Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Pesach in the Gulags

Yesterday was Rosh Chodesh Nisan, marking the beginning of the Hebrew month Nisan and reminding us that Pesach is just around the corner - on the 15th day of Nisan (Monday night, April 14). This month is also called Chodesh Ha-Aviv, the month of spring, introducing us to warm spring weather (as was the case today here in Maryland where we enjoyed a sunny day with temperatures in the upper 60s). 

But yesterday was also the last day of the shiva for our beloved Herman Taube z"l, and to honor his memory, I would like to share with you a poem he wrote about celebrating Pesach in a Soviet gulag.  It is a testament to the unbelievable determination and commitment to Jewish tradition of Herman and his fellow Jewish prisoners. This can inspire us, and help to put things in perspective when we qvetch about Pesach preparations and prices:   

Pesach in the Gulags
We waited in line all morning. 
In the village of Posiolek Sel-Mag
the shelves displayed a very skimpy
inventory of canned sardines. 
What we needed was flour, eggs,
onions, available only by protekcia
through privately-operated, illegal
speculators for exorbitant prices. 
We traded a pair of gloves and a shirt
for a bag of flour and a few potatoes, 
returned hurriedly to our barracks to
bake matzohs and potatoes for the Seder. 
We had no Haggadah to read --
everything was done from memory.
We had no wine for Kiddush and no
cup for Elijah. We sipped vodka slowly. 
When the guard came in, we told him
that this was a birthday party for our
beloved brigadier. He gulped down
a glass of vodka and sang Katiusha. 
When the guard left, we continued
singing "Belz," "Dayenu," "Adir Hu."
When reciting "Next year in Jerusalem"
to the tune of "Hatikvah," we all cried. 

(Herman Taube, Looking Back  Going Forward, Dryad Press: 2002, p. 16)

Thursday, March 27, 2014

In Memoriam: Herman Taube, 1918 (Lodz, Poland) - 2014 (Rockville, Maryland)

My friend and fellow congregant, Herman Taube, was laid to his eternal rest today at Ahavas Chesed cemetery in Baltimore. And it is so fitting because ahavas chesed, lovingkindness, was the very essence of Herman z"l.   

Herman was a prolific author and poet who wrote nearly two dozen novels and books of poetry about the Holocaust and the world of Eastern European Jewry. His writing captured the effervescence of the shtetl in Poland - a part of our recent history that has been vanquished by the Nazis, but he was also a poet who showed and exemplified lovingkindness - to his large family, to his fellow survivors, to every person in our shul and community, to the Jewish people, indeed, to every human being. 

Several weeks ago, Herman celebrated his 96th birthday. To honor the occasion, Herman was called up to the Torah at Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim, and I had the privilege of leyning  for him.  Coincidentally, I was also celebrating my birthday on that Shabbat, Parashat Terumah, but I was only a mere 44 -- a "toddler" compared to Herman.  I told him that I view this as an honor, and this should be a blessing for me, hoping that his longevity will rub off on me.  It turned out to be the last aliyah for Tzvi ben Aharon v'Miriam,  though you could never guess that it would be so because he was exuding energy and beaming with a radiant smile. Rabbi Suson gave him a special mi sheberach, mentioning how Herman inspires us all to continue to remember, to keep the mitzvah of zachor. I felt Herman's enthusiasm at being able to stand on the bimah and listen to the Torah reading with clarity of mind at such an age. He was connected with every fiber of his being to our tradition and heritage.

In World War II: A Medic, A Prisoner of War, and A Liberator

When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Herman was serving as a medic in the Polish Army. The Polish Army was defeated within weeks, and the Soviet Union occupied eastern Poland according to the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact.  Herman, along with the retreating Polish Army, was captured by the Soviet Army, and sent to Siberia, where he suffered through the harsh Gulags. 

When Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, the Polish prisoners in the Soviet camps were released, and Herman was sent to Uzbekistan where he joined the Second Polish Army, and served as a medic for two years. In June 1944, his ambulance drove over a land mine and Herman was injured. After he recuperated, he was sent to Lublin, and worked in the former Majdanek Concentration Camp, caring for liberated prisoners who were left behind when the retreating Nazis liquidated the camp. 

He married his wife Susan (nee Strauss), a fellow survivor, and they both immigrated to the US in 1947. Herman and Susan attended Shabbat services regularly at HTAA, where I had the privilege to schmooze with them on many occasions. 

Herman was a true mensch, and when I had a personal moment of difficulty and challenge, he encouraged me, and gave me a signed copy of his book, Surviving Despair, A Story About Perseverance. While it is a painful reminder of what that generation went through, it is also a book about hope, determination, and triumph over adversity. 

