Nursing Them With Honey From the Rock

I’ve always thought it curious that it is customary on the holiday of Shavuot to eat foods made of sweet dairy — cheese blintzes, cheesecake and so on. In all my childhood and adult years, I never heard a reason for this that made sense.

One year, in my reading of this week’s parshah, an idea jumped out of the text: Almost the entirety of Ha’azinu is the Song of Moses. This is his second shirah, “song,” as the people of Israel stands poised to enter the Promised Land at the end of the wilderness journey.

The first shirah catapulted the people into this journey at the shores of the Sea of Reeds. This second poem is filled with images of God: circling, guarding and carrying the Israelites as an eagle would its young; a rock — steady, faithful and perfect; a father, who created and made us.

Most surprising in this poem are the many feminine images of God. First, the Rock: “You neglected the Rock who begot you, forgot the God who labored to bring you forth.”

And then there’s my favorite: “God set them atop the highlands, to feast on the yield of the earth; nursing them with honey from the crag and oil from the flinty rock.”

God fed us — suckled us — with honey from the rock. This primal metaphor of being nurtured by God’s goodness, wisdom and Presence is framed with milk and honey — dairy and sweet. It is not surprising, then, on the holiday in which we open ourselves to remember what it is must have been like to be so close to God’s revelatory Presence, we eat the foods that remind us of being suckled directly on that Divine sweetness.

Mothering, maternal, feminine images of God are not limited to this week’s parshah. Like Deuteronomy, the Book of Genesis comes to a close with blessings and poems. On his deathbed, Jacob gathers his sons around him and blesses them. To Joseph, he says,

“By the God of your father, who helps you, Shaddai, who blesses you, blessings of the heaven above, blessings of the deep that lies below, blessings of breasts and womb.”

This poem takes the form of poetic parallelism — couplets in which each part echoes the other. Our poem of Ha’azinu is similarly structured: “Give ear, O heavens, let me speak; let the earth hear the words I utter!”

In the Genesis poem, “God of your father” is parallel with “Shaddai,” as “heaven” is parallel with “earth.” Rabbi Arthur Waskow suggests that we understand the Divine Name, “Shaddai,” as “the Breasted God.” It is as obvious a suggestion as it is unconventional and unpopular. Rabbi Waskow notes the name Shaddai is concentrated in the Book of Genesis.

Indeed, at the burning bush, God tells Moses, “I am the Eternal. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name.” Moreover, Waskow points out, each time El Shaddai is invoked in Genesis is to invoke blessings of fertility.

This is Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of return and renewal — a call to hear the shofar’s cry, “Today is the birth of the world,” or “Today is pregnant with eternity.” Spiritual wholeness will mean engaging the range of images our tradition offers us — so that we can indeed be nourished by honey from the Rock.

In the Good Old Days

It was the kind of thing you would hear from old men: “Things just ain’t the way they used to be.” “This new generation is going to hell in a hand basket.” “I remember when things were different and better, back in the good old days!”

Now that I am becoming a bit older myself, I find that I sometimes parrot some of those phrases. Increasingly, my attitude has become negative and critical of the contemporary world around me. It is at such moments that I feel convinced that things were
indeed much better in the past, and certainly much different.

My tendency to value the past over the present is especially marked when it comes to reflecting upon leadership phenomena. It is easy to say that presidents and prime ministers were once great statesman and that the individuals now holding those positions are at best mediocre. Authors, poets, artists and even the composers of days gone by definitely seem superior to individuals currently in those roles.

It is especially in the area of religion that the past took on an aura of holiness, of grandeur, of purity, that seems to be totally absent in today’s religious world. It is easy to come up with the names of 15 or 20 outstanding rabbis in the previous generation or two, or even three. It is hard to find more than a few in today’s generation.

Is this attitude, which I suspect is prevalent even among individuals far younger than me, fair? Is it correct? Or is it based upon nostalgic memories which distort the realities of the past, as well as the conditions of the present? Dare I even speculate that this attitude stems from a cynicism which, some would say, is typical of older people?

Personally, I have found correctives for this attitude in my own experience and in my Torah study.My personal experience was fortunately blessed by my acquaintance with a number of older men, among whom I count my own and my wife’s grandfathers, who all felt that the current generation was in many ways superior to the earlier generations that they knew. In their conversations, they not only did not glorify the past, but well remembered that past generations had their own blemishes, some of which were quite severe.

