Aug 14 2015

Division, Not Discord

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ceremonial-647061_1280In this week’s reading, the verse says “Lo Sisgodedu” — “do not cut yourselves,” which was a mourning practice of idolators. But the Medrash tells us that the words give us another messages as well: “do not divide, do not split up.”

Someone once asked Rabbi Yisrael M. Kagan zt”l, the Chofetz Chaim, why the observant Jewish world was so divided. Why are there Chassidim and non-Chassidim, and even among Chassidim there are all different types. Some focus more on study, some more on prayer; some are mostly silent while others sing and dance. And that was in Poland in the early 20th century, when most Jews were at most marginally aware of the diversity of Sephardic and Yemenite Jewry. What would the world be missing, he asked, if there was simply one group of Jews, all praying the same way and following the same customs?

The Chofetz Chaim responded that before asking him this question, the questioner ought to go to the Czar of Russia with a similar one: why are there so many different types of soldiers? In their day they had infantry, cavalry and artillery — today that would just be the Army. Could we rationally question why there are different units, whether the world would lack anything if there was only one type of soldier? In order to win in battle, the military needs a variety of techniques, strategies, and strengths.

So too, says Rabbi Kagan, in our ongoing battle against the Evil Inclination. We are all in the same battle, trying to perfect ourselves and make better choices. As someone explained more recently, without the modern Yeshivos of Lithuanian Jewry, Torah learning would not be so strong, and without the impact of the Chassidic movement, Judaism would not be so strong. When we learn and benefit from each others’ strengths, we are united in serving our Father in Heaven.

Jul 31 2015

The Foundation of Judaism

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Sinai-StoryThe Torah tells us in this week’s reading that we must always remember what happened at Sinai. “Just guard yourselves, and guard your souls very well, lest you forget the things that your eyes saw, lest it leave your heart all the days of your life. And you shall make it known to your children and grandchildren, the day that you stood before HaShem your G-d at Chorev” [Dev. 4:9-10].

The Rambam [Maimonides] says (in his Igeres Teiman, his letter to Yemenite Jewry) that this isn’t simply something we believe, but the foundation of Jewish belief. But… isn’t that circular reasoning? How can something be its own foundation? It’s something we believe, therefore we believe it and everything else also. Right?

Actually, no, it’s not circular. Maimonides says that this is the foundation because every Jew knows that his or her own great-great-grandparents believed that his or her own great-great-(great-great-great etc.)-grandparents were there. As in, Jews have traditionally believed that their own forebears were actually at the foot of Mount Sinai and saw it happen.

Maimonides asserts that there is only one way for that belief to take root, and that by the same standards that we know most anything, we are able to analyze this event and reach the conclusion that we know it happened. It’s not just a belief, it’s knowledge.

Why is it so common to dismiss this as just another story? The answer is simple: because of the ramifications. Under most circumstances, no one would believe that a community of millions of people believe that their own ancestors witnessed an event, yet it’s all mythology. If Brazilians were holding an annual feast to commemorate a massive flood that nearly destroyed the community, the impartial observer would tend to believe that the flood must have actually happened — and that’s true even if the flood was reported to have taken place hundreds or even thousands of years ago. Because everyone knows that floods can happen, and it’s possible for communities to escape them by the narrowest of margins.

But knowing that this particular story may be difficult to believe, Maimonides points to this week’s reading: “when you will ask about the first days that happened before you, from the day G-d Created man on the earth and from one end of the heavens to the other, has this ever been, or has [a story] like this ever been heard — has a nation heard the Voice of G-d speaking from inside the fire, as you heard, and lived?” [4:32-33] The Torah says bluntly that, as Maimonides put it, “there never was such a thing before, and there will never be anything like it.”

This is an amazing prediction, especially considering how world history has played out over the past 3300 years. It’s not just that there are other religions, it’s that today over fifty percent of the world’s population derives their beliefs from our Bible. Today’s dominant religions begin here — that G-d revealed Himself to the Jewish Nation. And they all also believe that at some point, the Jews got it wrong.

All of them believe that they know the Jews got it wrong, because someone told them so. Either that someone was a prophet, or that someone was an angel, or that someone was even divinity in human form — but someone told them. No one believes that G-d publicly revealed Himself once again to say so. Today, there are more Americans who believe an angel talked to a man in a cave in upstate New York and showed him the new path, than there are Jews in the world who [try to] follow the rules laid out in the Torah!

What is it about this story, that no one tried to duplicate it? Doesn’t it make more sense to start a new religion by saying that G-d came back to tell us the new way? And for that matter… how did the Torah know and declare with full confidence that although the Jews came to believe the story as told in our Torah, no one would ever get a group of people to believe a new version of this story, ever again?