Here is the first poem in that book: 

Surviving Despair

We faced death of our dear ones, 
raging fires of our own homes,
acute hunger and the Siberian frost. 

Our constant companions
were loneliness and despair,
years shrouded in misery. 

We desperately hoped to 
survive the brink of doom,
to hold out against despair.

When the war was over and we
returned to our beloved Poland,
we were greeted with pogroms

We feared for our lives, from our own
neighbors, prohibited from returning
to our former homes. 

Our hope of returning to our
homeland was an empty dream,
but we endured, surviving despair. 

Faith and courage helped us cope
with periods of desperation and loss.
We say: Thank God. We survived. 

In the funeral today, Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt mentioned that although he wrote so much about history, Herman was not mired in the past.  He embraced modernity, and wrote weekly emails to his large family and a whole group of friends about Jewish communal issues and current events. While describing the past, he was looking toward the future; indeed, that  is the name of one of his most important books - one that his publisher Merrill Leffler recommended that everyone read:  

(Click on the pic to order this book)

May Herman's memory be a source of blessing and an inspiration to all. 

Friday, March 14, 2014

If It Sounds Too Good To Be True, It Probably Is: The Case of "Tzav has Tzav"

We all know the the famous saying: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!  

This aphorism applies to our parasha this week, Tzav; but not to its content which, being focused on the very complex laws of sacrifices, is rather boring. I'm referring to the following question:  

How many verses are in Tzav?

The Masoretes, the Jewish scholars from around the 10th century who annotated the Bible with exact spellings, punctuation, vowels, and cantillation marks – known collectively as the “Mesorah,” used to count the verses in each parasha, and then give a mnemonic - using the system of gematria - to remember the number. 

For example, according to the Mesorah, Parashat Noach has 153 verses, and to remember that number, they gave the mnemonic "בְּצַלְאֵל " (Betzalel) - - which in gematria gives you 153 (here's an online gematria calculator). And there's even a connection: Betzalel designed and built the vessels in the Tabernacle, similar to Noach who designed and built the Ark. 

Now let's see what the Mesorah wrote for our parasha, Tzav.   

If you have a standard chumash, this is what you will find at the end of the parasha: 

צ"ו פסוקים, צ"ו סימן.
“tzav” [96] verses, a way to remember- tzav.

So, the number of verses is 96, and the gematria of the word "tzav" is also 96.  Amazing! How serendipitous! Can there be a more beautiful coincidence? 

I grew up on this vignette. I even remember my grandmother, Savta Grete, telling us how there is one parasha in the Torah where we'll always remember the number of verses -- how can anyone forget that tzav has tzav?!

But doesn't this sound too good to be true? 

Last year, I decided to check this out myself, and counted the verses. And I discovered that  Tzav has 97 verses!

I was shocked. At first, I was sure that I made an error, so I repeated this several times, but each time it came out to 97! 

Alarmed at my discovery, I did some research, and indeed, in the manuscript that our chumashim use today tzav has 97 verses, which means that those publishers who continue to print the Masoretic annotation of "96 verses" are printing a factually false statement. In the chumash, no less!    

What happened? How did 96 become 97 or 97 become 96? No one knows exactly, but there are several hypotheses:

·      1. The Masoretes had a different manuscript of this week’s parsha, with two psukim combined into one, and therefore when they counted verses – they did have 96 verses, and the easy-to-remember mnemonic “tzav has tzav verses” was correct for their time.

·      2.  They made an error in their counting.

·       3.  My conspiracy theory: We've always had the same manuscript, and it was always 97 psukim. But the Masoretes or later publishers realized that 97  is so close to 96 (notice how similar צ"ז is to צ"ו), and they couldn't resist the temptation to "massage" 97 into 96 in order to get this amazing mnemonic - “tzav has tzav verses.” They probably thought "who's going to actually count," so we can be off by one verse and no one will notice . . . 

Whatever the history of this error, it is clear that our chumashim today are printing an incorrect statement out of habit. 

In the Stone chumash, however, the latest edition (11th) has addressed this error.  While they printed the traditional incorrect Masoretic text in Hebrew (out of reverence, I presume), they added a footnote in English: 

According to the punctuation in our standard texts of the Chumash, however, Tzav contains 97 verses. 

Whatever the explanation, we can learn 2 important lessons: First, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Second, we should always question, and never believe blindly what we are told. Even if it's written in a holy book. 

Happy Purim!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

A Strong Finish: Chazak, Chazak, Ve' . . . Nitchazek or Nitchazak?

