Our view of the Galile

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Vayeishev- The Life of a Hero

Insights and Inspiration
from the
Holy Land
Rabbi Ephraim Schwartz
"Your friend in Karmiel"

November 25th  2010 -Volume I, Issue 8– 18th of Kislev 5771

Parshat VaYeshev

The Life of a Hero

There are battles and there are heroes. On my many pre-Aliyah trips to Israel we met many of them. Soldiers who had stared in the face of death all too often, immigrants who held true to their faith despite persecution and Holocaust survivors who journeyed to hell and back determined to rebuild all that the Nazis meant to destroy. Yet it was my visit to Chevron that gave me insight into the nature of the hero and the motivations that drive him.

I'll admit I was slightly prejudiced before we came. After all what type of person would raise their children under the constant fear of a Palestinian snipers bullet. Can there be any cause that justifies living under such circumstances? Reckless, militant idealists I thought. Yet upon meeting the soft spoken Simcha Hochbaum (who I recently spent Shabbos with together in New York of all places) my stereotypical media influenced picture rapidly began to crumble.

As Simcha showed us around the city it didn't feel like he was showing us his battleground. Rather what we saw was the incredible inspiration he felt from living in the same city his forefathers had millennia ago. As one who would show a visitor to Seattle its glorious Space needle and Mountain views, Simcha pointed out where King David’s palace was and the cave where our forefathers were buried. He spoke about the beauty of his life, his ability to study Torah and pray at holy sites in his backyard.
"But the danger!" my mind kept saying. "Is this really a life for you? For your family?" I finally asked.
Simcha’s response was one that still lingers in my mind and nibbles at the perceived reality that I have been living.

“It depends what you call life, my friend. We don't live here to fight or to die or even to make a point. We live here because if we wouldn't, 400,000 Jews who came to visit this year and pray at the graves of Avraham and Sarah would no longer be able to come (just look at the tomb of Yosef in Shechem).”
The Jewish people long ago learned that life is not about doing what is easiest or even what is most comfortable and secure. Life is about working and struggling to make the world a better place for others.”

This weeks Parsha in fact is the source of Simcha's life perspective, a perspective in fact that was learned by our forefather Yackov in the same city of Chevron I visited.

The portion begins
"And Yackov settled in the land his fathers had sojourned in the land of Canaan "
The Torah than goes on to describe the entire Yosef and his brothers debacle where Yackov’s favorite child was kidnapped and he was assumed by his father to have been killed. Rashi, quoting the Medrash noting the opening introduction to the story, sees a cause and effect.
"Jacob desired to settle in serenity and Hashem immediately brought upon him the tragedy of Yosef. It is not enough for the righteous that they have the world to come; they want to reside in serenity in this world as well!!”

The Rashi always troubled me. Is it such a bad thing to want to retire in peace? Remember this Yackov was not somebody who had an easy life. From a young age he was on the run from his murderous brother, constantly cheated by his trickster of a father in law, His daughter Dinah was kidnapped and his loving wife Rachel had recently had an untimely death. Is it a little too much to ask for a few years of peace and quiet?

Rav Dovid Povarski the Ponevezher Rosh yeshiva explains that our question comes from a flawed appreciation of what is the true essence of life and particularly the life of a Tzadik a righteous person. King Solomon tells us man was created to labor. Life is not about sitting back on a beach and enjoying a nice margarita (or latke). Nor is it about working hard to reach the point in time when I can have a comfortable retirement. Rather life is about a continuous process of struggle and growth. If one looks back upon their life their most powerful memories are those of challenges and hurdles they have overcome. For it is at those moments, when one has decidedly exercised their Divine nature of free will, to persevere and move forward in the face of adversity, that he has experienced the pinnacle of what life is. An animal can retire. A human must always grow further in his role as the partner of Hashem in Creation.

It is for that reason that Yackov had to suffer the misfortune of Yosef. Not as a punishment but rather as another opportunity to grow in his faith and establish within his children this lesson of life. It is this spiritual energy that still flows in the city of Chevron that gives his descendants today the courage and life force to preserve our holy cities for the benefit of those that still come to learn from them and to be inspired. We may not all have what it takes to live in Chevron, but we can all take our own times of challenge and struggle and put them into the context of Chevron, into the context of our father Yackov’s and lift ourselves up through it. We’re a nation of heroes. Chanukah is almost here when we recall our heroes of old. Think about their challenges. What they stood for. How they rose to their challenges. We can tap into that.. There are still heroes today. We can be one too.

Have a marvelous Shabbos,
Rabbi Ephraim Schwartz


And the original for those few left on the planet who haven’t see in it yet.


