Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Friday: Partial solar eclipse, Erev Rosh Chodesh Tammuz

This Friday, Erev Rosh Chodesh Tammuz, will mark the third of a rare series of three eclipses within a month and a half of each other: a partial solar eclipse on June 1st (Yom Yerushalayim), a lunar eclipse on June 15th, and the upcoming partial solar eclipse on July 1st. Although I usually refrain from personal rants, I must say that I feel my blogging activity was affected by these celestial phenomena (all of which it goes without saying are completely in the hands of the Creator of the Universe, who can do what He wills at any point): From Lag Ba'Omer through June 10th I was completely without words; around June 15th, which was the week of Parshas Shlach, I felt inspired to blog about the birthpangs of Mashiach after a period of relative concealment, and now again I feel somewhat at a loss for words but nonetheless motivated to try and put the pieces together, taking a bird's eye view of this year.

Looking back a bit further, a major point this year was March 9th, which marked the beginning of the 9th wave on the Mayan Calendar, the last stretch before the expected Great Transformation of 2012. According to the Mayan calendar, the seventh wave, which brought about global consciousness, began in 1755 BCE, which marks the beginning of the spread of Jewish mysticism according to the Ba'al Shem Tov's prophecy. The eighth wave - galactic consciousness -  began on January 5 (17 Tevet), 1999 (around the time when the internet really took off), and the ninth - universal consciousness - began on March 9th of this year.

Two days after March 9th (3 Adar Bet), a tsunami hit Japan, ensuing a global nuclear crisis that is still unfolding to this day, which has delivered a major blow to man's aspirations for nuclear power worldwide (and to the Iranian nuclear program in particular). As if Japan wasn't enough, a week later, the US and NATO countries declared war on Libya.

According to astrologers, solar eclipses, which occur every six months, set the tone for the next half-year of personal and global phenomena. The last solar eclipse occurred on January 4th of this year. During that time, I blogged about the relevance of such an event for Israel and the Jewish people, and in particular about the potential for negative outcomes (G-d forbid). However, looking back, the message of January-June 2011 is that Israel's destiny is greater than we can imagine; Hashem is shaking the entire world up in preparation for our redemption. If the first half of 2011 brought us an international nuclear crisis and unprecedented political revolution across the entire Middle East, what lies ahead? These are the questions that are born during a moment when the sun, earth and moon are aligned, in an era which ancient cultures saw as the last chapter of history.

Finally, how fitting that Erev Rosh Chodesh Tammuz be the day on which the far oceans will witness a solar eclipse; on Gimmel Tammuz, our leader Joshua, the messenger who saw that the Land of Israel was very good, commanded the sun to halt in the sky and remain there until the Jewish people conquered all of their enemies, and were able to dwell in the Land. Of course Gimmel Tammuz is also the day when the Tzaddik of our generation, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, ascended to the upper worlds, leaving us with his legacy and teachings, more alive than ever.

The Rebbe taught that although Tammuz is a month which originally held days of mourning, it has the potential to be the month of redemption, which was revealed in a year as late in history as 1927, when the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe was freed from prison in Soviet Russia. Upon his release the Rebbe informed the generations to come:
It was not myself alone that the Holy One, blessed be He, redeemed on Yud-Beis Tammuz, but also all who love the Holy Torah and observe its commands, and so too all who bear the name ‘Jew’.
May the light of the moon shine like the light of the sun, and may the light of the sun shine seventyfold, and may all darkness be transformed into light.

A guten choidesh!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Michele Bachmann on Israel

It's worth taking a few minutes to hear Michele Bachmann's bold and impeccable stance on Israel:

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Hezbollah moving missiles to Lebanon

Fearing the fall of Assad's regime and the establishment of a pro-West, anti-Hezbollah government in its place, Hezbollah is reported to be moving its missiles from Syria to Eastern Lebanon. According to a report published in the French newspaper Le Figaro over the weekend, intelligence agencies have monitored movement of trucks from Syria to Lebanon containing long-range Iranian Zilzal, Fajr 3 and Fajr 4 missiles. The report also cites that Hezbollah is concerned Israel will bomb the convoys in transit from Syria to Lebanon.

On Friday, the European Union expanded sanctions against Syria's political and military leaders. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem related that Syria considers the sanctions "act of war". A declaration adopted at the EU summit in Brussels condemned the violence, assuring that "those responsible for crimes and violence against civilians shall be held accountable." European Union representatives also called for the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution condemning the crackdown.

Meanwhile, Syrian troops stormed villages near the Syria-Turkey border towards the end of last week, raising the influx of Syrian refugees to Turkey to a total of 12,000. US Secratary of State Hillary Clinton warned that Syrian troop build-up raises the likelihood of a border clash between Syria and Turkey. The EU similarly called for maximum restraint after Syrian military activity near the Turkish border. Diplomats in Ankara and Beirut perceived Syrian activity near the border as a veiled threat against Turkey, who has been vocal in calling for reforms. And Syria is showing no signs of reigning in; on Saturday evening the Syrian military stormed yet another village near the Turkish border. 

Walter Russel Mead at Via Meadia makes the case that Syria fulfills all the invasion criteria of Libya, and some. Assad's crackdown on protests amounts to a grave humanitarian crisis, and the fall of his regime plays into American national interest. Regime change in Syria would be a blow to the Shi'a-aligned crescent from Iran to Lebanon. In the words of Walter Mead, "Both in substance and in the way it was handled the Libyan intervention makes a Syrian intervention both harder to pull off and harder to avoid."

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Divine Providence and the Iranian Nuclear Program: A Roundup

Mushroom cloud from the atomic bomb at Nagasaki

In Aristotelian philosophy, God is the unmoved mover, whose act of constant self-contemplation is the object desire of the entire universe and thereby the purpose of its existence and motion. Despite the fact that the deity's self-contemplation is continuous and all-encompassing, it is thought to be a paradox that God could have particular knowledge of this world, since that would so to speak 'lower' Him from His lofty level.

