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Life Lessons with Judy Simon
Before making Aliyah to Israel, Tzvi Fishman was a Hollywood screenwriter. He has co-authored 4 books with Rabbi David Samson, based on the teachings of Rabbi Kook, Eretz Yisrael, Art of T'shuva, War and Peace, and Torat Eretz Yisrael.
Some people think that bloggers have skins as thick as water buffalos, but bloggers are people too. Bloggers have feelings like everyone else. Over the course of my blogging career, I have absorbed as many blows as Joe Frazier in the “Thriller in Manilla” but I have kept on my feet, punching away, believing that the message of Torat Eretz Yisrael is more important than my personal feelings.
Now the accusation: TZVI, YOU HAVE TWISTED THE TRUTH AS USUAL!
This hurts me deeply. After all, I, and my fellow distinguished bloggers at INN, sacrifice our time, without remuneration, to present the real side of Judaism from the Holy Land. I always strive to be truthful. If I could choose a motto for my blog, it would be: “The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”
So when someone accuses me of twisting the truth of the Torah this hurts me deeply.
Even before I discovered the Torah, I always tried to be honest. One of the stories I most remember from my childhood is the legend of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree (which would be a big no-no for a Jew in Israel.)
That’s why, when I began reading the Torah and started to become religious and pray, I took the words to mean exactly what they said, without twisting them this way or that to fit what was comfortable for me.
For instance, every day before reading the Shema, we ask G-d to “shatter the yoke of the gentiles from around our necks and speedily bring us upright into our Land.”
So that’s what I asked G-d to do literally, just as the words say, to bring me to Israel. Is there any other way to understand this verse? Isn’t that what it says? Is there something “twisted” in my interpretation of this?
Also, in the Amidah prayer, we say, “Blow the great shofar for our freedom, and upraise a banner to gather in our exiles, and gather us together speedily from the four corners of the world to our Land.”
Wanting to be as honest as could with G-d, when I said the words of this blessing, I also yearned to be including in the great ingathering of Jews to Israel.
Now I also learned that when a Jew prays for something, he doesn’t sit idly around and wait for it to happen, he exerts himself in that direction and trusts that G-d will provide the means to bring the request about. For instance, we don’t just pray for a livelihood, we also go out and work. We don’t just pray for sustenance, we buy food and eat it. We don’t just pray for recovering from an illness, we go to the doctor and follow his instructions in order to get better, knowing that G-d works healing through doctors and medicines when he sees fit to do so. We don’t just making a blessing on the lulav, we pick it up and wave it. It’s exactly the same with the ingathering of Jews to Eretz Yisrael. We don’t wait for G-d to bring us home to Israel on a magic carpet, we buy a ticket and board a plane. That’s Judaism.
So, since our prayers tell us to go to Israel, I went to Israel. Isn't that why we pray - to achieve the things we pray for? Now, will someone please explain to me – how is this twisting the truth?
Speaking about cherry trees – tomorrow night is Tu B’Shvat, the New Year for trees in Israel. Since I have lots to do to get ready for the joyous party we always have at our house, with dozens of varieties of fruits from our beloved Holy Land, and Torah discussions, and wonderful Israeli wine, I don’t know if I will find the time to write a holiday blog, so let me wish you all a Happy New Year!
May the words of your prayers and blessings always be true!
We learn a very interesting thing from this week’s Torah portion. Among the different types of personalities, and personality disorders, there are “complainers.” There are people who complain about everything. Wherever they are, whatever they’re doing, they always have the need to complain. “This is no good, and that’s no good. This should be done that way, and that should be done this way.”
