What the Israeli Mossad and the Holiday of Shavuot Have in Common, By Rabbi Elchanan Poupko

 In the recent few weeks, Mossad operations have generated considerable attention. From lifting hundreds of kilograms of the most classified materials in the heart of Teheran by dozens of agents to the mysterious assassination of a Hamas terror engineer deep in Indonesia, the Mossad is in the headlines.

So, consider the following description:

Job Description: N/A

Mission:N/A

Date:N/A

Location: N/A

Sounds like a standard description of a Mossad operation, doesn’t it? And yet, it also happens to be the description of the holiday of Shavuot. Shavuot is the only Jewish holiday for which the Torah does not give a set date, does not oblige individuals in any Mitzvahs, and does not inform us about the specific spiritual mission of the holiday.

The Torah mysteriously states:” From the day after the Sabbath… count off seven full weeks. Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, and then present an offering of new grain to the Lord . . . On that same day you are to proclaim a sacred assembly and do no regular work. This is to be a lasting ordinance for the generations to come, wherever you live. (Leviticus 23: 15-21)

The Torah gives no date, just tells us to count 50 days. And when do we begin? What day after the Sabbath were we to count from? This mystery erupted into a full-scale fight between the Pharisees and the seduces as traditional Jews interpreted “the Sabbath” as referring to Passover while the seduces believed it was referring to the actual Shabbat following Passover. To make things worse we don’t count 50 days. We count 49 and celebrate Shavuot on the 50th day.

Furthermore, in the Shavuot prayers, the holiday is described as “zman Mattan Toratenu-the time we received the Torah”. Where was that? We know where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are buried, we know where Rachel is buried, we know where the Temple stood, where Jericho, Shechem, and even Mount Carmel are—we don’t know where Mount Sinai is. Not a clue. Why all this Mystery?

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Passover: Why Did the Israelites go to Egypt to Begin With? By Rabbi Elchanan Poupko

Nothing is more central to Jewish identity as much as the Exodus from Egypt. Every Shabbat, Holiday—and even every day—we mention the exodus from Egypt. On Passover, we zoom in exclusively on leaving Egypt. All of this begs for the obvious question: why were we in Egypt to begin with? Why did Hashem place us there to begin with? Furthermore, how should we view the time before the Exodus—yetziat Mitzrayim? Were we “serving time” being punished in Egypt, or were we accomplishing something there?

While there are varying opinions in the Talmud as to why the Jewish people ended up in Egypt, all agree that this needs explanation.

“Rabbi Avahu said in the name of rabbi Elazar: why was Avraham Avinue punished and his sons became slaves in Egypt for two hundred and ten years? Because he made [mundane] use of Torah scholars….Shmuel says: it is because he questioned God’s ways when asking “how can I know I will inherit the land” [1] Rabbi Yochanan says it was because he prevented some people from coming into the divine faith (when he conceded to the king of Sedom and allowed him to take back his people to Sedom”.[2]

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 Why Mishloach Manot is Why We Celebrate Purim, by Rabbi Elchanan Poupko

The Mitzvah of Mishloach Manot has become synanomous with the word Purim, but why? Why is this mitzvah so unique to Purim. “Unique?” you may ask, and the answer is yes. Other mitzvot associated with Purim, can be found in elsewhere in the mitzvot, Matanot la’evyonim the mitzvah of tzdakah, can be found in many others contexts, a seuda—the obligation to have a meal—can be found on Shabbat, Yom Tov, and more, even to obligation to read a Megilah, according to many can be found on Pesach, Sukoot and more, what we are left with is Mishloach Manot. Mishloach Manot remains a mitzvah that is uniquely synanimous with Purim in a way that no other aspect of this day shares. Why?

In order to understand this Mitzvah that is of the essence of Purim, we need to understand what the essence of the holiday of Purim is all about and why we celebrate Purim to begin with. There is a famous story[1] about a person who showed up in a Yeshiva in Jerusalem, and said that he had decided to become religious and study Torah. The rabbi, dean of that Teshiva, asked him what had inspired this idea. The young man shared with the rabbi that he is an avid mountain-bike rider. One day, when riding on the edge of the mountain, on the verge of a cliff, his mountain-bike slipped and he began rolling towards the edge of the cliff. This life was about to end in a moment. Suddenly, his bike his a small bush and his bike stopped.

