Just Add Water

runyan_josh_otIn chemistry, a solvent is a liquid capable of dissolving another substance. The resulting homogeneous mixture is known as a solution.

In this regard, water is known as “the universal solvent” because of its unique ability to dissolve seemingly impermeable things. Jewish tradition teaches that the great Rabbi Akiva was even motivated to learn Torah — he had previously been illiterate — when contemplating how water, one drop at a time, was able to carve its way through rock. And the cleansing properties of a spring rain have not been lost on the countless poets and naturalists who have marveled at the ability for life itself to be renewed and rejuvenated through water.

But when we say a business is solvent, we mean that it is able to meet its financial obligations. In both the chemical and financial understandings of the word “solvent,” we can trace it back to its roots in Latin signifying the loosening up of something. A business is solvent if it is loose, if it is flush with cash. A problem is solved — or a solution is found — when, like a stubborn knot that finally unravels, all of its constituent parts are untangled.

But here in Baltimore, the rain and waters of the Gwynns Falls and the Jones Falls rivers have been too good at dissolving and the muck of decades of growth now sits in solution at the Inner Harbor. The water quality is so bad, one local businessman tells Melissa Gerr in this week’s cover story, that tourists have taken heed of signs warning of the harbor’s health hazards and taken their business elsewhere.

As you’ll read in this week’s JT, a coalition of groups thinks it has the solution and aims to make the harbor swimmable and fishable by 2020. They’ve scored some successes, although the harbor recently received another F on an environmental firm’s report card. And as demonstrated in Toledo, Ohio, over the weekend, when residents discovered that their water, sourced from nearby Lake Erie, was suddenly unusable, the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Water isn’t just a great tourism resource. Since time immemorial, clean water has been a prerequisite for a functioning society. And some political scientists have been warning for years of impending global wars fought over something as simple as access to water.

Over in the Gaza Strip, where a tenuous cease-fire announced Monday appeared to return calm to the troubled region — Israeli schools opened in the south, and the Israel Defense Forces redeployed the units that took part in Operation Protective Edge’s destruction of cross-border tunnels used by Hamas — many residents have for years used salty water from the local aquifer for bathing; potable water comes desalinated from local neighborhood facilities and home-based purification units.

For sure, upgrading the infrastructure was never really a priority of Hamas, which while controlling the territory spent more time and effort on digging underneath the Israeli border to launch terror attacks. But now, Israeli military officials are speaking of rehabilitating the Gaza Strip — albeit without Hamas in control — as a necessity from both a humanitarian and strategic point of view.

Only time will tell, but perhaps peace will be achieved a drop at a time.


Closed on Yom Kippur

Should the United Nations have the day off for Yom Kippur? An Israeli initiative to have the holiest day of the Jewish year recognized as an official holiday at the world body picked up steam last week, when 32 countries wrote in support of the proposal to a U.N. General Assembly committee. The group — including the United States, Canada and a host of small countries — noted that the U.N. “recognizes the major festivals of many of the world’s main religions, yet Judaism is not represented.”

We like the idea of U.N. recognition of the Day of Atonement, but we’re not quite comfortable with the suggestion that the failure to do so is religious discrimination. We were therefore a bit uncomfortable in May, when Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., Ron Proser, launched the initiative and declared: “There are three monotheistic religions, yet only two are recognized by the U.N. calendar. Such discrimination at the U.N. must end.”

The purpose of the U.N. calendar is to regulate the organization’s business, much like a school calendar does. As such, its first priority is not to celebrate every religion’s holiday. Granted, Jews would find it convenient not to have U.N. business on a day when they won’t be working and are likely to be in synagogue. But religious discrimination?

Eight of the 10 U.N. holidays are American holidays — Independence Day, Labor Day, New Year’s and the like. The United Nations is closed when the post office is closed. The eight also include the Christian Good Friday and the Christian Christmas. Holidays 9 and 10 are the Muslim Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha — holidays that the local Muslim community is trying to get recognized by the public schools.

We would be proud to have even one Jewish holiday alongside these 10 “observed” by the U.N., and commend Israel for taking up the cause. But if the effort fails, we have much more important issues of “U.N. unfairness” to worry about — particularly the organization’s proclivity to blame Israel for virtually everything that goes wrong in the Middle East.

