Thursday, July 31, 2014

Gaza Killed Palestine

The "Two State Solution" has always been problematic. While its supporters in Israel and the West assumed that it referred to a Jewish State of Israel (with an Arab minority) and a State of Palestine (with a Jewish minority), its supporters amongst the Palestinians took it to refer to a binational State and a Judenrein State of Palestine. Furthermore, many of the Palestinian supporters only support the Two State Solution as a strategic interim goal to exterminating Israel entirely.

But the current war in Gaza has led almost everyone in Israel to realize something that was clear to the right wing a long time ago: that the Two State Solution is not a solution at all. This is because when militant Palestinians use it as a base for attacking Israel, and adopt Hamas' successful strategy of launching attacks from amongst civilian areas, there is no way for Israel to adequately respond without incurring global condemnation.

It is truly ironic that those shouting loudly about the injustice caused by Israel to the Palestinians in Gaza are the reason why there can never be a Palestinian state in the West Bank.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Soldiers Are Really Doing Stuff

There's a disturbing anti-rationalist approach that is spreading in the current war. It is taking hold even amongst people of a more rationalist persuasion, apparently due to their not realizing that it is not necessarily the Torah approach.

I am referring to the question of whether the soldiers and weapons of the IDF are actually doing anything. There is an extreme but pervasive anti-rationalist approach, which I was taught in yeshivah, that physical endeavor is of no real significance. Instead, it is simply a charade that we must go through in order for God to operate. (And to the extent that we recognize God as being the One actually doing things, we can minimize this charade). According to this approach, hishtadlus doesn't actually have anything to do with parnassah (and the fact that people who go to college and to work tend to earn more money than people in kollel is some sort of unexplained quirk of providence.) Following this approach, Iron Dome and the IDF soldiers are not really doing anything; it is just a charade that we have to go through - and which some people lose their lives for.

The late Rabbi Dr. Menachem-Martin Gordon, whose excellent studies of mezuzah and netilas yadayim can be found linked on the side of this website, criticizes this approach in Modern Orthodox Judaism (p. 31). He blames the spread of this approach on Rav Dessler:
Rav Dessler’s book, Mikhtav me-Eliyahu, whose impact on the yeshiva world in recent years has been enormous, represents a radical departure from the Talmudic position (Hullin 105a, Niddah 70b), as well as the medieval philosophic tradition (Rambam, Moreh Nevuchim, 3:17), in its denial of the reality of natural law and the cause-and-effect nexus of human initiative (Mikhtav, I, pp. 177-206). For Rav Dessler, the study of the sciences - even medicine, for that matter - is pointless, since the exclusive determinate of human welfare is the providential hand of God responding to religious virtue. Similarly, serious ļ¬nancial initiative is unnecessary. The diagnostic skill of the physician (Mikhtav, III, p. 172), the financier’s business acumen (Mikhtav, I, p. 188), ostensibly critical factors in the effectiveness of their efforts, are only illusory causes, argues Rav Dessler. Admittedly, he concedes, one must “go through the motions” of practical activity (the notion of hishtadlut, Mikhtav, I, pp. 187-88) - visiting a physician, making a phone call for financial support - but such is necessary only as a “cover” for the direct Divine conduct of human affairs, which men of faith are challenged to discern. Recognizing the immediacy of the Divine hand behind the facade of human initiative is the ultimate test of faith. One should be engaged in practical effort only for the purpose, paradoxically, of discovering its pointlessness! Therefore, asserts Rav Dessler, to the degree that a man has already proved his spiritual mettle, his acknowledgment of Divine control, could the extensiveness of his “cover” be reduced. Or, alternatively, to the degree that a man is not yet sufficiently spiritually perceptive - wherefore pragmatic initiative might “blind” him to Divine control - should he limit such recourse. Accordingly, b'nei yeshiva are implicitly discouraged from any serious financial initiative - or involvement across the board in any area of resourceful effort, be it technological, political, etc. - since the circumstances of life are, in reality, a spontaneous Divine miracle. (Note Rav Dessler’s necessarily strained interpretation of Hullin, ad loc. and Niddah, ad loc., where one is advised by Harzal to survey one’s property with regularity, and to “abound in business.” in the pursuit of wealth! — Mikhtav, I, pp. 200-01).
Rav Dessler’s position cannot draw support from the doctrine of Ramban, although he
assumes such an identification (ibid., III, pp. 170-73). While Ramban defines the ultimate providential relationship of God to Israel as one of ongoing miracle, he essentially never denies the reality of natural law. Israel, Ramban argues, through its fulfillment of mitzvot, is ideally able to transcend nature and engage God in the special faith—miracle association. In actuality, Ramban in fact concedes, such a relationship with the Divine does not generally prevail today, so that one must live, as a rule, in response to natural law. Thus he legitimates medical practice - he himself, after all, was a physician - not as a “cover” for some outright miracle deceptively operative behind the scenes, as Rav Dessler would have it, but as a genuine recourse to an efficacious discipline. (See Ramban, Commentary, Lev. 26:11; Torat ha-Adam, in Kitvei Ramban, II, pp. 42-43.) For Rav Dessler, the “natural agency” of medical treatment (III, p. 172), which, admittedly, those of low—faith level must necessarily pursue, is not an effect of natural law as Ramban recognizes it, but, once again, a deceptive expression at every moment of the spontaneous Divine will (see his own reference [ad loc., p. 173] to his basic definition of “nature” in I, pp. 177-206).
The anti-rationalist position is often thought of as being unequivocally fundamental to Judaism. It seems that it is believed to be the straightforward meaning of Devarim 8:17, which condemns those who say "kochi v'otzem yadi, my strength and the power of my hand made for me these spoils." People presume that this teaches us that human endeavor is not actually of any innate value at all. However, the rationalist approach understands this passuk as criticizing those who attribute their successes solely to their own efforts. The rationalist approach maintains that physical endeavor is of genuine value and significance.

