Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Toras Emes: Enough With School Shootings, Gender Dysphoria, and Penumbras

We stand before the great holiday of Shavuot – זמן מתו תורתינו – the day we finish preparing to receive the Torah.1 The Torah is the central repository of our values.

כִּי הֵם חַיֵּינוּ וְאֹרֶךְ יָמֵינוּ

It is our very life and the length of our days

While the Torah is infinite, the most significant characteristic that we use to describe it is Toras Emes, “the Torah of Truth.”

Receiving the Torah could not come at a better time, as we live in a world that is dominated by Sheker (falsehood). Of course, the world outside of Torah has always contained elements of Sheker, but I don’t remember a time in my sixty-plus years that we have been bombarded by it on such a constant basis.

Here are a few of the more well-known and egregious examples:

1. Violence in Society – There is much handwringing, and many angry accusations were made over the terrible school shooting in Uvalde, TX. Many are convinced that the root of the problem is too much access to guns, others vociferously protest that guns are necessary to protect the innocent. However, both sides avoid the Truth – the real cause of so much violence in our society – which was revealed (if you were paying attention) a few weeks ago.

Do we not understand that after witnessing literally thousands of fights and killings and beatdowns, some kids will decide to solve their own problems this way?

At the time, the talk of the town concerned actor Will Smith, who publicly slapped Chris Rock after he made a joke about Smith’s wife at the Academy Awards show. The intelligentsia and exemplars of high morality of Hollywood were horrified and aghast at this terrible display of violence. “What have we come to? We must strip Smith of his awards and banish him from our midst for such a vile public act of mayhem!”

However, they conveniently forgot that the greatest purveyors of violence in our society are themselves – it is they who produce endless sick and brutal violence in virtually every movie and on most television shows. They are the ones who have fed violence to children throughout their lives: from cartoons at the earliest age, through movies aimed at kids, through grotesque amounts of violence in movies. (And I am not even speaking about horror movies whose only point is to show unbelievably sick and revolting murder, mayhem, and torture). Will Smith himself was, up to that point, celebrated for several movie roles in which he was a hitman, villain, killer, and purveyor of brutality – which was fine because it was only a movie.

Is there any real wonder why we have so many kids who decide to go into a school and start shooting? Do we not understand that after witnessing literally thousands of fights and killings and beatdowns, some kids will decide to solve their own problems this way?  I agree that it is terrible that eighteen-year-olds have legal access to assault weapons, but is that the source of the problem? It is clear as day that it is the constant diet of violence that kids constantly imbibe from the hypocrites in Hollywood that is the main cause of this sickness; not the availability of guns.

A meme that I saw circulating really makes the point.

The root of all this is pure Sheker – the opposite of what Toras Emes stands for.

2. Gender Dysphoria – is the fancy term used to provide credence to the notion that biological gender is irrelevant. One may choose one’s gender as either male or female (or neither) regardless of one’s physical body and chromosomes. While there have always been people of one gender who may have had some tendencies of the other, according to current thinking, gender is entirely fluid. It can be determined only by how the individual feels about themselves. (I hope that is the correct pronoun). It has gotten such that 

a. A middle school student was charged with sexual harassment for using the wrong pronoun 

b. A US Supreme Court nominee who was picked largely because of her gender, cannot define what a woman is.

c. Girls are subjected to having biological males share their bathrooms and locker rooms.

and there are many, many other ramifications, particularly for women’s sports.

Perhaps worst of all, utter confusion has been sown in business, academia, and governmental settings such that good and well-meaning people are afraid that any simple remark may subject them to lawsuits and being fired from their jobs.

Once again, the root of all this is pure Sheker– the opposite of what Toras Emes stands for

3. Roe v. Wade at Risk – There is endless noise going on about this potential decision; I have discussed it at length previously.  I mention it here only to make one point in this context. Those who say that the debate is about whether to outlaw abortions are engaging in Sheker. If Roe is overturned, not one abortion will automatically be outlawed.  Rather, it will then be up to the people's elected representatives, (in each State Legislature) to decide the public policy question of whether, and to what extent, abortions should be legal.  (The certain result will be that abortions will remain legal in very liberal states like New York and California and will be restricted in places like Missouri and Oklahoma.) 

The reason that passions are running so hot is because of what the debate is really about.  The issue is whether unelected judges may read their own political biases into interpreting the constitution or whether they must follow the words of the constitution and what those words meant when they were written. The fact is that the constitution says nothing at all about abortions and other cases that have been decided based on the manufactured constitutional "right of privacy".  The effort to overturn Roe is a protest against those who pretend that it does.

The constitution provides a mechanism for changing it, adding to it, or deleting parts of it, if a super-majority of the country agrees. That mechanism is called “Amendment”. The constitution has twenty-seven amendments enacted over the years – that is the only legitimate way to change it. Unfortunately, however, certain groups have gotten used to the idea that judges have the right to look into the “penumbra” of the constitution and rule that it says things that it does not. This is important to them for getting policies enshrined in the law that they were not successful in enacting through the legislature, by the shortcut of having judges pretend that the constitution says things that it does not.

That is the truth of this debate, as opposed to the pervasive Sheker that engulfs us.

I could bring many, many other examples of falsehood being promoted as the truth, such as “woke-ism” and “cancel culture”.  These are sufficient to bolster my contention that we are drowning in a world of Sheker, and we desperately need Emes in our lives.

