Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Bring the Captives Home

By Rabbi Reuven Poupko and Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz

July 12 marked the anniversary of last summer’s hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel. The conflict, which started with the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, created enormous hardships on both sides of the Israeli/Lebanese border, and displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians.

Canadians remember how our government intervened quickly to evacuate Canadians from Lebanon. While the plight of the civilians in Lebanon was the focus of much media attention, a like number of Israelis were forced to flee the north of Israel in the face of unrelenting Hezbollah rocket attacks directed at Israeli civilian centers. (The inequality of media attention during the conflict was pointed out in a report by Marvin Kalb of Harvard’s Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy).

We visited Israel during the conflict, and traveled through northern Israel. These cities were turned upside down because of the war. Tiberius was relatively lucky, with Kaytushas blowing through the roofs of a wedding hall and children’s school while both buildings were empty. Safed was a ghost town, with one of the remaining people pointing out where a man, on his way to visit his children, was struck dead in the street by a Katuysha. A short while after entering Haifa the air raid siren went off. We ran out of the car and took cover along with a group of people behind a tree. With us were two young girls who were crying loudly. Their father hugged them tightly, trying to calm them down. To us, the young girls’ panic was the face of war.

After the conflict, the United Nations passed Resolution 1701. Among other things, the Resolution calls for an immediate end to Syrian arms shipments to Hezbollah and an immediate release of the captive Israeli soldiers.

The resolution has been completely ignored by Hezbollah and its’ allies. Arms shipments to Hezbollah have continued unabated (as confirmed by U.N. reports). Even more tragically, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, the kidnapped soldiers, remain in captivity, along with another soldier kidnapped from Israel by Hamas, Gilad Shalit.

Shalit, Goldwasser and Regev have been held by Hamas and Hezbollah without any information on their condition or Red Cross visits. Aside from being a flagrant violation International Law, this is profoundly inhumane. Now, the families of these soldiers must endure the torture of not knowing anything about the condition of their loved ones.

It is difficult to imagine the profound pain these kidnappings have caused the captive’s families. Ehud Goldwasser’s wife, Karnit, travels the world, hoping to find a way to bring home her newlywed husband of ten months. The Regev family shows anyone they can a picture album of a loving brother and son they pray will come home soon. Gilad Shalit’s father Noam, meets the press, clutching his son’s elementary school project that shows his son’s love for peace. These scenes cry out to us; they remind us that the world must do everything to bring these soldiers home.

Considering the scale of the Arab-Israeli conflict, it may seem odd to focus so much on three captive soldiers. But these three soldiers in many ways embody the conflict. It is actually in the strategic interests of Hamas and Hezbollah to release these captives. The captives have little military value to Israel, and if Hamas and Hezbollah released them, they would garner a bonanza of positive PR, as well as international goodwill. Yet Hamas and Hezbollah continue to shut out the Red Cross and ignore the U.N., causing untold grief to their families.

Hamas and Hezbollah stubbornly hold on to these soldiers against their own self interest because terrorism is not about strategic gain. Terrorists are far more interested in inflicting pain on others then pursuing their own strategic interests. The goal of Hamas and Hezbollah is to hurt the Shalit, Regev and Goldwasser families. It is critical that people around the world subvert these sadistic goals, and do everything to pressure these terror groups and their patrons to release these unfortunate young men.

We pray that the anniversary of this conflict will remind everyone of the three Israeli families who deserve have their sons come home. We hope that humanitarian voices will call out for their release. And we dream of the day when all people in the region can live together in peace.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Mei Merivah: A Leader’s Sin

What did Moshe do wrong?

It is an exceptionally puzzling passage. In the 40th year in the desert, the Jews are thirsty and complaining for water. Moshe, commanded by God to perform a miracle, assembles the community before a rock. There, he hits the rock, and out pours water.

Immediately after this miracle, Moshe is informed:

'Because you have not believed in Me, to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you will not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.'

Moshe’s sin remains elusive. All of the commentaries comb the text, hoping to find an element in the narrative that explains this sin.

Rashi explains that Moshe had specifically been commanded by God to speak to the rock. Since Moshe decided to hit the rock, he desecrated God’s name. Rashi says:

“For had you spoken to the rock and it had given forth [water], I would have been sanctified in the eyes of the congregation. They would have said,"If this rock, which neither speaks nor hears, and does not require sustenance, fulfills the word of the Omnipresent, how much more should we!”

Rashi’s explanation seems more puzzling than the passage itself! First of all, (as the Ramban notes), why would God ask Moshe to carry a stick if he wasn’t supposed to hit the rock? In addition, considering that it’s an inanimate object, what difference does getting hit or speaking make to the rock?