Friday, November 19, 2010

Vayishlach -Changing Names

Parshat Vayishlach

Changing Names

So there I was, in a small shul in Yerushalayim one Shabbos morning relaxing and even slightly dozing off. Just enjoying the much missed pleasure of not having to prepare or worry about reading Torah for my shul. Not having to worry about preparing incredibly inspirational insights each Aliyah as I used to do each week for my former TLC Shabbos morning davening. Ahhhh, it's good for a Rabbi not to have to be a Rabbi every once in a while. It's good to be able to just sit back in the back of the Shul and space out and doze like those old days, before God in His ultimate sense of humor decided that I should be blessed with a job that would never allow me that delicious guilty luxury again .When suddenly I was shaken out of my wonderful reverie by the Gabbai (sexton.. don't now if that word is any better? the guy in the shul who calls people up to the Torah) ) calling up to the Torah what most certainly  one of the strangest names I believe I have ever heard. I knew Hashem was just not going to let me rest. Oh Well.

Yaamod” he boomed, Hachatan Avraham Nimrod ben Avner Shlishi
Please Rise to the Torah The Groom Abraham Nimrod son of  Avner for the third Aliya”. As I turned to look at this groom with the strange name I saw a tall lanky scraggly bearded young man. Certainly he did not look very Nimrod-like( Nimrod being the name of the biblically fierce and ruthless king who had thrown Avraham into the fiery furnace for daring to express his belief in one God …y’know that all old church and state thing.).After every one clapped and sang mazel tov to the young groom I approached him and asked him how he had such a strange name. I was aware that there were many secular Jews in Israel who named their children Nimrod. I had even seen a responsa as to the permissibility of a Mohel ( ritual cirumciser) being a party to giving the child that name. Yet this was the first Avraham Nimrod I had ever met.
His response to me in a soft unassuming voice was that his name was partially from his mother and partially from himself, though entirely from Hashem. When I asked him what he meant, he explained. He had been raised in a non- religious home. Yet over the past few years he had recognized the incredible beauty and authenticity of his Jewish heritage that he had been missing all his life. As he pursued his journey in Judaism, drawing closer and closer to the ways of his ancestors, he said that a few strange things began to happen to him.

He will always remember, he remarked, how he was walking down the street and he was approached by a man who asked him if he was Avraham. When he responded that he wasn’t the man apologized and walked away. The next day thoughonce again as he was on the bus a lady approached him and told him that he reminded her of her nephew Avraham. When he got back to his apartment later that evening his roommate also out of the blue just said “You know Nimrod, you look more like an Avi lately I think I’ll start calling you Avi”.

While thinking about all those strange occurrences, he attended a class by his Rabbi in the local Beit Midrash. Interestingly enough it was a class on name. The Rabbi began to explain that in Jewish mystical thought it is said that all the people in Israel that are named Nimrod are really meant to be Abrahams. There are what he referred to, as the revealed names of people- Shem Haniglah, and the hidden names the Shem Hanistar; the latent essence of the person . All Nimrods, he suggested are the revealed name of the hidden, as of yet unrevealed, Avrahams that  have yet to come forth. It was at that moment that our young groom form Yerushalyaim resolved to become the Avraham that he was now.
“But why did you then keep the Nimrod name?” I asked. “Why not just become Avraham?” His incredibly inspiring response was that Nimrod the rebel is also still very much a part of him. Yet now he has taken that power and essence and directed it to rebel against ignorance and those things that would bring him further away from the most precious relationship he has; the one with his loving Father in heaven. He wasn't running away from his past; rather he was building upon it. He was making it holy.
This weeks Torah portion tells us of someone else that has a name change. We are told of the battle of our forefather Yaakov with the strange man/angel of Esau, in which Yaakov comes out victorious. The aftermath of that battle finds Yaakov asking the losing angel for a blessing. The angel though rather than bless Yaakov instead declares that Yaakov’s name is to be changed.

“Lo Yaakov Ye’Omer Od Shimcha Ki Im Yisroel Ki Sarisah Im Elohim Va’Anashim Va’Toochal- Your name Yaakov will no longer be said rather Yisrael for you have battled with Elohim-god and with man and were capable”.

The Talmud tells us that although there were previously other individuals, Avraham or Sarah, which had name changes that reflected their achieving a higher and more encompassing level. Yaakov though is different. Unlike the others, he is still referred to by his original name. Avram is never called that again. It is always Avraham. Sarai is forever Sarah.Yisrael and Yackov though are continuously used interchangeably. Perhaps as the commentaries point out this is because Yaakov’s transformation was one not of just leaving his previous essence and name. Rather it was the incorporation and uplifting of that potentially negative trait of Ekev – coming from the heel which he utilized to trick to receive the birthright and to confront head-on the challenges and battles that lay before him. He had maintained his Yaakov, yet he had also now revealed the latent Yisrael that has the power to battle and uplift it to Hashem; the power to become holy.

