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Sunday, March 28, 2010

An Impossible Choice

On Friday, two IDF soldiers died in a fire exchange with Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza strip.

One of them was Major Eliraz Peretz z”l, a 32-year-old deputy commander in the Golani brigade, and father of 4 children. Tragically, his older brother, Uriel, died in combat in Lebanon 12 years ago. His father could not bear the loss and died a few years later. I cried this morning listening to the mother, Mirian, speak on the radio. A modern-day Job.

Eliraz Peretz

The law in Israel is that if a new recruit wishes to join a combat unit, and his family has already suffered a loss (a father or a brother), then the family, typically the mother, needs to approve his wish in writing. In other words, if a family member has already died in the line of duty, then the family has the right to veto the decision of another family member to join a combat unit.

This law must change. There are only a handful of “veto” cases each year and the reason is simple. The mother usually has no power to decide against her son’s wishes. If the son decides to follow in his father’s or brother’s footsteps – which is usually the case – then the pressure against the mother is unbearable. A child of 17 or 18 years is not mature enough to see the possible ramifications of his decision on the family and his desire to be a combat soldier will drive him to force his mother to sign the release form. No mother can stands in the way of her son’s wishes, especially when she’s already lost a son.

The state is acting unfairly in passing the decision on to the mother. Instead, the law should state that if a family member has died in the line of duty, then no other family member can join a combat unit. Period. No exceptions. He (or she) will need to fulfill his military duty by serving elsewhere in the army, where his chances of survival are infinitely higher. The burden of a double death in the family is one no family should be exposed to.

Monday, March 15, 2010

43 Minutes

Does the Obama administration understand the complexities of the Middle East?

This question rises again to the fore following the current “unprecedented crisis” between the US and Israel, after the allegedly unintentional gaffe made by Israel during Joe Biden’s visit. (If you’ve been sleeping this past week: the municipality of Jerusalem approved a permit for building new apartments in East Jerusalem, without the government’s knowledge and without paying attention to the presence of a US eminence in the country).

Apparently, Hillary Clinton held PM Netanyahu on the phone for 43 minutes, berating him for allowing this to happen on his watch. 43 minutes! I’m not sure even Bill received such a long earful from Hillary after the Monica Lewinsky affair. Can the US administration be serious about this? Do they really think that the entire peace process is dependent on a permit for some apartments in Jerusalem? Is this really the most pressing issue, one worth 43 minutes of Hillary’s valuable time.

It is fast becoming apparent that Obama has no clue when it comes to the Middle East. His infamous appeasement speech to the Arab world in Cairo was a bad omen. Now it seems that he is indeed clueless, believing that articulate speeches can solve centuries-old problems as if by magic. Instead of dealing with the real issues at hand (Iran, anyone?), he is busy peddling useless “proximity talks” between Israel and a powerless Palestinian leadership. And he allows his Secretary of State to whine about some apartments in East Jerusalem that are years away from being built (as if anyone in his right mind truly believes that area of Jerusalem is ever going to be part of a Palestinian state). How so very frustrating, even if not entirely surprising.

bibi hillary

Bibi explains something to Hillary


As a small consolation, here is the transcript of the Hillary-Bibi 43 minute conversation (courtesy of The North Star National). Look up the Yiddish if you’re not familiar with it:

CLINTON:  “Bibi, this is Hillary.”

NETANYAHU:  “Hillary, Bubbala!  How are you?”

CLINTON:  “Don’t you ‘Bubbala’ me, Bibi.  What’s going on with this announcement of 1600 new apartments while Joe’s in your country?  That’s just a little in-your-face even for you.”

NETANYAHU:  “Oh, that.  That was a little unintentional, technical mistake.  A misunderstanding.  Come now.  You must know I don’t get every little building permit reported to me.  It’s low-level bureaucratic stuff.”

CLINTON:  “An unintentional mistake.  A misunderstanding.  Right.  That announcement was a deliberate insult.  A humiliation for the Vice President and an affront to the President and to the people of the United States.”

NETANYAHU:  “Hillary, please!  Look, you have to know this was done in all innocence.  It was regrettable, and we recognize it was hurtful.  After all these years, you more than anyone would recognize that our connection with the American people and our respect for the president are important components of Israel’s security and foreign relations.”

CLINTON:  “Don’t try to butter me up with diplomat talk.  This was a calculated effort to undermine the peace talks with the Palestinians we’re trying to advance.  You’ve weakened trust with us, and you and your government are in serious trouble.”

NETANYAHU:  “Hillary, you have to believe I had nothing to do with it.  Look, you know we have this Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, who’s new to these things.  He’s going to get a bissel fardrayt from time to time and make these little goofs.”

CLINTON:  “‘Little goofs?’  You’re striking right at the heart of the Obama Administration’s Middle East policy and plan for peace.”

NETANYAHU:  “Policy and plan for peace?  Whatever could you be referring to?”

CLINTON:  “You know full well.  The President has made it publicly clear that the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements, and that they have to stop.”

NETANYAHU:  “Oh, yes, of course.  Now I remember.  That little diplomacy shtick Mr. Nobel Peace Prize has going.  How could we have forgotten that even-handed Cairo speech, and this well-thought-out, impartial, equitable plan our neutral broker Barack Hussein has come up with?  Let’s see … we sink our government and tacitly abandon our rights to territory by agreeing to freeze settlements in exchange for … what?”

