Wednesday, December 27, 2006


The Dangers of Exile

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

When I lived in Argentina, I always had two wishes: I did not want a Jew to be a key figure in the Treasury and -not to be compared- I did not want a Jew to be the trainer of the national soccer team. Jews in key positions always pose a potential threat to the local Jewish community.

Let us think about Yosef. After his career as the solver of dreams in prison, Yosef the Hebrew was appointed regent to the king. He was a key figure in the empire. Pharoah the king of Egypt admired him and Yosef proved himself for he saved Egypt during the years of famine.

But Pharoah's love was "not for the sake of heaven". He did not love Yosef "the Man". He certainly did not love Yosef "the Hebrew". He loved Yosef "the Solver of Dreams" because he was useful to the empire.

Pharoah's generosity towards Yosef and his brothers was based on the fact that he needed Yosef in the palace. Proof of this comes in the beginning of the Book of Exodus. After Yosef's death, when there is a king "who did not know Yosef", the special status disappears.

But the new Pharoah is not the only one responsible for the slavery of the Israelites in Egypt. The Israelites settled in Egypt and very quickly began to feel that this was their home.

Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim of Lunshitz, sees a hint of this in the last verse of our Parashah: "And Yisrael dwelt in the land of Egypt in the country of Goshen; and they took possession of it and grew and multiplied exceedingly" (Genesis 47:27).

"This whole verse is intended to point to the guilt of the Israelites. The Holy One blessed be He decreed that "your offspring shall be strangers" (Genesis 15:13), while they wanted to be permanent residents in a place where it was decreed that they be strangers...This verse blames them for their desire to take possession of land not theirs. Had they not said to Pharoah "we have come to sojourn in the land" (Genesis 47:4)? This teaches us that originally they had not come to settle in the land but only to live there as "temporary residents" and now they were going back on their word. They settled down to such an extent that they didn't want to leave Egypt until The Holy One was obliged to remove them "with a strong hand".

This story repeats itself throughout history. In Egypt before the period of slavery, in Spain before the expulsion and in Germany before the Holocaust. For some reason, in all those countries, Jews forgot that they were in exile.

I get the same impression each time I travel to the U.S.

Jews in America live with a similar feeling. It is correct that there is no threat of immediate danger in America...but there is something mistaken in this thought.

Thus when relatives phone from abroad during these difficult days of warnings, terrorist acts and the atomic threats and ask me if I'm worried, my answer is that in the last two thousand years there has not been a safer place for Jews to live than the place where I now live.

The "Chafetz Chayim" makes an interesting point:

When Shabat ends we say in the Havdalah: "He who divides between holy and profane, between light and darkness, between Israel and the nations".

Who has been given the responsibility of differentiating between holy and profane by the Holy One blessed be He? The responsibility lies with us, the people of Israel.

Who has the responsibility to separate light from darkness? This, the Holy one blessed be He has taken upon Himself; "And G-d divided the light from the darkness" (Genesis 1:3) .

And who has the responsibility of differentiating between Israel and other nations? Who has to take care of this division?

The "Chafetz Chayim" says: "The Holy One blessed be He gave this task to the nations!".

Every time Jews want to settle among the nations of the world, the nations' task becomes to set the Jews apart and they perform this task faithfully!
Thus we see, Pharoah was not the only one responsible for the situation.

Previous Drashot

Vayigash 5766 - An Eternal Convenant

Friday, December 08, 2006


Fear and Forgiveness

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

The Hebrew root S.L.CH (in its different forms) appears forty six times in the Torah. Amongst these are a few we recognize from the liturgy of the High Holidays: "And you shall forgive (ve-salachta) our iniquity and error, and make us Your heritage" (Exodus 34, 9). "Forgive (Slach) now the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of Your kindness" (Numbers 14, 19). "And G-d said: 'I have forgiven (salachti) this people because of your words" (Numbers 14, 20).
In any case, the root S.L.CH appears always in connection with G-d. There are no recollections of humans forgiving. Therefore we can say that forgiveness is a characteristic held solely by G-d.
Out of the forty six appearances of this root in the Torah, the verb doesn't appear even a single time in the book of Genesis; however, in this book, we are aware of two of the better know stories that include this idea. First is the famous story of Yosef and his brothers, and the second is the heartfelt meeting between Ya'acov and Esav after twenty years of separation. We can learn from these stories about the nature of the human forgiveness and the relationship between those who hurt and those whom have been hurt, those how forgive and those forgiven.
There is a well known controversy between the Sages on the meeting between Jacob and Esav It is written: "And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept" (Genesis 33,4) Rashi Says: There are those who explain this dotting (the dots on the Hebrew word Va-Yishakehu) as saying that he did not kiss him with all his heart. Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai said: 'It is a well-known and accepted principle that Esav detests Ya'acov. However, at that moment his mercies were aroused and he kissed him with all of his heart'.
The controversy is about Esav's feelings. Was his kiss honestly felt? Was he really able to forgive in his heart?
There are those who believe in Esav's sincerity. Forgiveness is not the "weapon of the weak" but that of the strong. When you are not afraid forgiving comes easy. Where there is fear there is no forgiveness. It is a real paradox; the fear felt before the forgiveness disappears only in those who forgive and remains with those forgiven. Ya'acov wants forgiveness but nothing more. Esav suggest to continue their journey together, but Ya'acov evades the offer. Esav has forgiven Ya'acov but in Ya'acov's heart Esav remains Esav.
It is the same in the story of Yosef. Yosef forgives and opens a new page. But his brothers still hold a grudge in their heart. They are sure that Yosef will "throw them to the dogs" after their father's death.
I don't know what would have happened if Yosef had met up with his brother's while he was still in the pit. It is also hard to know what would have happened if Esav had met up with Ya'acov alone, without the company of family and soldiers but with a ragged dog... It may have been a totally different story.
The strong have no problem with the idea of forgiving. Who is the stronger person in these stories? Who is the brave? The injurer or injured? The forgiver of forgiven?
May be, the answer is simple. It is written in Masechet Avot (4:1): "Who is it that is most mighty? One who subdues his evil impulse". And Avot DeRabbi Natan (Version A, Chapter 23) adds and says: "(Mighty is he) who makes of his enemy a friend...".
Previous Drashot
Vayishlach 5766 - A Struggle of Conscience

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Chaye Sarah

The "Two Lives" of Sarah

by Rabbi Gustavo Suraszki

"And Sarah was a hundred and twenty seven years old; these were the years of the life of Sarah" (Genesis 23, 1)

The beginning of the portion Chaye Sarah ("The life of Sarah") deals, paradoxically, with the death of the matriarch Sarah.

What is the full explanation of the ambiguous Hebrew phrase "Shnay Chaye Sarah"?

The literal meaning tells us that Sarah was a hundred and twenty seven years old at the time of her death. However, there is another reading which I would like to discuss today.

Perhaps it is possible to understand the ambiguous phrase through interpretation and not only through its literal meaning. Maybe Sarah's life was divided into two periods and that is the interpretation of the phrase "Shnay Chaye Sarah" ("Shnay" in Hebrew also means "Two").

Why consider that Sarah's life was divided into two periods?

There are events that may change our lives completely. The birth of a child, marriage, divorce, bankruptcy, an operation, a death of a dear one or a child born in old age, as was the case with Sarah. It is very possible for our lives to have more than one distinct period. We do not live every moment of our lives with the same intensity. We all have something in our lives that changed us, that made us mature, sometimes even through pain and suffering.

Perhaps the first word of the Torah Portion "Vayihyu" ("And these were") can help us to illustrate that idea. The writer of "Mincha Belulah" suggests that the word "Vayihyu" in Gematria (numerology) is thirty seven (37) and if we subtract that from Sarah's 127 years we reach the age of ninety (90) which is when Sarah gave birth to Isaac.