Even more perplexing about Rashi’s explanation is Moshe is simply repeating what he had done in the past. In the first year in the desert, Moshe is told to produce water by hitting a rock! (Exodus 17:5-6).

Perhaps this Rashi is better understood with Theodore Roosevelt’s famous proverb:

“speak softly and carry a big stick”.

This proverb is about leadership. Leaders use different tools to influence their followers. They can persuade with words, or coerce with the stick. The proper mode of influence depends in large part on the audience. For certain audiences one needs to carry a big stick; for others, it is critical to speak softly.

In Moshe’s early career, he was a leader that carried a big stick. When Moshe initially refuses to lead because he is “not a man of words”, the Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 3:14) explains that God tells Moshe he doesn’t need to use words. In dealing with a dictator like Pharaoh, a man used to the master-slave view of politics, all Moshe needs is a big stick. Pharaoh is not open to persuasion, and only will respond to brute force.

Moshe’s leadership of the Jews in those early years is also one of the “big stick” variety. Former slaves, they respond best to force and coercion. Even at Mount Sinai, the Talmud says the Jews accept the Torah under duress (Shabbat 88a).

In this context, we can understand why in the first year in the desert, Moshe is commanded to produce water by hitting the rock. Moshe must inspire former slaves, and that type of leadership requires a powerful show of force.

But the event at Mei Merivah takes place in the 40th year. At this point, we are dealing with a new generation, born free in the desert. Although their parents need to follow the leadership of the big stick, this generation must learn how to follow out of a sense of inner morality. Moshe must limit his use of the big stick, while this generation is persuaded to follow what is good on their own volition.

Rashi incisively leads us to the core of the Mei Merivah issue. In the 40th year in the desert, big stick leadership will diminish the second generation’s ability to truly listen to God.

Moshe’s sin is nearly imperceptible from the text, because it is unique to his situation. As a leader overseeing generational change, he was expected to understand that some generations require the big stick, while others require soft words.

For the second generation, soft words are the proper form of leadership. Without them, people will not open their hearts to God. And because he cannot learn the leadership of speaking softly, Moshe cannot be the leader to bring the second generation into Eretz Yisrael.

(this article can also be found here)

Thursday, June 07, 2007

United Parliament, Unified Jerusalem

By: Rabbi Reuven Poupko and Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz

It was a remarkable evening.

On May 15th a reception organized by The Canada-Israel Committee (CIC) in conjunction with the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee (CJPAC) and the Jerusalem Foundation took place in the Speaker’s Salon on Parliament Hill. Over 100 parliamentarians were welcomed by the Speaker of the House of Commons, Peter Milliken, as well as by Israel’s Ambassador Alan Baker. But this was no ordinary after hours cocktail party; the MP’s had come to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem.

The CIC and CJPAC deserve the heartiest congratulations for organizing a reception of this kind. Jerusalem is still a sensitive issue and many countries including Canada still do not recognize it as the capital of Israel. CIC and CJPAC also deserve praise for arranging for the publication of an ad in the Canadian Jewish News which saw close to 80 parliamentarians sign their names to a declaration that stated:

“We, the undersigned, join in celebrating the 40th anniversary of a reunited Jerusalem that is open to the world, encourages freedom of worship and protects the right of each religion and faith group to full access and authority at its holy sites.”

Unfortunately, there are still too many voices, informed by historical amnesia, that attempt to deny the tangible benefits enjoyed by all faiths due to Israel’s extraordinary stewardship of Jerusalem since 1967. The senators and MPs who came to celebrate now understand that only since reunification, is Jerusalem a city of tolerance where all religions and holy places are respected and protected.

This united group of parliamentarians now understands that it is only under Israeli sovereignty that all religions have complete freedom of worship in Jerusalem. When the city was under Jordanian control from 1948- 67, Jewish holy sites were desecrated., 58 synagogues demolished, and part of the ancient cemetery on the Mount of Olives paved over to make way for a hotel. Jews were barred from visiting the Western Wall. Any Jew who wanted to catch a glimpse of Judaism’s most holy site had to stand on a ledge on Mt. Zion and strain for a view.

The MPs and senators came to honor Israel’s record in Jerusalem. Over the last 40 years Israel has acted as a faithful guardian of Jerusalem for all religions, for Jews, Muslims and Christians. Indeed, this remarkable record is unique in the Middle East, one which should be held up as a model for the entire region.