In Jewish sources, this paradox is embraced, and God is conceived of as both lofty, transcendent, complete and perfect, and at the same time, possessing full and complete knowledge of the world to the greatest detail. God's knowledge of this world can be compared to a person's effortless awareness of the limbs of his own body. (Yet as opposed to a person, who knows only the feeling of his limbs, a more appropriate yet still incomplete metaphor would be an imaginary all-knowing scientist, who knew every microscopic detail of all the processes transpiring in his physical being).

In any event, Judaism posits that there is no contradiction between a perfect, transcendent God and His complete knowledge of this world. What's more, God's knowledge of this world is inseparable from His overseeing of this world. If we were to extend the metaphor, this would be a mega-scientist, who is not only all-knowing of his internal processes, but also has the supernatural ability to control these processes--more precisely, whose very awareness of these processes is also the means by which they come into being. In other words, God's contemplation of the world is at the same time God's direction of the world, such that there is not a blade of grass over which there is not an angel telling it: grow, grow! 

If God's intimate knowledge applies to nature, all the more so for the human being, the pinnacle of nature, created in the divine image. And if God's providence extends over all of humanity, all the more so for the Jewish people, the apple of God's eye, and for Israel, the political entity whose growth is both the manifestation and the springboard for the ultimate redemption of the Jewish people and the world. The Land of Israel - the land over which God's eyes rest, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year.

The Hebrew word for Divine Providence, hashgacha, derives from a Hebrew root related to no other words of the language. The verb form of the word, hishgiach--to watch over--appears as a description of the Beloved of the Song of Songs (2:9):
My beloved is like a gazelle or a young hart; behold, he stands behind our wall, he looks in (=mashgiach) through the windows, he peers through the lattice=
According to some interpretive traditions, God is compared to a gazelle because a gazelle runs off with its head turned backwards, its gaze locked on the point from where it escaped. In this sense, the verses about the gazelle in the Song of Songs correspond to the Jewish people's cry to God: If you are to run off (as it appears that the Divine Presence departed after the destruction of the Second Temple), then please, we beg you to do so as a gazelle, and continue to gaze back at us, despite the distance between us. In this sense, God's gazing, or the Divine Providence discernible in an individual's life and in a nation's history, is the reshimu - the impression left of the Divine Presence in the world, after its contraction and despite its hiding. The task that remains for us is to discern God's involvement in our lives on both a personal, national and global level--and if the destruction of the Temple meant the disappearance of such clarity, then the reconstruction of such clarity is the reconstruction of the Temple. A person who has knowledge - it is if the Temple has been rebuilt in his days.

March 12, 2011: Japan's nuclear program received a massive blow when a tsunami hit its Fukushima nuclear power plant and led to an international nuclear crisis on par with Chernobyl. One less-known facet of Japan's nuclear energy program is the country's ties with Iran: Several weeks before the Fukushima accident, Japan's deputy minister for foreign affairs, Bessho Koro, visited Tehran to meet with Iranian Foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi and carry the message of a pro-Iran Japan. Moreover, one month prior to the Fukushima meltdown, a Washington source anonymously disclosed that Japan and Iran had recently agreed that 70% of Iran's low enriched uranium would be moved to Japan and delivered back to Iran in the form of nuclear fuel rods, intended for "medical use". 

May 9, 2011: Iran's first-ever nuclear power plant in Bushehr begins fuel consumption, and is slated to begin to generate electricity in two months' time. Less than a day after the plant became active, a 4.8 earthquake hit the city of Reig in the Bushehr province, not far from the plant. The earthquake occurred not long after Japan's tsunami led to an international nuclear crisis at the Fukushima plant. Days before Bushehr was activated, the French ambassador to the IAEA expressed concern regarding the Bushehr plant. A week earlier, after a cooling plant at Bushehr shattered, an expert on Iranian nuclear issues for the Carnegie Endowment emphasized the international community's concerns on Russia's decision to move forward on Bushehr.

June 23, 2011: Russian news sources reported that five Russian scientists who assisted in the design of the Bushehr plant were among the victims of Monday's plane crash near Petrozavodsk in northern Russia. According to YNet, the five nuclear experts were the individuals responsible for ensuring the plant would withstand natural disasters. (The Bushehr nuclear power plant is located at the junction of three tectonic plates along the Persian Gulf). Russian news sources reported the deaths were "a great blow to the Russian nuclear industry." 

Yet despite the connection between the Iranian nuclear program and the crash, Russian investigators are not pointing fingers. Investigators have thus attributed the crash to human error and technical malfunction. According to a Russian source: "Although Iranian nuclear scientists have in the past been involved in unexplained accidents and plane crashes, there is no official suspicion of foul play."

Because sometimes, Hashem is the best Mossad operative.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Baruch Dayan Emet, Morris Pollard

Morris Pollard z"l, Jonathan Pollard's father, a longtime professor and award-winning microbiologist at the University of Notre Dame, passed away at the age of 95 on Saturday evening. Morris spent much of the last 24 years seeking clemency for his son. Earlier this year, he said Jonathan's sentence is "such an overwhelming miscarriage of justice" that at night he keeps "waking up fighting with people" in his imagination.

