Al Hanissim for Yom Ha-Atzmaut

(I’m copying this over from my previous blog. This post was originally written 13 April 2010)

In compiling and editing my own siddur, I have come across the problem of what to do about על הניסים (the prayer “For the Miracles”) for יום העצמאות (Israel’s Independence Day). I wholeheartedly believe that the reëstablishment of Jewish sovereignty over the Land of Israel is a miraculous act of Divine providence, and part of the ultimate redemption. As such, I believe that thanking God for that miracle is a religious obligation.

But what text to say? The rabbis who established the liturgy for יום העצמאות did not establish a text for an על הניסים. There are several out there — the one that Rabbi Jules Harlow wrote for Siddur Sim Shalom is perhaps the best known in this country, and there are several others that I found online, but none of them felt right to me. Some are strongly political, others too narrowly drawn. There’s an illuminating analysis at http://hitzeiyehonatan.blogspot.com/2006/04/yom-ha-atzmaut-liturgy.html — I don’t agree with everything he writes, but he provides good food for thought, as does Avi Shmidman at http://alhanisim.blogspot.com/2009/04/blog-post.html, who formulated his own text.

I decided that the next step in my thought process would be to write my own. Often, in the puzzle world, the best way to learn to solve a type of puzzle is to try constructing puzzles of that type; the exercise deepens one’s perception of the type. I did not intend to use my own text in my siddur, but it would give me something to compare to others. In the end, though, I am likely to use this because I remain dissatisfied with what else I’ve found.

So, here’s a summary of how I ended up with the text that I have.

If one feels, as I do, that on יום העצמות there was a miracle, and that we should thank and praise the Holy One for that miracle by reciting הלל and על הניסים, then there a number of questions one needs to answer.

The first and most important, of course, is: What is the miracle?

It’s not just the military victory. First, that would raise the question of why 1948 is worth singling out but not ’56, ’67, ’73 (oy, davka ’73!), and so on. Second, though, if we look at the archetypal miracles for which we say על הניסים, Chanukah and Purim, it’s interesting to note that in both cases there is the miracle that happened “בו ביום,” at that moment, but also the more important miracle of the months and years leading up to that moment. The true miracle of Chanukah wasn’t the flask of oil that started burning on 25 Kislev, it was the years of battle; the miracle of Purim wasn’t the military success on 14 Adar, it was the chain of seeming coincidences that made our defense possible. And in both cases, there is the redemption of Jewish identity from the threat of assimilation among the most powerful nations of the world.

So, too, it seems to me that the miracle of עצמאות preceded יום העצמאות. It began with Herzl and the early Zionists; it was the miracle of the ingathering of the exiles and their successes against overwhelming — one is tempted to say impossible — odds to build the infrastructure and social structure necessary to support the new country.

One can then construct an על הניסים text that proceeds from this starting point, and looks to the texts for Chanukah and Purim for their structure.

The classic texts begin by situating themselves in a particular time, identified as “In the days of” the humans who are considered the “heroes” of the narrative. For Chanukah that’s the Hashmonaim; for Purim it’s Mordechai and Esther. In our case, I submit that it’s the chalutzim.

The classic texts draw heavily on the sources that describe the narrative: מגילת אסתר, מגילת אנטיוכוס, and the Talmud Bavli. These texts are familiar and have the appropriate cadences. For my purposes, I drew on four sources: The verse in Devarim 30:4 that describes the ingathering of the exiles, תפילה לשלום מדינת ישראל, the מגילת העצמאות itself, and התקוה.

The classic texts start by establishing the existential threat to the Jewish People, then transitioning into God’s redemptive acts with the phrase ואתה ברחמיך הרבים “And You, in Your abundant mercy”. They use the form of a litany. And they emphasize the contributions not only of the omnipotent God without whom the Jews could not have succeeded, but also the actions of the Jews without whose efforts God would have had no one to support. I tried to use all of these techniques in assembling my text.