 בָּרוּךְ אֱלקינוּ שֶׁבְּרָאָנוּ לִכְבודו
 ... וְנָתַן לָנוּ תּורַת אֱמֶת וְחַיֵּי עולָם נָטַע בְּתוכֵנוּ

Blessed is our God who created us for His glory …and gave us Toras Emes, and [thereby] implanted Eternal Life in us

Let us resolve to focus, this Shavuos, on accepting the Torah of Truth as our guide in life. We desperately need its light in the dark times in which we live

Happy Shavuos

Published in the Queens Jewish Link June 3, 2002

1. The Torah was actually given on the seventh of Sivan.  Many commentaries deal with the obvious question - if it was given on the seventh, why do we celebrate the sixth of Sivan?  Rav SR Hirsch says that what is important about Shavuot is not that the Torah was given 3,500 years ago.  Rather, it marks the end of the period of Sefirat HaOmer, in which we prepare ourselves to receive the Torah.  That is what our Avodas Hayom is today as well.

Thursday, May 26, 2022

Parshas Bechukosai: The Old Golus is Over - Short Live the New Golus!

In my current occupation as a licensed tour guide in Israel (now that COVID seems to have finally ended), it is my privilege to greet many of my brothers and sisters who can visit our Holy Land again. They are excited to be visiting Eretz Yisrael after being denied that opportunity for the past two years. 

I highlighted the term visiting, as, unfortunately, most of them have no intention of realistically considering the possibility of Aliyah and are content to remain living in the Diaspora for the time being. There certainly are some very legitimate reasons for remaining in the Diaspora for now – I had the privilege of Aliyah only some five years ago – and each person must judge what is best for their family. I only want to look at one of the reasons that I often hear, considering  Parshat Bechukosai.

The argument that I am speaking of is that “We are still in Golus because Mashiach has not yet come. Medinat Yisrael (the State of Israel) has little or no religious significance, as many of the founders were irreligious or even anti-religious. The State continues to be a secular state that is an affront to the Torah. The Golus is still in full force whether you live in Boro Park or Bnei Brak; we will comfortably await the coming of Mashiach elsewhere.”

At the end of the lengthy Tochacha (Admonition) section describing the long and terrible Golus that we will undergo, a verse appears that we are quite familiar with from the Rosh Hashanah Mussaf:

וְזָכַרְתִּ֖י אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֣י יַעֲק֑וֹב וְאַף֩ אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֨י יִצְחָ֜ק וְאַ֨ף אֶת־בְּרִיתִ֧י אַבְרָהָ֛ם אֶזְכֹּ֖ר וְהָאָ֥רֶץ אֶזְכֹּֽר (ויקרא כו:מב)

Then will I remember My covenant with Yaakov; I will remember also My covenant with Yitzchak, and also My covenant with Avraham; and I will remember the land. (Vayikra 26:42)

A quick analysis of this verse results in two obvious questions:

  • Why the reverse order from the usual, chronological and ancestral one?
  • Why are there seemingly three separate covenants listed, rather than “I will remember my covenant with Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov”?

In a masterful treatment that can only be briefly excerpted here, Rav SR Hirsch זצ"ל explained that there were three separate covenants. “The names of the Patriarchs represent not individuals, but historic archetypes through which the power of the Divine covenant becomes manifest”.

We are remarkably familiar with the lives of Avraham and Yaakov, about whom the Torah elaborates at length. The Hittites recognized Avraham in his time as נְשִׂיא אֱלֹקִים אַתָּה בְּתוֹכֵנוּ,a “Prince of G-d you are amongst us” (Breishis 23:6). Universally recognized as the supreme citizen of his time, the object of admiration near and wide, he was beloved for his ability to bring the message of G-d to the world. By contrast, Yaakov led a life of unremitting hardship and trouble. When standing before Pharaoh, Yaakov says about his life מְעַט וְרָעִים הָיוּ יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיַּי, "few and unpleasant have been the years of my life" (ibid 47:9). He suffered from Eisav, Lavan, Shechem, Joseph…. a life which had little respite from difficulty.

About Yitzchak, however, we know little – he is given minimal “screen time” in the Torah. Even in Parshas Toldos, the one Parasha purportedly devoted to Yitzchak, most of it is really about Yaakov and Eisav. Chapter 26 is the only one in which we read about Yitzchak himself.

The Yitzchak we find there is a paradox. On the one hand, he is persecuted, on the other hand; he is highly successful financially. Driven from place to place, dealing with the intransigence of his neighbors, he is told, “Leave us, as you have become mighty from us (from somehow taking our wealth)!” He emerges unscathed with their grudging admiration. Avimelech and Phichol come to him to make a non-aggression pact. Yitzchak asks, “Why do you come to me; do you not hate me?”. And in a statement worthy of the UN, they say, “Let there be a pact between us, so that if you do us no harm, as we have not harmed you (What????) and we did only good and sent you in Peace (Are you Kidding???), for after all (We are forced to admit) you are blessed by G-d” (ibid 26:28-9).

In summary, Yitzchak lives a life in which he is grudgingly tolerated and respected, not loved. A life in which he has both financial success and the hostility and envy of his neighbors; without the crushing difficulties of Yaakov, but far from the glory of Avraham’s social status. He is somewhere in the middle: not in the greatest of times, but not the worst of times either.

This is reminiscent of the prayers associated with each of the Avos . Avraham is associated with the morning – a new day full of light and promise. Yaakov is associated with night, a time of darkness and fear. Yitzchak is associated with afternoon/evening, somewhere in between; not dark but not full of joyous light (Brachos 26b).

With this background, let us see how Rav Hirsch learned the verse in Bechukosai.

As the end of the Golus draws near, a time will come that it will be evident that Hashem remembers the covenant with Yaakov. “I will be with them through all the long, long nights of their exile. I will transform even the darkest night of their exile into a shining revelation of Divine Guidance.” We will make it through the worst of times; bloodied but very much alive. Then, when the time will come that “their measure of suffering is full, when they have inscribed their loyalty to the Torah with their heart’s blood upon the pages of world history” and the covenant with Yaakov is fully realized, it will finally be time for the covenant of Yitzchak.