Over at The Jewish Worker, there is a discussion of the possible reasons as to why people adopt the anti-rationalist approach. On another occasion, I will suggest an additional reason as to why people want to minimize the significance of what the IDF is doing; for now, I would merely like to assert very strongly that according to the rationalist tradition in Judaism (and, I would argue, according to Chazal), the young men of the IDF really are fighting the war - and deserve to be credited as such.

May Hashem help them succeed.

(Note to readers in Seattle - This Shabbos, I am speaking at BCMH, and on Sunday morning, I am speaking at SBH.)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Gaza in Ten Points

Here is a compact list of ten points that tells you everything you need to know about the current conflict. Please share it with those who would benefit from it.

1. Israel withdrew from the Gaza strip in 2005, forcibly removing its citizens, and leaving a multimillion dollar greenhouse agriculture industry for Palestinian economic development. The Gazans destroyed the greenhouses and voted Hamas into power, which promptly murdered its political rivals.

2. Hamas, sworn to the annihilation of Israel, has fired thousands of rockets into Israel, which are aimed at causing the maximum number of civilian deaths.

3. Hundreds of thousands of tons of cement and concrete were sent into Gaza as foreign aid for humanitarian purposes, such as for building homes and bomb shelters. Hamas used this to build terror tunnels for infiltrating into Israel and launching terrorist attacks.

4. Hamas' rockets aimed and fired at Israel's civilian airport have now caused all airlines (except El Al) to cease flying to Israel.

5. What does the world expect Israel to do? Sit back while rockets paralyze the country and shut down the airport, and wait for terrorists to enter through tunnels in order to target and massacre civilians?

6. As any country would do, Israel has attempted to destroy the rocket launchers and terrorists and terror tunnels.

7. In every war, there are civilian casualties. The US, Britain, and other NATO forces have caused tens of thousands of civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

8. Israel has gone far beyond the US and UK in its attempts to minimize the number of collateral civilian deaths in this conflict, even to the extent of telling people in advance to evacuate areas that include military targets.

9. It is extremely difficult, however, to minimize civilian deaths, since Hamas deliberately fires rockets from civilian areas, including alongside schools and hospitals, and forces civilians to remain in these areas rather than to listen to Israel's warnings. Hamas is clearly and undeniably trying to maximize the number of civilian casualties amongst Palestinians, while Israel is trying to minimize them.

10. Thousands of Palestinians are dying under appalling cruelty inflicted upon them - in SyriaYet nobody seems to care. This shows that what fuels the global support for Palestinians is not sympathy for Palestinians, but hatred of Jews.

Monday, July 21, 2014

A Small But Significant Change In The Charedi World

Amidst all the horrible, horrible news coming from Israel, there is something of particular relevance to this website's discussions that is small, but positive and of potentially great significance. I am referring to the charedi world's reaction to the current crisis.

The first significant phenomenon was when Eyal, Gilad and Naftali hy"d went missing. The charedi world was praying and reciting Tehillim for them, similar to their concern for the three yeshivah students that were imprisoned in Japan, but in marked contrast to their relative indifference to Gilad Shalit. (Some criticized the charedi community for not making prayer rallies and so on for the three teens, but I think it's understandable that they would show slightly less concern for those who are not part of their community, just as the dati-leumi community would have shown less concern had the boys been charedi.)