This week’s Torah portion opens with the mitzvah to bring the first fruits of one’s new harvest to “the place where the Lord your God will choose to establish His name,” which we know eventually was designated as Jerusalem. The next verse continues, “You shall go to the kohain in charge at that time.” After reciting the proper recitations, the fruits were given to that priest.

Rashi notes how very odd it is that we are told to bring those fruits to the kohain “in charge at that time.” To what other kohain could we possibly have given them? To the kohain of a time gone by?

To those of us who were paying careful attention to the Torah portion that we read just two weeks ago, Parshat Shoftim, this question sounds very familiar. For in that parshah, we encountered two similar phrases with regard to the judges whom we consult.Thus, we read that we were to “appear before … the magistrate in charge at that time, and present your problem.” Later on, we learned that “the two parties to the dispute shall appear … before the magistrates in authority at that time.”

The Talmud derives a powerful lesson from these three phrases, which all stress “at that time.” The lesson is that we are not to denigrate the judges or priests of our time. We are not to say that the judges of yore were well-suited to their positions, but that the judges of our own times are inferior and indeed unqualified. Jephtha, the leader of a rag-tag group of warriors, was for his generation every bit as qualified to be a judge as was Samuel, the prophet of a later time.

I have always understood this teaching to mean that it is futile to compare the leaders of one generation to those of another. Each generation has its own special character and unique requirements, and the leaders who emerge, especially in the religious sphere, are precisely the ones most appropriate for that generation. As Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel, whose 79th yahrzeit we recently commemorated, put it, “Every generation shines with its own qualities.”

If this lesson applies to what our attitude should be to the judges of our time, how much more it applies to what should be our proper attitude toward the contemporary kohain. We are not to say that the kohanim of yesteryear were spiritually worthy of offering the priestly blessings, whereas today’s kohain is unqualified to do so. Rather, we ought to follow Maimonides’ ruling that everyone born a kohain is fit to utter the priestly blessing “even if he is not learned, not punctilious in his observance of mitzvot, and even if there are persistent rumors about him.”

As the wisest of all men, King Solomon, writes: “The end of a matter is better than the beginning of it. Better a patient spirit than a haughty spirit. … Don’t say, ‘How has it happened that former times were better than these?’ For it is not wise of you to ask that question.”

A Bleak Future

Unfortunately, there will be no end to the repetition of terrorist attacks against Israel by Hamas as long as Hamas is convinced that the international community will rebuild Gaza and that collateral civilian deaths can be used for propaganda against Israel (“Anatomy of a Cease-Fire,” Aug. 29).

The scenario of rocketing and mortaring Israel, now extending to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, will be renewed whenever it pleases Hamas. And as long as the Hamas leadership remains intact and Gaza civilians will tolerate their casualties, there can be no final truce, much less a peace.

Rabbi Is No Virologist

082914_cover-lgSo, Rabbi Kamenetzky and his wife believe that vaccinations, not the diseases they prevent, are harmful (“A Healthy Dose?” Aug. 29). Kamenetzky is quoted, “There is a doctor in Chicago who doesn’t vaccinate any of his patients, and they have no problem at all. I see vaccinations as the problem. It’s a hoax. Even the Salk vaccine [against polio] is a hoax. It is just big business.”

I won’t question the rabbi’s authority on rabbinical law, but his opinion on vaccines and illness is just his opinion. I give it no more weight than I would someone who believes the earth is flat. On the other hand, stating that vaccines are a hoax steps beyond his rabbinical authority. It is dangerous. I am president of the Polio Survivors Association. I survived polio … just barely … and work with polio survivors every day. In 1952, nearly 60,000 people in the United States contracted polio, and polio killed more American children than any other communicable disease.

Has the rabbi ever seen a hospital filled with children in iron lungs? Probably not. Why? Because we now have a vaccine!

And calling vaccines “just big business” is an illustration of his lack of serious thought. Does the rabbi grow his own food? Does he weave his own cloth or make his own clothing? I hope he understands that these things are sold for profit and are “just big business.”

If God is Optimistic, Shouldn’t We Be Too?

One of Rosh Hashanah’s many significant themes is its commemoration of the creation of the world. I taught this to my son in the course of our Judaic learning sessions using Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s “Jewish Literacy” as a textbook.

