Monday, November 30, 2009

Yosef's Well and the Lights of Chanukah

We like to think that the story of Chanukah chronicles the good guys against the bad: the righteous Jews against the evil Greeks. While in some ways that's true, it's also s a gross oversimplification. In many ways, the story of Chanukah tells the tragic tale of Jew vs. Jew; secularist against religionist; those who remained faithful to Torah and halachah against a powerful group that had abandoned the traditional Jewish way of life. Examined in this light, Chanukah takes on a greater sense of urgency as we watch the two major camps in Israel – the religious and the secular – grow increasingly farther apart from each other. (Watching the competing protests over the character and nature of Yerushalayim on one hand, and the growing tension over the question of following orders in the army, it's easy to see how history could repeat itself, God forbid.)
While the essence of the miracle of Chanukah focuses on the war against the Greeks and the miracle of the oil in the Beit Hamikdash, Chazal left us clues to remind us about the underlying conflict that precipitated the terrible war.
When we examine the very brief mention of Chanukah found in the Gemara (Shabbat 21b – 22b), we encounter an interesting anomaly. (I've numbered the different subjects to make my point clear.)
אמר רב כהנא, דרש רב נתן בר מניומי משמיה דרבי תנחום נר של חנוכה שהניחה למעלה מעשרים אמה - פסולה, כסוכה וכמבוי. ואמר רב כהנא, דרש רב נתן בר מניומי משמיה דרב תנחום: מאי דכתיב +בראשית לז+ והבור רק אין בו מים. ממשמע שנאמר והבור רק איני יודע שאין בו מים? אלא מה תלמוד לומר אין בו מים - מים אין בו, אבל נחשים ועקרבים יש בו. אמר רבה: נר חנוכה מצוה להניחה בטפח הסמוכה לפתח. והיכא מנח ליה? רב אחא בריה דרבא אמר: מימין, רב שמואל מדפתי אמר: משמאל. והילכתא - משמאל, כדי שתהא נר חנוכה משמאל ומזוזה מימין.
1. Said Rav Kahana: Rav Natan bar Minyomi taught in the name of Rabbi Tanchum: A Chanukah lamp placed above the height of twenty amot is invalid. 2. And said Rav Kahana: Rav Natan bar Minyomi taught in the name of Rabbi Tanchum: What is the meaning of the verse: "And the well was empty, it contained no water"? Since it says "the well was empty" did I not know that it contained no water? Rather, what does "it contained no water" teach? [The well] had no water, but it contained snakes and scorpions. 3. Said Rabbah, it is a mitzvah to place the Chanukah lamp in the tefach adjacent to the doorway. And where should he place it? Rav Acha the son of Ravva said: to the right. Rav Shmuel from Difti said: to the left. And the halachah is to the left, so that the Chanukah lamp is on the left, and the mezuzah on the right.
Sandwiched between two short passages relating to specific halachot of lighting ((1) the height and (3) placement of the Chanukah lamp), the Gemara includes a seemingly unrelated Midrash. Why did Chazal record the familiar Midrash about the well into which the brothers threw Yosef in between two halachot about Chanukah? Also, can we connect this Midrash to the rules about where to place the Chanukah lamp?
When we examine the language Chazal utilize in the Midrash about Yosef's well, we find a subtle but critical Chanukah lesson. In addition to the Midrash about the well in the Gemara, the Midrash records a different, less-known teaching (Midrash Agadah 37) about that well:
והבור רק אין בו מים [אין בו דברי תורה]. ואין מים אלא תורה, שנאמר הוי כל צמא לכו למים (ישעי' נה א), מלמד שמרוב הצרה שכח תלמודו
"And the well was empty, it contained no water" – [it contained no words of Torah]. For "water" can only refer to Torah, as it is written, "Let all who thirst go to the water." (Isaiah 55:1). This teaches us that out of great anguish [Yosef] forgot his [Torah] studies.
Yosef's brothers threw him into two "pits". They first cast him into the actual water-well, empty as it was. But then, by selling him into slavery headed towards Egypt, they cast him into a far larger well: the empty pit of Egypt. Yet, this pit was devoid not of water, but of the Torah and spirituality that Yosef learned from his father at home. The Midrash notes a critical message about the absence of Torah. Lack of Torah is not benign. Rather, that lack of Torah and spirituality itself presented a danger to Yosef. The absence of Torah is not a vacuum, open to both positive and negative opportunities. Rather, the very lack of Torah in the well necessitates the fact that "snakes and scorpions" dwelled in that well instead. A place without Torah is never innocuous. The lack of Torah spells danger for Yosef, and for us, his descendants, as the void is filled not by the positives of Hellenism: the philosophy, science and progress, but by its dangers: hedonism, materialism and self-gratification.
This could help us understand the very next passage in the Gemara: ideally, one should place the menorah not in the window, but in the doorway – on the left-hand side (when entering). In this way, we surround our doorway with mitzvot that represent the Torah: the powerful words of Shema in the mezuzah on the right, and the light of Chanukah representing the spirituality of Judaism on the left.
Where does your family light your Chanukah candles? For the past several hundred years, we lit our candles in the window, not because we wanted to but because we had to. Too many generations were forced to keep the light of Chanukah to ourselves, shut in from the dangers (both literal and spiritual) of the outside world. But today things are different, both here in Israel and across the Diaspora. We no longer fear to light our candles in the public square. Our doors today are open. We should follow the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch and light not in the window, but with open doors.
And when we do, there can be no more powerful message about the way we relate to the outside world. Our doorways represent the portal between the insularity of the Jewish home and the "well" of the Western world. What values do we permit to pass through that portal? Are they informed by the mitzvot of Chanukah and mezuzah? The moments we spend lighting our candles this Chanukah present a perfect opportunity to contemplate these crucial questions.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Youth at Risk - Dugit Beach