CLINTON:  “Don’t get cute with me, Bibi.  A freeze would be a show of faith in the process.”

NETANYAHU:  “Oh, faith in the process.  The process!  How silly of me!  So much the process has brought us.  Intifadas with suicide bombers blowing themselves up in our buses, markets and restaurants.  Missiles raining down on children and bubbas from Gaza, from which we of our own accord withdrew.  United Nations investigations and resolutions against us for defending ourselves.  Here we have a United States president buttering up the Palestinians and turning against his friends, and we wouldn’t want to threaten the process with a few apartments in an area of our ancient capital not even claimed by the other side.  You’re so right.  I must apologize for damaging the process.”

CLINTON:  “Bibi, you’re trying my patience.  We’re expecting you and your government to take bold, specific actions to show your commitment to the relationship with the United States and to the peace talks.”

NETANYAHU:  “Hillary, I assure you we are willing to show the same commitment to the President’s peace talks that he has offered to the vital interests of the state of Israel.”

CLINTON:  “And what would that be?”

NETANYAHU:  “It’s another technical, diplomatic term:  does the word bupkes mean anything to you?”

Friday, March 05, 2010

Ki Tissa - Holiness in Stones

ויהי כאשר קרב אל המחנה וירא את העגל ומחולות, ויחר אף משה וישלך מידיו את הלוחות וישבר אותם תחת ההר

(שמות לב, יט)

The story of the exodus of the People of Israel from Egypt is reaching its denouement: the giving of the Torah. Moshe just spent 40 days and nights with God and is on his way down the mountain to give the Torah, the two tablets, to the People. When he sees what the People are up to – dancing around a golden calf and calling it God – this is what happens:

And it came to pass, as soon as he came nigh unto the camp, that he saw the calf and the dancing; and Moses' anger waxed hot, and he cast the tables out of his hands, and broke them beneath the mount (Shemot 32, 10)

Imagine the shock. Today, should a Torah scroll fall to the floor, a jarring jolt of horror strikes the congregation (and in certain conditions, we need to fast). So Moshe breaking the actual tablets written in the hand of God seems be an act beyond belief, a surreal image. What brought Moshe to commit such an unbelievable deed?

The Midrashim offer three different explanations:

1. Moshe wanted to protect the People of Israel. The Midrash likens the covenant between God and Israel to a betrothal. So by breaking the tablets, Moshe avoids Israel being punished as a married woman (eshet ish) who has strayed. The same idea is conveyed by another famous Midrashic saying: מוטב יהיו שוגגין ואל יהיו מזידיןBy not knowing the law, Israel would be erring in practicing idolatry, but at least they would not be performing a sin willfully, out of knowledge.

2. Moshe is frustrated. With the culmination of his efforts in Egypt and in the desert rendered to nothing, one can understand the irritation and the need to vent anger. The Midrash brings opposing views as to whether God agreed to or rejected this behaviour of Moshe, but regardless of His acceptance, Moshe’s act was one borne out of pure disappointment.

3. God commanded Moshe. A diametrically opposed view in the Midrash has God commanding Moshe to break the tablets, as it is inconceivable for a human being, even Moshe, to decide by himself to destroy God’s word. Certainly not as a frustrated act in a moment of anger.

These are all acceptable explanations of Moshe’s breaking the tablets. But there remains a fundamental question: how do we reconcile the view that Moshe acted of his own accord (whether out of anger or to protect the People of Israel) with the view that it is not possible for a human being to perform such an act without God’s permission? Why did Moshe not get punished for breaking the tablets?

Another Midrash offers us a way to solve this question. The writing on the tablets was God’s writing, and the letters hang miraculously in the air so that the commandments could be read from both sides of the stones. When Moshe saw the sin of the golden calf, the letters “flew away” from the tablets and vanished. All Moshe was holding now was a pair of empty stones. One explanation is that Moshe lost all strength while witnessing the People of Israel sinning, and the empty tablets simply fell from his hands.

But I another explanation. After the letters vanished, the tablets were nothing but stone. Devoid of the word of God, they were devoid of any holiness. Moshe breaks the tablets willfully and in anger, but in doing so he is not breaking the word of God; he is merely casting down a pair of empty, worthless stones. With God having removed Himself as a result of the People’s unwillingness to accept the Torah, there is no kedushah left.

This is a great lesson for us. God’s presence and holiness are there only if we act properly and earn our right to deserve them. Kissing barren stones in the hope their supposed holiness will protect us, rather than working on improving our ways (which is much harder!), is an act devoid of any religious meaning.

This idea for this Torah Thought is from R. Lichtenstein.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Brave New World

I’ve been holding back on getting a Kindle for the last year or so. I wasn’t sure the technology was there yet and I was afraid to be disappointed. But last week I decided to stop procrastinating and dove right in. I am now the proud owner of a brand new Kindle!



So far I’ve only read one book on the Kindle and I must say I am pleasantly surprised. It has the main disadvantage I expected: missing the feeling of holding a book in your hands and flipping the pages. But the reading experience is better than I expected. It’s slim and light, yet sturdy enough to hold (especially with the cover). And the “virtual ink” technology is truly amazing, much better than reading off an LCD screen. Not to mention the fact that if you think about a book, you can have it in your hands two minutes later.

In short, first impression is that this is going to be a winner for me.