(Portions of this article appeared 10 years ago in the Jerusalem Post)
Israeli and Polish children filled the air above Warsaw with kites in memory of famed and martyred educator Janusz Korczak, who fervently believed that every child should have a kite. Sixty-five years after the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and 60 years after the founding of the state of Israel, Education Minister Yuli Tamir led a singular educational event in Warsaw to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day in memory of Korczak, who was deported to Treblinka with his students 66 years ago and subsequently killed. Tamir, together with Israeli youth and Polish pupils who are studying Judaism and Israel, visited the original site of Korczak's orphanage, where he taught and cared for his Jewish charges. There, they learned about Korczak and his teaching philosophy, and heard, first hand, accounts from two orphans from Korczak's school who survived the Holocaust, Yitzhak Balfer and Yitzhak Sakalka.
Korczak was a devoted educator who developed an educational technique that placed the child at the center. He loved and respected his students and treated all of them equally, a philosophy that, at the time, was less obvious than it may seem today. He was a pediatrician, author, builder of orphanages, and even had a radio show devoted to education. When the Nazis offered Korczak the opportunity to leave the orphans and save himself, he refused. Instead, he proudly led the 200 orphans to the Umschlagplatz (deportation point to the death camps) and boarded the train to Treblinka and his death. An eyewitness described the scene: "It was not a march to the death train. It was an organized mute protest against the killings! All of the children lined up in rows of four and Korczak walked at their head with eyes lifted to the heavens holding two children's hands." Korczak visited Israel, or Palestine as it was then called, twice. Upon his return from his second trip in 1937, he wrote, "Every single child in the valley must have a kite until there are a hundred different types of kites and at every holiday and festival one should fly the kites. The kite is a type of toy and just like children who live by the sea are wont to launch ships upon it, so too children of the valley must fly kites. [Kites] delight children and adults as one."
On that day, ten years ago, Tamir and the Polish pupils visited the site in the Warsaw Ghetto where the orphanage had stood after its forced relocation, upon which a monument to Korczak now stands. In keeping with his wishes, they made kites and then flew them next to the monument. They then retraced the route from the site of the relocated orphanage to the Umschlagplatz. At the Korczak memorial, Tamir said, "In the face of the Holocaust and the brutal mass murders, Korczak presented an opposing ideal of compassion and love for every child and left behind an educational legacy which is still relevant today… "The kite represented for Korczak the right of every child to freedom and happiness. The joint kite flying of Israeli and Polish children testifies to the victory of hope and love for one's fellow man over the regime of fear and evil."
How very sad that 10 years later the kite is a symbol of hate and aggression for Palestinian children. Gaza’s parents who are mobilized by Hamas, are bragging of how hundreds of their youngsters are building kites as incendiary devices to burn Israel fields in the south. This is part is the “peaceful protests” being organized at the border. A child’s toy weaponized to bring the desired result of arson. Some enterprising youth have designed tails that are Molotov cocktails and others designed swastikas. One has accounted for the burning of a flash fire of 25 acres of land needing to be put out by fire marshals in a five alarm fire.
Naturally this activity doesn’t characterize how all parents and children in Gaza feel. But they are mute and fear being jailed for torture or retribution if they oppose their terrorist regime. Meantime, the media covering this ongoing rioting forgets these scores of incidents and emphasizes the death of militant Gazans seeking to penetrate the border. They highlight these deaths as an example of Israeli aggression in spite of clear warnings that trespassing a certain distance in the border crossing area can result in harm. Sadly there have been incidents where teens were acting to penetrate the border or stone Israeli IDF guards, most of them new trainees in their late teens and early 20s, whose mission it is to prevent a breaching of the borders.
Make no mistake. Successful penetration of Israel’s southern border would lead to imminent danger of Israeli civilian areas close to the border, as Hamas’ avowed aim is the killing of Israelis. It would also accelerate a mass rush of thousands more Gazans, thus leading to more loss of Palestinian life.
But back to the kites. No better way to frame this than to contrast Korschuk’s view of the kite as quintessential toy of children’s imagination creativity and commonality across cultures with the swastika kite / Molotov cocktail kite now a threat to Israeli life. No better way to portray a sick and sociopathic culture and ethos that rules and pervades Israel’s current adversary.