Here is what I have at the moment. I hope to get it refined in time to use next Tuesday on יום העצמאות:

בִּיְמֵי הֶחָלוּצִים, עֵינֵיהֶם צוֹפוֹת לְצִיּוֹן, וְנִדַּחִים בִּקְצֵה הַשָּׁמַיִם. וְאַתָּה בְּרַחֲמֶֽיךָ הָרַבִּים מִשָּׁם קִבַּצְתָּם, יי אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ, וּמִשָּׁם לָקַחְתָּם. בִּיְצִיאָתַם מֵאַרְצוֹת צַלְמָוֶת, הִצְהִירוּ כִּי אֲנַחְנוּ עַם חׇפְשִׁי בְּאַרְצֵנוּ ,וְהִכְרִיזוּ עַל הֲקָמַת מְדִינַת יִשְׂרָאֵל, רֵאשִׁית צְמִיחַת גְּאֻלָּתֵֽנוּ. וְחִזַּקְתָּ אֶת רַגְלֵי הָעוֹלִים, אֶת יְדֵי הַבּוֹנִים, אֶת לְשׁוֹנוֹת הַמַּנְהִיגִים, וְאֶת לְבָבֵי הַחַיָּלִים הַמְּגִנִּים עַל הָעַם, הָאָרֶץ, וְשִׁמְךָ הַקָּדוֹשׁ.

In the days of the pioneers, whose eyes turned to Zion, the exiles were scattered to the corners of heaven. And You, in Your great rachamim, From there you gathered them, Hashem our God, and from there you took them. In their exodus from the lands of the shadow of death, they declared that we would henceforth be a free people in our own land, and they proclaimed the State of Israel, the first flowering of our redemption. You strengthened the legs of the immigrants, the hands of the builders, the mouths of the statesmen, and the hearts of the soldiers who defended the land, the people, and Your holy Name.

Once more, with sources:

In the days of [Standard Al Ha-Nissim structure]
the pioneers,
whose eyes turned to Zion [Hatikvah],
the exiles were scattered to the corners of heaven. [Deut 30:4]
And You, in Your great rachamim [Standard Al Ha-Nissim structure]
From there you gathered them, Hashem our God, and from there you took them. [Deut 30:4]
In their exodus from
the lands of the shadow of death, [cf http://alhanisim.blogspot.com/2009/04/blog-post.html ]
they declared that we would henceforth
be a free people in our own land [Hatikvah],
and they proclaimed the State of Israel, [Megilat atzmaut]
the first flowering of our redemption. [Tefillah lishlom hamedinah]
You strengthened the legs of the immigrants, the hands of the builders, the mouths of the statesmen, and the hearts of the soldiers who defended the land, the people, and Your holy Name.

[A year after I wrote that, I had the opportunity to work with Prof. Ruth Langer, an expert in Jewish liturgy. She helped me (a lot!) to revise this into the following text, which is what appears in my siddur:]

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Hamilton

We were lucky enough to see Hamilton on Broadway yesterday. I’m presumptuous enough to write a review , if only to record my reactions for myself to solidify the memory of an amazing experience.

So yes, of course it was wonderful and moving. The hype, of course, is that it’s “even better than you expect” even when you expect it to be better than you expect. In some regards that’s true, but in some points, if I am to be honest, I was a little disappointed. (Some of that may be because so many roles were swapped around to cover understudies and standbys.) Overall, though, it was wonderful and worth the long wait.

The lighting was particularly amazing. At times, it functioned as scenery; at times, it was one of the dancers; at times, it was a Greek chorus commenting on the action. (It even provided a little “post-credits bonus” on the way out of the theater.)

The cast is clearly the hardest-working set of actors on Broadway. It’s not just Alexander Hamilton who is non-stop; the company is constantly singing, dancing (with amazing precision and a rich vocabulary of gesture), bringing sets and props on and offstage, miming additional props (rowing Hamilton across the Hudson stood out), and creating a world ex nihilo.