During the Jacob period, they had to endure the hatred of the nations. Now, like Isaac, they will suffer the envy of the nations. . . In the midst of growing prosperity, living among nations wavering between humaneness and envy, they will have to preserve their unique character as did Isaac. They will have to employ their resources, ampler and less restricted than before, for a more perfect and multifaceted fulfillment of their unique mission in the Golus. . .”

Rav Hirsch then goes on to describe a later stage of the Covenant of Avraham, and of the Land, which we can surmise will be at the time of the coming of the Mashiach.

In a tragic comment that we can look back at through the prism of terrible hindsight, Rav Hirsch further wrote of his time in Nineteenth century Germany regarding the Covenant with Yaakov, “This stage is already behind us. As Yaakov, we have proved ourselves brilliantly”. In recognition of the opening of the ghettos and the unprecedented freedom and opportunity of Western European Jews, he felt that “Now we are facing the test of the second stage Isaac Covenant; to walk, free and independent among the nations, not to fear to be different, and to remain undeterred by envy. . . a test we still have to pass. Only then can we look forward to the last stage of Golus, in which we will win the respect of the Nations not although we are Jews, but because we are Jews . . ."

In hindsight, it is so bitter to know that this hope was tragically premature, specifically in Germany...

It should be clear to anyone with a clear view of the amazing times we live in that we are in an intermediate stage. Some call it Ikvasa D’Meshicha. Some call it Aschalta D’Geula. Rav Hirsch says that Hashem called it “Bris Yitzchak” – the Isaac Covenant.

Nevertheless, it is clear to me that we truly live in the Yitzchak age in our time. With the unprecedented wealth, power, and influence of Jews throughout the world, with the amazing resurgence and rebirth of observant Judaism, and most of all, with the great gift that is Medinat Yisrael, we have passed into a different relationship vis a vis the Nations of the world.

This essay is long already, but my prime contention is this: There are not only two binary states, namely Golus and Geulah, Exile and redemption. It should be clear to anyone with a clear view of the amazing times we live in that we are in an intermediate stage. Some call it Ikvasa D’Meshicha. Some call it Aschalta D’Geula. Rav Hirsch says that Hashem called it “Bris Yitzchak” – the Isaac Covenant.

It is a time when Jews – very much including Orthodox Jews – have reached unheard of levels of wealth, power, and influence in the countries they live in. They are very prominent among the leaders in business, government, science, academia, culture and the entertainment industry (a mixed blessing). The Torah world is flourishing as it has not in thousands of years, with hundreds of thousands learning at advanced levels, a massive proliferation of yeshivos, kollelim, Bais Yaakovs and seminaries. We live in a time of hundreds of thousands celebrating the Siyum HaShas of Daf Yomi, endless availability of kosher food, and a thousand other indicia of a Golus far different than the bad old days of Poland, Galicia, and Iraq.

Moreover, without getting into the debates about the religious significance of the State of Israel, one cannot deny the miracles that are evident there every day. A strong army and security forces protecting Jews as never before. The economy, high-tech industry, infrastructure, science, and culture that have been developed in a nation of survivors after merely 70 years is nothing short of miraculous. And with all the problems, the level of Torah learning and observance dwarfs all of the major accomplishments in America and elsewhere and, again, is a vastly different type of Golus than in the bad old days of Lithuania and Ukraine.

It is the Isaac Covenant – a new and different Golus. It is a time when we must follow the way of our Patriarch Yitzchak, and only thus get through this singularly exciting, promising, and yet challenging time. It requires strength, courage, and fearlessness to face the unbelievable opportunities we have and not run from them.

It is well known that there are two possible modes of the Messianic arrival, represented by the words of Yeshaya בעיתה אחישנה, "I will hasten it, in its time".  if we merit it, it will come quickly, if we do not, it will come in its time, developing (in the words of Rabbi Hiya) קמעא קמעא - a little bit at a time.  It is plain to me that the second mode is what has been developing in Eretz Yisrael for the past one hundred years at least.

And it is a time to recognize that Hashem is waiting for us to embrace the gift that He has given us. It is time to recognize that the time that Jews were welcome and tolerated in America may be coming to a close, as we always knew it would someday. It is a time to heed the words of Rav Yehuda HaLevi in the Kuzari (2:24) and not follow the unfortunate example of the Jews who, rather than returning to Eretz Yisrael with Ezra, decided to stay in Babylon, and ignored the “knocks of G-d” in which he called on us to come back home. It is a mistake to think that everything will be exactly the same, and one day Mashiach will appear out of the blue and call us back. Although that was one possible scenario, it is quite clear that the other one is unfolding, in which the Geulah is opening up a little at a time.

Finally, I deeply believe that underlying many of the deep problems in the frum world is that in many quarters there is too much insistence on pretending that the same approaches to the problems we face - be it in relations with non-Jews, Chinuch, attitudes towards money, openness to the outside world, relations with Arabs in Eretz Yisrael - will work despite living in a vastly different world a hundred and more years ago. If only it would advise our entire approach to the world in the time we are privileged to live in - if our decisions would be based not on attitudes developed in a world that is no more, but in our current status - I believe that many of our problems in Klal Yisroel would be greatly alleviated.

It is time to recognize not that Golus is over, but that we have entered a new and different stage, which requires different responses than in the past. It is time to come home.

Published in the Jewish Press May 27, 2022

Friday, February 4, 2022

Proud Member of the Jewish Race

 All kinds of people got upset this week when actress, comedienne, and television personality Whoopi Goldberg declared that "the Holocaust was not about race. It's about man's inhumanity to man. That's what it's about". When her co-host said the genocide was "about white supremacy ... and going after Jews and gypsies and Roma," Goldberg responded that it was "two white groups of people," and thus not about race. 

The media went into a tizzy about this, with many lecturing Whoopi about the Holocaust, which was clearly predicated on Nazi views about the master race and the "sub-human" Jewish race. ABC went so far as to suspend her for two weeks to reflect on her views. (I will not speculate what they would have done had a white person claimed that much of the tensions between police and black people had nothing to do with race…). 