So spare me the sanctimony Ms. Natalie Portman, Hollywood’s apologist graduate of LI’s Solomon Schechter, Mr. Bernie sanders so proud of his Jewish origins, and Ms. Elizabeth Warren, spokeswoman for Progressive values, who appeal to the State of Israel to show restraint. The State of Israel remains responsible for the safety of civilian life on the Israeli side. Speak rather to the adults on the Gazan side and exhort their needed restraint. Appeal to their better nature and their compassion, and ask that they consider using their monies for building the land up that they now occupy, rather than making it a garrison state directed at killing Israelis. And even if you three don’t want to make demands of Hamas to reach across the border in friendship and compromise, at least appeal to them to not weaponize their children and now their children’s toys. The kite, a symbol of the right of kids' hopes and dreams to fly and soar is sacred. The kite and what it represents is sacred. Scold the Hamas and the Gazan parents for cynically quashing of their childrens' childhood. Hold them accountable for making children and teens combatants, which is against the Geneva convention. Hold them accountable for crimes against children, and for crimes against humanity.
SHAVUOTH’S FOUR QUESTIONS
Our Chasidic masters ask why we don’t recite a shehechiyanu prayer when we arrive at the moment of first counting the Omer toward the holiday of Shavuoth. They have a precise answer– Our mind is not in that moment, but in the moment fifty days later when the Torah is received! Following Pesach, a person does not remain in a radically free moment, but immediately, the heart and mind starts to clamor for direction– for parameters and for norms– setting the heart toward Shavuoth.
A second question might then be, why do modern Jews get this so wrong? It is ironic that so often in contemporary Jewish life we flock to the Seder, yet many run from Shavuoth! What a shame. Something is lost in the ritual wisdom of the Jewish calendar by not indulging in the rhythmic flow from freedom to structure.
A third question comes to mind. Why is it that the Torah doesn’t call Shavuoth “Chag Matan Torah,” the Day of the Giving of the Torah? An answer is that the Torah chiefly cultivates the quality of humility and does not call attention to itself. Another answer is that the Torah is perennially given…Its’ a question only of if and when it is accepted!
Finally, a question can be asked as to why, in the Bible, Shavuoth is called “atzeret,” which translates to "a cessation." One reason is that it is time to cease in labor and celebrate a convocation, a festival. But another is that we must cease our own internally generated mental and psychic states to allow ourselves to become a receptacle for Divine thought, for the heavenly word. It is interesting that on the Shabbat before Shavuoth, we always read from “Bamidbar,” the first portion in the Book of Numbers. “Bamidbar” literally means, “in the wilderness.” Say our sages, “a person must make themselves a wilderness in order to receive Torah,” for Torah is akin to water, which will flow to the lowest place. Removed of ego, allowing our inner spiritual landscape to be spare, is when we most absorb Torah wisdom.
This year, Shavuoth arrives early, on Saturday night, Sunday and Monday, May 19-21. Saturday night is our customary Tikkun Leil Shavuoth. Please come for an hour and study with Rabbi from “the wisdom of the ages” and “the wisdom of our sages!”
With and open heart and a “barren soul,” you will experience the spiritual reward of Shavuoth as we once again celebrate the anniversary of standing at Mt. Sinai and “accepting the Torah!”
It is hard to believe, but Pesach is upon us, with Yom HaShoah and Israel Independence Day soon to follow. We make our way on our calendar, from these holidays, through the counting period to Shavuoth. Their rapid fire succession has sparked these thoughts–
There is a wonderful hymn that we sing at the end of the Passover Seder, in the English, “Who knows One.” It teaches us of two and three and four, etc, just like the succession of holy times in our Jewish calendar. Let me explain. An insightful sage asks the question, "Why is it that the second verse and the tenth verse are so similar? After all, the refain for two tells us it's the two tablets of law, and the tenth verse, asking "who knows ten?" answers it's the Ten Commandments. Aren't they really the same thing? The tablets are the Ten Commandments! How is it that the author of the hymn could have been so repetitive?
