Dec 09 2016

The Recurring Lies of Laban

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pinocchio-595732_640The story of Laban and Jacob is critical to our understanding of anti-Semitism, the pernicious hatred of Jews. We know this from the Passover Haggadah — we learn briefly about Pharoah, read that this hatred happens in every generation, and then continue, “go and learn what Laban the Aramite want to do to our father.”

Why is Laban important here? Rabbi Naftali Berlin (the Netzi”v), famed dean of the Yeshiva in Volozhin, explains: because Yaakov is the father of all Jews, and Laban is the paradigm of the anti-Semite.

Laban is fundamentally dishonest. We see this multiple times.

He and Yaakov make a deal: Yaakov offers to work for Laban for seven years, simply for the privilege of marrying Rachel, his younger daughter. And Laban deceives him, setting him up. Laban puts a veil over the face of his older daughter Leah, and brings her to him.

When Yaakov realizes that he has been deceived and confronts Laban, what does Laban do? Blame Yaakov! “We don’t do things that way here, to marry off the younger daughter first.” In other words, “Yaakov, this is all your fault.”

Yaakov faithfully works another seven years, and then says he should go back to his own land. Laban recognizes that he has been blessed by Yaakov’s presence, and asks him to stay. So they make a deal, again, regarding which of the flock would belong to Yaakov in return for working as a shepherd. Laban repeatedly changes the deal, to make the terms more favorable to himself — the verse says he did so ten times, but the Medrash says that this means tens of times, totaling 100.

Despite Laban’s dishonesty, Yaakov performs his work faithfully — and becomes wealthy. What is the reaction? Yaakov overhears Laban’s sons claiming that all that Yaakov has is “taken” from their father! Later, when Yaakov shows Laban that he has been scrupulously honest, above and beyond what was required of him, Laban’s response is “everything you see, is mine.”

It has always been this way: that at the core of anti-Semitism is the belief that everything the Jews have, they have stolen, rather than acquired honestly. And it is projection, coming from dishonest people who want the wealth of others for themselves.

Of course there is more to it: Laban wants to do away with Judaism itself, claiming that he could harm all of them were it not for G-d instructing him to leave them alone. And that, of course, is a core element of anti-Semitism as well.

Our response must be like Yaakov’s — to be so honest and ethical that we know the charges are silly. When we do this, it becomes obvious to all neutral parties that it is simply baseless hatred. This is our best response to the lies of Laban!

Nov 17 2016

Don’t Follow the Herd

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follow-herdLast week we learned that Avraham and Lot had separated. Lot moved to the fertile land surrounding the city of S’dom, yet he retained some of the traits of his holy and generous uncle. So when two disguised angels came to the gates of the city, he rose to greet them and to bring them into his house as his guests.

To the evil residents of S’dom, this was nothing less than a crime. The Torah tells us that the men of the city gathered around Lot’s house, intending to assault and brutalize his visitors. They came “young and old, all the people from every quarter” [19:4] — and Rashi explains that this meant that no one, not a single person, objected. That was the nature of the city.

The angels warned Lot to escape for his life, and he obeyed — but they told him not to look back, and when his wife did so she became “a pillar of salt” [19:26]. What does this mean? Because she was curious and looked over her shoulder, she was killed, turned into a salt lick?

The Medrash, quoted by Rashi, explains that we must look deeper. She became a pillar of salt because she had sinned with salt. What was her crime? Lot asked her to give a little salt to their guests, and she responded, “even this evil custom, you want to make the custom of this place?”

She was so influenced by the Sodomite culture that she, too, looked upon welcoming guests as evil. She had internalized S’dom’s inversion of morality.

Thus when they were escaping, and Lot was rushing as fast as he could to escape, she was not merely curious. She was not simply rubbernecking over her shoulder to see what had happened. Rather, she did not want to leave. She longed to return to S’dom’s culture.

This is the power of groupthink. When Hitler came to power in Germany, he encouraged ruthless, cruel barbarity as “strength” — and dismissed conscience as “a Jewish blemish.” And millions of people followed him as he turned morality to weakness and evil into good.

In the very same verse that the Torah tells us to follow majority rule, it also says to not follow the majority to do evil [Exodus 23:2]. The Medrash tells us that this verse is speaking to judges, telling them that the majority decides a case, but for a capital crime a majority of one is insufficient to pronounce guilt.

Yet in the simple words of the verse, we can find a lesson for ourselves as well. If someone tells you that you should follow the herd, as even the Bible says… then you are given your response: we must not follow the majority to do evil. Only when holy people discuss the correct path do we follow the majority of those holy people. Otherwise, we are enjoined to stand against the majority in defense of the good.