Double Standard on Gaza

President Obama called the civilian deaths in Gaza “indefensible.” (Polaris/Newscom)

President Obama called the civilian deaths in Gaza “indefensible.” (Polaris/Newscom)

Death in wartime is a given, and this includes civilian deaths. The death toll in Gaza has been high because Hamas has put its nihilistic “resistance” against Israel before the protection of the lives of its own civilians. And most of the civilized world seems to understand that point.

What strikes us as hypocritical, however, is the criticism of Israel’s conduct in the Gaza war and the resulting civilian losses. Frankly, we expect such criticism from Israel’s foes. But we expect more from Israel’s friends. So when friends say things that are hypocritical or unfair, it hurts even more. We felt that sting on Sunday, when State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that “the United States is appalled by today’s disgraceful shelling” outside a U.N. school in Gaza that reportedly killed 10 people. And it hurt last week, when President Obama declared that others of Israel’s actions that resulted in civilian deaths were “indefensible.”

We want to be clear: Our complaint here is not with criticism of Israel. Our complaint is with the double standard of that criticism and the inherent unfairness of it. Quite apart from the fact that each of the civilian deaths in Gaza came in the course of unquestionably legitimate military action — most of it purely defensive — there is a streak of disturbing self-righteousness in the criticism that seeks to hold Israel to a higher standard of morality and military precision than the very countries that are expressing the criticism.

Would the United States, the European nations or any other country act differently if they were being threatened by terrorists next door? Can anyone expect a country at war for its survival to worry more about civilian losses on the other side than the safety and welfare of its own citizenry and military? Of course not, which is what makes the criticism of Israel so galling.

In war, the focus is never on civilian losses. It is on military victory and a country’s own military losses. In the eight-year U.S. involvement in Iraq, an estimated 500,000 Iraqis died, according to a 2013 study published in “PLOS Medicine.” Perhaps even more mind-boggling is the casualty count from the Vietnam War — 1.5 million to 3.8 million Vietnamese civilian and military deaths, according to a recent report in The Washington Post. Add to those more than 600,000 deaths in Cambodia and another 1 million in Laos, and you have a situation where the accusations and the outrage being spoken today seem to be wholly misdirected. And what about the historic civilian death tolls elsewhere in the Middle East?

Peace, and the people of Israel and Gaza, will be served by a vigorous diplomacy that demilitarizes Hamas, returns the Palestinian Authority presence to Gaza and eliminates the terror threat to Israel. Finger wagging and efforts to hold Israel to a different standard than any other nation just pushes that peace further away.

We, As IDF Widows, Orphans, Ask for Your Help

We are living through a difficult time: a time filled with worry and anxiety, a time of war. For the past decade we have lived from one military operation in Gaza to the next, from battle to battle, and there is still no end in sight. We have lost more than 23,000 soldiers in Israel’s wars, and we now find ourselves in the midst of yet another battle.

For 66 years Israel has been fighting for its existence. Of course, we all enjoy quiet times when we pursue a busy public agenda in the spheres of education, industry, commerce, economics, science, culture and art —largely thanks to our dear ones who never came home to the ongoing hard work of the IDF and the other security forces. However, at the end of every quiet interlude there comes a new war.

We, the IDF widows and orphans, carry the trauma of bereavement and sadness with us every step of our lives. And from within our world that has been destroyed around us, we find the strength to tell our husbands and fathers that they did not die in vain. It is specifically for this reason that we support the IDF and the defense establishment in the operation that they have embarked upon.

We know that in war there are no victors; there are always casualties on our side too. The endless war for our independence and our day-to-day life exacts a heavy price: soldiers who have fallen in the line of duty; soldiers who went out to the battlefield to protect, with their own lives, the citizens of our country.

Among the soldiers who have been enlisted there are sons of IDF widows. These soldiers, orphans themselves, don their uniforms and step out of the safety and protection of home to take their place on the front lines.