Morris was particularly vocal about the role of former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger in Jonathan's sentence. Last year, former Assistant Secretary of Defense Lawrence Korb wrote in a letter to Obama:
Based on the knowledge that I have firsthand, I can confidently say that the punishment was so severe because of lack of sympathy for Israel by the U.S. Secretary of Defense at the time, my boss, Caspar Weinberger.
The Pollard family has sent an urgent plea to Obama asking him to allow Pollard to attend his father's funeral. After authorities refused to allow Pollard a 24-hour leave to visit his sick father, MK Aryeh Eldad issued the following statement to Pollard:
The people of Israel will not forget President Obama's cruelty in ignoring all the requests to free you. A president who lacks the basic human feeling that would allow a son's visit to his dying father should not wonder that the Jewish people will make every effort to prevent his re-election.
A petition initiated by MK Nachman Shai of Kadima to allow Pollard to visit his father had been signed by 75 MK's and was to be handed to Obama's VP Biden any day now. [Achieveing justice for Pollard is a rare cause that has proven to unite Jews across the Israeli political and religious spectrum]. Please G-d the petition will be reworded to request that Pollard be entitled to attend the funeral and be submitted to Biden with no delay.

Last week Razi Barkai of Galei Tzhal radio asked a question relating American and European policy regarding daylight savings time, referring to those countries as the 'enlightened' world. May the enlightened world please stand up? (And don't expect to find sympathizers even in the 2012 Republican camp.)

אין לנו על מי להישען
כי אם על אבינו שבשמים

UK tells Brits to leave Syria

On Saturday the British Foreign office told its citizens residing in Syria to leave via commercial flights immediately, as evacuation options would be limited going forward.

On Friday, sixteen people were shot dead by security forces as tens of thousands of Syrians protested around the country against Assad's regime. 

Meanwhile, Turkey has dispatched an envoy to Syria with a letter calling for Assad's brother Maher to step down from his position in the army. Maher Assad's Fourth Division and Presidential Guards have been used to suppress anti-Assad demonstrations in which over 1,000 people have been killed since protests began in March.

Last week, Iran warned that it will attack Turkey if it intervenes (militarily) in Syria and US warships were deployed opposite the Syria on Monday.

Meanwhile, Israel will be conducting the wide-ranging 'Turning Point 5' home front war drill from Sunday to Thursday this week. On Wednesday there will be two siren drills, at 11:00 and 19:00. Effi Mishov, head of the Home Front Command's population department, said about the drill (transl.): "Citizens of Israel need not be worried, but they must be prepared, and Israel has the capacity to stand up to any threat that may be brought upon us."

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Tikkun of the Heart and Rav Ginsburgh Shlita


For the refuah shlema for HaRav Yitzchak Feivish Ginsburgh ben Brainah Malka Shlita who suffered a mild cardiac arrest this week during a speaking tour in Spain. The Rav is now out of the hospital and feeling better and will return to Eretz Yisrael next week. Before Shabbat the Rav said that the idea of Parshas Shlach is to explore הארץ (the land) which in Yiddish also means 'heart' (dos 'hartz'). His student further directed those interested in the Tikkun of the Heart to read Likkutei Torah of the Alter Rebbe on this week's Torah portion. 

This shall be fringes for you, and when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord to perform them, and you shall not wander after your hearts and after your eyes after which you are going astray.
Numbers 15, 39)

The Alter Rebbe explains (my translation):
To understand the matter of the heart: When thought emerges from the mind, it comes suddenly. When thought is still in the mind, it is so obscure and concealed that even the person himself cannot grasp it. But when it begins to emanate from the mind, right before it is revealed, it becomes very excited from its imminent revelation. The heart is the existence of a thing, because when something takes root firmly in the heart, it will never depart from there. Not so the case when the thought is only in the mind--it can depart from him suddenly. The heart is rooted in the physical passions because she is closer to the body. Therefore, even if a person grasps with his mind that he must cleave himself to God with all his soul, and that this is the purpose of everything, nonetheless, the heart can still lead him after his bodily desires, as the our sages said '[the eyes see] and the heart desires'. Therefore a person must be keen to fight the battle of the mind and the heart, to turn the heart as well, using the full strength of his mind's grasping of God's greatness, until the heart too will desire to cleave to Him.
This is the meaning of the two levels, tzaddik and chasid. A tzaddik is the one about whom it says 'Who is strong? He who conquers his inclination,' that one must always fight his battle, and be called a tzaddik. Not so the case of one who makes a practice of contemplating [God's greatness] so strongly that the thing is rooted in the heart too, such that he is completely surrendered by nature, and will not under any circumstances move from there. This one is called a chasid.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Measure for measure

A generation after the Arizal, the Jerusalem Kabbalist Rabbi Nathan Shapira wrote the book Tuv Ha'aretz on the supreme value of the land of Israel according to the Arizal and the Zohar. Rabbi Shapira himself made aliyah from Krakow, but spent the end of his life on shlichus in Italy. In another sefer, Emek HaMelech, Rabbi Shapira wrotes that "were it not for the prayers of the people of Jerusalem who pray at the Kotel in tears and supplication, these are the perushim and the great chasidim, the world would not exist G-d forbid, and for them it says Mount Zion will be a refuge, these are the Jews who live there and occupy themselves with the world to come." (Emek HaMelech p. 116c)