We all have strengths and weaknesses. Some of us are naturally kind and generous, others are meticulous and put together. Some of us a strong propensity to learn and grow for others however their strengths lay in their resolve to do the right things. Yet with all of our strengths come challenges. Are we kind at the expense of disconnecting from our family? Are we too caught up with order that we do not allow ourselves to enjoy the simpler things? Does our connection and resolve to do what we believe is right prevent us from stepping back and examining things from another’s perspective?
There is a little Nimrod in all of us. Yet we are the descendants of a Yackov that became a Yisrael. We possess that blessing that was given to our forefather so long ago, to always be able to take our Yackov and turn him into a Yisrael. Not by denying the Yackov, for as Avraham Nimrod said both of our essences come from Hashem. Yet it is certainly not by giving in to our negative selves as well. Rather it is only by confronting our challenges, learning and working on uplifting our power and energy to the highest most spiritual level can we then become the true chosen people- the Bnei Yisrael the Children of Israel. Perhaps than we may become as holy as those simple Chatanim -grooms that you some times bump into in the back of the shul on Shabbos in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Ephraim Schwartz


The Kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (known as the Ari HaKadosh) writes,-
"When a person is born and his father and mother give him his name...the Holy One puts into their mouth the particular name required for that soul."
If Jesus was a Jew, how come he has a Mexican first name?
Billy Connolly

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Parshat Toldos- Exchange Rate

Insights and Inspiration
 from the
 Holy Land

From Rabbi Ephraim Schwartz
 “Your friend in Karmiel”
November 5th  2010 -Volume I, Issue 6– 28th of Cheshvan 5771

Parshat Toldot

Exchange Rate

One of the most confusing adjustments for Americans who have made Aliyah, is the whole conversion thing that we have to start learning how to do when we get here. No, I don’t mean the Who is a Jew and who has the right to decide and make someone a Jew to debate. I’ll leave that to greater Rabbis than myself to figure out. Nor do I mean the 110-220 voltage on all your appliances that every Oleh goes through leaving a few precious burnt out electronics in its wake. (For us it was a video monitor player L… seems Hashem didn’t want our kids to watch Uncle Moishy anymore.. and I’m not complaining.) Rather, I refer to that impossible for me to get straight Feet/Meters, Gallons/Liters, forget about Celsius/ Fahrenheit calculations that we who were raised in the obstinate world of the U.S. I’ll-be –darned- if -I –do- things –the- rest-of-the-world does- A., and are too old to remember our grade school lessons of how to convert these measurements, fumble around with daily. And although most Israelis are quite helpful in regards to speaking English, they are not really any help when you ask them how many miles per gallon a car get ( a difficult enough cheshbon) or how many feet something is. For a guy like me who doesn’t even like to ask directions. I haven’t even bothered to give those conversations a try. So instead, I either don’t buy stuff or just pay anyways and hope I got it right.

Yet the calculation that I can’t seem to avoid, no matter how much I would like to, is the Dollar/Shekel exchange rate. As much as I am happy to be an Israeli,  I just can’t seem to think in Shekels. In America I know a box of cereal is $2.00, Milk 1. 79 a gallon, gas 2.85.Here though, its 20 shekel for cereal, gas is like 6.50 shekel a liter (which is a double calculation) and fruits and veggies are 8-12 shekel a kilo and I have no idea what any of these are costing me… Simple shopping trips break me out in cold sweat. I feel like I’m back in 5th grade math class and I’m failing. I know eventually I will begin to start thinking in Shekels rather than dollars, but it is excruciatingly frustrating (and expensive) to keep having to go to the cash register in the supermarket without any clue of what the stuff in my wagon is going to cost me.

Which of course brings us to this weeks Torah portion J. This week the Torah shares with us the sad (for him-happy for us) story of someone else who sold something without knowing its value. The Torah tells us the famous story of the older twin brother Eisav who came back hungry and thirsty from a long hard day out in the fields. Arriving home he smells some red red bean stuff cooking on the stove and begs his brother Yaakov to pour some down his throat. Yaakov, ever the good Jewish business man, saw an opportunity that could not be missed. He offered Eisav that bowl of chulent for the small price of his birthright. Eisav- seemingly the more sympathetic figure over here- probably threw up his hands, as I have when I just want to get something quick and can’t be bothered to haggle over the price or figure out its value, and told him to just take it. Yet the verse tells us that he did something worse. He scorned the birthright. He said “What do I need it for?” And in that statement he forfeited his right to it.

Now for many of us when we first come upon this story, it seems kind of not nice. Poor hungry Eisav gets tricked out of his birthright by his shrewd brother Yaakov. Haven’t we been taught to feed a hungry person? Why would Yackov prey on his brother’s moment of need and lack of appreciation of the birthright to get it from him? Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz asks an even stronger question. In truth why is the sale of the birthright even a valid sale? A good Jewish attorney could certainly argue that it was under duress, or perhaps that Eisav didn’t know the value of what he was offering. (Too bad Eisav lived before Jewish lawyers).Is this even a legally binding sale in such a situation?