It certainly is interesting to observe how Whoopi — the former Caryn Elaine Johnson — feels about Judaism. When asked why she chose the obviously Jewish sounding stage name, she said, "Goldberg is my name—it's part of my family, part of my heritage, just like being black," and "I just know I am Jewish. I practice nothing. I don't go to temple, but I do remember the holidays." This, despite having no Jewish ancestry whatsoever. Unfortunately, her description of what it means to be Jewish is identical to that of millions of Jews, except for the words "just like being black." Whatever motivated her to take on this name (some report that her mother advised her that it would be good for her career), it is a moment that ought to cause us to reflect on our heritage and, yes, our race. 

For years now, the woke narrative (which Goldberg reflected) has been that racism can be defined only in one way: whites treating people with a different skin color poorly. However, "Black People can't be racist." I do not want to discuss the so-called Critical Race Theory, according to which only black people have suffered oppression and discrimination from other, more powerful racial groups. Taking nothing away from the empathy that any compassionate human being has for the suffering that blacks endured under slavery and discrimination and prejudice, we Jews have had horrific evil perpetrated against us as well. Anyone who has the slightest inkling of thousands of years of Jewish history, particularly the Holocaust, knows well that Jews have been constant victims of prejudice, evil, discrimination, murder, violence, and hatred. 

 While Jews are generally in a better position today, antisemitism and anti-Jewish hatred have been on a sharp rise worldwide. This is clear to anyone following worldwide events — especially concerning the State of Israel — and many local violent incidents and the tone of overt anti-Jewish tropes in the media and government circles. I leave it to others to expand on this; I want to make only one point. 

As Jews, we need to embrace this moment of awareness and embrace the fact that our race is "Jewish." We are not "white," nor "black," Asian, Aleutian Islander, or anything else. Our race is that we are Jewish, and we are proud of it. 

 We have as little in common racially with Anglo-Saxons or Caucasians as we do with Africans or Asians. This has nothing to do with superiority or disrespect for any human being — they are all children of God who deserve to be treated with equal kindness and respect, as long as they treat us that way. But we are a nation apart (Bamidbar 23:9). Judaism is not just a religion, nor is it merely a nation. It is a race. It consists of a covenantal people, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. 

 We are a distinct race that has unique characteristics. They are not our skin color; over thousands of years, we have developed external characteristics that are diverse. Nevertheless, the Gemara)Yevamos 79a) states that Jews have innate racial markers (simanim). 

שלשה סימנים יש באומה זו הרחמנים והביישנין וגומלי חסדים רחמנים

In our deepest essence, we are by nature merciful, bashful, and kind. Halacha takes this so seriously that one who exhibits traits counter to this is suspected of not being of Jewish blood. (See Rambam, Hilchos Issurei Biah 19:17) .[Yes, converts have joined us as well, but the true converts have taken on these simanim and are now part of our race.] Even Hitler, may his name be blotted out, defined these as part of the Jewish nature in his horrible rantings in Mein Kampf. These traits ran counter to his idea of the mighty Aryan who would proudly assert his will and force and crush the weak and poor without mercy or kindness. We, of course, wear these traits as a badge of honor, and are proud to be known, first and foremost, as Jews. 

It is time to let the Whoopi Goldbergs of the world know that, yes, Jews are a race. A wonderful and good race, who too often have been the victims of great prejudice. We are not members of the races that subjugated Africans into slavery. We are not those who taught prejudice and racism against blacks — if anything, the Jewish people have always been prominent among those who fought for civil rights and against racial discrimination. We are a proud race, and we have no connection with, and no cause to apologize for, the evils of white supremacists, with whom we have NOTHING in common. 

For years now, when presented with a form asking me to define my race, I have consistently refused to check the "white" box. I am not white. I am Jewish, and proudly so. I encourage my fellow Jews to follow the same practice and act forcefully for Jewish Pride.

PS - Sort of in the spirit of Adar, here is yet another take on the famous Hitler meme. (Warning - Some of the language is offensive.)

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Triumph over Pharaoh: The Levi Factor

As we begin recounting the incredible story of Moshe Rabbeinu once again, a question that bothered me for years (and I am sure that I am not alone in this) is given the hostility of Pharoah to the Jews, and Moshe in particular, how is it that Moshe seems to be able to waltz in and out of the palace whenever he chooses? We know from many sources the incredible life and death power that the Pharaohs had over everyone and everything in Egypt and the whole Middle East, including Eretz Yisrael. (Not the subject for today, but historical and archaeological sources prove this beyond a doubt). So how is it that Moshe was personally exempt from any control by the Pharaoh?

Moshe the Miracle Man

I know of three approaches to answer this question. The first is the Midrash, which tells fantastic stories of the supernatural assistance that Moshe was given. Lions, rodents, and other animals would come with him and frighten the Egyptian guards and Pharaoh himself and gain Moshe entry whenever he wished. The inquiry might end there, but I believe there is more to plumb in this story.

The Prince of Egypt

Another approach may disturb some readers, but I think it has much truth to it. When the movie “The Prince of Egypt” came out in 1998, I did not see it. It was much criticized in the Orthodox press as distorting the story presented in the Torah, as full of Hollywood excesses, and so on. I passed on it. 

However, a few years ago on a long plane ride, I decided to watch it. While much of the criticism I had heard is true (particularly its portrayal of my Zaydie Aharon), the central theme is based on one crucial insight that I had not considered before. 