Only I became the student when I encountered a passage that jarred me by its perspective, one that I had never before considered. In a chapter entitled “Adam and Eve: The Garden of Eden,” Telushkin writes, “In general, the biblical view of creation is optimistic. Repeatedly, the Torah notes concerning God’s creations: “And God saw that it was good.’”

Optimistic? Really? Didn’t God’s creation turn messy rather quickly? Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Cain killing Abel. Noah’s flood. Sodom and Gomorrah. And surely the Holocaust was as bad as or worse than anything described in the Torah. Read today’s paper and you are likely to conclude that the mess continues in our contemporary world.

Surely God, Divine foresight in hand, knew better than to express a childlike satisfaction with His creation. And yet, as a believer in the Torah as the unmistakable, inalterable word of God, I am left with the unyield-ing proposition that if God says His creation was good, it must be good.

I am fortunate to have a mother, a Holocaust survivor, who despite her struggles maintains a positive — yes, optimistic — outlook well into her 70s. In a book we’ve written together, she describes a spiritual journey whose message is clear: God did not and has not abandoned the world He created and thought was good.

Understandably, it can be challenging to maintain such faith as the seemingly unending cycle of hate and violence spins like the earth’s rotation. But we do not have to succumb to such a cycle. We have a choice.

Even during the Holocaust, some made choices that reflected God’s optimistic view of the world He created. The choice made by the Catholic couple who saved and raised my mother is but one example.

There are no doubt many inspiring choices made today amid the turbulence in the Middle East. Rosh Hashanah is an ideal time to take action.

If God saw the world as good, then it is up to us to make it a reality.

The State of Israel’s Economies

After a terrifying summer of constant rocket fire into Israel from Gaza, this is an appropriate time to think not only about Israel’s geopolitical future (which is beyond this writer’s crystal ball), but also about Israel’s economies. I purposely use the plural because Israel’s economy is fractured along many fault lines. There’s the famous Startup Nation economy, the tourist economy, the consumer economy, the international trade economy, the Haredi economy and the Arab-Israeli economy to name a few. Some are doing well; others are weakening; and a few are mired in poverty. And even before the war, prognosticators were talking about a slowdown in Israel’s economy. The war exacerbated it.

The high-tech economy is global. Money will flow to good ideas that address a market need. The Startup Nation economy is no different. As long as Israel’s entrepreneurs keep developing innovative technologies, global capital will find it. Investment may pause during times of unrest but will resume afterward.

Hopefully, the tourism and consumer economies will follow the same track as high-tech investing and pick up once hostilities end. The 50-day war wreaked havoc on Israel’s tourism industry, which represents nearly 6 percent of the country’s economy. The minister of tourism, Uzi Landau, said the war caused a 35 percent drop in visitors, draining more than $500 million from the economy. After past military actions, he added, tourism bounced back within four months of a cease-fire.

The consumer economy also ground to a halt during the war, as Israelis hunkered down at home and in shelters for seven weeks, frequenting stores as little as possible. While the benefits of the high-tech industry skew to the most highly educated and innovative individuals, tourism and retail trade provide many low-wage service jobs for the less skilled. Any slowdown causes great hardship to these employees and their families.

The international trade economy in Israel is huge. Imports and exports combined equal nearly two-thirds of the country’s GDP.  Global economic conditions and trade flows have a stronger effect on Israel’s international trade posture than flare-ups with its neighbors.  Europe’s stagnant economy and America’s anemic recovery hurt Israel’s exports.

Sadly, Israel has one of the highest rates of poverty among the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Nearly 20 percent of the country’s people live in poverty, including over one-third of its children, according to a 2013 study by the Israel National Council for the Child. Much of this is experienced by two economically challenged groups, which, combined, equal fully one-third of the country’s population. The Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and Arab-Israeli communities equal 11.7 percent and 20.7 percent, respectively, of Israel’s 8.1 million people.

While the country’s unemployment rate is at 6.2 percent, it is much higher in these communities. Moreover, with the high birth rate of both communities, it is projected that they will exceed 40 percent of the population in 20 years. So among Israel’s many challenges, the internal demographic and economic clock is ticking. It must find a way to expand the economic pie and include these populations in the labor force; otherwise, in two decades nearly half the population will not be contributing to the economy. Without internal economic strength, Israel will not be able to defend itself from external threats.