In one passage in Tuv Ha'aretz, Rabbi Nathan writes a bold critique of the rich stratum of his people living in the diaspora, extolling the special status of living in the land of Israel before Mashiach (my best translation):
Know that a tradition is in our hands that on the day when Mashiach will come with the ingathering of the exiles to the land of Israel, on that very day there will be seven thousand of the children of Israel, and on that very day the dead of the Land will live, and on that very day the walls of fire in Jerusalem will depart...and on that very day the dead of of the Land of Israel will return in the time of their life (b'et chiyutam) [and become] a new spiritual being, and the seven thousand who are alive will all become a new being (bria chadasha), a spiritual body, like the body of the primordial human who sinned and like the body of Moshe Rabbeinu, and all will hover in the air and soar like eagles, and all this before the eyes of the ingathered exiles.
And when the ingathered exiles see that their brothers have become a new being and hover in the air to go and dwell in the lower Garden of Eden to learn Torah from His mouth, blessed be He, then the ingathered exiles will fell a tremor in their hearts and feel great anguish and will ֿbecome incensed with the King Mashiach and will say: For are not we children of Israel like them? From where did they merit to become spiritual in body and soul and not us?
And the King Mashiach will say: It is already well-known that all the attributes of the Holy Blessed one [operate according to the principle of] measure for measure. Those who lived outside of the Land of Israel and made an effort to come to the Land so as to merit a pure soul, who did not take refuge in their wealth nor in their physical body, who came by sea and by land and did not fear to drown in the sea or become captive to harsh masters, in return for treating their spirit and their soul as essential, and not their body and their money, for this they returned as spiritual, measure for measure. 
Yet you, who could have come to the Land like them, but neglected to come because of love of money (chemdat mamon), who worried for your wealth and your body, treating them as essential, and your soul and spirit as marginal, for this, in the same way, you have remained physical, measure for measure...
And for the money that you desired hereby God blessed be He will give you money...and they who did not worry themselves over their body and their money, but over their spirit alone, God will make them into a new being, and usher them into the lower Garden of Eden.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The onset of the Birthpangs of Mashiach, circa 1495

A key milestone in our people's reflection on the relationship between the reality at hand and the redemption described and promised by the Prophets was a comment made by Rabbi Yosef Shaltiel the end of the kabbalistic text Sefer HaPliah ('The Book of Wonder'), a book he wrote in double exile from the Island of Rhodes. In the year 1495, equivalent to 5255, or resh nun heh on the Jewish calendar, the penultimate year he ascribes to the great tragedy of the Spanish Inquisition to European Jewry, he writes the following:
I think that the tragedy faced by the Jews in all kingdoms of Edom from the year resh nun of the sixth millennium through the year resh nun heh are a time of trouble for Jacob, out of which he will be saved, these are the birthpangs of Mashiach.
According to the modern scholar of Judaism Gershom Scholem, Shaltiel's and others' reflection on the catastrophe of the Spanish Inquisition marked the beginning of interpreting reality as a prism for chevlei mashiach - the catastrophe out of which a new era will be born. Which can only mean one thing...there is one very large baby on the other end of this 516-year-long labor.

Check this out: Ditch your calculator and try adding 516 to 1495 on paper. Could there be any more 1's? Maybe that's why Hashem loves the number [20]11.

Also, the number of years between when Rabbi Shaltiel announced the beginning of chevlei mashiach in Sefer HaPliah and today is the numerical equivalent of the Hebrew word תיקו, which means [it's a] 'tie' in Talmudic discourse. According to prophecy Mashiach is destined to resolve all of the instances of a Talmudic tie and ascertain truth where it has been split in two.

The God-given destiny of the Jewish people is to turn darkness into light by revealing the unity behind creation. What is the meaning of the verse a time of trouble for Jacob, out of which he will be saved? From the trouble itself the salvation is churned and born. Enduring narrow straits produces a light so bright that it eclipses the darkness, stage after stage, until all darkness has been revealed --through what may be felt as great duress -- as condensed light.

For what better time for the light of moon to shine as bright as the sun than on the background of the darkest night of the year?

All that remains is to say 
ad masai 
until - when
as if your these were the lyrics with which your heart beats

kind of like 
when you call a travel agent in Eretz Yisrael, 
and after you tell them when you want to depart, they respond,
ad matai?

Violent protest in Athens and other signs of economic doom

Three headlines in today's news do not bear well for the 'first world' as we know it --

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou offered to step down late Wednesday after protests against austerity cuts and government bailout in downtown Athens turned violent, as demonstrators demolished walls and threw bricks and furniture and officers in riot gear struggled to regain control of the city's main square.

Meanwhile, US Federal Reserve Chief Ben Bernake warned that the US must raise its debt ceiling if it wants to avert economic disaster. According to Bernake:
"Failing to raise the debt limit would require the federal government to delay or renege on payments for obligations already entered into."
"Even a short suspension of payments on principal or interest on the treasury's debt obligations would cause severe disruptions in financial markets and the payments system."
In addition, Mr Bernanke said US government debt risked being downgraded, creating fundamental doubts about the nation's creditworthiness. Long-term damage to the "special role" of the dollar and of treasury securities in global markets was also possible, he said.
Instead of allowing a default, Democrats and Republicans needed to develop a credible long-range plan to rein in the nation's budget deficit, Mr Bernanke added. An increase of $2.5 trillion would allow the government to operate until early 2013. (BBC)
And according to Reuters, the economic prospects of the "rich-world" have darkened in the wake of a US slowdown and fiscal problems in Europe.

Iran will attack Turkey if they intervene in Syria

In recent weeks a number of military and diplomatic developments around the Mediterranean suggest a key role for Turkey in combating Assad's violent crackdown on protests, and the subsequent Iranian-Syrian backlash in its wake. Below is a summary of the latest developments in tensions between Iran/Syria camp and Turkey/NATO/US:

Adapated from the About Crazy World Blog: 

1. Iranian/Hezbollah media says they will attack Turkey if they intervene in Syria 

2. Since Turkey is a member of NATO, if Turkey is attacked, NATO is required to respond. This could explain the recent US fleet movement in the Mediterranean.

3. Syrian tanks have pushed toward more towns near the Turkish border. On Friday of last week, after the Syrian army entered the town of Jisr al-Shughour close to the Turkey border,  al-Jazeera quoted the Turkish President Abdullah Gul as saying Turkey is "ready for all scenarios including military ones" to handle the Syrian crisis.

4. Meanwhile, Turkish Foreign Ministry has called a special meeting of Arab and Western ambassadors to discuss the situation in Syria.