In the past, I had reasoned that the lack of concern in the charedi community for Gilad Shalit was due to their not feeling him to be part of the community. But the three teenagers were likewise not part of the charedi community. Perhaps the extraordinary horror of children being snatched enabled this to transcend divisions. Another possibility is that the charedi world would have expressed more concern for Shalit, except that his status as an IDF soldier made it harm for them to do so. One is reminded of an earlier war, in which the late Rav Elya Weintraub fiercely opposed a campaign for people to pray for specific soldiers, due to concern that people will ideologically identify with the IDF.

Yet as war broke out with Gaza, the charedi community seems to be displaying a great deal of concern for the IDF. I write "seems" as the precise focus of their concern is not absolutely clear. In previous conflicts, the charedi community has only prayed for the general situation, which threatened everyone, and not specifically for soldiers. (When there was a situation which only posed a risk for soldiers, such as the Battle of Jenin, the charedi community did not express any particular concern.) But in this conflict, the charedi media is reporting the Gedolim as calling on people to pray for the soldiers. It's not clear if this is charedi media spin; I have not seen any statement from charedi Gedolim which actually specifies soldiers, as opposed to the general population at risk. Still, even if it is just the spin of the charedi media, it is significant that the chareidi media wants to present it that way.

How are we to account for this development? I can think of a few possibilities. Perhaps the fact that the Gaza rockets can reach Jerusalem and Bnei Brak helps the charedi community realize how much it owes the soldiers. Perhaps the fact that many charedim are connected to the media via the internet helps them be more connected to the soldiers. Whatever the reason, it is a positive development.

Of course, it is still only a very small step. It is rather pathetic to have to praise a group of religious Jews for showing concern for people that are putting their lives on the line for them, when they refuse to share this burden and denounce those who try to enforce it as being evil. But even here, there is hope for change. If the charedi community is coming to realize the tremendous benefit and sacrifice that the IDF is making for them, they will hopefully also ask themselves why they should be exempt from making this sacrifice. A few months ago, we were hearing ridiculous claims that yeshivah students make a comparable sacrifice; after the events of the last few days, nobody is going to spout such nonsense.

Related to this, there is one small news item that is of exceedingly great significance. Rav Steinman was asked if yeshivah students need to flee from the danger - does not Torah protect? Rav Steinman's answer was that they do indeed need to flee, because perhaps Torah only protects when it is learned with a degree of lishmah (dedication) that we cannot presume to have attained. This, of course, leads to the obvious conclusion that since yeshivah students cannot assume that their Torah protects, there is no justification for their avoiding army service on these grounds. Hopefully, at least some people in the charedi world will realize this.

If you'd like to help the soldiers and people of Israel in the current crisis, then I strongly recommend my amazing local charity, Lemaan Achai. They are providing food, clothing and kids' activities for families from the south. They are also helping soldiers stationed in Bet Shemesh with Shabbat meals and such. Lemaan Achai has also set up an English language hotline, nationwide, in cooperation with Magen and Merkaz Rakefet, for people dealing with all forms of trauma due to the war. You can donate via Paypal at this link or via credit card at this link; just select "Emergency Response Campaign" in the drop-down menu.

May Hashem keep all our soldiers safe and help them be victorious, such that no family should ever have to mourn a loved one being lost in battle.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Evil, Or Just Insane?

A few weeks ago, I made what might have been one of the greatest mistakes of my life; I joined FaceBook. Still, I promised myself that I would just use it for spreading my blog posts, and would not get into FaceBook arguments. I broke that promise yesterday, when I spent many hours in an argument about the morality of Israel's actions in Gaza. What I found especially galling was that the person publicly criticizing Israel's recent operations as being "disproportionate," "immoral," "brutal" and "bullying" was not a Palestinian or a standard British judeopath, but a popular blogger who is a member of the Orthodox Jewish community, and who often writes excellent material.

Over the last few weeks, I have been mystified at the those criticizing Israel for responding to Hamas. What do they propose that Israel should do instead?

Some actually propose that Israel do nothing. They claim that Israel should simply suffer having rockets fired at it, rather than engage in military action that will likely result in civilian deaths. They are proposing that large portions of Israel should live their lives spending much of their time in bomb shelters, suffer the trauma of constant attack, and risk being killed by rockets that Iron Dome doesn't catch.

Coming from certain non-Jews, such a proposal is little more than a thinly-veiled hope that Israelis will die. But what about when it comes from affiliated Jews who clearly don't want that? It appears to be simply sheer lunacy. Rockets are lethal weapons. As Obama observed, "there is no country on Earth that can be expected to live under a daily barrage of rockets." Religious Jews claiming otherwise are simply lunatics, like flat-earthers.