We can say that Sarah had two periods in her life: the first until the age of ninety (90), years of suffering with regard to the son she could only dream about, and the second period of thirty seven years (37), years of happiness with the son who was the fulfillment of her dreams.

There is a tale about a man who walked in a forest and came across a cemetery.
Curiously, he noticed something strange in the headstones which were engraved with the ages of those who were buried there.

He was astounded. It seemed that all those buried there were children, the oldest being seventeen. The strangest thing was that the ages were written in detail: years, months, weeks, days, hours and even minutes and seconds.

How could such a thing be possible? Had there perhaps been an epidemic?
Still shocked, the man came to the neighbouring village, found one of the elders and asked him what tragedy had occurred there.

But there had been no epidemic and no catastrophe.

The old man told him about an ancient custom observed in that village. Each boy reaching bar mitzvah age received a notebook which was hung around his neck and in which he would record all moments of happiness and high points. In one column he recorded the experience and in another how long it had lasted.

If he fell in love for the first time, he would record how long the sublime feeling had lasted. Days? Weeks?

A first pregnancy, a dream trip, a joyful reunion with a brother living long had the excitement lasted?

When the person died, they would take the notebook and calculate the time of pleasure.

Those were the ages that appeared on the headstones, for only those moments that are lived intensively are considered as truly living.

"Teach us to number our days" (Psalms 90, 12) is the prayer. May the G-d teach us to number and appreciate our days, to understand the value of each moment.

Even if they seem only a few years compared to ninety, the weight of thirty seven intensive years could be more that ninety indifferent ones.

Those were the "two lives" of Sarah.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Lech Lecha

Pursuer of Justice

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

After a long and exhausting war between two coalitions of kings in the area of the Dead Sea, the Torah tells us that our Father Abraham was informed that his brother Lot had been taken prisoner.

The Midrash, as usual, is very sensitive to the written word ("and Abraham heard that his brother had been taken into captivity") and asks in wonderment: "Was he really his brother?".
But, the Midrash answers that even after the quarrel between the shepherds of Abraham and the shepherds of Lot, and in spite of it, Abraham still called Lot "his brother" (Tanhuma, Lekh Lekha).

In this incident, our father Abraham begins a tradition of the pursuit of justice that reaches its climax in Parashat Va-Yera in the famous story about the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah when Abraham says "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" (Genesis 18:25).

The nature of Lot and the inhabitants of Sodom and Gemorrah did not make the crucial difference. Every time our father Abraham saw pain or injustice he intervened and even "cast words upwards" and knew how to argue with the Lord of the Universe.
The main point is that each man who suffered became "his brother"...

In this case as well, Abraham is the father of our nation. Throughout the generations our father Abraham trained by example many students who knew how to fight in this area: the pursuit of justice at any price.

I would like to bring an example of this very same struggle, Rabbi Israel from Salant, founder of the Musar Movement and social justice in the middle of the 19th century.

Once he was asked to supervise the level of Kashrut in a matzah bakery. He checked the way the work was done and observed the staff at work.

At the end of the inspection the owner of the bakery asked proudly: "And what is the Rabbi's opinion?".

And Rabbi Israel answered: "The Gentiles libel us by saying we use the blood of Christian children to make matzot. They are mistaken. But from what I saw there exists in your bakery a case of forbidden blood. What I mean is that you are mixing the blood of your workers into the matzot. I will not grant any certificate of supervision to this bakery!".

And on another occasion when asked what to be most particular about when baking matzot, he answered: "Not shout at the woman who kneaded the dough".

"Justice, only justice shalt thou pursue, that thou mayst live and inherit the Land" (Deuteronomy 16:20) is one of the most well known verses in the Torah. This verse is so powerful that we sometimes look only at the first part and not at the last one.

The Torah tells us that the pursuit of justice is essential in order to inherit the Land. Without justice we have no share in this Land.

Our existence in the Land and our quality of life as a society, are unequivocally dependent on our level of justice. There is a total dependency between our national future and our willingness to pursue justice because, very simply, if we do not pursue justice, justice will flee from us…

I have the feeling that Abraham already knew this verse in his time and knew very well that the Land that was promised to him would belong neither to him nor to his descendents if he did not take an active uncompromising stand on the pursuit of justice.

And we are talking about human justice, the same justice that builds the future and strengthens society, and also about heavenly justice, even when it is necessary to reproach and criticize the Lord of the Universe so that His mercy will conquer His anger.
Previous Drashot
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Wednesday, October 25, 2006


Stone or Window?

By Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

The story of Noah is one of children's favourites as it is a story full of animals, birds, colours and a rainbow.

We tend to picture Noah sunbathing on the deck of the ark with the elephant, the giraffe and the monkeys, but when we read the description of the ark in the Torah, we see that it is not at all the way we draw or imagine it.

There was no place to sunbathe because the ark had no deck. Actually, the ark was more like a submarine than a boat. There was one window in the ark and only through that could those inside see what was happening outside.

However, this too is a controversial point. The word Chalon (window) does not appear in the Torah portion which uses the word Tsohar which has more than one meaning. Some interpret it as an aperture, or skylight, which is a kind of window, while others interpret it as a precious stone (Rashi).

Rabbi Shlomo Kluger makes an interesting comment: What is the difference between a precious stone and a window? A window lets light in and through it we see what is happening outside. A precious stone has light within but we cannot see through it.

This difference is that between those who say that Noah the righteous man sat in the ark but his heart was with what was happening outside, and those who say that Noah cared only about himself and didn't care about what was happening outside the ark.

The ark, in the story of Noah, symbolizes security, the bubble or the ivory tower.

Everyone in his life sits in his own ivory tower. There are those who are financially secure and forget that there is poverty and hunger in the world, maybe even in their neighbor's house. There are those who have the support of family and friends who forget that there are many people in the world who suffer from unbearable loneliness.

There are many bubbles that may enclose us.

There is a famous dispute in the Gemarah (Megilah 24b) between Rabbi Yehuda and the Sages as to whether a blind person is obliged to recite the blessing on the lights. How can a blind person say "forms the light and creates darkness" (Yotser Or Uvore Hoshekh) if he has never seen daylight?

Rabbi Yossi in the Talmud states that he was always puzzled by the verse "You will grope at noontime as a blind person gropes in the darkness" (Deuteronomy 28:29).

What difference does it make to a blind person whether it is day or night? He cannot see in either case! Then Rabbi Yossi himself answers through the following tale:

It happened that he himself was walking in the dark of night and came across a blind man carrying a torch.

He said to the blind man, "My son, why are you carrying a torch?".

The blind man answered: "As long as I carry the torch, people can see me coming and come to my aid so that I do not trip and fall".

The purpose of light is not only to light the way for ourselves but also to enable us to see others and their world.

The controversy regarding the word “Tsohar” is not marginal. It is about the essence of a well-ordered society.

"Go out of the ark", says G-d to Noah when the waters subside, for there is a world outside your bubble.

Only Noah will decide whether he will turn the Tsohar into Zohar (brightness, radiance) and bring light to the world, or whether he will turn the Tsohar into Sohar (a prison) and enclose himself as he was in the ark and keep the light to himself.

Thursday, October 05, 2006


Cardiological Judaism

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

According to our Sages (Leviticus Rabbah 30, 14), the Four Species used on Sukkot symbolize four different parts of the human body. The Etrog symbolizes the heart, the Lulav symbolizes the spine, the Hadas our eyes and the Arava our mouth.

In the light of this Midrash, I would like to comment on the holding of the Four Species together while saying the blessing over them.

There is a widespread phenomenon in our time I like to call "Cardiological Judaism". A Jew that says "I'm a Jew with all my heart, and I don't need anything else" falls under the category of a "Cardiological Jew".