5. The Arab League issued the first condemnation of Syria violence

6. According to Debka File, On Monday, June 13, the US deployed the USS Bataan amphibian air carrier strike vessel opposite Syria’s Mediterranean coast with 2,000 marines, 6 war planes, 15 attack helicopters, including new V-22 Ospreys, and 27 choppers for landing forces aboard. Also this week, US naval units went operational in the Aegean, Adriatic and Black Seas as part of the joint US-Ukrainian Sea Breeze 2011 exercise. The USS Monterrey cruiser armed with Aegis surface missile interceptors has additionally been stationed in the Black Sea. Western sources additonally report a build-up of ship-borne anti-missile missile strength in the Mediterranean basin. 

7. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyep Erdogan is averse to be seen working hand in glove militarily with any US interference in Syria. At the same time, Western intelligence sources in the Persian Gulf are sure Washington is coordinating its military movements with Ankara and that Erdogan quietly agreed to place Turkish bases at US disposal for an operation in Syria.

8. On Tuesday, Iran capped these events with three separate warnings to the Obama administration against military interference in Syria. Foreign Ministry Spokesman Ramin Mehman-Parast said Tuesday: “The Americans are not allowed to launch a military intervention in any country of the region including Syria.” Iran’s ground forces commander Brig. Gen. Kioumars Heidari added this threat: Any new military move by the US in the region will impose heavy costs on the country far greater than the costs it paid in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

See here for the latest on Turkish-Syrian relations

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

GOP candidates and Israel, Part 1

With the CNN New Hampshire debate behind us, the Republican primary season has begun. It's a better time than ever to get a refresher on various candidates' stances on Israel. On the whole, the GOP camp is replete with long-time as well as new friends of Israel. Keep in mind that a candidate's stance on Israel, besides having critical importance in itself, is an indicator of the moral clarity that characterizes their view of geopolitics and their capacity to approach the New Middle East with vision and purpose, rather than reactionism and opportunism.

Rosner's Domain recently compared the results of an NYT poll of GOP voters with the Jerusalem Post's Israel Factor index to rank the Republican candidates' stance on Israel:

  NYT GOP voters %     The Israel Factor (1-10)  

Sarah Palin 51 4.62
Newt Gingrich 42 7.37
Mitt Romney 42 7.12
Michele Bachmann215.18
Rick Santorum195.71
Tim Pawlenty206.28
Haley Barbour125.57
Mitch Daniels95.66
Jon Huntsman55.8

Former governor of Alaska Sarah Palin is a controversial figure in American politics, and her candidacy could challenge that of Bachmann's (and vice versa). Still Palin has been a loyal friend of Israel from Day 1 and has provided crucial and widely-publicized critique of the Obama administration's policy on Israel during otherwise bumpy times in American-Israel relations. In May Palin summed up her views on Israel in the Fox News interview:

Michele Bachmann is a Republican congresswoman from Minnesota. Bachmann lived on a kibbutz in 1974 at the age of 18 and has been in Israel four times since she was elected to Congress in 2006. The following is an excerpt from an answer she gave to a question the relationship between U.S. and Israel's security at the Republican Jewish Coalition (via Israpundit):
I am convinced in my heart and in my mind that if the United States fails to stand with Israel, that is the end of the United States . . . [W]e have to show that we are inextricably entwined, that as a nation we have been blessed because of our relationship with Israel, and if we reject Israel, then there is a curse that comes into play. And my husband and I are both Christians, and we believe very strongly the verse from Genesis [Genesis 12:3], we believe very strongly that nations also receive blessings as they bless Israel. It is a strong and beautiful principle.
Right now in my own private Bible time, I am working through Isaiah . . . and there is continually a coming back to what God gave to Israel initially, which was the Torah and the Ten Commandments, and I have a wonderful quote from John Adams that if you will indulge me [while I find it] . . . [from his February 16, 1809 letter to François Adriaan van der Kemp]:
I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation. If I were an atheist, and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations. If I were an atheist of the other sect, who believe or pretend to believe that all is ordered by chance, I should believe that chance had ordered the Jews to preserve and propagate to all mankind the doctrine of a supreme, intelligent, wise, almighty sovereign of the universe, which I believe to be the great essential principle of all morality, and consequently of all civilization.
. . . So that is a very long way to answer your question, but I believe that an explicit statement from us about our support for Israel as tied to American security, we would do well to do that.
Mitt Romney, who will be competing a second time in the Republican primary after losing to McCain last year, is now the leading candidate of the Republican pack. I heard Romney speak at an AIPAC plenary in L.A. two years ago, and he was as strong as one can get on Israel. Last month Romney harshly criticized Obama for dictating to its ally what the terms of a future agreement will be, rather than premising negotiations on Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state.

Jon Hunstman, the (hunky) former governor of Utah governor, and now wrapping up his post as Obama's Ambassador to China, is expected to announce his candidacy later this week. Hunstman has an impressive resume both in academia and politics, including top positions in trade and commerce in the Bush administration and six honorary doctorates. In 2009 Huntsman visited Israel and shared his admiration of Israel with the America-Israel Friendship League, addressing economic and financial bonds between the U.S. and Israel:

That's all for Part 1. Next time we'll look at Pawlenty, Barbour, Gingrich and Santroum. In the meantime, who knows which two Republican candidates have a combined total of 25 adopted children?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Rectifying the sin of the spies

Mountains around Jerusalem

This post is my own commentary on some of the passages brought in Rav Kook Torah on the Parsha, a weekly teaching assembled and translated by Rabbi Chanan Morrison.

In 1908, Rav Kook wrote that we still suffer from the sin of the spies today, and that in our hands lies the opportunity to rectify the spies' error and enter the land of Israel with all our gusto. 