Moshe grew up in the House of Pharaoh. The Torah reports the rise of a new King in Egypt at the beginning of Parshas Shmos (1:8), and of the King's death many years later, towards the end of Moshe’s stay in Midian(2:23). Whether or not the Pharaoh at the beginning of Shemos was the same Pharaoh who Joseph had dealt with was debated by our Sages (see Rashi to Shemos 1:8). However, it is hard to accept that the Pharaoh who Moshe contended with upon his return to Egypt was that same original Pharaoh.  The text clearly states that Pharaoh died.  Although Rashi brings an opinion that this means he contracted leprosy, the plain meaning of the text (and the two hundred-odd years since the Joseph story) leads one to believe that, in fact, the son of the former Pharaoh had now ascended the throne. Thus, the Pharaoh that Moshe contended with upon his return was surely none other than the stepbrother that Moshe had grown up with!

Who knows what sibling rivalry Pharaoh may have felt from this long-lost brother-pretender who had now returned, telling him what to do.


Given this fact, it may simply be that Moshe could come and go in the palace as he reclaimed his previous royal privileges of access. In fact, as some Midrashim note, the reason that Moshe had to go through the adoption by Batya and was brought up as an Egyptian was to prepare him for the confrontations that he would face as the Jewish savior. It gave him the confidence and ability to speak effectively in that forum. (Nevertheless, Moshe was also given the challenge of stuttering to ensure that no one thought the Exodus was a result of Moshe being a charismatic, eloquent speaker who mesmerized the Egyptians. It was clear that it was Hashem who redeemed the Israelites, not Moshe - see commentary of Rav SR Hirsch.)

Thinking of Moshe and Pharaoh in this way and analyzing the love/hate relationship that they must have had as long-lost brothers who were now adversaries, is fascinating on many levels. Who knows what sibling rivalry Pharaoh may have felt from this long-lost brother-pretender who had now returned, telling him what to do. It may have contributed mightily to the incredible ego and obstinance of Pharaoh in continuing his futile resistance while bringing himself and his nation to ruin. It may even have been part of the reason Moshe was so incredibly reluctant to take on the task in the first place. 

Whatever the case is, this is certainly a fascinating aspect of the drama that unfolds before us, and well explains how Moshe was able  even in a "non-miraculous" way  to come and go in Egypt as he pleased.

Moshe the Levi

However, I heard a third approach this week, which might be the most fascinating of all. Rashi, in fact, asks the question regarding Moshe’s access. In the verse in which Pharaoh said to Moshe and Aharon "Go back to your toil", Rashi comments: 

Go to your work that you have to do in your own houses.” [He could not have been referring to work in Egypt, because Moshe and Aharon were from the tribe of Levi] as the labor of the Egyptian slavery was not incumbent on the tribe of Levi. This can be seen for behold, Moshe and Aharon were coming and going without permission.  (Shmos 5:4).

Apparently, it was not only Moshe but the entire tribe of Levi that was, astoundingly, not subject to Pharaoh’s persecution. Why was that? 

Rav Avrohom Chaim Shor, one of the leading Rabbonim in Poland (died 1632 CE) attributes this to the foresight and wisdom of Yoseph. In Bereishis Chapter 47 we read how Yoseph arranged things so that all the wealth and people of Egypt belonged to Pharaoh — except the priests:

And Yosef made it into a land law in Egypt, which is still valid, that a fifth should be Pharaoh's; only the land of the priests did not become Pharaoh's. (47:26

In his genius, Yoseph established the law in Egypt, which Pharaoh could not revoke (without revoking his claim to all his power) that the priests were not subject to him. He did so to ensure that the tribe of Levi, who were the keepers of the spiritual tradition passed from Avraham to Yitzchak to Yaakov to Levi, would remain the heart and core of the Jewish people (see Rambam Hilchos Avoda Zara 1:3).
From the beginning, Avraham had been foretold in the Bris Bein Habesarim (Covenant between the Pieces) that before becoming the Holy Nation, they would have to go through a kiln of fire and persecution: 

And He said to Avram, “Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. (Bereishis 15:13)
In this short essay, I cannot go into the many commentaries that delve into the purpose of that terrible period that they went through. But one thing is clear; only by going through this very difficult challenge would Am Yisrael achieve its destiny. The road to Sinai had to go through Egypt. At first a very pleasant Egypt, but then one that became worse and worse, until Hashem saved us from there with great miracles. Am Yisrael suffered greatly in Egypt — not only physically, but perhaps even more so — spiritually. They reached extremely debased levels, and the great majority were unfortunately irredeemable and perished during the plague of Darkness. But the core stayed strong due to the indomitable spirit of Levi, courtesy of Yoseph. 
the tribe of Levi is the spiritual battery that will help us get through whatever He has in store for us, and to thrive with it.

What does this mean for us? Besides the history lesson about our origins, we can take much to heart in our own lives. First, to know that we, too, must personally go through many challenges before we get to our destiny. There are no shortcuts when it comes to spiritual achievements. We must embrace our challenges, remind ourselves that the Almighty gave them to us that we might grow thereby, and look forward to his Grace coming upon us in His due time. 

Secondly, we need to remember that the tribe of Levi is the spiritual battery that will help us get through whatever He has in store for us, and to thrive with it. We must seek spiritual guides and teachers who will open our hearts and help us uncover our eyes, so that we see our tasks clearly in front of us. Moreover, if we but will it, we too can be Levites. The well-known Rambam (Shemitta V’yovel 13:13) states: 
Not only the tribe of Levi, but any one of the inhabitants of the world whose spirit motivates him and he understands with his wisdom to set himself aside and stand before God to serve Him and minister to Him and to know God . . . is sanctified as holy of holies. G-d will be His portion and heritage forever.
I am not among those who claim that this passage shows the Rambam’s support for a Kollel lifestyle; too many other writings of the Rambam contradict that. (See a rebuttal of that position here.)What it does mean, however, is that every person can choose to be a spiritual Levi, and a source of inspiration and blessing to all those who interact with him. To be like Moshe and Aharon, who cared for, inspired, taught, and loved their fellow Jews and helped them live lives full of meaning and purpose. They — and if we merit it, we — will be able to walk through the minefields of the world, to deal with the Pharaohs and other obstacles, and continue on the road that will lead to greeting the Mashiach, speedily in our days.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Commemorating a Fallen Son with my Ethiopian Friend

 Living in Israel has its ups and downs, like everywhere else, but sometimes things happen that remind you that you are living in the most special place on Earth.