The "Cardiological Judaism" dispute is not new; it has been going on for thousands of years within our nation. Paul of Tarsus (a Jew originally known as Shaul), and most commonly called the founder of Christianity, was the first to cancel the Mitzvah of the Brit Milah amongst the Jews that in time became Christians. He did so by saying that the circumcision should be performed in the heart rather than in the flesh.

The canceling of the Brit Milah and the emphasis put on the circumcision of the heart, is believed to be the turning point in the History of Christianity.

"Cardiological Judaism" (and with all due respect to other religions) was born when a charismatic Jew said out loud that the Jewish nation doesn't need any external sign or Mitzvah but only the belief in his heart, as all other body organs are secondary to it.

Today two thousand years later, scientific research shows that, statistically, the Jewish people are one of the ethnic and national groups with the highest percentage of heart disease. Is it possible that this is because "Cardiological Judaism" has "overloaded" the heart? Maybe because "Cardiological Judaism" is a synonym to the word "Assimilation".

In previous generations, the heart was used to work part-time. Jews expressed their Judaism with their entire body. With their eyes they learned Torah. With their spine they stood tall in synagogue. With their mouth they refrained from eating forbidden foods, etc...
The assimilation process concludes with the heart. The last thing an assimilated Jew loses is the feeling that he is his heart.

And so, in the light of the Midrash, the holding of the Four Species together during the blessing in Sukkot is directed to the heart (the Etrog). To teach us that we cannot separate from the other organs symbolized by the other three species we hold in our right hand. And, moreover, to teach us that the "Cardiological Judaism" causes us harm. And that there are other organs whose purpose is to serve us, to help us show our emotions and let us know that not all relies upon the heart.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Haazinu - Shabat Shuva

Biographies and Resumes

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

When I was inducted as a rabbi in 1998, I received numerous gifts from friends, teachers and fellow students. It was a joyous occasion and as is the way of things, people find these times an excellent opportunity to give a present.

I received big presents, small presents, expensive ones and inexpensive ones; some dear and some not so dear. One gift was particularly special. It was the book "Hidushei Torah". This was from my friend Michael, who is, today, a Rabbi in the Hong Kong Jewish community.

At first I was very touched. I saw a beautiful cover and immediately wanted to return home in order to begin reading it. However, when I opened it, I was astounded. The book was empty - the pages were blank!

"With G-d's help -Michael told me- you will write several Torah commentaries and lessons of your own...Simply use this book."

Since then, I've written dozens of ideas for "Drashot" and "Divrei Torah".
Without a doubt, after seven years, I feel that this blank notebook was the best gift I received to set me on my way.

In the artistic world, there is a famous and painful syndrome. When architects, graphic designers, musicians and writers begin their tasks, they all have excellent creative ideas. Yet when faced with a blank page, they experience a few minutes or hours of creative black-out -"The Blank Page Syndrome".

It seems to me, that each year, at this time, we too receive the gift of a notebook, with empty or blank pages that we need to fill up throughout the coming year. Only we can complete the book with a nightmare or a dream, a song, a prayer or a blessing or -G-d forbid- a curse.

From time to time, we also get stuck and suffer from "The Blank Page Syndrome".

This week sees the end of the current chapter of our book - the chapter written during the past year. It is still our book, but we will no longer have the possibility of erasing or fixing any mistakes or correcting the style.

In a few hours the books in heaven above will be sealed, and our books on earth below will open on a fresh page. Again they will be inscribed with our dreams or fears, songs, prayers, blessings or -G-d forbid- curses.

Now let us take a few moments to consider the differences between a biography and a resume (Curriculum Vitae). How do they differ?

Above all, a resume is a marketing concept. It includes information and it is a manufactured advertising strategy. We try to sell ourselves and to elaborate the complimentary elements. No one would write a resume of his or her errors and failures.

A biography, on the other hand, exposes all our successes and failures. It reveals the things we want hide. As a resume is synthetic and subjective, so a biography is in-depth and objective.

A resume is the subjective and personal fruit of our own hands whilst a biography must be the objective fruit of another's hands.

Even though we would like to write our resumes during these Ten Days, in fact, G-d Almighty is writing our biographies - each and every exact detail. As long as the Heavenly Gates remain open, these can still be revised and corrected.

Yom Kippur is a great and terrible day throughout which we stand before a mirror, preparing to write the final chapters of our own autobiographies and to correct the distortions within them, honestly and earnestly with all sincerity...

...After all, a biography does not lie.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Yamim Noraim

Ascent for the sake of Descent

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

A few days ago I talked with a friend about the difference between the days of Pesach and the Days of Awe. When spring arrives and Pesach comes, we all want to link up with the earth, to go out into nature, to hike, to go on picnics etc.

In contrast, when fall arrives and Rosh Hashanah comes, we all want to link up with the heavens.

These are days of increased spirituality, and this is good for us. We need these days at least once in twelve months in order to cleanse ourselves from the "pollution" that we have absorbed during the year. The high point of spirituality and the knock on the door of heaven comes on Yom Kippur, the day that every Jew becomes an angel and cuts himself off from the material world.

There is a well known idiom in Hebrew "Yeridah Letzorech Aliyah" ("Descent for the sake of ascent"). The source of this idiom lies in the world of Hasidism. Descent, in any possible form, is sometimes essential for ascent.

Slavery in Egypt, for example, was descent for the sake of ascent. We descended to the lowest possible depths in order to receive the Torah on Mount Sinai and to rise to a new dimension. In any case, descent is sometimes dangerous. For example, a man who falls spiritually may totally forget the desire to rise.

However, ascent is also dangerous, perhaps more so. A person in continual spiritual ascent may completely forget the material world. Thus I would describe the "Ten Days of Awe" with the similar but opposite idiom: "Aliyah Letzorech Yeridah" ("Ascent for the sake of Descent").

Perhaps during these days we will reach the gates of the heavens. But the intention is to arrive there in order to be able to return to the earth with greater intensity.

We read in Parashat Nizzavim "It is not in heaven" (Deuteronomy 30:12). "Don't remain in the heavens!", says the Torah. The heavens are only a temporary dwelling place. Arrive there only to descend...

At the beginning of Parashat Vayetze the famous dream of Ya'akov appears.

"And he dreamt and behold a ladder set up on the earth and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold the angels of G-d ascending and descending on it" (Genesis 28:12).

Our rabbis already took note of this strange expression. We would expect the Torah to say "descending and ascending" and not "ascending and descending"! The angels live in the heavens, not on earth!

Perhaps the Torah wants to teach us that is the correct way during these Days of Awe when we try to don the garb of angels: "To ascend and to descend".

Avraham Avinu, who is the main character in the Torah readings of the High Holidays, is the perfect bridge between heaven and earth. He knows how to obey the commands of heaven, without forgetting the earth.

To say "Lech-Lecha is to say "Avraham Avinu". His first trial began with a "Lech Lecha" ("Get thee out of thy country") and his last trail began with another "Lech Lecha" ("Get thee into the land of Moriah).

The idiom "Lech Lecha" is composed of two letters (in Hebrew): the "Lamed" whose long neck reaches heaven and the final "Kaph" whose long leg stands on the earth. Avraham is the bridge between these two extremes "ascent for the sake of descent".

An old joke tells that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, the famous detective team, went out into nature. They lit a campfire, drank coffee and had a great time. When darkness fell, they went into their tent and fell asleep.

Sherlock Holmes awoke up before dawn very alarmed and woke up Dr. Watson.

"Lift your head to the heavens and tell me what you see", he said.

"I see millions of stars", answered Dr. Watson.

"And what is their significance?", asked Sherlock Holmes.

After deep thought, Dr. Watson answered: "From an astrological standpoint, the significance is that each man has different luck according to his star, from an astronomical standpoint, the significance is that the universe is enormous, from a statistical standpoint, it is reasonable to think that there are other worlds in this universe, and from a meteorological standpoint I say that it will rain here tomorrow".