The glory of the land of Israel can be hidden at times; it is our job to clear away the clutter and announce to ourselves and others the boundless light that lies in Eretz Yisrael's beauty and holiness. A hidden paradise on earth has been bequeathed to us, each generation since 1948 more than the one before it, b"H. Rav Kook emphasized not only the physical beauty apparent in the Land, but also the unique air of Israel (avira d'eretz yisrael) that from time immemorial was the raw material of prophecy:
The quality of delightful holiness that Torah scholars seeking the holy may find in the Land of Israel does not exist at all outside the Land. I myself can attest to this unique quality, to a degree commensurate with my small worth. (Igrot HaRe'iyah, vol. I, pp. 112-113)
How many of us deliberate (including myself) the pros and cons of living in Israel, as if a decision pertaining to the most delicate levels of the soul can be approached like a business deal? Well, you get a year of aliyah payments, free tuition, free health care and a discount on property tax. On the other hand, you have to buy all new furniture, deal with heap-loads of bureaucracy, lower your standards for your first job or two, and get through an August. But can you really approach the question of aliyah like this (I ask myself)? Can you really approach love like this? How silly would it sound if you overheard a conversation weighing marriage over such considerations? How humiliating to a heart testifying to true love! 

The truth is, love is a creative force - the love of the Jewish people for Israel is an integral part of the land's holiness. According to Rabbi Judah HaLevi, the Jewish people, the commandments, the land of Israel, the building of the Temple and the Hebrew language are all parts of a well-oiled machine which when assembled properly over millenia of Jewish history, produces prophecy - prophecy in the sense of the return of the living, Divine presence to the hearts and minds of the Jewish people, through their writings, their art, their blogs and their prayers, their Torah and their love for one another. Without any one of these components, the machine cannot work. The land is barren without its people, and the people are homeless without their land. 

It is told that once a Jewish tourist shared with the Rav his calculation of the albeit very real pros and cons of moving to Israel, concluding in the end that it was not worthwhile. In his characteristic non-confrontational but bold and thought-provoking response, the Rav responded:
Before the Israelites entered the Land in the time of Moses, they first needed to kill Sichon, the king of Heshbon. This teaches us that one should come to the Land of Israel bli heshbon - without making calculations.
An from where does our love for Eretz Yisrael spring? It is irreducible to explanation, because explanation is based on things that you can define and limit, and the holiness of Eretz Yisrael originates in the place from where the limits themselves originate...And yet even so, how can such love be expressed, to others, and to the object of affection? Through action. The secret of teshuva, expressed most extensively in the writings of the first Chabad Rebbe, Reb Schenur Zalman of Liadi, is that physical acts - in the form of mitzvot - involving the body and objects and senses of the physical world - can be vessels for the most sublime of sensitivities of the human soul and of the supernal realms - those that evade our mental thought processes and linguistic capacities. Those who come to Israel and can do nothing but let their knees fall in thanksgiving and adoration for the land upon which the soles of their feet can step, know how such a process of rectification begins:
The Talmud records that Rabbi Abba would demonstrate his great love for the Land of Israel by kissing the rocks of Acre (Ketubot 112a) as he returned to the Land. What was so special about these rocks that Rabbi Abba would kiss them?
Rav Kook explained that if Rabbi Abba had kissed the soil of Eretz Yisrael, we would understand that his love for the Land was due to the special mitzvot that are fulfilled with its fruit - tithes, first fruits, the sabbatical year, and so on. The soil, which produces fruit, signifies the importance and holiness of the Land through the mitzvot ha-teluyot ba'aretz.
But Rabbi Abba's love for the Land was not dependent on any external factors - not even its special mitzvot (see Avot 5:16; Orot p. 9). Rabbi Abba cherished the intrinsic holiness of Eretz Yisrael. He recognized that the special qualities of the Land – such as its receptivity to prophecy and enlightenment - go far beyond the holiness of those mitzvot connected to agriculture. Therefore, he made a point of kissing its barren rocks and stones. 
May each and every soul and body of the Jewish people be rounded up speedily to reunite and congregate in the land that is our inheritance from our holy fathers and mothers, and may we soon sing a new song in Jerusalem to the living God, whose love and justice will be apparent for all to see and contemplate like water fills the seas!

Fischer and the IMF - Queen for a time like this?

On Saturday (please G-d not on Shabbos), Bank of Israel governor and former IMF chief economist Stanley Fischer announced that he too will be joining the race for managing director at the IMF, in the wake of Strauss-Kahn's resignation. Fischer will run side-by-side with French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde and Mexican central bank chief Agustin Carstens. If (b"H) he wins, Fischer will assume the premiere global finance position in an era during which the world is struggling to recover from economic crisis.

Fischer is highly regarded by colleagues in domestic, national and global finance worldwide, also the WSJ predicts he may have trouble garnering support from Arab countries, whose vote counts as well. Born in Rhodesia in present-day Zambia in 1943, Fischer obtained his B.Sc. and Ms.C. in Economics at the London School of Economics, and his Ph.D. in Economics at MIT. In the years 1988-1990 Fischer served as Chief Economist at the World Bank, and from 1994-2001 served as Deputy Managing Director of the IMF. After his time at the IMF, Fischer became Vice Chairman at Citigroup until 2005, his last position before assuming the role of Governor of Bank of Israel, which he holds until this day. In a less-known fact, Fischer, an American citizen, made aliyah in order to assume the premiere position at Israel's national bank. Under Fischer's leadership, the Bank was ranked first among central banks worldwide for its efficiency.