Faced with that charge, some claim that a military response is appropriate, but not one that results in the loss of civilian life. But there is no such thing as a military response to rockets being launched from civilian areas that does not result in the loss of civilian life. How do you actually destroy the rocket launchers? How do you stop the people who make the rockets and fire them? Go into Gaza and say, "Sir, you are under arrest?!" (Incredibly, one person that I was arguing with proposed exactly that!)

Furthermore, if there was a way to stop the rockets without the loss of civilian life, you can be sure that Israel would do it. Aside from the tragedy of the loss of civilian life, there is nothing more damaging to Israel's interests than the international outcry resulting from the deaths of Palestinian civilians.

Thus, claiming that a military response is appropriate, but not one that results in the loss of civilian life, is effectively saying that no military response is legitimate and that Israel should endure something that no other country on Earth would be expected to endure.

Not only Judaism, but internationally agreed-upon moral norms, state that there is nothing unethical in causing the inevitable death of civilians of an enemy state as part of necessary military action. None other than the BBC has an excellent webpage on the ethics of war, specifically discussing the question of civilian deaths. Aside from mentioning the possibility that even civilians may be considered as combatants, the BBC notes that even definite non-combatants can legitimately be killed when they are not the target of the military operation. Unfortunately, the BBC fails to apply these ethical guidelines to its coverage of the Israeli-Arab conflict.

So, what do we make of it when people adopt a policy to Israel that is completely at odds with normal global norms of morality? When it comes from some people, we can dismiss it as antisemitism, but what about when it comes from people who are not antisemitic, such as comedian Jon Stewart, or religious Jews? I think that it is not evil, just sheer stupidity stemming from misguided morality. But even though it does not come from an evil root, its effects and results - demanding that Israel suffer rockets - are evil. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

The Other Side Of The Coin

Today I was corresponding with several people at one of the places that I am lecturing at next month, discussing which topic to speak about. Amongst the titles that I proposed was "Shall Your Brothers Go Out To War, While You Remain Here?" One person responded that it would be redundant for me to speak on that topic, since I would be preaching to the choir; the members of that shul would unanimously agree that the charedim should share the burden of military service.

I found this amusing. As I told him, "What makes you so sure that I am talking about charedim? Maybe I am talking about Jews in the Diaspora?" After all, that would be an even more accurate parallel to Moshe's statement to the Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven, who wanted the material benefits of the Diaspora!

In fact, while my posts on this topic have concentrated on the application of this principle to charedim, my talk on this topic this weekend in Beverly Hills will focus on the question of its application to Diaspora Jews, and indeed to all Jews: Do we all have an obligation to join the IDF in its milchemes mitzvah?

(Incidentally, due to a cancellation, I have an available Shabbos as scholar-in-residence for August 15th/16th in the US. Please write to me at if you are interested. Preference is for the western side of the US, since I will be in LA on the night of the 14th.)

Meanwhile, on the battle front, Charles Krauthammer has a great op-ed, called Moral Clarity in Gaza. Please spread it (and similar articles) and thereby help the war effort, which is to a large degree fought in the battle of public opinion. And here is a link to a PDF of the prayer for the IDF.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

"Shall Your Brothers Come Into War, While You Remain Here?"

Earlier this week I wrote a post that used satire to criticize the charedi approach of claiming that yeshivah students provide protection while simultaneously pulling them out of areas that require protection. A number of people criticized that post, arguing that now is a time for unity, not criticism, and certainly not satire.

Now, I do agree that in a time of national emergency, unity is required. Allow me, then, to explain why I consider my post to have been appropriate.

As we know, the Bnei Yisrael were terrified of waging war to take possession of the Land of Israel. In this week's parashah, we are told about how the Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuven asked that they be allowed to remain on the east of the Jordan, and not to enter the Land of Israel. Moshe Rabbeinu gives his famous reply (32:6): "Shall your brothers come into war, while you remain here?"

Would one ask why Moshe is sowing divisiveness at a time when unity is required? Of course not! First of all, his criticism was directly relevant to the matter at hand. Second, it was precisely the lack of unity that he was criticizing!

It was only a few months ago that hundreds of thousands of charedi (and a handful of misguided non-charedi) Jews rallied in Jerusalem and New York against the army draft being minimally applied to charedim with the same enforcement that is applied to non-charedim. They recited the prayer for Hashem to "pour out His wrath upon the nations" with regard to the Government of Israel. They expressed hakaras hatov to the NYPD but not to the IDF (a pattern that continues this week with the Agudah expressing its hakaras hatov to Obama for funding the military but not to the soldiers who are actually in the military).