We meet them right after our incredibly miraculous salvation from the armies of Egypt, as their bodies are still drowning in the sea, and our spontaneous song of joy is still echoing over the wilderness mountains, the people started complaining. Not all the people. The “complainers.” First they complained that there wasn’t any fresh water – as if He who split the sea five minutes ago couldn’t give them a little fresh water! Then they complained against Moshe and Aharon, finding fault with the greatest leaders in the world! Then they complained about the menu, which ever since has become a very Jewish thing to do. Then they complained again about the lack of water, accusing Moshe of trying to kill them! A little later on, they are going to start complaining about having to live in Eretz Yisrael.
I’m sure you are familiar with the type. There are no shortage of them amongst INN talkbackers. Surely you’ve noticed. Some talkbackers always complain. “This in Israel is no good, and that’s no good, this should be better, and that should be better, and on and on and on and on.” It may be that in the past I got down on them, but now I realize that it is something genetic. They’re complainers that’s all. It’s not their fault. They can’t help it. I suppose a doctor would call it an obsessive compulsion, and a psychiatrist might term it a neurotic disorder. It could be there are medicines that can help the problem, like the drugs that doctors prescribe for just about everything else. Maybe anti-depressants would work. After all, they don’t seem like very happy people, the way they’re complaining all the time.
The only other thing that might help them is to learn Emunah, which means faith. Rabbi Kook would always say that Emunah must be learned. True faith in G-d doesn’t grow on trees in Brooklyn. Every Jew has it deep down inside. But it must be developed. This requires learning. Not just any type of learning, but learning designed to bring a person to a living connection with G-d. Books like the “Kuzari” and the writings of Rabbi Kook are a good place to start. And a true reading of the Torah is the best place of all.
For example, the Spies were outstanding Torah scholars, but they were the biggest complainers of all. They believed in some things, but they didn’t believe in others. When it came to making aliyah, they didn’t believe in G-d, as the Torah says, “In this matter, you did not believe in the L-rd your G-d” (Devarim, 1:32).
Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook taught:
“The Gemara talks about types of ‘Tzaddikim who don’t believe’ (Sotah 48B). The choose words of Torah and commandments, saying, ‘This matter is arranged properly by the Almighty. It’s very nice; it pleases me; it’s easy; I agree to abide. However, this matter is not so good.’ This approach to Torah leads to dangerous consequences and heresy. There is a startling saying of our Sages in the Gemara regarding someone who says, ‘This precept is pleasant, and this one isn’t pleasant; this matter is pleasing to me, and this other matter is not. Everyone who chooses between the mitzvot in the Torah, saying this one he agrees with, this one he doesn’t, loses the richness of Torah’ (Eruvin 64A).”
“In contrast to this comes the true approach of ‘Everything that the L-rd said, we will do and listen’ (Shemot, 24:7). We will do it whether it pleases us or not; whether we intellectually understand, or whether the matter is above our limited human logic and reasoning; whether we agree with the way things are, or whether have criticism. When the Torah is seen in its true light, there isn’t any criticism of the way Hashem does things. In place of criticism comes Divine attachment, harmony, and complete Emunah.”
Since lots of Jews spend lots of time thinking about food, here’s what I’m eating right now to get ready for tomorrow’s Shovavim fast. A bowl of organic branflakes, organic granola, organic raisins, organic pumpkin seeds, and goat yogurt.
I bet you had me pegged as a beer and hot dogs man! That just goes to show you how little you really know about Tzvi Fishman.
Talking about fast days. My fasts are nothing. Tomorrow evening, I begin my all-night learning with a real Jewish hero, my esteemed friend, Rabbi Yosef Mendelevich, who sat in a Soviet prison for almost 12 years for wanting to make aliyah to Israel. When the Russians took away the few Torah books that he had, he fasted for 56 days, drinking water alone, until the authorities surrendered. What an honor just to sit across the table from this inspiring man and soak in his courage and wisdom.
Some 40 years ago, when he and a group of friends were denied permission to emigrate to Israel, they planned to hijack a small airplane and fly it to Sweden. Rabbi Yosef figured that the KGB would stop them, but he was willing to take the chance, hoping it would draw the world’s attention to the plight of Soviet Jews. Sure enough, when they headed onto the runway, shots rang out, a comrade fell fatally wounded, and Yosef and the others were whisked off to prison. Their daring action marked the first rip in the Iron Curtain.