The first hurdle for Fischer in his pursuit of the Fund's managing director seat is his age - 67 - which is two years beyond the IMF maximum according to the group's bylaws. The second is winning support of Arab states and emerging markets in Latin America and Asia. On a positive note, Israel's Fischer is in fact highly regarded by Palestinian banking officials. Former head of the Palestine Monetary Authority called Fischer the most qualified candidate to date. The French candidate Lagarde is currently the favorite in Europe, which holds around 35% of the IMF votes. According to the WSJ, one scenario is that the vote will be split between Lagarde and Carstens, in which case IMF officials may turn to him as a compromise pick.

Although Fischer is only midway through his second term at Bank of Israel, Haaretz quoted Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz said Fischer's election would be an "certificate of honor'' for Israel. Could Hashem have orchestrated Strauss-Kahn's anything-but-graceful fall from the top for this opportunity? We hope Fischer will b"H ascend to victory and heed the timeless wisdom of Esther --

For if you remain silent at this time, 
Relief and rescue will arise for the Jews from elsewhere, 
And you and your father's household will perish; 
And besides - 
Who knows whether you became Queen precisely for a time like this?

כִּי אִם-הַחֲרֵשׁ תַּחֲרִישִׁי בָּעֵת הַזֹּאת רֶוַח וְהַצָּלָה יַעֲמוֹד לַיְּהוּדִים מִמָּקוֹם אַחֵר, וְאַתְּ וּבֵית-אָבִיךְ תֹּאבֵדוּ
וּמִי יוֹדֵעַ אִם-לְעֵת כָּזֹאת, הִגַּעַתְּ לַמַּלְכוּת

עלה והלצח פישר

Saturday, June 11, 2011

On San Fran-sicko and Circumcision

San Francisco burns after the 1906 earthquake

It's no coincidence that San Francisco, CA, the decades-old capital of sexual lawlessness, is the first U.S. city in which circumcision will appear on the ballot in November. Although experts doubt the bill will survive a public vote, the anti-circumcision movement has picked up momentum in past weeks, and with it, its cousin, anti-Semitism has not forsaken an opportunity to lash out yet again in the guise of liberalism.

According to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the foreskin represents the complete immersion of the human spirit in sexual desire, to the extent that this desire then eclipses higher realms of a person's being. According to Rav Kook, the question of circumcision concerns whether sexuality can be harnessed as an essential component of a full-fledged human being, or whether the human experience can be detached from its supernal root and left to rot in decaying bodily desire.

The following is a translation by Yaacov David Shulman at ravkook.net. The original passage appears on p. 300-301 of Rav Kook's Orot HaKodesh (Lights of Holiness), Volume 3. 
The precious reason for circumcision, which decreases sexual desire, encompasses broad principles of wisdom. The covenant-"to be a God to you and to your children after you"-offers knowledge of God's oneness, which is connected to circumcision. The covenant and circumcision are intimately intertwined.
"From his flesh does a man see God." If you have the power to harness all the abilities of your soul and all your drives to an enlightened and ethical goal, you will see unity in your internal world. The unity of the outer world will become increasingly clear to you. But if your abilities are splintered, if you cannot conceive of overall control of your drives and desires, you will conclude that the entire world, like you, is splintered, and that no unity can be found in existence.
Sexual desire in its essence-and in related expressions, physical, imaginative and spiritual-comprises the basis of all drives. If you experience sexuality in a way that your exalted spirit can rise to it and surround it, can unify it with all the wealth of human abilities (physical and spiritual), leading it to one integrated ethical and supernal goal, then that unity, in its power, is revealed. the revelation of Godly unity will appear in your flesh.

The total immersion of the human spirit in sexual desire to such a degree that the ideals and ethics in its realm are silenced has brought about the substance of the foreskin. This pathological state expresses itself physically as a powerful sexual drive that has left the realm of ideals and the transmission of the ultimate ethics.

Pessimism corresponds to ethical decline. It gives urgency to the divorce of sexual desire from idealism: since existence in general is such a great evil, how can the procreation of miserable creatures be ideal? This doctrine teaches that the sexual drive is not rooted in idealism, but merely demonstrates the eruption of desire.

How different is the outlook of general goodness, of optimism: "God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good." This view permits idealism to extend even over the sexual drive.
The nature of flesh and the inclination of one's heart can descend to the degraded state of the foreskin. But with circumcision, you rectify the holy covenant and stride on an exalted path. All your abilities are directed toward a goal that is all-inclusive, ideal and holy. From your flesh will you see God. You will sanctify the Holy One of Israel, the one God.
Often those who oppose circumcision, although they are usually atheists, challenge supporters: If God wanted circumcision, why did he not create babies that way? The rabbis anticipated this question and wrote the following in Midrash Tanchuma (Tazria, 5):
Turnus Rufus the wicked asked Rabbi Akiva: "Whose deeds are better—Those of God or those of humans?" Rabbi Akiva answered, "Those of humans are better."...Turnus Rufus asked, "Why do you circumcise yourselves?" [Rabbi Akiva] replied, “I knew you would ask me about that, which is why I pre-empted and told you that things made by humans are better than things made by God.” Rabbi Akiva then brought Turnus Rufus two items: stalks of wheat and baked rolls. Rabbi Akiva said: "These [the stalks of wheat] are the deeds of God, and these [the baked rolls] are the deeds of humans. Are these [baked rolls] not more beautiful?
It's worth noting that the Rambam disputes the notion that circumcision reveals a lacking in God's creation, and emphasizes that circumcision comes to fix something on the human end of the spectrum, by curbing sexual desire. Either way, the above passages remind us that circumcision has always been revolutionary, and the debate over it brings up a society's deepest convictions concerning creation and the responsibility humans are given to take part in the creation of the next generation - the bridge between humanity and eternity. Circumcision involves a level of temimus - wholeness and simplicity of the Jewish soul before its Creator, both our best weapon and our culprit in the face of enemies of the Jewish people and the spirit of sinfulness and impurity polluting the otherwise relatively clean air of San Fran-sicko.