Many of us still haven't gotten over that. And right now, it is the IDF that is protecting the citizens of Eretz Yisrael from the thousands of rockets that Hamas is launching. Right now, there are tens of thousands of reservists being drafted to join the regular IDF forces in a possible land invasion of Gaza. Why is the charedi community not part of this? Why is it the non-charedi community that has to put themselves out, potentially putting their lives on the line? "Shall your brothers come into war, and you remain here?"

Making things worse is that not only are they not serving in the army, not only do they not express hakaras hatov and concern for those who do serve in the army, not only do they curse those who try to make them join, but they are even weakening morale by evicting yeshivos from areas of the country that are in greater danger. And to add insult to injury, they claim that they are the ones providing the true protection!

So, yes, I think that at this time, criticism is extremely appropriate. And it is not "inappropriately harming national unity" to criticize those who are harming national unity. (As for the satirical tool of referring to the "black dome", the idea was to take them at their word that they believe themselves to be providing essential protection, which serves to highlight the problem in their approach.) Davka now, when everyone can see the importance of the IDF and the sacrifices that are made by its soldiers, and when everyone can see the folly and hypocrisy of the claim that yeshivah students are providing protection via Torah study, we have an opportunity to impress Moshe Rabbeinu's message upon the charedi community.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Letter to CNN


Your latest headline, "Cease-fire attempt ends as Israeli airstrikes resume", is gravely misleading at best and utterly false at worst. As your article admits, Hamas never accepted the ceasefire and continued to fire rockets at Israel. After enduring several hours of rocket fire, Israel returned to striking Hamas. The blame for the lack of an enduring ceasefire is thus certainly with Hamas. Why does your headline instead mention Israel?

Natan Slifkin

UPDATE: They now changed it to "Cease fire fails; Israel responds to attacks". Better, though not perfect.

UPDATE #2: They changed it again, this time to "Cease-fire effort collapses as rockets, airstrikes continue". This is a step backwards again, implying that the blame is to be equally shared.

Monday, July 14, 2014

And You Shall Cover It With Tachash Skins

Previously, I mentioned the wonderful gift that I was given by the group that I took around Africa, of a tallis and tefillin bag made out of giraffe skin. Someone made reference to the giraffe being the legendary tachash, the skin of which was used to cover the Mishkan. This was indeed a theory that I quoted and favored in my book Mysterious Creatures. It is based on the Gemara identifying the tachash as the keres, which is described as having a single horn in the center of its forehead, which is indeed the case with some giraffes (which have two horns on top of their head and a single horn in the center).

I would dearly love to believe that my tallis and tefillin have the same covering as the Mishkan. However, in the revised and expanded edition of that book, Sacred Monsters, I rejected identifying the tachash as the giraffe. I had gotten carried away with the ingenuity of the notion, while overlooking the fact that it wasn't particularly reasonable. First, the Talmud’s statement that the keres satisfies the criterion that a kosher wild animal possess horns “even though it only has one horn” certainly seems to mean that it only has one horn, period, notwithstanding Maharam Shif’s creative explanation that it is only referring to its forehead. Second, the most distinctive feature of a giraffe is its height. It would be strange that in the description of the tachash and keres, no mention is made of that aspect. In Sacred Monsters I noted that according to some opinions in the Gemara, the tachash is not even an animal, and I presented other possibilities as to its nature.

Another person, upon hearing of my new tallis and tefillin bag, muttered his disapproval of my using the skin of a non-kosher animal for such holy items. In fact, there is a lining, not to mention the tefillin boxes, and I can't see any problem in using the skin of a non-kosher animal on the outside. But in any case, the giraffe is most certainly a kosher animal! Here is a picture that I took last week in the Madikwe game reserve of a dead giraffe, in which you can see its cloven hooves:

And here is a video that I took in Madikwe of a giraffe bringing up its cud. At 00:30 you can clearly see the cud rising up its neck:

(I don't know why the video shows the giraffe as being blue. This was when I had forgotten to put the battery in my Canon DSLR, and was instead using a point-and-shoot. If anyone knows how I can get the color fixed in the original video file, please let me know.)

Most people are aware that the giraffe is kosher, but think that we don't know where to schecht it. This is an incredibly widespread belief, but as my colleagues Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky and Dr. Zohar Amar have shown, it is a myth. There will also be an extensive discussion of this topic, complete with photos, in the forthcoming Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom.