In many ways, this felt like a revival. The original cast is mostly gone, and the audience knows their performance intimately through the Original Cast Recording, through videos of numbers being performed in various special venues (e.g., at the Tony Awards), through the Hamiltome, etc. That gives the current cast the opportunity to reinterpret their roles; and given how much the roles were developed in workshop, this is practically a necessity. Only Daveed Diggs could perform Lafayette/Jefferson as Daveed Diggs. This is a drawback in places (comparing Brandon Victor Dixon’s performance of “The Room Where It Happens” to how I imagine Leslie Odom Jr. did it, based on how it’s been described, is fundamentally unfair, but inevitable) but in others it means the show already has the chance to explore multiple possible interpretations. Bryan Terrell Clark’s “History Has Its Eyes on You” had a completely new interpretation in my mind. Lexi Lawson’s “Burn” left scorch marks where the recording of Pippa Sou was much more smoldering — both are impassioned performances; each brings to light a different reading of the character.

Lawson’s Eliza was wonderful overall, and the highlight of this performance. She covered so much emotional ground, and pretty much whenever she was singing, I was crying. In “Helpless” it was tears of joy at the power of Eliza’s love; in “Burn” it was the rawness of her fury; in “Stay Alive (Reprise)” it was her strength of will and the devastating moment when that failed her; in “It’s Quiet Uptown” it was her silent grace; and in “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story’, it was her steadfast faith and hope. Lawson inhabited all of those moments with such surety that you forgot you were watching a show, and her performance was her own, not a copy of Soo’s.

Mandy Gonzalez was also a standout as Angelica, although she’s not given as much opportunity as Eliza to play a fully fleshed out character, and so it’s hard for me to distinguish her performance from Renée Elise Goldsberry’s on the recording.

At the performance we saw, Jon Rua filled in as Hamilton. He was quite good, although at times it felt like his attention was too focused on getting every word to come out right, rather than on the nuances of the performance. I also got a “Brian Williams” vibe from him, which I found distracting at times, although Heather says she doesn’t see that. But those are minor quibbles; his performance was fine, just not outstanding. (Again, he’s the standby for the role, so one can be forgiving.)

Dixon’s Burr and Bryan Terrell Clark’s Washington were excellent. Both men delivered their songs well, portrayed their characters in ways that shed new light on their motivations, and made their roles their own.

Two performances, on the other hand, were too campy for my taste. Jevon McFerrin’s Jefferson lacked the gravitas needed to make him believable as an opponent of Hamilton. And Andrew Chappelle’s King George, a role that (in my opinion) calls for sly camp, was too broadly painted. (It didn’t help that his singing and affect were both flat.) (Note that McFerrin is usually the alternate for Hamilton, and Chappelle is a standby for several roles.)

The choreography of “Helpless”/”Satisfied”, and again during “Hurricane”, were two standout moments where “it was even better than I expected, and I expected a lot.” The transition from “Hurricane” into “The Reynolds Pamphlet” made me gasp. A moment that surprised me with the elegance of the blocking was the voters chatting in “The Election of 1800.”

In general, the company was always doing interesting believable detail work in the background; this is a show that would reward attending over and over and over again, if that were possible. (I really hope when they eventually release the video that they shot last year, they do it in a format that allows the viewer to choose which camera to follow.)

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Dvar Torah: Ki Tisa / Parah

Shabbat Shalom and mazal tov to J___, Jon, Andrea, and the entire Kamens/Bresky family. Thank you for the honor of inviting me to share a few words of Torah tonight.

Thirty-five years ago on Shabbat Parah, parshat Ki Tisa, _I_ became a bar mitzvah.

_Thirty_ years ago, Jon and I met on our first day at MIT and became fast friends.

And of course a bat mitzvah is inherently a marking of the passage of years.

So tonight my thoughts turn towards how the Torah, and in particular how these two parshiot, Ki Tisa and Parah, expect us to view time.

Ki Tisa starts by continuing the theme of the last two parshiyot, with detailed instructions for the construction of the mishkan and its vessels. That concludes with the injunction to keep the Shabbat:

שֵׁ֣שֶׁת _יָמִים֮ _יֵעָשֶׂ֣ה מְלָאכָה֒ _וּבַיּ֣וֹם_ הַשְּׁבִיעִ֗י שַׁבַּ֧ת שַׁבָּת֛וֹן קֹ֖דֶשׁ לַה
כָּל־הָעֹשֶׂ֧ה מְלָאכָ֛ה _בְּי֥וֹם_ הַשַּׁבָּ֖ת מ֥וֹת יוּמָֽת׃

Six _days_ may work be done, but on the seventh _day_ there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, holy to Hashem; whoever does work on the _day_ of the sabbath shall be put to death.