Since we have been living in Migdal HaEmek I have become close with Shmuel Yosef, a wonderful young Ethiopian Jew.  We interact mainly in two locations.  First, the local Ethiopian shul is around the corner, and I find myself going there often. When I first came to town, I was a bit wary of attending, given the drama that went on years ago regarding the question of their Jewish lineage. The issues have been dealt with in different ways; I will not delve into the matter in this essay.  Briefly, some great Rabbonim said that they might need a Giyur LChumra (conversion as an extra assurance), as some of their observances differed significantly from the rest of Klal Yisroel, from whom they had been separated for thousands of years. Others, particularly Rav Ovadia Yosef זצ"ל held that they should be accepted as is.  

What I found was a wonderful group of people who daven beautifully, sincerely, and respectfully, led by their Rav, a fine talmid chacham.  I feel very comfortable and inspired davening with them, especially when the Baal Tefillah is Shmuel, who has a pleasant and inspiring singing voice.

Our other interaction is in a small chaburah that we have studying Tanach.  The group was started by the local Gar’in Torani (a wonderful group of energetic and inspired young families who are doing enormous good in town) to study the book Iyov (Job).  And that is where the rest of the story begins.

About a year and a half ago, Shmuel and Aviva’s fifteen-year-old son Yagel was swimming in the sea and tragically drowned.  He clung to life for a week before he succumbed, leaving a gaping hole in the family and in their hearts.  It was thus so heartbreakingly difficult and meaningful to learn together the book of Iyov and discuss the emotional and theological ramifications of tragedy, particularly the loss of a child.  A boy who by all counts was good and warm and loving and talented, and whose passing left unremitting grief.  And yet, Shmuel and Aviva are positive and joyful; the pain is ever-present but they are determined to live with Simcha.

This brings me to yesterday’s event.  A few months ago, it was decided that a beautiful way to bring a Tikkun for the loss of Yagel was to write a Sefer Torah in his memory. Yesterday, around the time of his birthday, the family asked if people could come to help mark this special event.  (The day also was scheduled right after the Ethiopian holiday of Sigd, which commemorates the thousands of years of longing to return to Zion).  I went, of course, given my friendship with Shmuel.  But I was unprepared for what greeted me.

This was the largest event that I had ever seen in Migdal HaEmek.  Hundreds of people came, sang, danced, davened, and enjoyed a Seudah together, with one heart and one soul.  The thing, however, that struck me most was the unity between all types of Jews.  There were Ashkenaz, Sephard, Edot Mizrach, Yemenite, Ethiopian; Chassidim, Misnagdim, Yeshivish, secular — it did not matter.  All the men, women, and children came together to show support and share in this family's joy and mazal tov.

Israel is repeatedly attacked by the intelligentsia and world press as an apartheid racist state.  I would challenge any of the haters to attend last night.  Skin color was the last thing on anyone’s mind.  If anything, white, brown, black all came together as one unified whole; fellow Jews from across the spectrum celebrating with a beloved Jewish family while mourning our collective son.  It was beautiful and inspiring beyond words. It was a microcosm of what is going on in our beloved State of Israel, where Jews of many types from many different diasporas have come together to create one Nation, which will be united under Hashem, speedily in our days.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Biden’s Rosh Hashana Sermon

Although most Israelis would have no idea what I am talking about, most Americans consider Rosh Chodesh Elul to be the day after Labor Day, regardless of the Jewish Calendar.  Before Labor Day we are too busy with the Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer to take Elul seriously. 

No matter that the Rambam writes that the sound of the Shofar calls us to “Wake up sleepy ones, arise. Review your deeds, repent, remember your Creator. To those who forget the truth and engage all year in empty pursuits and matters that are ultimately worthless; think about your souls. Improve your ways and your deeds and abandon your sinful path (Teshuva 3:4). Summer is no time for such heavy thoughts.

However, for those paying attention, Hashem provided us with quite a wake-up call this year, as He often does. Twenty years ago, on the 23rd day of Elul we experienced September 11; a day that forever changed our perspective on our safety and security in the United States.  This year, we had several wake-up calls.

First – the year and a half of Corona, which has impacted everyone’s life in ways great and small.  It has changed our businesses, shuls, schools, families, and social contacts, let alone those who suffered personal tragedies.  It has left us, or should have left us, with far less certainty about our ability to control our lives and circumstances, and far more humility about predicting the future.  It certainly ought to be a wake-up call to Teshuva

Second – the tremendous political upheavals of this year, both in the USA and in Israel.  We became fractured, divided, and subjected to more hatred than any of us can remember in recent decades – simply because of our political and personal views.  We witnessed the fall of the mighty and their replacement by those of questionable competence who focus primarily on destroying the legacy of their predecessors.

And now, just before the Day of Judgment, the debacle in Afghanistan.

I will not go into an analysis here of the depth of the terrible damage wrought by the shameful mishandling of the withdrawal by the current administration.  I will focus only on what this means to us as Jews standing before Rosh Hashana.

Many writers have described the incalculable damage that has been done to America’s credibility as a guarantor of her allies’ peace and security.  Taiwan, South Korea, NATO – they have now seen how trustworthy America is when it ensures others that “Uncle Sam has your back”.  