He answers with an insightful and powerful lesson. He suggests that the true value of ones birthright is whatever you deem it to be worth.  Yackov knew his older brother was someone who valued the here and now. He didn’t think for tomorrow. When Eisav came home that evening and demanded his grub. Yackov tried to assess and motivate Eisav to take stock of his life. “Will you sell me your birthright Eisav?” You’re a Firstborn. It is a responsibility; a privilege. Are you willing to trade a life of meaning, of carrying on the legacy of our forefathers and being the progenitor of the exalted Nation that will bring Hashem to this world for a bowl of soup?” Yackov wasn’t trying to trick Eisav. Very much the opposite, he was trying to get him to get him to recognize what he had in what is sometimes the only way we realize it; by standing on the threshold of almost losing it.

It was a question that should have woken Eisav up. But it didn’t. Eisav was dealing in a world of Shekels rather than dollars. His currency was soup and what make me feel good today. The ephemeral, the spiritual the big picture and reality of what we are meant to accomplish in this world were all measurements and calculations of a different plane of existence. And Eisav didn’t want any part of it. Not only did he trade the birthright but he rejected its value. He was satisified living in his world and wanted nothing to do with the Birthright one. That being the case, Rav Chaim suggests, than that it is all it was truly worth. A birthright in the hand of Eisav without any eternal value is not more thatn a bowl of soup.

There is a story that is told that an individual once came to the Chafetz Chaim and asked him why everything was so difficult and why he had so many challenges. Couldn’t Hashem just give him reward for one or two of the mitzvoth and good deeds that he had done in his life and alleviate some of his tzoris. Perhaps he might be able to cash in a
Shabbos observance here and there for an easier livelihood, a little visiting the sick for some better health or maybe even some Torah study he had done for a more relaxed and  less stressful existence, The Chafetz Chaim took his hand so gently and told him with a parable how his question was so very far off base. Imagine a person came to a supermarket and asked to purchase a stick of gum for 10,000 dollars. Do you think that the owner of the store would actually ever give him the gum? He would laugh at him. You’re paying with the wrong currency. Do you not appreciate how much 10,0000 dollars is and how little a stick of gum is in exchange for that. What are your exchange rates? He couldn’t purchase it if he tried. Each store he would wander in would suspect that it was counterfeit monopoly money (which incidentally is what shekels look and feel like sometimes) and laugh him right out. You have to know the value of things before you enter the store and even more importantly you have to know how much what your carrying in your pocket is worth before you offer to spend it.

In a similar vein, said the the Chafetz Chaim, is mitzvot. Will you trade the eternal conncetion with the Almighty for a little better house or a little more in your bank account?  Do you have any idea of how valuable each moment you learn is ? Each mitzvah you do? Will you trade them for a bowl of soup? If so than what are your mitzvoth really worth.

In each of our daily lives we all make decisions about where and what we are pursuing and exchanging our most precious gift of time with. Do we waste it and idle it away or perhaps we try to maximize it and pursue our birthright. When we have a chance to deal in things of real value; helping out another, visiting someone who needs a smile, picking up a Torah book or joining a class. Are we trading away those opportunities for soup, for shekels and kilos? Or do we know what the exchange rate is that we should really be pursuing. Hashem has given us the most precious currency around, our Torah and our mitzvoth. Let us make sure to never allow ourselves to get gypped at that final cash register. It’s time to start learning the real rates.

 Have a Super Shabbos that is truly utilized to the max,
Rabbi Ephraim Schwartz
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I leave you with a


Visited the kotel yesterday with my son Yonah  when we were greetd by hundreds of Ethipoian jews dancing and singling like crazy. Seems that it was an Ethoipian Jewish holiday that they claim dates back to the time of Nechemia call SIGID. Here’s a little clip of my Youtube post followed by a description of the holiday.
A BBC video on Ethiopian holiday

Mattisyahu  on SIGID festival
 and one more live view..

and in honor of the Holiday I share with you the thoughts of a prominent Black (although not Ethipoian) leader.
This was written by a black gentleman in Texas  ..
When U Black, U Black 
When I was born, I was BLACK ,
When I grew up, I was 
When I went in the sun, I 
stayed BLACK
When I got cold, I was 
When I was scared, I was 
When I was sick, I was 

And when I die, I'll still be 
 NOW, You 'white' folks....
When you're born, you're PINK,
When you grow-up, you're 
When you go in the sun, you get 
When you're cold, you turn 
When you're scared, you're 
When you get sick, you're 

When you bruise, you turn 
And when you die, you look 
So who y'all be callin'


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