Israel finds itself in a difficult political and military situation. On the one hand, there is international pressure to reach a cease-fire; on the other hand, there is a desire to adopt further military measures to ensure quiet for the years to come. We must behave with responsibility, caution and restraint and stand behind our leadership, which sees the bigger picture.

Speaking as a woman who has lost her husband in battle, I am certain that the political and military leadership take all this into consideration. In recent days we have buried some of our finest sons. With great pain, we are joined each year by more widows and orphans, more bereaved parents and more friends and loved ones.

Dear friends, your support is so much appreciated, every day — but especially now. We at the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization call on you to keep us in your prayers, to spread the word in your communities of the work we do in Israel and to embrace the families of our fallen soldiers. We are here for our widows and the orphans, 24/7, but it is with your assistance that we are able to provide them with crucial activities and the support network they so much need. Together, we can make their days and nights just a bit brighter.

For more information and to donate, visit idfwo.org.

The writer is chairwoman of the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization.

There’s a Word for That

We recently read a funny article in Business Insider —  “14 Untranslatable Foreign Words We Should Use in English.” These are words with no corollary in English.

Yiddish is filled with untranslatable words, too — words such as mishpachah, which means the whole family, the whole clan; it includes relatives by blood and marriage and even close friends. It conveys a warm feeling; you’re happy to see the whole mishpachah at cousin Lenny’s bar mitzvah. To cover the same ground in English, you would have to specify aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, children, etc.

Nosh is another example of a useful all-inclusive Yiddish word that has spread beyond the deli counter. You don’t have to confess that you ate cheese and crackers, a handful of pretzels, a leftover knish from the frig and some baby carrots before dinner. You can just say, “I had a little nosh.”

We realized long ago that sometimes you just need a good Yiddish word. In fact, when the College of Cardinals met in Rome in 2013 to choose a new pope, more than one journalist described the papal conclave as including “meetings, lunch and a lot of shmoozing.” Really? Catholic cardinals were shmoozing?

As self-described word mavens, we couldn’t resist taking a closer look at some of these farkakteh foreign words:

Badkruka is a Swedish word that means someone who is reluctant to jump into the water outdoors. No wonder they are reluctant; in Scandinavia, there are all those freezing-cold fjords. In Atlantic City, we’re only badkruka when the ocean temperature dips below 68 degrees.

Zapoi is Russian for two or more days of drunkenness usually involving waking up in an unexpected place. There’s no Jewish equivalent for this kind of drunkenness; we like to wake up in our own cozy beds. The only thing comes to mind is custom on Purim, when Jews are supposed to drink until they can’t distinguish between Haman and Mordecai.

Uitwaaien is Dutch for going out for a walk in the countryside in order to clear one’s mind. Our uitwaaien is going down to the basement to put the wet clothes in the dryer and realizing that it’s so nice and cool and quiet down there that there’s no reason to hurry back upstairs.

Ikigai is the Japanese term for a reason to get up in the morning, a reason to live. We’re Jewish mothers. Our word for that is “children.”

Then there’s the Inuit word iktsuarpok. It’s described as the feeling of anticipation when you’re waiting for someone to show up at your house and you keep going outside to see if they’ve arrived yet. It’s curious that the Inuits, the native people of the Arctic Circle, coined this word. Isn’t it too cold to leave the igloo and stand out on the tundra waiting for the dogsled?

We iktsuarpok all the time — waiting for the school bus to drop off the kids, the UPS guy to deliver the coffee we ordered and the plumber to show up. We love this word so much that we have adopted it. Since the English language has appropriated so many Yiddish words, we think it’s only fair that we take one word back in.

Joyce Eisenberg and Ellen Scolnic are the authors of the “Dictionary of Jewish Words.”

Moses Spoke and God Answered ‘Amen’

There are two important issues that must be studied when approaching this week’s Torah portion, the first theological and the second textual.

The theological question strikes us from the moment we open this fifth Book of the Bible: Moses is speaking with his voice to the people of Israel. Each of the other four biblical books are written in the third person, in God’s voice, as it were, recording the history, narrating the drama and commanding the laws. This fifth book is written in the first person. Does this mean that the first four books are God’s Bible and the fifth Moses’ Bible?