It’s Never Too Late to Do the Right Thing

Joshua Runyan Editor-in-Chief

Joshua Runyan

You don’t need to be a fan of professional football or even a resident of Baltimore to know that the news coming out of the home team has been far from good as of late.

The moves Monday by the Baltimore Ravens to release star running back Ray Rice and by the National Football League to suspend him indefinitely after a more complete video surfaced of the Atlantic City, N.J., altercation in which he knocked his future wife unconscious effectively bars the athlete, who won the NFL Play of the Year Award in 2012, from the sport throughout North America. But the punishment did little to quell the voices of sports fans and domestic violence advocates who pointed out that the only thing that changed since Rice’s earlier punishment — a two-game NFL suspension — and the enactment of a new domestic violence policy by the league was that the public can now view all the gory details online.

Various groups have accused both the team and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell of cynicism and hypocrisy, and Baltimore Sun columnist Susan Reiner went so far Tuesday as to suggest that Rice’s termination “has absolutely nothing to do with domestic abuse.” And yet others have applauded the swift suspension and the message it sends to would-be abusers: that domestic violence should not and will not be tolerated.

Without deciding whether or not Rice — who is reportedly in court-ordered counselling and did express regret — got what he deserved or whether or not the league and the Ravens did the right thing in sending a star player packing, it is possible to glean another altogether different message from the affair: While it’s always preferable to get it right the first time, misguided decisions of the past should not prevent corrective actions in the future.

If the NFL truly believed that it didn’t go far enough several weeks ago, then it was right to expand its suspension.

Of course, the decision itself has very little to do with the Jewish community, but it does say something about the responsibility of organizations to police the conduct of its members. No less than the integrity of the organization and the example it sets for the outside world is at stake.

And if a sports league has a responsibility to enforce proper behavior among its players, then other organizations — universities, for instance — have a responsibility to make sure that those who speak in their name or under their auspices do so in keeping with the values they represent.

You’ll read in this week’s JT about the efforts of Jewish groups to empower local college students with the tools and messages necessary to be effective champions of Israel’s cause. It’s no secret that the world of academia is a hostile one for the Jewish state and its defenders, but recent events, including the assault of a pro-Israel student at Temple University in Philadelphia, have emphasized just how isolated the pro-Israel camp feels at some colleges.

Universities must always champion free speech, but where those who use the First Amendment as a shield with which to intimidate and stifle the speech of others, administrators must take bold steps — previous decisions notwithstanding — to bring professors and students back to the table of respectful debate.

Proud of Bernstein

How proud I am of Jay Bernstein for his  letter of Aug. 15 (“When Will Our Leaders Stand Up for Israel?”). I live in Colorado, and our federation, now known as Jewish Colorado, also held two rallies, also in a safe place, a synagogue and the JCC. They were fairly well attended, but my feelings were much the same as Bernstein’s: Where was the rest of the Jewish population? Bernstein deserves a well-deserved thank you for his letter of awareness.

Toby Mower

JT’s War Coverage Disappointing

As a subscriber to the Baltimore Jewish Times, I am disappointed that its only coverage of Israel’s war against Hamas in its Aug. 22 issue was indirectly through the small article, “ADL Documents Rise in Global Anti-Semitism.”

While I am certainly interested in local news and feature stories, at this time I would be more interested in getting news, analysis and opinions on the war that I might not otherwise read in the major news publications.

Ken Hornstein
Owings Mills

Where’s Helpfor Joel Bernstein?

Your Aug. 22 article about Mike Gimbel (“New Lease on Life”) was very interesting, although I have known about him for a long time.

In the article, Allie Freedman also wrote about Joel Bernstein, who in 1991, while doing his job at Sinai Hospital, “got stuck with Hepatitis  C” with a needle.

The article infers that he has had a liver transplant but that he has no insurance and can’t work. I assume that Sinai paid for his liver transplant and operation.

So now he can’t afford the $1,000 per pill that could save his life. Can’t Sinai help him in some way? After all, he contracted the disease while working at Sinai.

Mike Gimbel has been cured. The question is: How can Joel Bernstein get the $1,000 pills that will let him live a normal life?

Oscar Schabb