One can appreciate – on a whole new level – how important it was when former PM Netanyahu and his predecessors insisted that Israel cannot take foolish risks for peace and rely on the USA to guarantee peace if things go awry.  Images of American friends falling off the airplanes to their deaths; of the American President (scandalously) blaming the Afghanistan army for not fighting for themselves; of him saying that chaos was inevitable and that he cannot guarantee the safety of thousands of Americans nor that of local Afghan allies, are chilling in the extreme.  And it starkly reminds us how precarious our safety is in this world, particularly as Jews.  The verse that we say every morning could not be more apt.

אַל תִּבְטְחוּ בִנְדִיבִים בְּבֶן אָדָם שֶׁאֵין לוֹ תְשׁוּעָה

Put not your trust in the great, in mortal man who cannot save.

  (Tehillim 146:3)

Quite a wake-up call, indeed.

We approach Rosh Hashana – the day that we are to accept the sovereignty of our King, the Master of the Universe – with great trepidation.  So many of its prayers jump out at us with special urgency.  “He who crowns kings but retains the true kingship”. . . “On this day it will be determined which countries will face the (Taliban) sword, hunger, or prosperity” . . .” We approach You not with our (deficient) deeds, but with looking to your Mercy” . . .and so many more.  We have been shown so clearly, if only we opened our eyes, how much we cannot rely on ourselves or other humans to solve the world’s problems.  Oh, how desperately do we need His Grace!

How much must we join together to daven that the Almighty watch over Eretz Yisrael and protect those who defend it!

As the future looks ever more tenuous in the Diaspora, we must be so grateful for the gift of the State of Israel.  Notwithstanding the many physical and spiritual problems there, how fortunate we are that –unlike those stuck in Afghanistan – we have a State of our own to run to in our hour of need.  Surely it is time for those in the Hareidi world to stop focusing on the many problematic trees and to see the forest for what it is – a wonderful gift that Hashem has allowed us to have. How much must we join together to daven that the Almighty watch over Eretz Yisrael and protect those who defend it!

Medinat Yisrael is not to be taken for granted – not for those who do not live here, who confidently assure themselves that whenever they feel like they can be “Next Year in Jerusalem” – it is the first time in recent memory that Jews want to come and cannot because of Corona.  For us who have the great good fortune to live in the Land, we look forward to the Shemitta year to remind us not to take it for granted. A year to internalize that it is the Almighty’s land - and not ours – and that we need His blessing to thrive in this refuge He has provided us in the midst of ever-growing threats.

May we have a most meaningful and heartfelt Rosh Hashana, and truly dedicate ourselves to serving the King of kings, who is looking to give us more than we could even imagine, if we would only turn to Him with all our hearts and minds.

PS - Although I am not sure how much I would recommend her work in general, Dolly Parton wrote words in her song "Hello God" that ought to give us some pause:

Hello, God? 
If we're still on speakin' terms
Can You help me like before?

I have questioned Your existence
My resistance leaves me cold
Can you help me go the distance?

This old world has gone to pieces
Can we fix it? Is there time?
Hate and violence just increases
We're so selfish, cruel, and blind

We fight and kill each other
In Your name defending You
Do You love some more than others?
We're so lost and confused

Hello, God?Are you out there?
Can you hear us?Are you listenin' anymore?
Hello, God?

If we're still on speakin' terms
Can You help us like before?
Oh, the free will You have given
We have made a mockery of
This is no way to be livin'
We're in great need of Your love
Hello, God?

Hello, God?
Can You grant us
Love enough to make amends?
Is there still a chance
That we could start again?

Hello, God?
We've learned our lesson
Dear God, don't let us go
More than ever

We really need You
We can't make it without You
We beseech You
In the name of all that's true
Hello, God?

Please forgive us
For we know not what we do
Hello, God?

Give us one more chance
To prove ourselves to You

Hello, God?

Published in the Jewish Press August 27, 2021

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

The Debased Origins of Baseless Hatred

Once again, Tisha B’Av approaches. As we have done so often, we will mourn the Churban, and lament how Sinat Chinam (baseless hatred) caused so much pain and suffering. And yet, the problem of baseless hatred is still with us, seemingly growing by the day. 

(Baseless? See my essay from last year Sinat Chinam: Baseless or Inexcusable?)

There is so much anger and division in our communities. So many people harbor hatred for others, simply because they disagree sharply with their political or religious views. We suffer on national, communal, and personal levels. In America, the nation is divided as perhaps no time since the Civil War.  In Israel, the disparate factions of the new government are bound together only by hatred of Netanyahu. As for Netanyahu and the opposition, they are interested only in causing the new government to fall, no matter the issue. Communities are rent apart; former friends and relatives barely speak to each other because of political differences – I need not go on.

These past two years I have been studying a great deal of history in preparation for the Ministry of Tourism Licensing exam. What I learned of the level of Sinat Chinam in Jerusalem prior to the Churban was far worse than I had imagined from studying about Kamtza and Bar Kamtza et al. The various factions of  Tzedukim, Zealots,Perushim, and Sicarri were at each other’s throats so badly that many thousands of Jews killed and maimed each other with no involvement of the Romans – blood literally ran in the streets. It was so bad that the Roman General Vespasian delayed in attacking Jerusalem, reflecting:

It is best [for the Romans], while their enemies are destroying each other with their own hands, and falling into the greatest of misfortunes, … to sit still as spectators … rather than to fight hand to hand with men that love murdering, and are mad one against another… For the Jews are not now employed in making of armor or building of walls; nor indeed in getting together defenses…rather, the Jews are vexed to pieces every day by their civil wars, and dissensions; and are under greater miseries than – if they were captured – could be inflicted on them by us. Therefore, we ought to suffer these Jews to destroy one another; we ought by no means meddle with these men now they are afflicted with a distemper at home.

Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Chapter 6

After the Jews had killed and weakened each other for years and burnt their storehouses of food in the madness of their civil war, the Romans had a much easier time finishing the bloody job.

What led to such awful fraternal hatred? And what lessons ought we to take to avoid continuing down that road?