Tomorrow, I am off to the US on a lengthy lecture tour/ family vacation. I'll be speaking in LA (YINBH and Beth Jacob), Seattle (BCMH), Silver Spring (KMS) and the National Zoo in Washington DC. The blog schedule will be irregular, so if you want to be updated when there are new posts, I recommend subscribing via email using the form on the right of the webpage.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Controversial "Black Dome" Units Desert Posts

Did any of you see the news reports about the Israeli units that deserted their posts?

From Yeshivishe Velt News:

"While the "Iron Dome" units have proved universally effective and popular, the "Black Dome" units have been a source of controversy from the outset. Those soldiers staffing the Black Dome units insist that they are as least as essential to Israel's security as the Iron Dome units, if not more so. They claim that those manning Black Dome units do not need protection, and that they extend their protective shield to those around them. But others have expressed doubt as to their efficacy. The very nature of the protective effect of the Black Dome units remains nebulous, and scant precedent for implementing such a notion can be found; claims regarding such precedents invariably turn out to be misrepresentations or otherwise inapplicable to present circumstances.

"Lately, the controversy regarding the Black Dome units has taken a new twist. Following orders from the Black Dome commander, the soldiers manning the Black Dome units have abandoned their posts in the south of Israel. Contrary to their declared ethos, they apparently believe that Black Dome units do indeed require protection. They fled to safer places such as Bnei Brak and Modiin Illit, where they would not be bothered by the rockets fired by Hamas. Here, their leaders claimed that the Black Dome units would render these towns safe from harm. But it remains unclear why such protective power would not be given to the places that need it most - especially since the excuse given as to why Black Dome forces do not join the regular IDF units is that they are providing a more important form of protection.

"Meanwhile, the "White Dome" units - comprised of people who will later be staffing regular IDF forces - remain in the South, providing moral and spiritual support to the beleaguered residents."

Friday, July 11, 2014

Uses For A Dead Giraffe

On the game drives that I did this week in Africa, I was privileged to see many further animals, including springbok and wild dog. I was particularly pleased to see red hartebeest; the bubal hartebeest, which became extinct around a century ago, is (as I shall argue in my forthcoming encyclopedia) mentioned in the Torah under the name yachmor. Here's a better picture than the one that I took:

Yesterday, on the final day of our African adventure, we returned to a giraffe carcass that we had first visited two days earlier. While the bulk of the giraffe had been eaten by lions, there was still some meat left, and we had seen a brown hyena and white-backed vultures at the carcass. But this giraffe carcass was the gift that kept on giving. This time we saw an animal that I had very much wanted to see in the wild: a spotted hyena. Here's a video clip of it feasting:

In these tense times, you never know what to expect with the morning news. Yesterday, I was rather alarmed to see the morning gnus, because they were on the airstrip that our light aircraft would soon be taking off from. Fortunately, by the time that we returned to actually take off, the gnus (also known as wildebeest) had moved away. No gnus was good news.

Good gnus

Bad gnus
At the end of the trip, the wonderful people in my group gave me a very special and unique gift: a tallit bag and tefillin bag made from the hide of a giraffe! Thank you!

After eight plane flights over three countries, it's good to finally come home. Amazingly, I was actually able to bring the elephant tusks, that I acquired for The Biblical Museum of Natural History, on the plane! Getting them to the airport and checking them on was a major challenge, and there were moments in which I (and several other people) doubted my sanity, but it all worked out in the end. (My luggage, on the other hand, didn't make it on the plane.) These tusks will make a great display in the museum, which will hopefully open sometime this fall. Thanks to Rabbi Gavin Michal for helping me get the tusks and transport them to the airport.

If you're interested in joining next year's African adventure, please write to me!

Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Definition of a Proportionate Response

When someone initiates attacks against you, a proportionate response is one that suffices to prevent further attacks.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Untangling the Situation

There's a lot of confusion about the relationship beteen the current events with Gaza and the murder of the Isralei and Palestinian teens. I received the following excellent summary of the situation from Rabbi Pini Dunner, of Young Israel of North Beverly Hills.

Dearest Members and Friends

 Earlier today, in Israel, the rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel began to escalate to new levels. People in Tel Aviv were forced to run to bomb shelters, and in Jerusalem the air raid sirens were sounded. Interestingly, the ‘conflict’ has suddenly attracted the attention of the international media, particularly because the media, in all their superficiality and lazy journalism, are able to attach this escalation to the murder of the 3 kidnapped Israeli teens, and the subsequent murder of an Arab teenager. I feel, therefore, for the sake of clarity, that I should share some basic information and facts with you, so that you are fully informed. In particular, at this critical time, every Jew has the duty to act as an ambassador and an advocate for our brothers and sister in Israel, who, once again, are threatened by the forces of evil, eager and intent on causing as much mayhem and damage as possible, driven by their implacable hatred of Jews and of the State of Israel.

