This week's parashah begins with the lighting of the Menora in the Mishkan, "Speak to Aaron and say to him: 'When you light the lamps, the seven lamps shall cast their light toward the face of the menorah'." Throughout the generations, commentators have written that just as in the times of the Mishkan, in our times too, each individual must kindle his own flame in the world.

Some 30 years ago, Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz would travel often to Alaska, seeking Jews there. In one of his visits to this northernmost state, he arrived in a small town. In answer to the rabbi's inquiries, the mayor said that he wasn't familiar with any local Jews, but that he was welcome to address the students in the school and tell them a little bit about Judaism.

The rabbi seized the opportunity, at one point, asking the students if any of them had ever encountered a Jew before. One girl raised her hand and said, "My mom, and she's right here!" pointing to her mother, who was also the fifth-grade teacher.

If the mother was Jewish, that meant that her daughter was also Jewish, but she hadn't even known. At the end of the lecture, the mother and daughter went up to Rabbi Berkowitz. "I don't know when my daughter will ever meet a rabbi again – or another Jew, for that matter," the mother said movingly. "I'd like you to tell her something that will make her proud of her Jewish identity."

Various thoughts flitted in and out of the rabbi's mind. What could he tell this young girl that would make a lasting impression? But there was no time to think, and he suddenly had an idea. "I'm sure you've heard of the Sabbath, Shabbat. It's a holy day that comes once a week. And who welcomes this special day? Jewish women. Every Friday afternoon, before the sun sets, Jewish women light Shabbat candles. Do you know where in the world the first candles are lit?"

Happy to show off her knowledge the girl replied, "The first place in the world that the sun sets is Australia!" The rabbi nodded. "That's exactly right," he said and went on to describe the candles being lit across the world – after Australia, a few hours later in Israel, then Europe, then New York. "In the end, there's just one place in the world where the sun hasn't set yet, and Shabbat has not yet arrived," Rabbi Berkowitz said.

"Alaska!" the girl said, jumping up, as her mother looked on proudly.

"That's right! The Shabbat candles bring light and peace into the home. They remind us that the week has ended, and that all our worries and cares – from homework to computer games – are now on hold, for the sake of this one day of rest, holiness and serenity. The candles cast their light all over the world, every week anew. The world is waiting for your Shabbat candles, here in Alaska."

The girls and her mother listened carefully to the rabbi's parting words: "The Shabbat candles in Alaska will be the last ones to be lit, completing this holy task of illuminating the entire world. And from now on, this task can be yours."

Welcome Home!

After the devastating incidents in Gaza last Shabbat, we find ourselves once again gazing in pain at the beautiful, bright, and smiling faces of young men who gave their lives for Israel and the Jewish people.  

But then I received a poster from Florida with photos of other smiling and bright faces — of individuals and families who are making Aliyah from Boca Raton. 

Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, senior rabbi of Boca Raton Synagogue, proudly told me about a wonderful event held in honor of the olim chadashim. “We aren’t worried about losing synagogue members if they are moving to Israel," he said. "In fact, we’re encouraging people to do so. The truth is that we're jealous of them. They're a source of inspiration for all of us. Every year we hold a joyous celebration in honor of families from our community who are making Aliyah. This year our celebration was especially meaningful and moving for all. 

"Boca Raton is a pleasant and comfortable Jewish community with many conveniences, but a key ingredient is missing: It is not the Land of Israel. I think that every Jew in our generation needs to think about moving to Israel. It is not a matter of ׳if,’ but a matter of ‘when.’  We hope that soon we will all be able to join all of you in Israel.” 

We extend our warmest welcome to all of our new Israelis. Welcome home!

Two Special Bar Mitzvah Celebrations

Rabbi Yaakov Naman from Kiryat Ono shared two special simchas that were celebrated last Shabbat in his synagogue. The first was the bar mitzvah of Ben Amar, brother of the observation soldier, Shirat Yam Amar, aleha hashalom, who was murdered on Simchat Torah at her post in Nachal Oz. The family needed to muster extra strength in order to emerge from their grief and celebrate Ben's bar mitzvah. "In the end, they were all able to rejoice," said Rabbi Naman. "We felt Ben's sister was with us, and even the tallitot commemorated her!" (See the photos, which were taken before Shabbat.)

The second bar mitzvah "boy," Menashe Hakak Halevi, is the Amar's neighbor, who recently celebrated his 60th birthday. No, that's not a typo. When Menashe turned 13, his father was very ill and passed away soon afterward, so he never had a bar mitzvah. Now, for the first time in his life, he learned to lein from the Torah. During the shiva for Shirat Yam, Menashe helped the Amars in many ways. At the time, no one knew that they would yet celebrate together, transmitting a message of triumph of the Jewish spirit and of connection to eternal values.

Lessons From Beersheva

I glanced out the window before I started my lecture and couldn't miss the huge sign: Soroka, University Medical Center. The hundreds of girls studying at the Ami"t Ulpana in Beersheva were right across the road from this iconic hospital.

The principal, Nurit Davidi, wife of Sderot Mayor Alon Davidi, affirmed that the hospital's impact on the girls this year has been substantial. They hear every helicopter and ambulance that arrives from Gaza, at which point they stop their studies and pray for the wounded.

But the influence works both ways; the girls, for their part, invest many hours volunteering at the hospital, bringing treats, smiles and cheer to the patients in the various wards.

"It doesn't traumatize them," one of the teachers explained to me. "To the contrary, it makes them grow, and helps them to feel connected. There are so many cases of patients who undergo rehabilitation and who are cured, not to mention the many births…"

I'd like to thank the large numbers of girls, mothers and teachers who showed up to learn together before Shavuot – I, too, learned a great deal from you!

Olim Chadashim from Boca Raton

Bar Mitzvah Ben Amar

Bar Mitzvah Menashe Hakak

Addressing students from Ami"t Ulpana