While _we_ tend to think of Shabbat as a _weekly_ occurrence, the wording _here_ is six days, then the seventh day; the word Yom recurs as “b’yom ha-shabbat”. “Day” is clearly a key word in this pasuk.

Our parasha then transitions directly into the episode of the molten calf, which begins

וַיַּ֣רְא הָעָ֔ם כִּֽי־בֹשֵׁ֥שׁ מֹשֶׁ֖ה לָרֶ֣דֶת מִן־הָהָ֑ר

The people saw that Moshe delayed in coming down from the mountain….

The Gemara, Shabbat 89a, explains:

(אמר) ר’ יהושע בן לוי מ”ד (שמות לב, א) וירא העם כי בושש משה אל תקרי בושש אלא באו שש בשעה שעלה משה למרום אמר להן לישראל לסוף ארבעים יום בתחלת שש אני בא

And Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “And the people saw that Moses delayed [boshesh] to come down from the mount” (Exodus 32:1)? Do not read the word boshesh; rather, read it as ba’u shesh, the sixth [hour] has arrived. When Moses ascended on High, he told the Jewish people: In forty days, at the beginning of the sixth hour, I will arrive.

Aharon attempts to placate the people, “Vayomer, chag lashem _machar_”, a festival to Hashem will be _tomorrow_. And after the Leviim kill those who committed idol worship, Moshe says to them: v’latet Aleichem HAYOM b’racha – that Hashem should place a blessing on you THIS DAY; and the Torah continues,  “Vayhi _mimachorat_”, and it occurred on the _morrow_

We can see that throughout this section of the parasha, from the introduction of Shabbat through the end of the episode of the molten calf, the Torah insists that we perceive time in units of _days_.

There’s a similar linguistic focus on _days_ in Maftir Parah, with its emphasis on seven _days_ (not referred to as a week), specifically the third day and the seventh day. Mafitr Parah is concerned with how the individual is rendered separate from — and then reenters — the community after encountering death, and perhaps in that context the focus on processing each day one at a time, not as a week-long clump, earns the Torah its Talmudic nickname of Rachamana, the merciful one.

But the echo of a day-centric worldview between the Maftir and the main Parasha is striking.

Returning to Ki Tisa, Moshe next experiences a sublime transformative event, an encounter with the Eternal. After pleading first for the continuity of Bnei Israel, Moshe puts in a special plea for himself. He asks to see God’s glory; God famously replies “No human can see me and live” but promises to hide Moshe in the cleft of a rock. Moshe re-ascends Har Sinai with the second set of tablets, and then God crosses before him: Vayaavor Hashem al Panav… (which Ramban explains as  וטעם ויעבר ה’ על פניו שקיים אני אעביר כל טובי על פניך. — and the reason “God crossed before him” was to fulfil the earlier verse, “I shall cause all my goodness to cross before you”)

…Vayikra… — and God proclaims:

ה ׀ ה אֵ֥ל רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת נֹצֵ֥ר חֶ֙סֶד֙ לָאֲלָפִ֔ים נֹשֵׂ֥א עָוֺ֛ן וָפֶ֖שַׁע וְחַטָּאָ֑ה וְנַקֵּה֙—

And when we recite the 13 attributes of mercy, we stop there. But it’s the middle of the pasuk — we’ve even blown past the etnachta and stopped mid-phrase. How does God continue?

לֹ֣א יְנַקֶּ֔ה פֹּקֵ֣ד ׀ עֲוֺ֣ן אָב֗וֹת עַל־בָּנִים֙ וְעַל־בְּנֵ֣י בָנִ֔ים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁ֖ים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִֽים׃

God points out that the consequences of our actions affect not only ourselves but our children, and our grandchildren, to the third and fourth generations.

Moshe’s perspective changes — for the first time, he’s thinking past tomorrow!