 The first thing you should know is that the latest round of rocket fire from the Gaza Strip began on June 12, the same day that three Israeli teenagers were abducted and murdered. It clearly had nothing whatsoever to do with the much later kidnapping of an Arab boy, and if anything was motivated by the euphoria felt by Hamas at the successful abduction of the 3 innocent Israeli teens. The rocket attacks escalated significantly on June 30, before the bodies of the 3 murdered teens were found, and well before the murder of the Arab boy. The rocket attacks reached a new peak yesterday, when no fewer than 80 rockets were launched at Israeli cities. Between June 12 and today, 284 rockets have been launched at Israel from the Gaza Strip! And I am sure that since I started writing this email, more have been fired.

 Meanwhile, Israel has characteristically shown great restraint during three weeks of continuous rocket fire from Gaza. Israel's measured response was driven by a desire to restore the calm without a major military action. However, in response to the incessant and unceasing attacks by Hamas on the civilian population of Israel, Israel decided yesterday to initiate Operation “Protective Edge.” The objective of the operation is to restore stability and quiet for the residents of Israel, and to destroy all terror infrastructures directed against citizens of the State of Israel. Israel's actions, as always, are measured. They are directed at the missile launchers and the terror infrastructure of Hamas, who have turned the Gaza Strip into the center for attacks against Israel.

 The US State Department said yesterday that they “strongly condemn the continuing rocket fire into Israel [and] we also support Israel's right to defend itself against these attacks.” Finally, it is important to recall that Israel left the Gaza Strip completely in August 2005. Since then there has been no Israeli presence at all, civilian or military, in the Gaza Strip, nor does Israel have any territorial claims there. Hamas and the other terrorist organizations in Gaza nevertheless fire on communities inside Israel indiscriminately, with the intention of killing civilians. They also do not hesitate to launch rockets from the midst of Palestinian civilian concentrations, deliberately using Gaza residents as human shields for their terrorist activities. It is they who maintain a state of war between Gaza and Israel.

The State of Israel has no desire to wage war against Gaza or in Gaza. The only desire for the State of Israel is for Gaza to run its own affairs, and to ensure that Israelis who live close to Gaza are secure from attack, and safe in their homes. This peaceful intent can be easily demonstrated by the constant flow of goods from Israel into Gaza. There is no blockade of the Gaza Strip; goods enter and exit the Gaza Strip freely. For example, this past Sunday, despite ongoing rockets being launched against Israel, 137 trucks carrying goods and 218 tons of gas entered Gaza from Israel.

 Let us pray for an end to this new saga of meaningless and causeless violence against Israel, and for the safety of our brothers and sisters who are threatened by the evil intentions of Hamas. And please can you be in touch with your political representatives to make sure that they clearly understand that the attacks against Israel are intolerable, must be stopped, and that Hamas, an organization that openly calls for the destruction of the State of Israel, cannot and must not be partners with the Palestinian Authority, which receives significant financial support from the United States. Otherwise your tax money could find its way into the pockets of terrorists who seek to kill innocent Jews, and destroy Israel, which is the only country in the Middle East that is a true and reliable ally of the United States.

 With warmest wishes, Rabbi Pini Dunner

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Night Terrors

My flight out to the bush was very memorable. The tiny single-propellor airplane had no copilot - instead, I sat next to the pilot.

And the airport out in the bush was nothing more than a strip of tarmac:

On the game drive, we saw some great stuff - wildebeest, buffalo, impala, hornbill, giraffe, zebra, jackal, brown hyena, rhino, and a pair of male lions. We also heard the latter roaring during dinner.

A thought struck me. Here we were hearing sounds that would have struck terror in the hearts of our ancestors in Biblical Israel. Yet modern society meant that we were absolutely safe, in a lodge surrounded by electric fences and with armed rangers. But at that exact moment, my poor wife and children were huddled terrified in our safe room at home, fearful of long-range missiles that did not exist in Biblical Israel. Different night terrors for a different age.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Heading Out

We are heading out now to Madikwe game reserve, for the final days of our trip. There's sixteen of us, which means that we have to split up and go via two planes.

When the plane gets there, it's going to make a low pass over the airstrip first, to scare away any animals that might be there. Colliding with a rhino would be a real pain in the neck.

I said tefilas haderech this morning with extra special kavanah!

Bonus picture: the menu from the safari lodge in Botswana.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Botswana Safari

(Baruch Hashem, my daughter Chaviva appears fine and was released from hospital this evening. Thank you for all your good wishes and prayers.)