Maimonides may have been on to something.

Jul 24 2015

Criticizing Israel

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Domino TheoryThe last book of the Torah, Book of Devarim, is called “Deuteronomy” in English — an Old English translation of Deuteronomium, Latin for “Second Law.” G-d tells Moshe to record what Moshe himself said to Israel, which includes further discussion and elaboration of the Commandments.

Moshe begins, however, by giving Israel Tochacha, rebuke. in modern English we might call it a “stern lecture,” but that fails to capture its full meaning. Moshe lived his entire life as a servant of the Nation. G-d testifies that Moshe was “more humble than anyone” [Num. 12:3]. He was their leader because he was called upon to lead — and showed leadership by demonstrating, as a shepherd, concern for a small lost sheep in his flock. He cared about every person. So if he was criticizing them, it was because he truly desired the very best for them.

Even before he begins to speak, Rashi explains, the Torah describes the People of Israel’s location in a way that reminds us of places where we, Israel, angered the A-lmighty through our misbehavior. And the Torah knows a thing or two about rebuke — why does it say that he spoke “to all of Israel?” Because if only part of them were there, those out in the marketplace at the time would come back and say, “you didn’t respond when he said that? If we had been there, we would’ve answered him!” So Moshe assembled everyone, so that no one could say afterwards that they could have justified themselves but didn’t have the opportunity. And why did Moshe only do this shortly before his death? Otherwise he would have had to rebuke Israel constantly, and we would have been ashamed.

Perhaps the strongest criticism is when the Torah points out that they found themselves eleven days away from Horeb, Mt. Sinai [see 1:2]. Forty years later, they were all of eleven days from where they received the Torah.

And there is a deeper message, Rashi tells us, behind mentioning “eleven days from Horeb.” — to get from Horeb to Kadesh Barnea takes eleven days, but excluding the days when Israel stopped (due to its own actions), they traveled there in only three. That is how anxious G-d was to bring us to our land! And then at Kadesh Barnea the spies went out… and as a result, Israel traveled in a circuit around Mt. Seir for forty years.

This is a good message to be reading on the eve of Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of Av, the day both Temples were destroyed. Even the bad things that happen to us are for our own benefit — and usually because we, Israel, did something wrong. We live in a time when people refuse to take responsibility for their own actions, and we are taught to take responsibility beyond what even seems logical: “every generation in which the Temple is not rebuilt, it is as if it was destroyed during their time” [Yerushalmi Yoma 1:1].

Today there is a terrible disconnect between cause and effect — by which I mean spiritual cause. 78% of Jews in America told the Pew report that “remembering the Holocaust” is an important part of being Jewish. But where are they on the ninth of Av? On Tisha B’Av, we remember terrible things that befell the Jewish People, and remind ourselves that it is ultimately up to us to do better, to honor the memory of the holy martyrs of our nation by coming closer to G-d and being truly deserving of peace in our land.

Jul 17 2015

The Myth of 40 Years of Wandering

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LostManAs a result of the Nation of Israel’s lack of trust, their belief (based upon the report of the spies) that they could not conquer Cana’an and would die trying, G-d said the entire generation of the desert would remain just that: rather than being the generation that entered the Land of Israel, they would remain wandering in the desert until they passed away. Their children would be the ones to enter the land.

The last Torah portion in the book of Bamidbar (Numbers) enumerates the migrations from place to place — from Ramses to Sukkos, from Sukkos to the edge of the desert, etc., until reaching the plains of Mo’av. When you read them, the number of migrations seems overwhelming. There are enough of them that many congregations read that section with a special tune.

In actuality, and as Rashi explains, this image is deceiving. First of all, there are only forty-two steps, barely one per year. Fourteen of them describe the journey to Mt. Sinai and shortly thereafter, all during the first year — and prior to the decree. The final eight steps, all of which transpired after the passing of Aharon, are in the last year in the desert as they prepare to finally enter the land. So during all thirty-eight years when they were decreed to wander without real purpose, there were only twenty such journeys.

So we see that in actuality, the decree was delivered with mercy. The Rambam [Moreh Nevuchim] also says that a person can go through the Sinai desert, and see for him or herself that the Nation of Israel camped in places where other people did not. In fact, anyone would say that those places were “unfit for habitation,” pure desert with little water, much less food.

Even when there is a decree against Israel, there is a bit of light in the darkness. We must never give up hope — that, as the spies demonstrated, only makes matters worse. We must always remain aware that G-d is watching over us!

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