Nov 04 2016

Ends and Means

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trolley-dilemmaThere is an old joke of a mugger demanding of a Jew, “your money or your life!”

The Jew doesn’t move, and the mugger demands, “hurry up already!”

To which the Jew responds: “I’m thinking, I’m thinking!”

Despite its play on antisemitic tropes, even Jews find it funny. Yet we know from the Bible that something very much like this actually happened. In the story of the Tower of Babel, we learn that the people of the world did not merely rebel against G-d. They rebelled against humanity as well.

The Medrash teaches that if a person was carrying a brick up the tower and dropped it, people would cry. Dropping the brick slowed down the construction of the tower, their supreme goal.

But if a person fell off the ladder to his death on the way down, people would not cry. This, as much as the rebellious nature of the tower itself, represented the corruption of human values. They placed inanimate objects ahead of human lives.

Often, the questions are not so clear-cut. In modern ethics, there is something called the Trolley Problem, a question asked 50 years ago. Imagine a trolley running out of control down a hill, and there are five people tied to the tracks further down. You are standing next to a lever. Should you pull the lever, it will save those five people, yet the trolley will roll down a side track and kill someone else. Are you supposed to pull the lever?

As it turns out, this is not merely a theoretical question. In 1929, Arabs rioted in Hebron, bent upon massacre. Yet they gave the Chief Rabbi of the city a choice: if he turned over the Ashkenazi Jews (of European origin), they would spare the Sephardim (from the Arab world).

The Rabbi refused. The Torah teaches that we are in no position to judge whether five people are of greater worth than the one. We can sacrifice ourselves to save others, but not pass judgment on other people. We cannot pull the lever.

Why is this so? Because in our Torah, human life is of infinite value. Every person has within them a spark of Divinity, which is infinite. Five times infinity is infinity. Infinity divided by 20 is infinity. We cannot place one infinity ahead of another.

We must remain aware that every person around us is of infinite value, and deserving of respect. And, yes, we must also recognize that each of us is of infinite value. We are important. No person is unnecessary or “worthless.” So don’t take yourself for granted!

Oct 28 2016

We’re all in This (World) Together

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With an insight that my friend Rabbi Leonard Oberstein called prescient, the very first comment of Rashi on the Torah quotes a Medrash:

Rebbe Yitzchok says: He did not need to begin the Torah [here,] but from ‘this month will be for you the first of months’ [Exodus 12:2], for that is the first Mitzvah that Israel is Commanded to follow. What is the reason to begin with ‘The beginning?’… That if the nations of the world will say to Israel, ‘you are thieves, for conquering the land of the seven nations,’ they will say to them, ‘all the world is the property of the Holy One, Blessed be He. He Created it and Gave it in accordance with what is right in His eyes. By His Will He Gave it to them, and By His Will He Took it from them and Gave it to us. [Yal. Shim. Ex. 247]

globe-1674102_1920This Torah portion teaches many other lessons that are as relevant today as ever. The idea that we have a single Creator, Ruler of heaven and earth, is one example. Much as Kant and others attempted to prove otherwise, to truly live a moral life requires that we acknowledge a standard greater than our own, one that we must follow even when, frankly, we don’t want to. Monotheism enables and indeed requires that single, objective standard. Under polytheistic idolatry, the wishes of one “god” often contradict the desires of another; when we ourselves determine morality, our judgment is clouded by temptation and self-interest.

We also learn that we were created in the image of G-d. Every person has a spark of Divinity within him or her. Every life has infinite value, and thus the preservation of life becomes a critical responsibility of every person.

We learn the brotherhood of man. All of humanity are brothers, descended from a single father and mother. We cannot ignore “our brother’s blood.”

We even learn our responsibility as custodians of the earth, as Hashem gives to Adam and Chava rulership over all other creatures, bringing each one to Adam to name, and gives all growing things to them to eat.

It is no coincidence that anti-Semitism accuses Jews of opposing all of these values. Besides “stealing” the Jewish homeland, Jews are accused of killing non-Jews at will and destroying the earth, and considering non-Jews to be subhuman (there’s even a concocted quote from the Talmud to prove it)!

The lessons of Judaism serve as their own rebuke to these nonsensical canards. We are all one human race, like it or not, says the Torah. All that the Western world now calls “Judeo-Christian ethics” emerges from the Torah’s lessons, guiding us to perfect ourselves — to live as godly individuals. We await the day when “all who dwell on earth will recognize and know that to You every knee should bend… As it says, ‘And Hashem will be King over all the land, on that day Hashem will be One, and his name One.'” [Zechariah 14:9]

As we begin to read the Torah for another year, let us remain mindful of its ability to transform and elevate us like nothing else!

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