mitzvah.

There are different accounts of what all of the 613 mitzvot laid out in the Torah are, but almost everyone agrees living in the Land of Israel, Eretz Yisrael, is one of them. The source for this is in Bamidbar 33:53 which says, "...dwell in the land because I gave it to you". The famous Torah scholar and Kabbalist, the Ramban, expounds on this passuk, saying "It's better to live in Israel, even in a town that is mostly non-Jewish, than to live in the Diaspora in a Jewish town." Those are strong words. 

Living in the land is considered so important that one needs a valid reason to even leave! There are three reasons given for why one is allowed to leave Eretz Yisrael: for parnassah (they can't make a living here), for shidduchim (to get married), and to learn Torah (if there is an opportunity for a better or safer place to learn, which was a valid reason for many years, but less so today). 

Let us consider how special this mitzvah really is - it's one of only three that you do with your entire body (the other two being dwelling in the sukkah and mikvah). Basically, even if you are just taking a nap while in Eretz Yisrael, you are doing a mitvah. One of the mitzvot that are contingent upon being in the land is that every dalet amot you walk (about 8 ft), is a mitzvah. Just strolling down to the corner makolet (small supermarket) to get milk you are racking up those mitzvah points.

As mentioned before, there are certain mitzvot that only apply in Israel when a majority of the world's Jews live in the Land - such as many agricultural laws, the forgiving of debts, tithes given to Kohanim. In addition to the individual mitzvah of living in the land, these laws have a communal aspect - since the majority of Jews need to live here for them to be mitzvot, then it suddenly becomes everyone's responsibility to live here to help one another fulfill all the mitzvot. That is part of being a Jew - helping each other in life. So what are you waiting for? Come live here, help yourself, and your fellow Jew, do a mitzvah! 

Chanukah - Focus

This post is dedicated in memory of Shlomo ben Aryeh Zalman. May it be an aliyah for his                                                                    neshama
Elisheva Maline

Success, by measurable standards, is a lapel that people pin to the jackets of those who eat, drink and breath their dreams into reality. Classic examples abound: Olympic champions, Tai chi black belts (read: the guys who might spend a decade or so at the feet of their masters subsisting on little more than rice and seaweed), Torah scholars who cover ground in the 63 Tractates of Shas, CEOs of mass corporations, heads of well known not-for-profits, teachers who've hauled their students up from C averages to B+ averages all share one thing: focus. 

Each of the above, and more, had a long term goal, but they didn't pause at the threshold of reality, asking themselves, "What if...?" They strategized. They set short term goals. What's more: they developed tunnel vision. And they saw their dreams bear fruit.   

What's the holiday of Chanukah got to do with it?

When Greece came to power, most Jews decided to turn their backs on their religiosity and become Hellenists (the old fashioned term for secular). Not satisfied with dwindling ranks, these self proclaimed Greeks sought to dilute whatever vestige of authentic Judaism was left. This meant approaching the Greeks and having them put a ban on specific commandments which form the bedrock of our faith. These commandments were Shabbot, Brit Milah, Rosh Chodesh, keeping Kosher (Jewish dietary laws) and the study of Torah.
As it became increasingly harder to be religious and uphold Greek law, Jews began learning Torah in secret. Sensing this, Greek soldiers prowled the streets and marketplaces, looking for scholars who were breaking the rules (much like today's traffic police keep their eyes peeled for people to slap speeding tickets on). This is where the game of dreidle came into play. Whenever a clandestine group of scholars sensed a soldier around the corner, they tucked their sefarim (books) away and began a game of dreidle poker.

At one point, the situation became so unbearable that a certain group of people -- the Hasmoneans -- started a rebellion. Miraculously, their small troop of men defeated the mighty Syrian Greek army.