Two historical episodes from the generation before the Churban help clarify how things deteriorated to that point. 

The first story appeared recently in Daf Yomi:

Two kohanim were ascending the ramp to the Mizbeach (Altar). One of them reached the 4 cubits before the other, whereupon the second took a knife and stabbed the first in the heart. Rabbi Tzadok chastised all those present by asking whether the law of Egla Arufa (an offering brought when we do not know who the murderer is) applies here, and who must supply it. . . At that point, the entire assembly of people to burst into tears. 

Until the father of the dying Kohen came and said ‘Look, he is not yet dead, and the knife is therefore not Tameh! Quickly remove the knife lest it become tameh!” (Yoma 23a)

The astoundingly perverted priorities of that father need no elaboration. The exaggerated focus on a supposed spiritual value versus concern about another human being, let alone his dying son, led to both the death of that kohen, and the callous reaction of his father. This deeply affected Rabbi Tzadok, whom we meet several times in the Churban narratives.

A famous incident occurred a few months before the Churban, when Rav Yochanan ben Zakai was granted three wishes from Vespasian, one of which he used to ask for a doctor for Rabbi Tzadok. Rabbi Tzadok had been fasting for forty years to try to forestall the Churban. Presumably, the forty years began around the time of the above story, which he took as an omen of doom for Yerushalayim and the Bais HaMikdash. Since the Churban happened in the year 70 CE, forty years prior was around 30 CE.

In my course, I was required to know more than I ever wanted to about the basic beliefs of Christianity. Among the most well-known stories about JC, written about in all the gospels, concerned his protests (shortly before the crucifixion) regarding the corruption that was going on in and around the Temple. The greedy priests (mainly Sadducees) were focused primarily on money and power and made the experience of coming to the Temple the opposite of spiritual. 

In one famous incident, JC turned over the tables of the moneychangers and sheep merchants outside the Temple, accusing them of taking advantage of people who came to worship. . (This was the main reason that the priests were so annoyed at him and asked the Romans to kill him – he was bad for business.)  In several other scenes, he castigated the priests and the Pharisees for being concerned only about ritual law, and not the human suffering that was right in from of them. These teachings*, and the contrast between his teaching and that of too many Rabbis, was a major factor in causing people to be his followers, despite his other dangerous mishegass.

Lest I be criticized for relying on Christian sources for these stories, they are more than corroborated by our tradition. For example, in Pesachim 57a, the Gemara heaps enormous criticism on the Kohanim of that time:  Abba Shaul ben Batnit said … Woe is me due to the Kohanim Gedolim of the house of Baisos, woe is me due to their clubs [used for hitting those who did not subordinate to their greedy wishes]. Woe is me due to the Kohanim Gedolim of the house of Ḥanin . . .of Katros, of the house of Yishmael ben Piakhi; woe is me due to their whispers and the rumors they spread. Woe is me due to the High Priests of the house of Katros; woe is me due to their pens that they use to write lies, their rumors, their fists, the way that they act inappropriately. 

I was thinking about this when a fascinating connection jumped out at me.  It is accepted that at his crucifixion, JC was in his early thirties, (about 30 CE). Thus, the Christian stories about the corruption in Jerusalem occurred at virtually the same time as the corruption pointed to by Rabbi Tzadok. These incidents illustrate the decadence that led to the horrible dissension, which made the Churban all but inevitable.

The culture of “baseless hatred” did not start with a few bad apples like the actors in the Kamtza story. The elites – the Kohanim in the Bet Hamikdash and too many others – in their zealous self-righteousness, religious coercion, and insensitivity to the way they were being perceived by others, contributed to a terrible culture of animosity and hatred. Tempers were whipped up, small disagreements became major clashes, and a culture of trying to get along with each other gave way to power struggles, “might makes right”, and ultimately chaos and murder. Things were so bad that -- as hard as it is to say this – perhaps we can understand why the Churban was necessary to ensure to allow for a better future.  

Perhaps this is why Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai, the great hero who is perhaps most responsible for helping us to successfully transition to a post Churban reality, insisted that it was necessary to have a doctor for Rabbi Tzadok as part of that process. It was only by clinging to Rabbi Tzadok’s wake-up call that we could leave behind the corrosive past and hope for a better future.

The fault for the fact that that the Haredim are reviled by such a large percentage of the Israeli public can not lie only on the others, and cannot be fairly described as “senseless hatred”.

There are many parallels that one could draw to current events, some of which I alluded to earlier. Here in Israel, it is certainly way past time for some of the religious leaders to think about the tone-deaf ways in which it has argued for its needs and priorities in the past decades. As the new government (particularly ministers Liberman and Lapid) take aim at the government largesse that has underwritten much of Haredi society, it would be well for the leadership to reflect on the way their messages have been heard by the Israeli public. While it is true that there are those reshaim who are anti-religious and want to destroy Torah, they are a small minority. Most Israelis are happy to live and let live and have no interest in interfering with the Haredi lifestyle. However, when they sense that they are repeatedly forced against their will to support unappealing ( to them) priorities, that their efforts in providing the infrastructure and security of the country are unappreciated and on top of that they are mocked and ridiculed and looked down upon by so many messages emanating from Haredi spokesmen and hotheaded individuals, they have a violently negative reaction. The fault for the fact that that the Haredim are reviled by such a large percentage of the Israeli public can not lie only on the others, and cannot be fairly described as “senseless hatred”.

Let us hope that this Tisha B’Av will cause some sincere and honest reflection on how we can change perceptions, and strive to fulfill the beautiful challenge we just learned in Daf Yomi on Yoma 86a, that our charge is to make the Name of Hashem beloved by our actions and the way we comport ourselves.

Printed in the Jewish Press July 16, 2021


* Here are some examples

And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the money changers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.

— Matthew 21

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples:  “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

“Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries[a] wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

— Mathew 23