Here’s something that Rabbi Yosef wrote that was translated into English by our good friend Moshe Kempinski:
WHEN I WAS 11 years old the Soviet police came looking for "gold" in our house in Latvia. Even though they did not find anything they took my father in for interrogation. On the day of the trial I prayed "Please, free my father".
That was my first prayer. Faith burst forth in a time of distress in spite of my being so distant from Jewish learning. After he was released my father suffered a heart attack and my mother passed away. Essentially we remained as orphans. My disappointment with communism changed me at the age of 14 into a Zionist. I became excited and impassioned with every mention of Israel. When I was studying engineering in the University, I established, along with some of my friends, an underground cell. We wrote printed and distributed Zionist material. We arrived at the synagogues to try to persuade other young people to embrace the ideals of Zionism and I slowly began to truly understand that Israel was my home and would be my place of refuge.
I also understood that if I was to become an engineer I would not be given permission to make aliyah so I stopped my studies and I immediately was drafted into the army. I decided to present myself as being insane in order to get an army deferment. The officer sent me for tests in the Hospital for the Insane. After a week it was decided that I was not stable and they released me. I thereupon returned to my activities and I gave in a request to be allowed to make aliyah to Israel. I was given a rejection slip and was immediately fired from my job. It was then that I learned about a group from Leningrad who were planning an escape to Israel and I decided to join them. Its leader was Mark Dymshitz, a combat pilot who planned on commandeering a plane. We planned to take over a plane at the airport at the Russian border and fly it to Sweden. I packed a knitted kippa, my Tanach, and studied a little about the Jewish festivals, just in case I was arrested for a long time.
Everything seemed to be going well but at our rendezvous spot we realized they had caught on to us. We decided to march on towards the plane anyway, when suddenly we heard a shot and Mark was on the ground laying in his own blood ... in front of his wife and daughters. The dream had disintegrated into splinters.
I accepted it all in silence. A police detective approached me later in the jail and said, "Yosef, what happened to you? You are a Soviet like me. Act nicely and we will help you." Instead of reaching out to that lifeline that they had offered me, I set out to show that in fact I was not like him, a Soviet ... that I was a Jew. I felt that in the heavens loftier demands were being placed upon me. It was then I decided to begin to observe the Shabbat. I demanded the jailer give me a mop and water in order to wash the filthy floor. I washed my t-shirt and wore it in honor of Shabbat. I had been saving some bread for this day and I covered my head with some handkerchief as a kippa.
The investigator became angry with me, "This is not a cultured way to behave."
"This is Jewish culture," I answered.
The investigators and the prosecutor concluded that I was just a fanatic. Yet I proved to them something else ... that I was a free man, even in the prison cell. All this because of the commandments I was observing. I did not consider those commandments an extra burden but rather they became my tools of salvation. If I observe them then I will remain who I am. If I stop then I will fall. As I turned more to G-d I immediately began to see His helping hand appear in every instance of my life.
It was then that they found me praying Shabbat prayers in the dressing rooms rather than working. They threw me into solitary confinement. I was proud that I was being punished for the sake of the Shabbat. After a month I was tried and sentenced to another three years in a more strict prison.
After 11 years in prison I broke. I had lost any joy in life. I had obtained some torah study books and my jailers found them and had confiscated them. I decided to begin a hunger strike until they would be returned. Suddenly, with that decision, I was refilled with joy. I felt like Moses who fasted 40 days before receiving the Torah. The fast taught me to look inward and be cleaved unto the Holy One, Blessed Be He.
After 56 days of the hunger fast the warden said, "Here are your books just stop the hunger strike."
I sensed that because of my struggle my release was imminent. After a month I was transferred to the central KGB prison in Moscow. After two weeks I was informed that I was being expelled from the Soviet Union because "I had damaged my character as a Soviet citizen."