Keep in mind: Even though hatred towards anything related to God is flung at the Jews these days (and always, for that matter), the anti-religion tone of the bill and the media surrounding it nationwide are in effect a reaction to Christian ethics concerning sexuality, and their modern-day conflation with Judaism. As demonstrated in Rav Kook's passage above, Judaism affirms life and in this affirmation affirms sexuality. In recognizing the power of this drive in human nature, it seeks to provide boundaries and guidelines to ensure it does not eclipse all parts of one's life and of a society, so as to not nullify its own purpose - re-creation.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Har HaBayit - BeYadenu?

On Friday around 2:30 p.m. Israel time, tens of Arab youths threw stones from the Temple Mount towards Mugrabe Gate, which out of the Kotel plaza. For the first time since September of this year, Israeli police entered the Temple Mount to disperse crowds and prevent injuries below.

*    *

Two weeks ago, a friend of mine who is exploring her Jewish roots and was previously involved in Arab-Jewish peacemaking arrived in Jerusalem. Her acquaintance with Jerusalem up until this point was no less with the Arab neighborhoods of the city than the Jewish parts, and so she naturally stayed in a hotel in East Jerusalem. Her plan had to been to travel to Safed for Shabbat and delve into the wisdom of Kabbalah through the educational and spiritual resources at Ascent. However, as a result of miscommunication with Egged, she missed the last bus up north and found herself minutes before Shabbat stuck at her hotel in East Jerusalem.

Although I could not accommodate her on Friday night, a friend and I had the unconventional idea to surprise her at her hotel on Shabbat day. The only problem was - myself, an American and my friend, an Israeli - had not been to East Jerusalem in years, and never during such volatile times. We dressed (modestly of course) as non-obsequious tourists, and walked nonchalantly across town towards the hotel, near Damascus Gate. Soon it was time to cross Kvish Echad - Road #1 - that separates the Jewish and Arab neighborhoods of the city. It was one of those experiences where you think lightning is going to strike, and then suddenly - it doesn't - and you realize - there may be a wall of invisible glass dividing the city, but that at its heart, Jerusalem is one.

After meeting at the hotel, we decided to take my friend to the Kotel, as her curiosity for holy places was peaking and she had few resources to explore these places on her own, and besides, what better time to arrive at the Kotel than Mincha on Shabbat. Naturally, she suggested we walk through Damascus Gate, as it provided the most direct route from where we were to the Wall. When our Israeli friend heard Sha'ar Shchem, he replied, are you crazy? I can't walk through there. Eventually we convinced him that there was nothing to worry about, and that chareidim (ultra-orthodox Jews) walk to the Kotel via Damascus Gate all the time.

I don't know exactly how to put into words the experience of walking through East Jerusalem on Shabbat on the way to the kotel. It was like discovering your backyard for the first time, and feeling a bizarre mixture of at-homeness, foreignness, belonging, familiarity and otherness. Granted, I (unlike some others) would not have felt comfortable walking through identified as religious Jews. However, in camouflage, the experience provided an intimate, deeply-sought and deeply significant experience with the city's other half.

The walk from Damascus Gate to the Kotel was new, rich, full of history, and exhilarating. I should note that there were many religious Jews who walked with us, and I resolved to use this route again in the future. Indeed, several days ago, I returned to the Kotel for Mincha on Shavuot, this time dressed as myself, a modestly-dressed religious Jewish woman. Although when I was with the others, we had stuck to the one path leading from the Gate to the Wall, this time I noticed a large group of seminary girls coming out of one of the side alleyways, and I couldn't help but walk a few steps to see what lay at the other end.

To my surprise, the dark alleyway suddenly gave light to an archway filled with blue sky, fresh olive trees, and, behind them - the Dome of the Rock - the present-day marker for the holiest spot of Har HaBayit. This was the regular-old-tourist path to Har HaBayit, and I would soon discover, it was manned by soldiers to ensure that Jews would not enter the space, so as to not turn up the heat on the already hot-spot of conflict. Yet seeing an opening, as any (naive) Jew would do, I abruptly picked up the pace of my steps and went forth. Then, I saw two soldiers waiting by the archway, and right before me, a religious man ascended the steps, eyeing the jackpot. "Excuse me!" the soldiers called in Hebrew. "It is forbidden to go up." A short exchange ensued but it was clear the man had no chance. I had a few seconds before my turn to internalize the situation, and so, eager to ascend (I conveniently forgot for a moment the fact that I should only go up with an expert who knows where I am allowed to step), I decided to try my luck out as a tourist. Yes, that's right, hide my Jewish identity in front of Israeli soldiers to be allowed to enter the holiest place of our people on the festival of Shavuot - 40 years after the reunification of Jerusalem. [God bless the soldiers - they're just taking the Left's (and for that matter, the Right's) orders!]

In any case, my impersonation of a goya did not go very far. At first I tried to sneak but surreptitiously - no luck.  "Excuse me, you cannot go here," the soldier said resolutely in Hebrew. I put on my best clueless tourist, although my Shabbos shoes left me hapless. "Oh...is it always closed?" The soldier perhaps bought it for a moment, and then said: "You can come back tomorrow (in English), mi sheva vachetzi ad achat esre vachetzi". I'm assuming saying the opening hours of the Temple Mount in Hebrew, he was testing my Hebrew as translated in the response of my facial muscles. I couldn't bear to continue the deception and so I smiled and turned around. Maybe another time. As I walked through the metal detectors and to the Kotel Plaza though, I couldn't quite shake off the tense, Kafkaeque and twisted reality of these holy alleyways: After millenia of separation, why is an Israeli soldier the last barrier between a Jew and the Foundation Stone?

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