"And what do you see?", asked Dr. Watson.

Sherlock Holmes made a face and said, "I see only one thing: from a practical standpoint, someone stole our tent".

The Torah warns us: "It is not in the heavens". The heavens are a temporary dwelling place and not a permanent home. Here, on earth, our attention is required.

May G-d grant that our ascent will indeed be for the sake of descent so that we may have a fruitful year and a year full of deeds.

May we be inscribed and sealed for a good year.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Nitzavim - Vayelech

We were there
Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

On a flight to Buenos Aires I once met a man who embraced me as if I'd always known him. I looked at him, and he understood that he had made a mistake.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I don't know you." He blushed, but cleverly got himself out of an embarrassing situation by saying "Perhaps we met at the revelation at Mount Sinai. We were all there!"

The reaction of that Jew finds support in one of our Torah portion, Nitzavim, in which is described the renewal of the covenant that was made 40 years earlier at the foot of Mount Sinai.

"Not with you only do I make this covenant and administer this oath, but with him that stands here with us this day before the Lord our G-d, and also with him that is not here with us this day." (Deuteronomy 29, 13-14). Rashi explains: "And even with future generations."

In effect the Torah tells us that we were all there to the same extent as we all went out of Egypt and received the Torah. Throughout the generations Jews are born and live within a culture that teaches that we were all witnesses to the revelation, even those who became part of the Jewish religion later. This was a unique event, unparalleled in human history, that the entire Jewish people, from children to the aged, were privileged to meet G-d. All other claims to divine revelation in other cultures and other peoples are based on one man or on a limited group that received divine revelation.

This perception is revolutionary and incomprehensible to other peoples. Our neighbors and those that hold anti-Zionist views are sure that the Jewish people has no right to our land because most of us are not descendants of the inhabitants of the ancient land of Israel.

"Your place is in Russia, or Poland, or Rumania" they say to Jews of Ashkenazi origin. Not long ago an enemy of the Jews said that the Middle Eastern conflict will be resolved when we return to those places.

An interesting halachic issue deals with the same point. The Rambam was once asked by Ovadiah the convert, who had been born to a Christian family in Italy, if he was entitled to make the blessing and say "Our God and the God of our fathers" (Eloheinu Ve-Elohei Avotenu) or "That sanctified us with his commandments and commanded us" (Asher Kidshanu B'Mitzvotav V'Tzivanu) or "who has set us apart" (Asher Hivdilanu) or "who chose us" (Asher Bachar Banu) and so on.

The Rambam's answer was unambiguous. Whoever joins the Jewish people is a Jew in every sense, and he joins the Jewish heritage of generations, even if from a genetic point of view he does not belong. Even he who was not present was there. Whoever chose to join the Jewish people chose to be present at the revelation at Mount Sinai.

We all stood at the foot of Mount Sinai. For Mount Sinai is not simply a geographical site. Belonging to the Jewish people does not involve a DNA test.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Ki Tavo

Recognizing the Good

Rabbi Gustavo Suraski

A millionaire left his office as usual at the end of a day's work and found a beggar asking him for charity.

"Ten shekels in the name of G-d", said the beggar. "I will soon be going to sleep and have not yet drunk a cup of coffee…".

The millionaire put his hand in his pocket, gave him a one hundred shekel note and said to him: "Take a hundred, so that you can drink not one, but ten cups of coffee".

The next day the same beggar was again waiting for the millionaire after work, and boxed him straight in his left eye.

"Tell me", the millionaire said, immediately recognizing him..."Are you crazy?! Only yesterday I gave you a hundred shekels so you could go to sleep with a little food in your stomach...and now you hit me?!".

Then the beggar said to him: "And who do you think can sleep after ten cups of coffee?!".


"Todah Rabah" ("Thank you very much") is one of the first expressions every child (or even every new immigrant) learns to say. How often does a child hear the words "Say thank you"? And every parent knows that it's not enough to simply think it to yourself. We have to say it.

But knowing "how" to say "Thank you" and to feel the need to say "thank you" are two completely different things. Feeling and expressing thanks are difficult things to do.

The mitzvah of Bikurim, with which we begin the Torah portion of Ki Tavo, symbolizes the recognition of goodness. A Jew who is able to perform this mitzvah brings the first of his fruits to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, where he presents them to the priest while professing his thanks to G-d for all the goodness He has shown him.

The traditionally accepted way in which we express our thanks to G-d for His goodness and forgiveness is called "Mikra Bikurim", and this is the opening line of the portion. "And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruits of the soil, which Thou, O G-d, hast given me" (Deuteronomy 26, 10).

The expression of thanks is a central value in Jewish tradition, and here are some examples.

Firstly: The first word which every Jew is supposed to say when he wakes up in the morning is the word "Modeh" ("I give thanks to Thee, O living and eternal King, who hast restored my soul unto me in mercy: great is Thy faithfulness").

Secondly: We must always remember the meaning of the word "Jew". The word "Yehudi" (Jew) comes from the word "Hodaya" (thanksgiving). When Judah was born, his mother Leah said: "Now I shall give thanks to G-d" (Genesis 29, 35). We are expected to know when to express thankfulness.

Thirdly: It is written in the Midrash: "In the Time to Come all sacrifices will be annulled, but that of thanksgiving will not be annulled and all prayers will be annulled except for the thanksgiving prayer, which will never be annulled (Lev. Rabbah 9).

Recognizing the good and giving thanks were instituted by our Sages as a central aspect of our daily routine: not only "Modeh Ani" but also the blessing "Modim" in the three daily prayer services, and "Nodeh Lecha" in grace after meals. Saying "Thank you" rids a person of the idea that he deserves everything.

There are those who go about with the feeling that the whole world is always indebted to them. Therefore anything they receive is owed to them and there is absolutely no need to recognize it as good.

Fourth and last example: At the end of every "Amidah" prayer we have, as I have already mentioned, the blessing "Modim". On repeating the Amidah, when the cantor says "Modim Anachnu Lach" the congregation says in a whisper what is called "Modim De-Rabbanan". "Modim De-Rabbanan" is a blessing which was instituted by our Sages, just as all the blessing were instituted by them (actually the "Modim" which the cantor says was also compossed by our Sages).

So why the need for a double thanksgiving? Why don't we whisper a second version for the other Amidah blessings?

Rabbi David Abudraham says in his explanation for the Siddur that a representative can release us from all Amidah blessings, health blessing, blessing of making a living etc., but there is one thing that he cannot do in our name, no one can say "Thank you" instead of us.

There, the "Power of Attorney" held by the shaliach is no longer applicable.

Friday, July 07, 2006


Opposite Ends

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

Parashat Balak portion is one in which the hidden is in conflict with the visible. It deals with blessings and curses, magic, guessing and even a talking donkey. Nowadays, a film producer could take all of these elements and create a wonderful movie like "Shrek". But our portion is no less fascinating, where two out-and-out villains receive so much screen time.

Parashat Balak portion is the first since the beginning of Exodus in which the Prophet is not Moses, but a non-Jewish stranger by the name of Bilam ben Be'or. Balak , King of Moab, knew that our forefather Moses' and Israel's uniqueness lay in his power of speech, and hired a foreign magician by the name of Bilam to fight Israel using his voice, with a series of curses.

But...was Bilam really a prophet?

One of the main principles of the Jewish faith, which is included in the Hymn Yigdal, is "There hath never arisen in Israel a prophet like unto Moses". Based on this same principle the Midrash tells us: "None has arisen in Israel but one has arisen among the gentile nations. And who is it? It is Bilam Ben Be'or" (Sifrei Devarim 357).

This saying is rather can one compare our forefather Moses to the evil Bilam? Is there a stronger antithesis in the world than that of these two characters?