During the months of summer vacation, the Dugit Beach on the Kinneret becomes a "home away from home" for a surprising number of Israeli teens. Teens camp at the beach not only as a fun vacation spot, but as a place to find peers and escape the pressures of home. Not surprisingly, this beach has become a home for a number of dangerous teenage behaviors including heavy smoking, provocative dress, violence, peer pressure, alcohol, drugs and casual sexual relations.
For several years, ELEM – an organization that works with youth at risk – has built an open tent on the Dugit beach during the summer months. The tent, open from early evening throughout the night, houses professional advisors and volunteer educators, therapists and students available to teenagers who need information, guidance, support, and even just a sympathetic ear. The discussions can be private, between an adolescent and a volunteer, and in a group setting between several volunteers or adolescents. ELEM personnel also attempt to identify and reach high risk youths on the beach. In addition, boys who are not at risk occasionally visit the tent to talk, take a break or just have light refreshments. Most of the boys visiting the tent come from religious homes.
During the summer of 2009, students studying in Orot's Department of Social and Communal Education joined ELEM's Dugit Beach project. While the Orot students hoped to gain valuable field experience, they had much to offer as well. As most of the teens that frequent Dugit Beach come from religious homes, ELEM turned to Orot to help deal with the problems and dilemmas unique to religious youth.
Orot's participation in the Dugit Beach project required thorough preparation. In addition to their normal educational training, Orot President Rabbi Neria Guttel and Head of Religious Education Rabbi Yonah Goodman addressed the students before the trip. Nurit Serri, head of the department together with Rabbi Goodman supervised the work throughout the night, and led a discussion on the beach at the end of the night.
Drawing conclusions from their experience, which Orot's students found the experience meaningful and challenging, meeting directly with youth at risk, especially from religious backgrounds, raised difficult questions: how could this happen to us? How should we as a community deal with these types of problems?
The students and the staff emerged from the project with a positive attitude: they felt that their meetings contributed to the youth and likely helped them, albeit in a limited way. They found that as religious volunteers, they could play a very significant role in affecting teens because of in their unique understanding of religious adolescents at risk.
In the years to come, Orot hopes to make its participation in the Dugit Beach Project a permanent part of students' volunteer work.

"Light a Candle " with the English Department

Dr. Vitela Arzi
Head of the English Department

"Light a Candle " with the English Department - a unique learning center at Ulpenalt Zevulun in Rosh Ha'ayin.

Chanukah- the holiday of Light
Facing this criticism, the third year students, supervised by their pedagogic supervisor (Madafit) Dr. Chaya Katz, and helped by Adina Salomon from Orot's Pedagogic Center created a unique learning experience at their training school , Ulpenat Zevulun, revolving around the topic of light and practiced through a special Learning Center that would vitalize the spiritual meanings of Light.

At the basis of the Unit prepared by the students, was the symbol of light, representing the victory of spirit over matter. The concept of light has various biblical connotations , four of which were selected by the students :
1. The light of Wisdom – " A man's wisdom maketh his face to shine" (Ecclesiastes, 8, 1 ).
2. The light of Torah- "For the commandment is a lamp, and the teaching is light" (Proverbs, 6, 23).
3. The light of Faith: "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, And a light unto my path" (Psalms, 119, 105).
4.The light of Soul: "The spirit of man is the lamp of the Lord" (Proverbs, 20, 27).