The 15th Century Spanish biblical interpreter and faithful disciple of Maimonides, Don Isaac Abarbanel, queries “whether Deuteronomy was given by God from heaven, containing words from the mouth of the Divine as the rest of the Torah, or whether Moses spoke this book by himself … what he himself understood to be the intent of the Divine in his elucidation of the commandments, as the biblical text states, ‘And Moses began to elucidate this Torah.’”

Abarbanel concludes that whereas the first four Books of the Bible are God’s words written down by Moses, this fifth Book of the Bible contains Moses’ words, which God commanded the prophet to write down. In this manner, Deuteronomy has equal sanctity with the rest of the five Books.

Perhaps Abarbanel is agreeing with a provocative interpretation of the verse, “Moses will speak, and the Lord will answer him with a voice” (Ex. 19:19), which I once heard in the name of the Kotzker Rebbe, who asked: “What is the difference whether God speaks and Moses answers ‘Amen,’ or Moses speaks and God answers ‘Amen?’”

The second issue is textual in nature. The Book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ long farewell speech. Moses feels compelled to provide personal reflections on the significance of the commandments as well as his personal spin on many of the most tragic desert events.

From the very beginning of Moses’ monologue, he cites God’s invitation to the Israelites to conquer the land of Israel. This would be the perfect introduction to a retelling of the sin of the scouts whose evil report dissuaded the Israelites from attempting the conquest. Indeed, he does begin to recount, “But you all drew near to me and said, ‘Let us send out men before us, and let them scout out the land and report to us on the matter.” But this retelling comes 14 verses after God’s initial invitation, and these intervening 14 verses are filled with what appears to be recriminations against a nation which Moses “cannot carry (bear) alone.” Only after this excursus from the topic at hand does Moses discuss the failed reconnaissance mission. Why the excursus? How does it explain the failed mission?

From God’s initial approach to Moses at the burning bush, Moses was a reluctant leader. The reason was clear: Moses called himself “heavy of speech.” I have previously explained this on the basis of an interpretation of the Ralbag, to mean that Moses was not given to “light banter.” He was so immersed in the “heavy” issues that he had neither the patience nor the interest to convince an ungrateful and stiff-necked people to trust in God and conquer the Promised Land. Moses spent so much time in the companionship of the Divine that he lost the will — and ability — to consort with regular humanity.

Moses knew himself. The verses leading up to the sin of the scouts are hardly an excuse. They explain his failure to give proper direction to the delegation of tribal princes, his inability to censure their report, his unwillingness to convince them of the critical significance of the conquest of the land. He could not bear the burden, the grumblings, of a nation that was too removed from God to be able to follow Him blindly.

Back to theology. Maimonides explains that even at Mount Sinai, the entire nation only heard a sound emanating from the Divine, a kol; each individual understood that sound in accordance with his specific and individual spiritual standing, while Moses was the only one able to “divine” the precise will of God within that sound — the words of the 10 commandments (Guide to the Perplexed, II: 32). Moses internalized the will of God and thereby produced the words of the four Books of the Bible, which constitute God’s words internalized and written by Moses, the greatest prophet of all. Moses communicated with God. Moses may not always have spoken successfully to his own generation, but he did write, for us and for Jewish eternity.

But Moses also had a legacy to leave and an interpretation to give. In the book of Deuteronomy, he spoke to his people, telling them not God’s words but his own, and God commanded him to write down the words of this Book as well for all eternity, God was granting the Divine imprimatur of Torah to Moses’ Book of Deuteronomy — and making it His (God’s) Book as well. Moses spoke and God answered Amen.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.

Don’t Say Cease-Fire

Don’t Say Cease-Fire
Why all the talk about a cease-fire with Hamas (“A Loss of Credibility,” July 18)? Hamas is a terrorist organization bent on genocide, and dedicated to the destruction of Israel. Diplomatic efforts to arrange a cease-fire give Hamas undue political legitimacy, and merely postpone the inevitable resumption of rocket attacks against Israel.