When we complete something after putting much effort into it, we feel a sense of satisfaction. I believe that's what Jews felt today in synagogues, when we read Parashat Pekudei, completing the entire Sefer Shemot (Book of Exodus). And after the very last verse of Pekudei was read, hundreds of thousands of Jews in synagogues worldwide proclaimed the famous words: 

חֲזַַק חֲֲזַַק וְנִִתְְחֲַזק

(Be strong! Be strong! And may we be strengthened!)

And the Torah reader in each synagogue repeated those words after them.

But how did you pronounce the last word - ונתחזק

Did you say וְנִִתְְחֲַזֵק  "ve'nitchazek" (with the vowel tzere)  or  וְנִִתְְחֲַזַק "ve'nitchazak"(with the vowel patach)? 

It seems that most synagogue-goers today say “ve’nitchazek.” But as Torah reader at Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim,  I chose to pronounce it  “ve'nitchazak.”  This immediately prompted Cantor Ben Bazian to come over and question me on that pronunciation.

No, it's not a rebellious streak, as Cantor Bazian jokingly suggested. I had a good reason for pronouncing "ve'nitchazak." 

Let’s look at the origin of this phrase, which appears only once in the entire Bible. In Book of Samuel, General Joab, King David’s army commander, was the first to utter these words,  while planning to fight one of King David’s wars.   

The Israelites were being attacked by both the Ammonites and the Arameans.  In order to fend off both threats, King David divided his army, half of his soldiers under the command of Joab to array them against the Arameans, and half of his soldiers under the command of Joab’s brother, Abishai, to array them against the Ammonites. So General Joab said to his brother:

וַיֹּאמֶר, אִם תֶּחֱזַק אֲרָם מִמֶּנִּי--וְהָיִתָה לִּי לִישׁוּעָה; וְאִם בְּנֵי עַמּוֹן יֶחֶזְקוּ מִמְּךָ, וְהָלַכְתִּי לְהוֹשִׁיעַ לָךְ. חֲזַק וְנִתְחַזַּק בְּעַד עַמֵּנוּ, וּבְעַד עָרֵי אֱלֹהֵינוּ; וַה' יַעֲשֶׂה הַטּוֹב בְּעֵינָיו.

Joab said:
“If the Arameans prove too strong for me, you come to my aid; and if the Ammonites prove too strong for you, I will come to your aid. Let us be strong and resolute (chazak ve'nitchazak) for the sake of our people, and the Lord will do what He deems right.”
(II Samuel, 10:11)

Thus, it is unequivocally clear that in the only instance where the phrase "chazak ve'nitchazak" is mentioned in Tanach, it was  "ve'nitchazak!"

And since the phrase recited in synagogues is based on this idiomatic phrase from Sefer Shmuel,  the correct way to say it is – chazak, chazak,  ve’nitchazak!    

How and when did we start saying this phrase upon the completion of a chumash

The Maharam Mintz (Rabbi Moshe Mintz, 15th century, Germany and Poland)  explains that the custom of saying "chazak" at the completion of each chumash is to encourage the person who received this aliyah to continue and complete other books.  Apparently, during his time, the custom entailed saying only the word chazak

It is unclear when  congregations started saying the triplet - chazak, chazak ve'nitchazak. Both the Chatam Sofer (early 19th century, Hungary, Slovakia) and the Aruch Hashulchan (late 19th century, Belarus) rejected this custom. 

But some customs have a life of their own. One of the first to report about this custom and endorse it was Rabbi Shem Tov Gagin, born in Jerusalem in 1885, who traveled all over the world to research Jewish customs in different countries. He visited Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, France, and Holland, and  later became the head of the Beth Din in England. In his book Keter Shem Tov, in which published his research, Rabbi Gagin says that the custom in Amsterdam is to say "chazak, chazak ve'nitchazak." In Israel, he reports, the custom is to say "chazak" only at the completion of the entire Torah, whereas the custom in Ashkenaz (Germany, France and surrounding areas) is like in Amsterdam. Interestingly, the Sephardim have the custom of saying "chazak u'varuch" (may you be strong and blessed) after every aliyah, not just at the end of an entire book. 

Admittedly, whether to say ve'nitchazek or ve'nitchazak is not a crucial matter in our lives (and good luck to anyone trying to change a shul tradition that has been in place for years!)

But at Congregation Har Tzeon-Agudath Achim, we take our commitment to rituals seriously, paying close attention even to the smallest details.    We encourage our members to ask about various  minhagim, and conduct research into the origins of many rituals and customs.  Learning about the rich and varied history of our synagogue traditions benefits us all.