Since Chanukah is a holiday which also revolves around contrasts and opposites, (light-darkness, many-few, weak-strong etc…), the students decided that the linguistic aspect of their learning center would revolve around opposites and contrasts (such as trust-faith, materialistic- spiritual, light- dark etc). The purpose was to go beyond Doughnuts and Dreidels into the spiritual meaning of Light, create an exciting multi-sensory learning experience, and encourage the pupils to express their personal experiences.

The Song "Light a Candle"
Singer Sarit Chadad's song "Light a Candle with Me", provides symbolic meaning to the lighting of candles as an act of bringing people and nations together. It was written in 2002 during the second Intifada, and expressed the disappointment with the illusionary peace process that was betrayed by the second Intifada.
The five stanzas of the poem had been translated by the students into English, and were taught with a focus on each of the four dimensions : Wisdom , Torah, Faith, and Soul respectively. The fifth stanza was typed with empty spaces for the pupils to fill in their own personal experiences and associations. The Jigsaw method used for the unit, enabled both personal expression and group collaboration, and concluded with the whole group singing together.

The students successfully transformed the abstract concepts into visual, auditory and sensory-motor experiences that were excitedly welcomed by the training school – pupils and staff alike.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Orot Hosts Sherut Le'umi Volunteers for a Practical Education Yom Iyyun

The young women of Sherut Le'umi – National Service, who dedicate between one and two years their lives after graduating high school in lieu of serving in the IDF, provide critical service to their country through their work in numerous spheres of Israeli life. Without the service of these young women in schools, dormitories, hospitals, orphanages, afternoon programs, public offices and other areas of Israeli society, many of these institutions would be unable to sustain the services that they provide to the public. At the same time, these young women find themselves suddenly thrust into work situations with minimal practical training. They often learn as they go, picking up skills "on the job."
For a number of years, the Orot College of Education has partnered with the three main Sherut Leumi organizations to host yemei iyyun – in-service days, to provide the volunteers a day of practical training, life skills and self-discovery. This week, Orot began its yom iyyun program welcoming 250 b'not Sherut who volunteer primarily in the field of education, serving under the umbrella of Aminadav, with the express purpose of giving the volunteers practical, useful knowledge that they would be able to immediately use in their service in the field.
The program began with an explanatory dance performed by the students of Orot's Educational Dance department, followed by a lecture by Dr. Shraga Fisherman, Academic Vice President , who discussed "Responsibility, Discipline and Motivation," describing important ways to use our understanding of psychology to help motivate children to behave and learn. The program continued with a choice of workshops, from a workshop in group dynamics run by a lecturer of informal education to a class on behavioral issues led by an expert in special education, to an interactive, hands-on workshop on designing Chanukah materials for the classroom.

Following lunch, the b'not sherut returned to Orot's auditorium for a dramatic presentation featuring short skits which highlighted ethical and personal dilemmas that the girls face in their year of National Service. The comedy skits, presented by a professional theater troupe, provided food for both thought and gave the volunteers a chance to laugh, enjoy and recharge their own "internal" batteries, as they prepared to return to the field, where they make critical contributions to Israeli society. Following the program, Doreen Bat-Ayun, who currently serves in the Garin Torani in Ramat Aviv said, "Both the atmosphere, workshops and presentations were wonderful. In addition, the day offered a pleasant break from our daily routine."
Orot Israel College, proud to play a part in the development and growth of the Sherut LeUmi volunteers, hosts between ten and fifteen of these in-service days over the course of the school year, enriching and educating thousands of b'not sherut.
"We see these in-service days as part of Orot's core mission of Jewish education," said Rabbi Professor Neria Gutel, president of Orot. "We're confident that the small part we play in helping them serve the country makes a large impact in the long run."

Audio Shiur from Rav Tabory: Do We Believe in Kiruv

Audio Shiur:
Rav Aviad Tabory: Do We Believe in Kiruv?
If you could not join us in person, (or just want to give the shiur another listen), feel free to listen to Rav Tabory's powerful message about kiruv and Teshuvah.