The late Professor Y. Leibowitz Z"L offers in his book "Seven Years of Discussions on the Portion of the Week" the explanation of Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz, also known as the "SHLA". He says: "Moses and Bilam are the right side (Sitra Di-Yeminah) and the left side (Sitra Di-Smolah) which arise from one supreme root".

What is the difference between left and right?

It is widely accepted in traditional commentary that the right side represents benevolence, and the left side judgement and brutality. The mystic saying of the SHLA becomes feasible and relevant when we apply it to our own reality.

The world is full of people who act in the name of heaven. But there are those who act on the right side of G-d and those on the left. There is a Moses and there is a Bilam.

The Lord "makes light and creates darkness". He is the source of inspiration for both the good and the bad in the world. The righteous believer can become an angel...and the evil believer can become the devil. In this world, more than a few people commit murder in the name of G-d, but more than a few also endanger their lives in the name of G-d. However, and this is the important thing, G-d is not neutral in this particular argument between good and evil, light and dark. He is not a passive spectator.

And, you may rightfully ask, how can He not be neutral if He himself created both light and darkness, good and bad?

An interesting answer appears in the Midrash in connection with the Creation of the world, and in particular, the creation of light and darkness: On the first day of Creation it was said "And G-d called the light Day, and called the darkness Night" (Genesis 1, 5).

Our sages analyzed the text and discovered that there is no full parallel between its beginning and its end. The text should have said: "and the darkness G-d called Night". Why isn't it written this way? Rabbi Eliezer said: "G-d never connects His Name with the evil, but rather with the good". What appears in the text is not "And G-d called the light Day, and G-d called the darkness Night", but rather "and called the darkness Night".

It is precisely during these times, when various fanatics want to bring us darkness and chaos in the name of G-d, we need to know exactly where they stand in the order of things: next to Bilam, hater of mankind and lover of strife, and to understand that even if they say so, G-d will never be on their side because " G-d never connects His Name with the evil"...nor with the darkness.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006


Misguided Dreams
Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

Our Torah Portion deals with the terrible dispute that Korach began against Moses and Aaron, together with Datan, Aviram, On ben Pelet, and another 250 people, all people of renown.

This dispute was so terrible that the Mishna called it a dispute not for the sake of heaven (Avot 5, Mishna 17 ) because it left an impression and had an influence on disputes for generations to come.

After the dispute began, Moses called Datan and Aviram to come to him, and they refused to come. It is written: "And Moses sent to call Datan and Aviram, the sons of Eliav, who said, "We will not come. Is it a trifling matter that you brought us out of a land flowing with milk and honey to kill us in the wilderness, and that you make yourself a prince over us?"(Numbers 16, 12-13)

Moses was very angry and also hurt. That was not the way to answer. But what was so offensive here? Was it that they said, "We will not come"?

Everyone already knew that Datan and Aviram did not accept Moses' authority, so obviously they would not meet him half way. The offensive point was that they said that Egypt, and not Israel, was a land flowing with milk and honey.

People knew from the beginning of the journey through the desert that Datan and Aviram were not ardent Zionists, but until this point their attitude had not been expressed in declarations. After this incident, things changed. Egypt is the land flowing with milk and honey, not Israel. Egypt is the centre of the world, not Israel. Egypt is the ideal country of their dreams, not Israel.

That hurts!

The Talmud tells us about the first man, "His dust was gathered from all over the world." (Sanhedrin 38). Rav Oshaya tells us in the name of Rav that the first man's body was made of dust from Babylon and his head of dust from the land of Israel. In effect, it has always been like that. Even when our bodies were in exile, our heads and hearts were in Zion. That is our history as a people.

"My heart is in the east and I am in the far west," wrote Yehuda Halevi in Spain in the twelfth century. That is why the words of Datan and Aviram are so offensive. To hear a Jew say that the land of Israel is not the land of his dreams is a very sad event.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Shelach Lecha

The Caleb Bridge

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

There are only two Parshiot in the Torah that contain the word "Lecha" (Thee or Thou). The first Parasha is Lech Lecha ("Get Thee Out") which tells us of Abraham Avinu and his arrival to the Land of Canaan and the second one is Shelach Lecha ("Send Thou Men") which we read this week and tells us of the spies, the twelve representatives of the tribes sent to Canaan to report back to the people of the state of the country.

I would like to build a virtual bridge between the Lech Lecha of Abraham Avinu and the Shelach Lecha of Moshe Rabenu. We are actually speaking of two "Aliyot" (migrations to Israel) that are very different. Abraham did not arrive by himself to Canaan, he was accompanied by his wife, his brother's son Lot and "the souls that they had gotten in Haran". This was an idealistic migration, with a deep theological background, and its goal was to spread the words of G-D in the new Land.

The tale of the spies is totally different. The ideal does not exist for them. They lack the bravery of Abraham. They want to see, visit, compare, calculate and only then to decide. Abraham Avinu, settled in the Negev Desert even though he knew that the grounds of Sodom and Gomorrah were green and fruitful. But he preferred the desert. Lot, his brother's son only saw the bounty of the land.

We belong to the generation of which the potential migration to or from Israel is closer to that of the spies than of Abraham's. Our generation (most of it) thinks more on the lines of not what I can do for the country but what can the country do for me.

RaSHI brings an interesting example for the virtual bridge we built between Abraham and the spies. In the first few paragraphs of our weekly Parasha it says "And they went up into the south, and (he) came unto Hebron" (Numbers 13, 22). It is odd that the Torah doesn't have them both in plural ("they went up" and "They came to Hebron"). Why start in plural and end in singular?

RaSHI says "Caleb alone went there, and he prostrated himself on the graves of our patriarchs and matriarchs (in Hebron)".

RaSHI shows an interesting point. While the spies were collecting military reconnaissance, security and economics mission, Caleb came into the country by himself to visit the grave of Abraham the Idealist. While the spies toured the country under the prism of profitability, Caleb toured the country under the prism of belonging. It is a paradox that Caleb acted as Abraham amongst the spies and Lot acted as the spies while with Abraham.

Caleb (and Yehoshuah Bin Nun as well) saw the same as the other spies saw. They also saw the fierce people who dwelled in Canaan and the "children of the Anak" (Giants). But still Caleb stood and said, "We shall surely ascend and conquer it, for we can surely do it!" (Numbers 13, 30)

Both Caleb and Yehoshoah understood that the country wasn't perfect, but it is ours. This is the bridge between the "Realistic" and "Idealistic". Between Abraham's model and the spies model.

They are the bridge between the Lech Lecha and the Shelach Lecha.

Thursday, June 08, 2006


The most important Festival
Rabbi Gustavo Surazski
After three months of dealing with technical and ritual aspects of Halacha, the Torah returns in this week's portion to the more legendary style of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus. The portion of "Behaalotcha" includes the stories of the manna, Eldad and Medad, and the famous story of the Cushite woman that Moses had married.

My intention, however, is to return to an aspect of worship. Our portion raises the issue of the Pesach Sheni (The Second Passover). A group of Jews went to Moses and Aharon and asked them for a second opportunity to offer the Passover lamb. They knew that it was forbidden to prepare the offering while impure, and asked for permission to do so after they had been purified.

And they said to Moses and Aharon:

"Impure though we are by reason of a corpse, why must we be debarred from presenting the Lord's offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites?" (Numbers 9, 7).

There are virtually no examples or precedents in Halacha for anything like this. (Perhaps one could compare this to the "Tefillat Tashlumim" as regards the rules of prayer). But this case is completely different. The second opportunity they wanted was not provided for with the Giving of the Law. There was only one Passover! This second chance was later granted simply because a group of Jews came and asked "why must we be debarred?". They demanded another opportunity to offer this festival sacrifice!

Almost no mention is made today, in any Jewish calendar, of this festival of the second Passover. True, it appears in all the calendars. But nothing very special is done on this date. We know not to say Tachanun on this date. There is also a popular custom among Hasidic communities to eat Matzah on the Pesach Sheni. But that is about all...