Their fight took place on more than just the physical plain: the two parties were involved in spiritual as well as psychological warfare. What do I mean? The Greek view is that anything we, as people, attain must be attributed to the power of nature and, specifically, to the innovativeness of man. Judaism, on the other hand, is determined to give credit where credit is due and declares that everything we gain must bring us to a state of gratitude to G-d. When Adam faced the darkness of a motzei Shabbos (Saturday night), he made fire so that he might see and not be subject to stubbing his toes or stumbling around in the dark. While the Greek mindset is to proclaim Adam's discovery of fire the inventiveness of man, Judaism calls that scenario a Heavenly bestowed gift. Yes, Adam was the one who actually rubbed two sticks together, causing a spark to ignite and start a flame. But Who placed the random thought in his head that friction between two pieces of wood would cause them to create a substance that would give off both heat and light? How can a person experiment about what he doesn't know he doesn't know? And if he does discover something by some freak accident, as scientists are often wont to, should it not be attributed to the the hand of Hashem?   

Living with Jewish awareness that it is G-d who runs the world, and that it is G-d who calls the shots and pulls the strings takes an enormous amount of focus. So much so, in fact, that by the time Jews were asked to put the pedal to the medal, there were only a few left to do so.

But did it they did.

And we won the war.

Story of Chanukah

This post is dedicated in memory of Shlomo ben Aryeh Zalman. May it be an aliyah for his neshama

Chanukah, the Jewish festival of rededication, also known as the festival of lights, is an eight day festival beginning on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev.

Chanukah is probably one of the best known Jewish holidays, not because of any great religious significance, but because of its proximity to Christmas. Many non-Jews (and even many assimilated Jews!) think of this holiday as the Jewish Christmas, adopting many of the Christmas customs, such as elaborate gift-giving and decoration. It is bitterly ironic that this holiday, which has its roots in a revolution against assimilation and suppression of Jewish religion, has become the most assimilated, secular holiday on our calendar.
The story of Chanukah begins in the reign of Alexander the Great. Alexander conquered Syria, Egypt and Judea, but allowed the people under his control to continue observing their own religions and retain a certain degree of autonomy. Under this relatively benevolent rule, many Jews assimilated, adopting much of Hellenistic culture, including the language, customs, dress, etc., in much the same way that Jews in America today blend into the secular American society.

More than a century later, a successor of Alexander, Antiochus IV was in control of the region. He began to oppress the Jews severely, placing a Hellenistic priest in the Temple, massacring Jews, prohibiting the practice of the Jewish religion, and desecrating the Temple by requiring the sacrifice of pigs (a non-kosher animal) on the altar. Two groups opposed Antiochus: a basically nationalistic group led by Mattathias the Hasmonean and his son Judah Maccabee, and a religious traditionalist group known as the Chasidim, the forerunners of the Pharisees (no direct connection to the modern movement known as Chasidism). They joined forces in a revolt against both the assimilation of the Hellenistic Jews and oppression by the Selucid Greek government. The revolution succeeded and the Temple was rededicated.
According to tradition as recorded in the Talmud, at the time of the rededication, there was very little oil left that had not been defiled by the Greeks. Oil was needed for the menorah (candelabrum) in the Temple, which was supposed to burn throughout the night every night. There was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days. An eight day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle. Note that the holiday commemorates the miracle of the oil, not the military victory: Jews do not glorify war.
Chanukah is not a very important religious holiday. The holiday's religious significance is far less than that of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, and Shavu'ot. It is roughly equivalent to Purim in significance, and you won't find many non-Jews who have even heard of Purim! Chanukah is not mentioned in Jewish scripture; the story is related in the book of the Maccabbees, which Jews do not accept as scripture.