Click here for the audio link, or listen in the handy audio player supplied below.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Red Light, Green Light by Rav Sinai Prebor

The Gemara in Shabbat (88b-89a) relates that when Moshe Rabbenu ascended “upon high” to receive the Torah, the angels inquired of Hashem: “Why is there a mortal among us?” Hashem responded: “To receive the Torah.” The angels protested vociferously, claiming that it would be degrading to the Torah for it to be sent down to earth. Hashem commanded Moshe to respond. Moshe proceeded to go down the list of the Aseret Hadibrot, explaining how each one was relevant only to man and not to the angels, hence justifying the Torah’s descent to earth.
The first one says “Anochi Hashem Elokecha asher hotzaitichu me’eretz Mitzraim.” This is of course irrelevant to the angels because they were never in Egypt.
“Lo yihiyeh lecha elohim acherim” doesn’t apply to the angels because in their neighborhood only the true God is recognized. The analysis continues and culminates in Moshe Rabbenu focusing on “Lo Tirtzach, Lo Tinaf, Lo Tignov,” explaining that these do not apply to the angels because they possess neither the characteristic of jealousy nor a yetzer hara.
This analysis of Moshe Rabbenu was persuasive, and the angels immediately agreed with Hashem that the Torah be given to B’nei Yisrael. This well known Agadah from the Gemara poses an important question. Did the argument of Moshe Rabbenu stem from the acknowledgement of man’s weakness, or man’s greatness? This depends on how one interprets the dialogue in the Gemara.
When Moshe says to the angels that the Torah is not for them because they have no yetzer hara, he may mean that the angels are on too high a spiritual level for the Torah to be pertinent to them. The Torah was written and the mitzot formulated to give the Jewish people a system through which they could combat the yetzer hara, and live a spiritual life despite the inherent weakness of the human being. The level of angels was something to which we must aspire. Hence the Torah is inapplicable to the angels, who are created spiritually perfect.
Yet there may be an alternate view of the exchange related in the Gemara. In Sefer Nefesh HaChaim, Rav Chaim Volozhiner claims that the Jewish people are actually considered to be spiritually greater than angels. This is because we are commanded to perform mitzvot, the performance of which causes more of God’s divine light to be revealed in the world. The angels, however, do not have this power. If we apply this idea to the exchange in the Gemara, Moshe might actually be arguing that the Torah’s descent to earth is actually an ascent, whereby its potential to be used as a tool for greater spirituality to be brought into the world will be realized.
Along these lines, Rav Soloveitchik, in his essay Ish Hahalakhah (Halakhic Man) compares our physical lives in this world to the spiritual existence of the soul in the afterlife. He writes: “The Halakhah is not at all concerned with a transcendent world. The world to come is a tranquil, quiet world that is wholly good, wholly everlasting, and wholly eternal, wherein a man will receive the reward for the commandments which he performed in this world. However, the receiving of a reward is not a religious act; therefore, halakhic man prefers the real world to a transcendent existence because here, in this world, man is given the opportunity to create, act, accomplish, while there, in the world to come, he is powerless to change anything at all.”
It appears, therefore, that our ability to act, and the potential to raise ourselves and the world to a higher spiritual level is the raison d’etre of being a Jew. This seems to be in direct opposition to the following statement found in the Gemara (Berachot 10b): “Rabbi Yose bar Rabbi Chanina said in the name of Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov: When praying (sh’emone esre), one’s feet should be together, as the verse (Yechezkel 1:6) states: ‘V’ragleihem regel y’sharah. (And their legs were a straight leg)’” In his commentary on the siddur, Olat Raya (Vol. 1, p. 262), Rav Kook explains that our legs have two uses. They can be used for the act of walking or the act of standing. When one walks, the legs are usable insofar as they are apart. When one stands, the legs are usable insofar as they are close together. When a Jew attempts through his religious life to achieve spiritual perfection, there are two crucial recurring steps in this ongoing process. There is “walking,” whereby a person takes further steps in his knowledge and spiritual growth, adding to his repertoire of learning, mitzvot, and midot. Then there is “standing,” whereby a person must involve himself in strengthening, intensifying, and internalizing of that which he has gained through the “walking,” so as not to lose what has been gained. In Tehilim (24:3), we read “Mi ya’aleh b’har Hashem, u’mi yakum bimkom kadsho.” Maintaining what one has achieved is just as crucial as the achievement. Rav Kook goes on to say that Torah provides the means through which we “walk,” through which we “ascend God’s mountain,” achieving the next stage in our spiritual growth. Tefilah, by contrast, is when we “stand.” Tefilah is when we have the opportunity to reflect on that which we have gained through Torah and Mitzot, and make it a part of us, so as not to lose it.
It is interesting that the verse cited in the Gemara as the source for keeping our feet together during Sh’mone Esre is referring to the angels seen by Yechezkel Hanavi during Ma’aseh Merkavah. During Tefilah, we view ourselves as angels, because angels do not know of spiritual growth. Their relationship with God is permanently static. Ours is fundamentally dynamic, but even we must sometimes have those static moments, emulating the angels, so as to make the changes and achievements a permanent part of us, obviously to enable ourselves to take the next “step” in our ascent.