Monday, September 07, 2009


We were there
by 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.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Ki Tavo

Recognizing the Good
By Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

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 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 the Lord 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 "Shaliach" (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 it instead of us, and that is saying "thank you".

There, the "Power of Attorney" held by the shaliach is no longer applicable.