I burst out with a "Baruch Hashem."
"Why are you so happy we are expelling you from your motherland."
"You are expelling me into my motherland," I told them.
That’s just a tiny piece of his story. Amazing, isn’t it, what some Jews are willing to do in order to come to Israel?
Oops – it’s midnight again! Time for Tikun Hatzot. I’ve got to go!
I am old enough to remember the famous 1977 New York City “Blackout” when all the lights went out in the Big Apple. In fact, I am so old, I remember the great blackout in Egypt, when a thick thick darkness covered all stretches of that polluted immoral land, except for Goshen where the Jews had light.
Still, even though the Jews had light, there were those who were blinded. 80% of the Jews in Egypt were stricken during the plague of darkness because they didn’t want to leave the cesspools of Egypt and go to the Land flowing with milk and honey. They wanted to remain in the polluted immoral darkness of the strange vile land, always trying to please the goyim and be accepted as one of the bunch. Embarrassed at His children for turning their backs on the Land of Israel, the wonderful gift that He had bequeathed to their forefathers, Hashem brought darkness over Egypt so the gentiles wouldn’t see the horrendous shame of His people who didn't want to obey His command. So in the thick darkness, while no one could see the disgrace, Hashem smote that tragic, misguided 80% and hurried with their burial so that the goyim wouldn’t be witness to the incredible booooosha (Rashi, Shemot, 10:22.)
Truly, it was a terrible blow. There were Jewish doctors who died. And very intelligent Jewish professors. And top-notch Jewish businessmen and artists. And talented writers who could string quotes together about all sorts of clever things. Smart people who just didn’t get the message. They didn’t want to. They wanted to stay in the fleshpot of Egypt. In the darkness. In their darkness. Not even Moshe could open their eyes. Oh, how he tried! Day after day. But they didn’t want to listen. Not to Moshe and not to Hashem. They couldn’t. They had pulled out the plug long before by wanting to live like a Jew in a foreign gentile land.
Thank G-d, I made it out of the darkness with the remaining 20%. Thank G-d for opening my eyes. Thank G-d for enabling me to see. Thank G-d, I trusted in Hashem and in Moshe. True, things got pretty scary at the sea, but with G-d’s help, we made it through to the other side, to the other side, to the other side.
Brothers! Sisters! Break on through to the other side. Break on through to the other side. Break on through to the light. Break out of the darkness. Break on through. Break on through. Break on throuuuuuuuuugh!!!!!!!!!!
Oops! It's midnight! Time to recite "Tikun Hatzot!" When I recite the lamentations over the exile, I think about Brooklyn and Monsey and Boca and Palm Beach and LA and Toronto and Melbourne and Manchester and Paris and Capetown and Mexico City, and I cry like a little baby.
I've got to go!
As we have written on several occasions, the time of the year most favorable for rectifying sexual transgression is the "Shovavim" period, which extends for another five weeks. These weeks parallel our Exodus from Egypt, from both physical bondage and cultural bondage to the immoral ways of the Egyptians, whose culture was highlighted by the pursuit of material pleasures and sexual licentiousness, very much like the culture of America today.
Tired and beaten down by the first series of plagues, Pharaoh was ready to let the Jews hold the prayer gathering they had requested, but only in Egypt. Moshe refused his offer as being out of the question. Holiness and impurity cannot exist in the same place. To serve Hashem, we have to break free fom the culture of Egyprt, from the chains of immorality and spiritual pollution, and sanctify ourselves, in order to be worthy of receiving the Torah. Thus, during the period of “Shovavim,” a Jew is called upon to sanctify himself even in matters that are permitted to him, like in his speaking, his eating, his relations with his wife.