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Hannukah: Why a Local Military Victory, and a Small Jar of Oil Continue to Inspire Millions Around the World to This Day, By Rabbi Elchanan Poupko

Hannukah: Why a Local Military Victory, and a Small Jar of Oil Continue to Inspire Millions Around the World to This Day

Why celebrate Chanukah? It is easy to understand why we celebrate Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, and even Purim; all of these holidays mark an even that has a direct impact on who we are. And yet, Chanukah marks two separate miracles, neither of which have any impact on us. The Maccabee revolt in 163 BCE lasted hardly until the year 63 BCE when the Romans occupied Judea, and cannot be considered something that we still benefit from. The oil lasting eight days? Indeed a miraculous event, but in what way does it impact us today? So why celebrate more than 2150 years later when the events it marks have little to no impact on us?

Commentaries wonder furthered: why it is that Jews around the world light the appropriate amount of candles every day of Chanukah despite the fact that Jewish law mandates only the lighting of one candle per day, per household? The stipulation to light more than one candle a day is only for the Mehadrin, those who choose to go the extra mile who light one candle for every member of the household. And so, the common Jewish custom[1] is that we light candles corresponding to the number of days of Chanukah, AND corresponding to the number of family member, something that is far from required but is rather a way of over-observing the laws of Chanukah, why?

To understand this we need to look at the historical background of Chanukah. The Jewish people have returned from their exile in Babylon and have lost the blessing of prophecy not long before. The Jewish people find themselves in a situation similar to those described by the Prophet Amos (8:10) not long before:” Behold, days are coming, says the Lord God, and I will send famine into the land, not a famine for bread nor a thirst for water, but to hear the word of the Lord.” The Jewish people felt spiritually abandoned by the disappearance of prophecy and clear leadership.

It is in that time that Hellenistic culture, with all of it’s power, sweeps through their country. For the first time the Jews meet an occupier, that admires their culture. The Greeks admired the Jews as a “nation of philosophers”. The Greeks do not aspire to destroy the Jewish Temple, just to modernize it. They do not reject the rights of Jews as citizens, quite to contrary, they seek to “empower” the Jews, educate them, and help them understand the beauty of Hellenistic culture. The Greeks are supersessionists, not seeking to uproot all that is Jewish.

And indeed, many Jews follow this trend. They became Hellenized, they began worshiping Greek gods, they adopted Greek culture. You did not need to reject your nationality or history to become Hellenized, you just needed to adapt.  It was the first time someone invaded, not the Jewish heartland, but the Jewish heart. It was the first time another culture has made it’s inroads with the language Jews understood better than any language: books and ideas.

Violating the Temple was just another example of what the Greek invasion looked like. It was not about destroying the Temple, it was about “modernizing”[2] it to worship Zeus. It was not about taking away the Menorah and its oil, it was about taking away its meaning and purity.

And so, the first Maccabee revolt and its success, did not only symbolize a military victory, but it signified an ability to maintain the Jewish spirit, in the face of cultural supersessions. It was the first time the Jewish people had experienced and invasion of the spirit, and were triumphant.

This also answers the question discussed by so many commentaries, why it is that Maccabees insisted on searching of a pure jar of oil, despite the law that permits using an impure one in the absence of pure oil? This is because the Maccabees were not looking for a compromise of the spirit; they were seeking its victory.

This is also why it is common custom for Jews around the world to follow the Mehadrin min HaMehadrin custom of lighting one candle per person per night and not just follow the strict letter of the law. On a holiday symbolizing the victory of the spirit and our ability to maintain our uniqueness in the face of the most intimate threats, we rejoice in going the extra mile, in our ability to serve Hashem in the most dedicated way, despite having ways out and the ability to compromise.

This may also be the reason that of all Jewish holidays, Chanukah is also the only one in which there is no instituted food related celebration. Yes, of course there are the latkes, sufganiyot, and more, but there is no obligation to celebrate with a celebratory meal. In a holiday that signifies the victory of the spirit we find nourishment in the most metaphysical element we can see: pure light. Happy Chanukah!

 

https://mspace.lib.umanitoba.ca/bitstream/handle/1993/31671/Arksey_Keaton.pdf?sequence=3&isAllowed=y

http://lib.cet.ac.il/pages/item.asp?item=14316

http://www.pnimi.org.il/holidays/chanukah/198-rectifying-greek-philosophy

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Shulchan Aruch OC 671:2

[2] Special thanks to rabbi Uri Sharki for his eye opening explanation of this matter.