The MPs and senators also came to recognize history. Jerusalem has been the heart and soul of the Jewish people for 3,000 years. This capital, first established by King David, has been the setting for many of the important events in the Bible and Jewish history. It is a city that was inhabited by prophets, poets, priests and kings. David, Solomon and Hezekiah ruled here. Hillel and Akiva walked her streets. It is impossible to imagine Jewish or Christian history without Jerusalem.

The evening was filled with genuine warmth and spirit. Members of our organization, the Canadian Rabbinic Caucus, attended the reception and struck up friendships with the parliamentarians. Naomi Azrieli, spoke eloquently about the work done by the Jerusalem Foundation on behalf of all citizens of Jerusalem, regardless of race, creed or colour. Inspiration was in the air.

Indeed, the idea of Jerusalem has inspired humanity for the last 3,000 years. Democracies like Canada and Israel, which value human rights and freedom, are inspired by the ideals of Jerusalem as embodied in the words of Jeremiah and Isaiah, who spoke about justice, charity and peace. After 1900 years of exile Jerusalem is no longer a dream, but rather a vibrant modern city that is the repository of our heritage and an expression of our ethical vision.

The Jerusalem of today is in some very significant ways more inspiring than even the ancient Jerusalem. That reality is what unified Parliament Hill on May 15th.



This is from the Vancouver Jewish Independent, June 1 2007:

High-tech hobnobbing

Rabbi uses web to disseminate his words.


Chaim Steinmetz is making it easier for people to access a rabbi at any place and any time, simply by using an Internet browser.As the rabbi for Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem (aka "the Baily Road shul") in Cote St. Luc, Que., the 43-year-old not only gives sermons from the bimah, but has found a way to offer words of wisdom through a virtual pulpit, by blogging.A blog (short for "web log") is a regularly updated journal on the Internet where people are invited to comment on entries. Steinmetz claims to be among only a dozen rabbis in North America that have or operate a blog, a handful of whom are in Canada. He refers to this ever-growing Internet tool as "the ultimate megaphone." By opening this digital door, the rabbi has invited people all over the world into his shul and into his head.One of the many advantages he cited for having a blog is that his sermons reach beyond the synagogue bulletin and the community."In this way, anyone anywhere can see something of interest to them," he said. "A rabbi gets up on Shabbat, presumably because he has something to say, and on a blog, hopefully a lot more people can take a look at it."His blog, like most, includes archives of previous postings. By last month, Steinmetz had written 100 entries. Recent postings included an array of topics such as "big fat weddings," chutzpah and how not to become distracted by taking too many photographs.Of the latter, he wrote, "People can become so absorbed in taking pictures and movies that they simply forget to experience life itself. Perhaps the photographic class could gain something by occasionally putting their cameras down."Another recent posting was entitled "Why unhappiness makes sense." The self-dubbed "Happiness Warrior" noted that after hundreds of funeral sermons in more than 15 years as a spiritual leader, he learned that others might benefit from blog entries pertaining to overcoming loss. "Putting those insights on the web is an opportunity for people to use that positively," he said. "I found a real connection in working with people on lifecycle events."Part of what he says brought him to blogging four years ago was the chance to connect with a wide group of people of all religious spectrums, both Jewish and gentile, even though the rabbi is Orthodox."It's something that could have a wide audience. It's really just to connect with people and to share Shabbat morning sermons and basic Jewish wisdom for a good life," said Steinmetz. "It's the most gratifying thing." In the last six months, he has been blogging regularly and said he tracks some 250 visitors a week.According to the rabbi, he receives e-mail and visitors from North America, Europe, Australia, Kuwait, China and the United Kingdom. A professor in Scotland, after seeing Steinmetz's entry on Adam Smith – the 18th-century Scottish philosopher and economist – offered criticism on the rabbi's interpretation of Smith's writings. "The web is an amazing way to connect, not just with congregants, but with the entire world," he said. "I've noticed my writings reach places I never thought they would."Citing his congregants as his greatest source of inspiration and criticism, he said they often approach him with observations and commentary of their own. They inquire about his choice of subject or suggest topics."This is co-authorship. People feel like they're partners with you," said Steinmetz. "I think blogging is in some ways more approachable than a website or a sermon. It certainly offers people an opportunity to come back with comments. It has this feel of a discussion in which the blogger shows, 'Look, I saw this, and what do you say about it?' "The medium and the message don't stop at blogging for the rabbi. Next up are mini video sermons on, linked to his blog. He plans on being just as circumspect on video as he is in writing."I'm not too controversial, because it weakens one's ability to communicate," he said. "Controversies never help communities. I am always exceedingly careful about what I have to say. My blog always has words of sensitivity, words of justice and moral focus.

Visit the rabbi's blog at

Dave Gordon is a freelance writer. His website is