We do not have any other positive Mitzvah in the Torah which was initiated by the people and not by G-d. Even though they were absolved from performing the Mitzvah, they demanded a second opportunity, another chance. On this occasion, at least, the children of Israel reached a very high level of piety and devoutness.

Many things can be said about this desert generation. They were ingrates. They had a short memory. But here, on the issue of the second Passover, they proved that they were also virtuous. "Why must we be debarred?" they asked, "Why should we forfeit observing a Mitzvah?".

Perhaps this is why the second Passover, a festival which has virtually disappeared from the Jewish calendar, is actually the most important one of the entire year. It was established by both the initiative and the will of the children of Israel.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006


A Midrash for Shavuot

The words of Torah are likened to water, as it is written, O all who thirst, come for water, (Is. 55:1)

Just as water goes from one end of the earth to the other, so does Torah go from one end of the earth to the other;
Just as water is a life source, so is Torah a source of life;
Just as water is free to all, so is Torah a free commodity;
Just as water comes from heaven, so too is the Torah's origin in heaven;
Just as water are given to the accompaniment of powerful thunderings, so is Torah given to the accompaniment of powerful thunderings;
Just as water quenches one's thirst, so does Torah satisfy the soul;
Just as water cleanses the body from impurity, so does Torah cleanse the soul;
Just as water originates in tiny drops and accumulates into mighty streams and rivers, so the Torah is acquired word by word today, verse by verse tomorrow;
Just as water descends from a high altitude, so does Torah depart from haughty individuals and remain in individuals who are humble and modest;
Just as water is not kept in silver or gold vessels, but the simplest [clay], so Torah is retained by those who are simple;
Just as a scholar is not embarrassed to ask a student, 'pass me some water,' a scholar is not embarrassed to learn from a student a chapter, a verse, a word, or even a letter;
Just as someone who does not know how to swim is drowned in water, so is Torah - if one doesn't know how to 'swim' one can drown in it. (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1, Midrash Shocher Tov 1, Sifrei Devarim 48)

Take them also

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

According to the well known tradition, the tribe of Levi was chosen to serve G-d after the sin of the golden calf when The Holy One was so disgusted with the first born that He decided to replace them with the one tribe that had not sinned, the tribe of Levi. The tribe of Levi served as the "wheels" of the Tabernacle, they took it apart, reassembled it and carried it during the long journey through the desert.

However, not everyone in the tribe of Levi had the same task. At the end of Parashat Bemidbar, which we read last week, the Torah described the tasks of the sons of Qehat, one of the three families of the tribe of Levi.

Our Parasha begins with the tasks of the sons of Gershon, another of the families of the tribe of Levi. During the journey of the Sons of Israel, the sons of Gershon were to carry the curtains that covered and protected the tabernacle together with the screens for the Tent of Meeting.

The sons of Qehat who were mentioned at the end of Parashat Bemidbar had a far more central task. They carried the ark and the table and the altars and all of the holy vessals.

Parashat Naso opens with the words: "And the Lord spoke to Moshe saying: Take also the sum of the sons of Gershon, by the houses of their fathers, by their families" (Bemidbar 4:21-22)

It would seem that there are two extraneous words in this opening sentence. Why does the Torah say "also"? Won't Moshe remember them? What is the meaning of these words?

Here is a much more mundane example. What about the football player whose team wins the world cup while he sat on the bench throughout the game? Has he won the championship to the same extent as those who actually played on the field?

The truth is that we must understand that peoples, communities (and football teams) are made up of different components with different places in the hierarchy. I imagine that the people of Israel looked upon the tribe of Levi as the chosen tribe. But the same phenomenon existed within the tribe as well. The sons of Gershon looked at the sons of Qehat as the chosen ones. The task of carrying the ark in public seemed much more central than the carrying of the curtains of the tabernacle and the screens of the Tent of Meeting.

People have a tendency to grant special importance to those who perform tasks rated highly in the hierarchy. However, the Holy One looks on from above and he sees groups of men who have in common a past, a present and most important, common goals.

There is a tale that once all the parts of the body went out on strike against the stomach. They claimed that they worked hard in order to feed the body, while the stomach just enjoyed the fruits of their labor. And so the hands decided not to bring food to the mouth. The mouth decided not to open. The teeth refused to chew. The throat refused to swallow. As a result, the whole body was weakened.

When the Holy One said about the sons of Gershon, "Take also the sons of Gershon", He was in effect saying "Don't think that their task is of secondary importance. For me there is no such thing. The people of Israel is a work force, resembling man's body, and not a number of individuals working together for different aims.

"Take also the sons of Gershon", said the Holy One.

For me there are no classes.
They all have their role to play.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006


Not just Statistics

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

Maybe you know the joke about the teacher who wanted to catch out a pupil in front of the class. She asked him to stand up and asked him a very difficult question in Mathematics. The boy knew the answer. The teacher asked, "And where is Zimbabwe?" The boy knew that too. "In what year did Colombia declare independence?" Again the boy gave the right answer. "Tell me," continued the teacher, "How many people live in China?". The boy thought for a moment and said, "One milliard, 300 million, 600 thousand, 281." Then the teacher said, "Names! I want names!".


We know well how important our name is in our identity. Our name gives us uniqueness, a special place in society. For example, a slave is just a slave, cheap labour.

At the beginning of the Book of Numbers (Bemidbar) Moses is commanded to count the people of Israel again so as to know their number: "Take the sum of all the congregation of Israel by their families, by their fathers' houses, according to the number of names; all adult males" (Numbers 1, 2). This is the third census within a year since the exodus from Egypt.

The first commentary of RaSHI on this portion says: Because they are dear to G-d, He counts them again and again. When they left Egypt, He counted them. When they succumbed to the temptation of the calf, He counted them to know how many remained. When He caused the divine presence to dwell among them, He counted them. On the first of Nissan the tabernacle was erected and on the first of Iyar He counted them.

Reading the data of the census that appears in our portion is boring only to the reader. But to those who were counted the census returns their names, their identities and their honour.

That is where the love lies, according to RaSHI.

A poor man counts coins, for example, because each coin is precious to him. A child counts candies to know how many he has to eat. The nobility count their horses so as to show their wealth. However, here we speak of a much deeper affection. G-d doesn't count His sons just to know how many He has or how many remain, but also so that each one will feel special. He wants to emphasise the importance of each individual after the hard and bitter experience of slavery in Egypt.

A census is not only statistics.

Thursday, May 11, 2006


The Omer Ladder

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

This Devar Torah is dedicated Le-Ilui Nishmat Michael Lapides Z"L

Forty-nine days pass between the exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt and the revelation of Sinai and receiving of the Torah. This seven-week journey, entitled "The Counting of the Omer", is mentioned in our portion, Emor.

At this time of year the people of Israel undergo a process of preparation for the giving of the Torah, a process of breaking away from the Egyptian defilement and entering a life of purity. According to our sages, the people of Israel in Egypt had sunken into a process of spiritual degeneration.

With each passing day the nation of Israel frees itself of another layer of impurity, forty-nine in total, and instead of being deep in sin we ascend to the gates of holiness.

But within this bridge between Passover and Shavuot there is something else which is deep and thought-provoking even in the present-day reality. Passover is a festival of freedom and physical redemption. But there is no finality to this redemption, it is rather a step towards the spiritual rejuvenation realized at Mount Sinai. Just as the bridegroom counts the days until he may unite with his bride, the nation of Israel counts the days which separate between physical redemption of the nation and spiritual redemption.

During this past festive week, between barbeques and hot coals, I have given a lot of thought to this same point. For there is, in fact, a parallel situation with our Independence Day (Yom Ha-Atzmaut). Independence is obviously a positive thing. But, as a society, do we have a spiritual agenda? As a state, are we really a "light unto the nations"? Is independence part of a greater process, or do we already see it as the end?