On Wednesday, my group traveled from Zimbabwe to Botswana. We started off with a riverboat safari on the Chobe river. This is always one of my favorite activities. There's so much to see - we saw fish eagles, vervet monkeys, mongooses, hawks, cormorants, crocodiles, impala, buffalo, hippo, and lots and lots of elephants. We found some elephants grazing in the shallows and sailed right up to them. It's possible to climb on the roof of the boat, and so I took a picture of my group from that position:

Then we found a family of hippos that hadn't yet gone into the water to escape the sun. We were able to sail within about 30 feet of them:

After the riverboat safari, we took a jeep through Chobe national park. Amongst all the animals and birds that we saw were some beautiful kudu. These are huge antelope from which the long twisted shofars, that you see in souvenir stores in Israel, are made. Here's a brief video clip:

I have to return this laptop tomorrow, so I don't know when I'll next be able to post. I still need to report on our trip to Victoria Falls and Spier. Tomorrow we head out to the Jewish Museum, Cape Point, Seal Island, and the famous penguin colony, and then on Monday we are off to Madikwe, a private game reserve. I'm nervous about how my group will react when they find out that we are flying there on a pair of eight-seater planes!

Friday, July 4, 2014

Life's Twists And Turns

You never know what's waiting around the corner.

Late last night I received an extremely distressing text from my wife back in Israel. Our four-year-old daughter had hit her head badly on a coffee table at a friend's house. She was screaming uncontrollably and did not even recognize my wife. Our daughter was rushed in an ambulance to hospital where they found bleeding on the brain. Thank God she seems to be fine now, though they are keeping her in over Shabbos for observation.

After the car crash that suddenly took the life of my beloved mother-in-law last summer, I thought that I had learned the lesson that one must always appreciate every moment with loved ones. But you can never learn it enough times.

I also want to take this opportunity to say how amazing our families and community are. My wife has to leave our other four children at home for Shabbos, and we know with 100% certainty that they will be looked after perfectly. Ashrecha Yisrael.

Please keep Chaviva Amalia bat Avital Yehudit in your prayers for a full recovery.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

An Amazing Ride

(Although my laptop is still broken, I can get this post out, thanks to my friend Rabbi Sam Thurgood of Beit Midrash Morasha, who just came to meet me in CapeTown for me to write a post from his laptop and to take my computer to be fixed!)

On Tuesday, my group flew to Zimbabwe, staying at the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge. That afternoon, we enjoyed an incredible experience - an elephant-back safari!

I've ridden elephants before, but only at private facilities in the US. Riding an elephant in the African bush was a very different experience. Although I didn't get to ride solo, as I had done previously, it was amazing to be under the vast African sky, seeing the wildlife from a new perspective. We traveled in a convoy, watching buffalo, warthog and impala as we went. It was slightly uncomfortable on the elephant - you have to spread your legs really far apart - but well worth it! At the end, I bought a large piece of paper made from elephant dung, on which was the footprint of one of our elephants! Click on any of the pictures below to enlarge.

Next time I get to a computer on which I can transfer photos, I will write about our amazing riverboat safari in Botswana!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Computer Fail

My laptop just died... Not much chance of getting it fixed in Zimbabwe. So it looks like my blogging will be taking a hiatus. (For the techies reading this: it doesn't get past the BIOS, which I think means that the SSD has failed. It's less than a year old!)

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Most Amazing Predators You've Never Heard Of

(I wrote this post yesterday, but heard the tragic news when I was about to publish it, so I held off. I would hold off further, but I'm heading out to Zimbabwe now and it could be a while before I have connectivity.)

On Sunday, I visited the De Wildt Cheetah and Wildlife Center. This remarkable facility specializes in breeding highly endangered animals. Amongst the various creatures were some that I had never seen before, which doesn't happen often. Bet you've never seen one of these:

It's a King Cheetah. This is a creature whose nature and even existence was hotly debated for a long time. At De Wildt's it was discovered that the king cheetah is a mutation of regular cheetahs, in which the spots blend into stripes.

Here's another animal that one doesn't usually see, though I once saw one in the wild:

It's an African Wild Dog, the most endangered predator in Africa. Here's a video that I took of them eating. The speed at which they wolf their food down is astonishing. In The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, I'll be discussing certain Midrashic sources dealing with this phenomenon.

Yesterday, the Torah In Motion group arrived. We toured Soweto, which was very powerful. In a few minutes, we head out to Zimbabwe. I'm not sure what internet access will be like there, but I hope to be able to post photos of a certain very special experience.

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