The sage answers his question by saying that they are not the same. The two tablets of law refer not to the two tablets of one set, the Ten Commandments, but the two sets of tablets of law. The first tablets were smashed when Moses saw the golden calf. He went up again to get a second set! The second verse celebrates the phenomenon of second chances in Judaism–the ability of a people to recognize its mistakes and to get a second break from the God of Israel. God is always willing to give us a second chance.
Thinking more deeply about this, however, the coming of the Israelites into the land from Egypt was actually a second chance as well, for Abraham had dwelled there, but the people needed to pass through the “furnace of fire” to become a people of character and unity. Jacob went down to Egypt, a second return. But wait a minute, that too was followed by a blown chance. The first generation muffed it when they heeded the pessimism of the spies and were condemned to die in the desert. One could say that the second generation of freed Hebrews getting in was the third chance that God bestowed on them. Unfortunately, that effort, too, was lost when the Babylonians destroyed the first Temple. We were granted yet a fourth opportunity when Cyrus and Darius got us back to the Holy Land and we built yet a second national home. Alas, the Romans exiled the Judaen State in 70Ce and quashed its rebirth in 135 Ce, during the era of Bar Kochba.
Now along came a fifth chance, granted by Heaven. It started with a dream, in the book The Alte Neue Land, written by Theodore Herzl, more than a century ago. Many make the point that this effort was driven not by heaven above, but by people from below. The Zionist Movement organized, and a society in the making emerged by the hard work of statesmen, philanthropists, industrialists, scientists, dreamers and followers that made facts on the ground. Herzl said “if one wills it, it is not a dream.”
Now we stand 70 years in the aftermath of that fifth opportunity, granted to us by the dedicated, brazen and innovative Israeli population. Beset by adversity, Israel has become a military power and entrepreneurial, technological society. She has emerged as a world leader in medical, botanical, technological and scientific achievement. She stands poised to share her know-how with the world around her, and I believe is diplomatically prepared for compromise with a Palestinian leadership that will give up its dream of dismantling the Jewish State. This fifth opportunity is one that all of us should share by visiting Israel and supporting her. Israel has made mistakes, as has all nations. The rebirth of a national existence has its share of complicating elements and moral challenges. But we should be unbelievably proud of the State of Israel as she stands on the precipice of 70 years. May the Zionist State go from attainment to attainment, aided by the support of nations of good will. She has only just begun to share of her bounty and be the light unto nations that is her mission. (Stay tuned for more on the celebration of the 70th anniversary in the coming month).
Purim will soon be upon us, beginning February 28th, when we will read from the Megilla. We will also read early Thursday morning, and all are invited on Thursday, following the service, to join Rabbi at Bagel Boss in enjoying a bagel breakfast.
Drinking on Purim: do so with caution and moderation
It is well known that there is a statement in the Talmud that encourages Jewish folks to celebrate Purim not only with festive meal, but also with drinking, even to the point of intoxication. The way the Talmud puts it, Chayav Adam levasame, “A person is obligated to become inebriated to the point of not knowing (adsheloyada) the difference between “Cursed it is Haman and blessed Mordecai.” Some in the sources and codes through the ages have taken this at face value.
However, a closer look at sources shows this to be foolhardy and dangerous behavior. One sees, in the Esther story of the Megillah, the dangers of drinking. It is because Ahashverush is a partier and a lush that he cedes actual governing control to others, which almost dooms an entire population.
The story that follows Rabba’s suggestion in the Talmud to “party hearty” is what is most telling. Rabbah travels to celebrate Purim with Rabbi Zeira. In an inebriated state he slaughters Rabbi Zeira, presumably mistaking him for a cow! In the morning, when he realizes what he had done, he prays for Zeira's resuscitation, which miraculously happens. The next year Rabbah invites Rabbi Zeira over again. Rabbi Zeira, however, declines, saying “miracles don’t always happen.” Maybe this means that Rabbah almost killed his guest with strong drink, or it means he actually attacked him in a drunken state. Either way, we learn that drinking may well get you to the point where Haman wanted you–dead. The meaning of this follow up story is to drink, not recklessly, but in moderation. Either one can die of binge drinking or end up killing somebody.