Tisha Be’Av and Why We Need to Forget About the Romans, By Rabbi Elchanan Poupko

“When bad things happen to a group, its members can ask one of two questions: “What did we do wrong?” or “Who did this to us?” The entire fate of the group will depend on which it chooses.”(Lord Jonathan Sacks)

It was the great Roman empire and Titus Vespasian who destroyed the Beit Hamikdash almost two thousand years ago, except it wasn’t and it would help us a great deal to understand that they were not the ones to destroy the Beit Hamikdash.

Yes, this does refer in part to the rabbinic teaching (Talmud Bavli, Yuma 9a) that says:” why was the first Temple destroyed? Because of three things it had: idle worship, idolatry, and bloodshed. Why was the second Temple destroyed? Because of baseless hate(“sinat chinam”) that they had among them.” These words bringing Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, the great founder of the first modern day Yeshiva system, to write[1] that it is only after the Jews had destroyed the Temple’s spiritual infrastructure that God allowed Titus to come along and destroy the remaining physical representation of what the Temple was really all about.

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Ruth, Shavuot, and the Power of ‘Yes We Can,’ By Rabbi Elchanan Poupko

While being a potential bestseller and most viewed on Netflix, the story of a Moabite princess who took upon herself poverty and estrangement in following her ex-mother in law into a strange land, would not be your predicted required text for a solemn day marking receiving the Torah at Saini. And yet, it is. Why did the rabbis Institute reading the book of Ruth on Shavuot and how did this once-impoverished-immigrant become the Royal Matriarch of the most powerful bloodline the Jewish people have ever seen–the House of David.

To properly understand this, we zoom out on the journey, which brought Ruth to the land of Israel. Midrashic sources teach that when Elimelekh, Ruth’s father in law, left Israel, he left in a cowardly manner[1]. Hunger and poverty descended on the land of Israel. Elimelekh, a wealthy man, did not want to hear more beggars knocking on his door nor did he want any more hungry neighbors dwindling his supply of food. He packed up and left for Moav. Elimelekh, the philanthropist and community leader, leaves his townsmen at the peak of their most difficult moment. Even as famine and poverty strike, he dives for the exit.

After Elimelekh’s family arrives in Moav and his two sons marry girls from among the Moabite aristocracy, he and his tow sons die in Moav. His two daughters in law, Ruth, and Orpah face a similar, yet far more difficult, choice than the choice Elimelekh faced not long ago. They can leave their old and impoverished ex-mother in law to her own fate of poverty and loneliness, or they can risk joining that very same fate, by joining her. Ruth and Orpah now can either remain with their well-established families in Moav, or they can join an old (former) mother in law who can guarantee only poverty and loneliness.

The right choice seems obvious—leave Naomi. And yet, unlike her sister-in-law Orpah, Ruth decides to stay with Naomi. She accepts Judaism, its commandments, difficulties, and begins traveling with Naomi to an unknown land—the land of Israel.

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Chanukah and The World’s Oldest Love-Hate Relationship, by Rabbi Elchanan Poupko

How do the Greeks go down in Jewish history books? Are they the “good guys” or the “bad guys?” A look at the Chanukah story offers a seemingly obvious answer: the Greeks were the bad guys and the Maccabees were the good guys. However, when taking a closer look at Jewish historical and philosophical sources, the matter is not as simple as it may seem. The clash between Jewish and Greek cultures seems to be so great, only because of the profound similarities. When thinking of the relationship between the Jewish and Greek culture, one cannot help but think of Sigmund Freud’s words: “not infrequently…friend and enemy have coincided in the same person.”

The rabbis teach us that while it is forbidden to write a kosher Torah scroll in any language other than its original Hebrew, there is one exception to that – one can write it in Greek. The rabbis (Megilah 9b) learn this from the verse “May God expand Japheth, and may He dwell in the tents of Shem” (Bereishit 9:27). The rabbis understand this to be teaching that “the beauty of Yefet—Greece—may dwell in the tents of Shem (the Jews).” The fact that the only two languages in which a kosher Torah can be written are Hebrew and Greek, speaks volumes of the place of importance that Greece holds in Judaism.

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