Rabbi Moshe Garelik refers, in his book "Parashah U-Fishra", to that bridge known as "the Counting of the Omer", which connects the freedom of the body with that of the soul:

"The sons of the desert generation, through this counting, reduced the festival of Passover from its independent standing and transformed it into the forerunner of the festival of Shavuot. This is how the bridge and the connection between these two festivals came into being. The counting unified them and taught them not to separate national material redemption from spiritual redemption. The former does not exist without the latter.

The actual existence of the nation's redemption is in danger if it sees itself as the final purpose and as the most important thing of all. Many revolutions have weakened because of the fatigue of their heroes, who believed that they had reached the end of the road and that there was nothing further to which to aspire. The stability of many countries which had finally achieved independence was destroyed because all that remained were relentless power struggles between the liberators.

The counting of the Omer says "NO" to what has been achieved. It sees the exodus from Egypt as a stage, an important and valuable stage, but not to be exchanged for the process itself, the ladder for spiritual ascent and human perfection presented in the Torah of the Festival of Shavuot".

May we, too, be empowered to bridge this gap and ascend the ladder step by step towards the spiritual vision which would complete us as a society.

Thursday, May 04, 2006


Windows to the Soul

Rabbi Gustavo Suraski

This Devar Torah is dedicated Le-Ilui Nishmat

Fanny bat Baruch VeSara Chacham Z"L

The commandment to observe the Sabbath appears in the first verses of the Parasha: "You shall fear every man his mother and his father and keep my Sabbaths." (Leviticus 19:3).

The observance of Shabat is much more than a religious imperative, it is a spiritual need.

A few weeks ago, a member of the congregation who has started coming regularly to Shabat services told me how crucial it is for her to finish the week and enter the atmosphere of Shabat with us, with the congregation (even though she defines herself as "secular").

And she is right.

The concept of Shabat is so crucial to Jewish tradition that we remember it every day even though we may not be aware of it.

In the ancient world the days were named after the stars. This appears in several modern languages. Sunday is named after the sun, Monday after the moon and Saturday after Saturn. (In Spanish Wednesday, "Miercoles", is named after Mercury).

But in Hebrew the situation is completely different. We have "Yom Rishon" (the first day after Shabat), "Yom Sheni" (the second day after Shabat), "Yom Shlishi" (the third day after Shabat) etc. In effect, each day we note how many days have passed since the previous Shabat and how many days are left until the next Shabat.

Why is Shabat so essential, even to those who describe themselves as "secular"?

In this day and age, people are more concerned with the health of the body than with the health of the spirit. The truth of the matter is that after all the tensions of the week we reach Shabat in a state of "spiritual pollution".

But how does the soul become polluted? It is easy to understand and discuss pollution in the Kishon River or air pollution, but...the soul? How?

This is my opinion. Our body has seven "windows". It is through these "windows" that the soul breathes, lives and relates to the world. These windows are all located in our heads. There is the window of the mouth. Two windows in the nose, two in the eyes and two in the ears. The "pollution" of the week enters through these windows in the same way that sand enters through the windows of the house during a sandstorm.

When we make "Havdalah" at the end of Shabat, we dedicate a blessing to each of these "windows". First to the mouth when we bless the wine. Secondly, we bless and smell the spices dedicating a blessing to the nose. Then comes the for the candle dedicated to the eyes and finally we hear the blessing of "Havdalah" which is dedicated to our ears. These blessings are in effect a gift and a shield for these very same senses just at the moment when a new week is beginning and pollution again finds its way into the depth of the soul.

In another week Shabat will arrive. I regret to say that I do not think that the coming week will be free of tensions and pressures. I do not think that the news we hear every evening will be particularly good…

But at least Shabat will arrive again, this gift of twenty five hours that erase a large amount of the pollution in our souls and improve our spiritual state. As is written in the Hagaddah of Passover, "If he had given us only the Shabat, it would have been sufficient.".

Monday, April 10, 2006


Pictures of the Past
Rabbi Gustavo Surazski
A few days ago I was looking, together with a relative, at some digital photographs of my daughter since birth. "Say, Gustavo," he asked, "does she always smile in photographs?"

Actually, no. She knows how to cry a lot. And also, when you photograph her, she sometimes closes her eyes, and sometimes looks tense or irritable, or angry. But (this is the advantage of digital cameras) if we don't like the picture, we simply erase it.

I sometimes miss those days when we used to go to a store to develop pictures, and out of 24 there were 5 with closed eyes, another 7 with red eyes, 2 completely blank and 10 which were...reasonable. True, we threw money away. But at least those pictures represented our lives more accurately.

We don't always smile and radiate (in fact, most of the time we don't). There are two faces to life. Sometimes our pictures are not as good as we wanted them to be. Sometimes we see a picture and feel annoyed: "Hey, I was so young", or "thin", or "I used to have hair." But what can we do?...That's how life is.

A similar thing happens when we talk about pictures, not of people, but of a nation. Sometimes nations look at pictures of the past, see something unpleasant in them, and decide to wipe it out.

Why remember the unpleasant things? Why keep in our memories those pictures which represent the dark side of our lives? These nations are convinced that the best way to deal with their misdeeds of the past is to erase them from their collective memory! (These same nations would appreciate the invention of the digital camera).

But other nations, and I say this with great pride, like our nation, are convinced that wiping out the pictures of the past is a cowardly and sick practice. Our sages taught us that the story of the Hagadah should be told in the form of "first disgrace and then praise ("matchilim bige'nut u'mesaymim bi'shevach"), starting with the bad and ending with the good.

"You want to celebrate?", they ask us.
"Is the gefilte fish tasty?". "Grandma's soup smells good?"

Wait. Start with the bad. Do not erase the past! Remember the suffering, the tears, the cries, the blood, the agony. There are thorns in our past too.

During the Festival of Passover every year we learn that our nation must not live with a selective approach to our past. "We were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt." That is not a pleasant thing. It is even humiliating. But that is the story of our nation.

There are pictures which we must never erase.

Thursday, March 30, 2006


The Steps of Moses
Rabbi Gustavo Surazski
In 1997 I visited the Schocken Institute in Jerusalem and held an ancient manuscript in my hand. It was a Siddur from the fifteenth century. The quality of the manuscript was excellent. I managed to read the Kriat Shema and the blessings, the Amidah and nearly all the parts of the prayers except for one page which was black and looked burnt. I asked Prof. Shmuel Glick, who heads the Institute, to explain why it was so. He told us that the black page contained the Havdalah prayers. The Jews who had used it had held the candle above the page and the hot wax had ruined it.

Even inadvertently we leave traces in our books. We can hold the Pesach Haggada, smell it, and remember last year's menu. Who has not seen Grandmother's soup stains in a Haggada? Traces of our experiences remain on the page.

If we pick up any siddur, we can tell which pages were opened most during the years. There will be a yellowish tinge and some pages will be more noticeable than others.

Also in our portion, VaYikra, there is a similar phenomenon. As soon as we begin, in the first word of the portion, we will notice a small letter Aleph in the word VaYikra. That small aleph is a sign that Moshe, too, left his mark on the Torah.

Why do I tell you this?

The Torah tells us that when Moshe descended from Mount Sinai to give the Torah to the people of Israel, his face shone and he radiated light.


When he reached the beginning of the third book and heard the word VaYikra from G-d, he was not so enthusiastic. Baal Haturim says that Moshe did not want to write the word VaYikra but rather the word VaYikar, as in the matter of Balaam, as though it was only a chance occurrence that God appeared to him. In the end the Lord and Moshe reached a compromise and Moshe wrote a small Aleph. He transferred the ink that remained in his pen to his head and from that he received the radiance.

And why did Moshe feel discomfort towards the letter aleph? Because aleph is the first letter of the word ani, meaning "I"; that is, the ego. Modest Moshe decided to minimize the aleph. He saw himself as small and humble, not as great and important.