My dear friends, please don’t take lightly the advice and admonishment of our Sages by thinking that the “Shovavim” period and its customs are just a lot of superstitious nonsense, G-d forbid. A person who looks at immodest sites on the Internet, or who is lax in maintaining the proper holiness during marital relations, is playing with fire. He is engaging in a dangerous game of Russian roulette. It’s just a matter of time that either he, or his wife, or his children will suffer a tragedy, or a serious illness, or some other painful tribulation, G-d forbid, or the early warnings that Hashem sends in the form of back pains, prostate, migraines, eye problems, or marital friction, or troubles with the kids. For this reason, our Sages call out to us to return in repentance at this time of “Shovavim,” saying, “Shuvu banim shovavim,” (Jeremiah, 3:14) “Return you rebellious children.”
Our Sages teach that the spilling of semen in vain is a very grave transgression, punishable by death at the Hands of Heaven, before one’s allotted time, may G-d have mercy, like in the case of Er and Onan (Bereshit, 38:6-10). Spilling of semen in vain can come about, not only through masturbation, unscrupulous Internet viewing, and nocturnal emissions during dreams, but also during marital relations, either before or after the marital union, so married couples must also take care to conduct matters in holiness. Needless to say, other blatant sexual transgressions such as pre-marital sex, sexual relations with non-Jews, adultery, homosexuality, the use of condoms, etc, also bring about the spilling of semen in vain. Because semen contains myriads of living souls, when a person willfully transgresses, or errs in whatever manner, these souls, and the Holy Names of Hashem which they possess, are lost and compelled to wander painfully in an impure netherworld, unless they are rectified through the sincere t’shuva of the person who sinned. The best time for this repentance, to rescue these spiritual “children,” “banim shovavim,” from bondage, is the period of “Shovavim.”
In other blogs and articles on the jewishsexuality.com website, we have listed the various customs of “Shovavim” and the recommended “Tikunim.” For most people, a stringent regiment of fasting is not practical. So what can a normal person do?
I myself try to learn more Torah than usual. The Torah is filled with the Names of Hashem, and through its learning, we rectify the Names we blemished through our misdeeds. It is also important to give more tzedakah (charity). On Mondays and Thursdays, I fast during the day. Since the days are short this time of year, it isn’t very difficult. For people who find fasting overly stressful or weakening, the fast can be redeemed by donating charity. I try to nap in the early evening each day for a half hour, so I’ll have the strength to recite “Tikun Hatzot,” the midnight lament over the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash and over the exile, which helps rectify the anguish we caused the Shechinah through our misdoings. Thursdays is a good time to join a gathering in reciting one of the powerful “Tikun HaYesod” prayers that have been formulated by our Sages to cleanse a person of sexual sin, and to return the lost souls to the soul-bank in Heaven. Since staying up all night, learning Torah and reciting “Tikunim” and Tehillim, is considered a “Tikun Karet,” an atonement that nullifies a decree of excision (being cut off before one’s time), G-d forbid, I try to stay awake Thursday nights, focusing on Torah learning and repentance. If one finds it difficult to do this alone without falling asleep, and he can’t get to an all-night “Shovavim” gathering, it is possible to invite some friends to learn together, having plenty of tasty refreshments on hand to keep the participants awake. If one starts a little before midnight, after reciting “Tikun Hatzot” and doing some Torah learning, and reciting a "Tikun HaYesod" prayer, like the "Tikun HaKlali," it’s already 4am and time to jump into a refreshing mikvah and pray the first morning prayer at “Vatikin.” Before you know it, the night has passed, and sandbags of the spiritual pollution that has been damaging your life falls off your shoulders, drowned by the vivifying waters of Torah and the pre-dawn mikvah.
This year, I hope to add, blee nader, a few “Taanit Debor” to the repertoire – fasts from speaking, which I will write about in the near future, please G-d.
If all of this seems overwhelming, then pick something and try to follow it through with heartfelt repentance. Our Sages teach that if a person does even a little below in this world to purify himself, then he is sanctified greatly from Above.