The primary obligation of the government of Israel is to protect the lives of its citizens. To fulfill this obligation in a morally responsible manner, Israel must insist upon the unconditional surrender of Hamas’ entire missile arsenal and destruction of its vast system of attack tunnels before any consideration is given to a cease-fire. The international community can be helpful in this regard by providing inspectors to ensure complete elimination of Hamas’ terror infrastructure. There is obvious precedent for this type of international involvement: the recent agreement providing for the removal and elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles.

The earliest recorded instance of a people devoted to terror (the Amalekites) is found in Scripture. With regard to misplaced mercy for a people prone to terror, our sages teach us, “He who is merciful to the cruel will eventually be cruel to the merciful.” So, too, will Israel fail in its mission of protecting its citizenry if it settles for a meaningless cease-fire with Hamas.

Marc L. Caroff
President, Louis D. Brandeis Chapter
Zionist Organization of America
Silver Spring, Md.

Birthright Goes On

Despite rocket fire from Hamas terrorists in Gaza, 6,000 young Jews, ages 18 to 26, have arrived in Israel in the last few weeks to be part of a 10-day “summer in Israel” experience (“Witnesses to Conflict,” July 18).

“Seven groups arrived on July 24 from North America,” said Gail Hyman of Birthright, the organization which has sent almost 400,000 Jews on such free educational trips to Israel. Out of the 6,000 sent “since the conflict began, … only 10 people left early.”

She said the Birthright program has made adjustments to ensure the safety of participants. Flights were switched to Israel’s national airline,
El Al, and itineraries are being adjusted based on consultations with Israeli security officials.

Of course, about 30 percent of the people who had signed up for the trip dropped out and postponed coming to Israel because of the fighting, but the 70 percent who did come will return home with a much greater feeling of commitment to Israel as a result of being there in a time of tension.

Rabbi Allen S. Maller
Culver City, Calif.

FIDF Helps Soliders

As expressed by your many poignant articles and cover story (“Witnesses to Conflict,” July 18), there are many means that our community can and has generously responded to the crisis in Israel.

One profound way is exclusively focused on the welfare and well-being of the courageous men and women of the IDF. To date, hundreds of individuals have generously contributed online and by mail to the Friends of the IDF (FIDF) Rapid Response Fund. Funds raised are currently being used for care packages to combat soldiers to provide for basic hygiene and personal relief.

In addition to their essential physical needs, the FIDF is collecting letters, cards and pictures from area youngsters for delivery to the soldiers to lift their spirits by expressing their support and solidarity.

To make a donation or to volunteer for these efforts, please go to fidf.org/donate or contact us directly.

Joshua Mauer
President, FIDF Baltimore Chapter

Ronald Eisenberg
Chairman of the Board, FIDF Baltimore Chapter

William Z. Fox
Regional President, Midatlantic FIDF

Real Terror for Israeli Families

I agree full heartedly with your July 18 editorial, “Support for Our Beleaguered Israel Family.”

Imagine yourself in Baltimore trying to calm your young child, explaining that there are no ‘monsters’ under the bed.

Then, imagine yourself as a mother or father in Israel who is in true danger of actually having real monsters under their bed entering through real tunnels with tranquilizers and restraints, not to mention grenades and machine guns ready to murder you or kidnap you and your family. How would you feel?

You hear mothers on Israeli radio tearfully saying that they don’t dare sleep through the night for fear of just that happening. Terrorists were already caught coming out of such tunnels that they have dug right under Israeli towns, ready to do terrible harm to innocent civilians.

Add to that the frequent warning sirens that a missile is heading toward you, and whether you are in a car or in the street, having to run for cover. This is the reality of the innocent Israeli citizen. It was forced on them by people who do not value life, whether Israelis or even their own people. While the Israeli army is warning people to get out of buildings before they are hit, Hamas is preventing some people from leaving those buildings.

Why do you think they hide their ammunition under innocent civilians’ homes, hospitals, mosques and schools? Because they, more than the rest of the world, know that the Israeli army is humane and will refrain from hurting innocent people as much as it can. Sometimes it is impossible, because when it comes to harming their own people or the other side, they have to choose their own. The Israeli people rely on and trust their government and their army to protect them even at the great cost of their lives. The whole country mourns the fallen victims, while the other side uses their people as propaganda.

Ada Grodzinsky