The only religious observance related to the holiday is the lighting of candles. The candles are arranged in a candelabrum called a Hanukia (menorah). The Hanukiah holds nine candles: one for each night, plus a shamash (servant) at a different height. On the first night, one candle is placed at the far right. The shamash candle is lit and three blessings are recited: l'hadlik neir (a general prayer over candles), she-asah nisim (a prayer thanking G-d for performing miracles for our ancestors at this time), and she-hekhianu (a general prayer thanking G-d for allowing us to reach this time of year). The first candle is then lit using the shamash candle, and the shamash candle is placed in its holder. The candles are allowed to burn out on their own after a minimum of 1/2 hour. On each subsequent night, a new candle is added to the left of the previous night's candle. The new candle is always lit first (light from left to right).
Because of the law prohibiting the lighting of a fire on Shabbat, Chanukah candles are lit before the Shabbat candles on Friday night, and they are lit after Havdalah on Saturday night.
It is traditional to eat fried foods on this holiday, because of the significance of oil to the holiday. Among Ashkenazic Jews, this usually includes latkes (pronounced “lot-kuhs” or “lot-keys” depending on where your grandmother comes from), or “potato pancakes.”
Gift-giving is not a traditional part of the holiday, but has been added in places where Jews have a lot of contact with Christians as a way of dealing with children’s jealousy of their Christian friends. The only traditional gift of the holiday is “gelt,” small amounts of money. Chanukah gelt is a Jewish custom rooted in the Talmud: “The Talmud states that even a very poor person must light Chanukah lights, even if he can’t afford it. A person with no money is required to go ‘knocking on doors’ until he collects enough to buy at least one candle for each night of Chanukah. The Torah concept of charity -- tzedakah -- requires us to help the recipient in the most dignified manner possible. Therefore, the custom arose to give gifts of money during Chanukah so that someone who needs extra money for Chanukah candles can receive it in the form of ‘Chanukah Gelt.’”
Another tradition of the holiday is playing dreidel, a gambling game played with a square top. Most people play for matchsticks, pennies, M&Ms or chocolate coins. A dreidel is marked with the following four Hebrew letters: Nun, Gimmel, Heh and Shin. On Israeli dreidels, there is no Shin but rather a Peh, which stands for Po, meaning here.
This supposedly stands for the Hebrew phrase “nes gadol hayah sham,” a great miracle happened there. Actually, it stands for the Yiddish words nit (nothing), gantz (all), halb (half) and shtell (put), which is the rules of the game! There are some variations in the way people play the game, but the way I learned it, everyone puts in one coin. A person spins the dreidel. On Nun, nothing happens; on Gimmel (or, as we called it as kids, “gimme!”), you get the whole pot; on Heh, you get half of the pot; and on Shin, you put one in. When the pot is empty, everybody puts one in. Keep playing until one person has everything. Then redivide it, because nobody likes a poor winner.
A traditional song of this holiday is “Maoz Tzur,” better known to Christians as “Rock of Ages”

Hanukkah: An Under Appreciated Holiday

This post is dedicated in merit that Hershel ben Etya Sarah have a yeshuah.

By: Samantha Hulkower

Hanukkah can't catch a break. Usually, in the US at least, it gets lumped together with Xmas for the 'Holiday Season' and is often thought of as 'The Jewish Xmas' replete with gift giving (which was never part of the Hanukkah tradition until more recent times).  There is so much more to Hanukkah than pumpkin spiced sufganiyot (donuts) or dreidels. 

The Gemara states that Hanukkah was cannonized because of the miracle of the lights lasting for 8 days. There are numerous instances in Jewish history of a rag-tag bunch of Jews overcoming statistically impossible odds to squeak out a victory over our would-be oppressors (The Six Day War just being the most recent example).  But, as Rabbi Lawrence Kelleman points out, if we look at the only mention of Hanukkah in the Siddur, the prayer of Al HaNissim, talks about how miraculous the military victory was, and not the oil part. Why this discord?

Some context is in order. For those of you who remember High School social studies, the Greek Empire was known for it's advances in math, science, medicine, philosophy, and art. Hippocrates, Plato, Homer, - their works are still considered relevant and being studied today. The Greeks invented the gym, theaters, among many other things. It's not hard to see why it would be appealing for the Jews living in Eretz Yisrael under the Greek exile to be enticed to join the society. While many Jews became 'Hellinized Jew' (in today's parlance, secular), it is well known that a few Jews didn't. They moved out of the city in order to practice their observance with less distraction, and so our story begins.

The battle of Hanukkah arguably began when Greek soldiers arrived at the small town of Modi'in (located like modern Modi'in is north and west of Jerusalem), and demanded that the local leader, Mattityahu, sacrifice a pig to the Greek god Zeus. Unsurprisingly, Mattiyahu said no, but a local Hellinized Jew offered to do it instead of him. I've read different accounts as to the motivation of that person, but at the end of the day, it doesn't matter. If the leader and respected elder of the town was taking a stand, and risking his life, he wasn't about to let any other Jew move further away from the Torah and closer to Greek culture instead of him. Mattityahu killed him then and there, and the surrounding townspeople took up arms against their Greek oppressors. 