And the very next section of the parsha delivers the structure of Jewish time. In this passage, the Torah mentions days, weeks, months, seasons, and years.

שֵׁ֤שֶׁת _יָמִים֙ _ תַּעֲבֹ֔ד וּבַיּ֥וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֖י תִּשְׁבֹּ֑ת
וְחַ֤ג _שָׁבֻעֹת֙_ תַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה לְךָ֔
כִּ֚י _בְּחֹ֣דֶשׁ_ הָֽאָבִ֔יב יָצָ֖אתָ מִמִּצְרָֽיִם
_בֶּחָרִ֥ישׁ וּבַקָּצִ֖יר_ תִּשְׁבֹּֽת
וְחַג֙ הָֽאָסִ֔יף _תְּקוּפַ֖ת_הַשָּׁנָֽה_׃
שָׁלֹ֥שׁ פְּעָמִ֖ים _בַּשָּׁנָ֑ה_ יֵרָאֶה֙ כָּל־זְכ֣וּרְךָ֔

and even generations:

כֹּ֣ל _בְּכ֤וֹר_בָּנֶ֙יךָ֙_ תִּפְדֶּ֔ה

The Torah’s timeframe — our timeframe — has shifted. And while a mere column ago, before Moshe’s encounter, God said:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה פְּסָל־לְךָ֛ שְׁנֵֽי־לֻחֹ֥ת אֲבָנִ֖ים כָּרִאשֹׁנִ֑ים
וְכָתַבְ_תִּי֙_ עַל־הַלֻּחֹ֔ת אֶת־הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר הָי֛וּ עַל־הַלֻּחֹ֥ת הָרִאשֹׁנִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר שִׁבַּֽרְתָּ׃

Hashem said to Moses: “Carve two tablets of stone like the first, and _I_ will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered.

Now that Moshe comprehends the holy view of time, the parsha concludes with Hashem telling Moshe:

וַיֹּ֤אמֶר ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה כְּתָב־_לְךָ_֖ אֶת־הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֑לֶּה …

And Hashem said to Moses: _You_ write down these commandments.

וַיִּכְתֹּ֣ב עַל־הַלֻּחֹ֗ת אֵ֚ת דִּבְרֵ֣י הַבְּרִ֔ית עֲשֶׂ֖רֶת הַדְּבָרִֽים׃

And he [Moshe] wrote down on the tablets the terms of the covenant, the Ten Utterances.

Moshe has learned to step back from the immediate pressures of “this day” and to peer along the arc of history. He has gained the perspective needed for God to entrust him with the sacred task of writing on the tablets as God’s shaliach, of becoming the intermediary through which the mesorah is passed down.

___, you are now becoming, like Moshe, an intermediary. You are no longer merely a student receiving Torah, but as a Jewish adult you are now a full participant in the continuing millennia-old conversation about what God wants of us. Moshe’s experience compels us to confront the question of how to see the perspective of those millennia with one eye and, with the other, the demands of each day – the needs of _today_.

After the Divine revelation at Sinai, we received the promise: וְעָשׂוּ לִי מִקְדָּשׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּי בְּתוֹכָם. They will build me a holy place and I will dwell amongst them. But the Torah’s detailed instructions laden with exact measurements can feel like a distraction; similarly, its emphasis at the beginning of our parsha on seeing each day as standing alone may teach us that the people were so focused on the day-to-day minutae that they lost sight of the big picture and stumbled into sin.

J___, one thing that your father and I have in common is that we are both, to put it politely, detail-oriented people. And I know that preparing for a bat mitzvah not only requires an attention to detail; it also involves counting the days. But becoming a bat mitzvah is not about the day. It’s not about the week and its parasha. It’s not even about the year you attain your Jewish adulthood. It’s about the rest of your life.

My wish for you this Shabbat is that you continue to find balance in the many time horizons and levels through which you experience Jewish life. May the details not distract you from the overarching spiritual beauty of our inheritance, and may the big picture not wash out the details that keep it vibrant.

Mazal tov and Shabbat Shalom.

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