Those are the steps of Moshe left on the Torah. That small Aleph is the signature of the prophet.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Tetzave - Zachor

Brain Gym

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

Remember what Amalek did unto thee by the way at your coming forth out of Egypt; how he met thee by the way and smote the hindmost of thee, all that were feeble behind thee, when thou wast faint and weary; and he feared not G-d. And it shall not come to pass, when the Lord thy G-d giveth thee rest from all thy enemies round about, in the land which the Lord thy G-d giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it, that thou shalt blot out the rememberance of Amalek from under the heavens; thou shalt not forget. (Deuteronomy 25, 17-19)

There seems to be an internal contradiction within the portion "Amalek" in Sefer Devarim. On the one hand we are commanded to wipe out the memory of Amalek under heaven. On the other, we are ordered to remember what he did on our way out of Egypt. If we erase, how can we remember? If we remember, how can we have erased?

In any event, we know that two completely different commandments are contained in the same portion. The first is the eradication of the memory of Amalek under heaven, meaning the physical eradication of any remaining descendants of that nation. The second is the memory itself, that mitzvah carried out every year upon reading this weekly Sabbath portion "Zachor".

But, in any case, the first mitzvah has long been described as one which we are unable to fulfill in our time. Aside from the ethical issue involved in this mitzvah due to the demand to destroy an entire nation, the Mishnah testifies in Masechet Yadayim that there is no possibility at all of identifying Amalek and therefore no way of destroying him ("King Sancheriv of Ashur rose up and confused all the nations").

So how can we fulfill this mitzvah today? We cannot.

Still, there are customs connected to this mitzvah in various ways. When I was studying a course for Torah Scribes in Jerusalem ten years ago, and we reached the lesson on erasing, the teacher wrote the word "Amalek" on a piece of parchment and taught us how to erase on it. He claimed that he, too, had learnt the secrets of erasing in this same way. The custom of using rattles when saying the word "Haman" while reading the Megilla on Purim is also connected in some way to the same Mitzvah of wiping out the memory of Amalek. We know that, according to Sefer HaManhig (Provence, the 12th century) that children in France and Provence used to write the word "Haman" (one of Amalek's descendants) on pebbles and knock them together while reading his name in the Megilla in order to drown it out. Also, the expression "Ymach Shemo VeZichro" (May his name and his memory be erased) recited after recalling the names of Israel's enemies originates in the same mitzvah.

However, on this Shabbat, the emphasis is on remembering and not erasing.

The word "Zachor" (Remember) is so central in Jewish tradition that we have a deeply meaningful custom which causes us to exercise the power of remembrance after every morning's prayers. Every person in Israel should recite these six remembrances every day while reading the appropriate portions of the Torah : The remembrance of the exodus from Egypt, the remembrance of the revelation on Mount Sinai, the attack of Amalek and the command to erase his memory, the remembrance of what our Fathers to G-d in the desert, the punishment of Miriam for slandering Moses, and the remembrance of the Sabbath

Why is this so important? Why does the word "Zachor" (Remember) appear so many times in the Torah? Why do we have so many mitzvot connected to memory?

Simply because the brain is like any other muscle in our body which must be exercised in order to preserve it. All of these mitzvot serve as "Brain Gym" which develops our memories. Cars need fuel to enable them to be driven. Plants need water to grow. Electronic instruments need electricity to function…And nations need the power of memory in order to survive.

This Shabbat is one of "Brain Gym".

Friday, January 20, 2006


The Eternal Burning Bush
Rabbi Gustavo Surazski
I would like to share with you two events I took part in a few years ago.

Five years ago we celebrated the entering of a new "Sefer Torah" in my synagogue in Buenos Aires. The Torah was written in the United States and send by air to Argentina. I went to the airport to pick it up and take it home with me until the day of celebration.

The custom secretaries looked at the "odd book" and asked me what it was. I explained to them the basics as to what it was about, and they determined that it was to fall under the category of antiques. They said: "Just like an old Swiss watch from the 18th century, Mr. Surazski. That will be 2% tax charge".

That was a great deal of money, but not the important point. It was a matter of jewish pride. Is it possible that our Torah would be categorized as an antiquity? I wanted to explain to her about the "Eternal Burning Bush" as written in our portion this week. I wanted to explain to her that the sound of the Shofar, when the Torah was handed down to us, can still be heard. But I was sure she wouldn't understand.

The second event took place five years ago. My wife and I were on our honeymoon in New York. We were looking for a synagogue near our hotel to pray in on Shabbat. I asked a near by Kosher Chinese restaurant owner where I could find one in the neighborhood. The owner, a young orthodox man, asked me if I wanted to pray in a Conservative, Reform or an Orthodox synagogue (I thought it sounded funny to have been given so many options, but realized a restaurant owner was used to producing a menu). Then he said that there was a very nice one that wasn't far. "And there is another one that is very old right next door, BUT don't go there". He continued to say: "It looks like a museum, many tourists visit and not all are jewish. It might very well be that if you went there you would be the only one with a Siddur".

And I think, if we let ourselves think of a Torah as an antiquity or of a synagogue as a museum that we are signing our own death certificate as a people. If we think that the only reason to celebrate a Brit, a Bar-Mitzvah or a Chuppah is because it will make our father or grandfather happy, our end is near...

When our Torah tells us of G-ds revelation to Moses by the "Eternal Burning Bush" it is not a description to a situation. It represents the challenge that stood before us then, and remains standing before us now. Not to let our Torah be categorized as an antiquity, like a Swiss watch. Not to let us be considered as passive strangers in our synagogues. Not to turn our back to tradition and leave it to others to watch over it.

The "Eternal Burning Bush" does not only refer to the refers to us. It is a calling out to the "Children of Israel" of all generations to be active players of our tradition and not passive bystanders...

The "Eternal Burning Bush" it is not just a cliché, it's a mission.

Friday, January 13, 2006


Aryeh King of Israel

Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

For the past week we have been praying for the recovery of the Prime Minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, and concerned for his well-being. The man who acquired questionable fame a few years ago based on his military achievements, has today become one of the most admired leaders that Israel has known since the inception of the State. And an explanation for the change in public opinion might be found in this week's portion.

"Like a lion's whelp, O Judah," is written in the Torah (Genesis 49, 9). "The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet" his father blesses him. Two questions arise from this blessing given to Judah...

Firstly: Why did God choose Judah to rule? (The house of David and the Messiah descended from him.) Why not his first-born, Reuben? Or Joseph (who had at least gained some experience under the King of Egypt)?

Secondly: Why was Judah compared to a lion (Aryeh)?

As to Judah as a choice, we can see at the beginning of the portion "Vayigash" how he tried to free his brother Benjamin from captivity under Joseph. We have already stated last week that according to the Midrash he was ready for both conflict and reconciliation. He was prepared to be a pacifist and also a fighter. He was prepared to be a man of compromise and also a military leader.

As to the second question, here is a wonderful parable from the book "Doresh Tov Le-Amo":

...The animals sought a king and turned to the tiger, saying: "The tiger's strength is in his loins and he is cruel, and all the animals will fear him". The fox replied, "The tiger may be the most terrifying of all the animals, but sometimes the king also needs a measure of mercy and compassion...for if he always rules by cruelty, what will become of us?" The animals said: "If that is the case, we will appoint the lamb as king, for there is none more merciful and forgiving as he." The fox replied: "The lamb may excel in the measure of his compassion, but a king also needs courage and thus there is no better to choose as our king than the lion, who knows how to spare when he is not hungry and to show his strength in times of war...".

We expect exactly the same qualities in a political leader. To understand that there is "a time for war" and also "a time for peace", and most importantly of all, when necessary, to know how to show uncompromising courage as well as the compromise of heroes.