The war went on, past Mattityahu's death a year later, and his son Yehuda was ultimately the one who lead the Jews to victory and back into the Beit Hamikdash. There are many parts to what happened next that are considered to be miraculous in their own right: the fact that the Greeks had missed one jug of sealed oil, while they were busy defiling the others so they couldn't be used for the Temple service, the fact that the oil was only supposed to last one day but burned for 8 - the exact amount of time it would take to produce new oil to continue lighting the Menorah. But an aspect that is often overlooked, is the fact that Yehuda took the step of lighting the Menorah, knowing he didn't have enough oil. According to Jewish law, this isn't something that is allowed - the Menorah has to burn continuously. They weren't obligated to light the Menorah at that time, they could have waited 8 days until they had a reliable supply of oil. But they didn't. After being oppressed in their religious observance for so long, the Maccabees couldn't wait to return to their service of G-d in the Beit Hamikdash. They were Kohanim (priests) after all, this was their profession. The fact that they were so excited to return to being Jewish and act it out freely, this is perhaps what the Gemara was referring to in the miracle of the oil - that even after being exposed to the test of an intoxicating secular culture, at the end of the day, the Jews wanted nothing more than to return to their rightful place in this world.

Perhaps now we can see why this story is still so important to us today. We live in a world bursting with temptations and distractions from our religious observance, and seemingly logical scientific rationales that can explain away the need for kashrut (kosher) or taharat mishpacha (family purity) laws, or anything really. These challenges aren't new. But if we can remember that our ancestors 2,000 years ago knew it was important enough to fight for, to not assimilate, and that this holiday is placed where it is in the calendar as a reminder, we can do our best to carry on our tradition. And enjoy some latkes and donuts in the meantime. 

shmirat haloshon - A Bag Full of Sins

This post is dedicated in merit that Hershel ben Etya Sarah have a yeshuah.

Elisheva Maline

Here's an old question: "if you had the option to push a button knowing you'd win a million dollars but that it would result in the death of some random person in another country, would you do it?" For many the scenario is a no brainer; that's why I brought it up. However, for those with little or no moral backbone, the question does pose a quandary of sorts. The act of pressing a button seems so insignificant, so minuscule, and the scene of the crime so far away. What a person can't see can be spirited away from the consciousness as the temptation to close one's eyes to the pain of the murdered person's family and friends grows. On the other hand, the thought that one has the power to cause another person's destruction could bring any sensitive nature to its knees.

When an evil is done, or any deed for that matter, it is never just an isolated incident. There are always other factors at stake. In the case of the above scenario, the family, friends, and indeed, everything that has something to do with the victim is affected. Now, if we take the idea of murder as well as the dynamo effect surrounding it and replace it with speaking loshon hara, the similarities are humbling i.e. no matter who's being hurt and for what reasons, the act of speaking will always leave the speaker with a bagful of negative consequences and sins. The words that were spoken never stand alone; there is always so much more going on.

What consequences are we referring to here? The Chofez Chaim tells us that when we choose to speak loshon hara we are essentially making our bags of sins heavier with transgressions such as "You shall not profane My [G-d's] holy name" (Leviticus 22:32), "Do not hate your brother in your heart" (ibid. 19:17) and "You shall neither take revenge from nor bear a grudge against your people (ibid. 19:18). Rashi points out that one who profanes G-d's name can only do so by sinning intentionally. This is all too often the case regarding gossip. The temptation to speak ill of one's family, friends and acquaintances is often just too much and unfortunately, many excuse the moment s/he loses control by closing his eyes to the severity of the facts: his sin is not only an insult to members of humanity but is also, essentially, an act of rebellion, a breaking off of heavens yoke. In short, a person who speaks loshon hara ends up doing a lot more damage than he initially intended. Not only that, the loshon hara one speaks stems from some form or another of personal hatred. The act of voicing one's opinions creates a blank space where peace used to be. The Chofez Chaim advises us to avoid these scenarios and to keep the bag light.        

Yashar LaChayal

The majesty of the Western Wall

Nefesh B'Nefesh