Feb 05 2016

Ready for the Super Bowl

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Quarterback SackWhen I saw the headline for the article on Torah.org, “Murder and the Super Bowl,” I knew I had to have a look. The article is by Rabbi Yisroel Ciner, whom I’ve known for many years, long before he became Rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation in Irvine, CA. And with such a timely headline (yes, even I know we are approaching Super Bowl Sunday), how could I not?

I thought he was going to discuss the violence of football. It’s a very rough sport, one which trains players to be physically aggressive. I’m not sure why we are surprised when we find that this violence sometimes spills outside of the stadium.

But that wasn’t his point at all.

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) tells us that just the first word of this week’s reading contains a profound lesson. It begins: “And these are the judgments which you shall place before them.” [Ex. 21:1] Why “and”? These are the judgments! All we need is “eileh” rather than “v’eileh.”

But Rashi explains that “v’eileh” means that what follows is an addition to what came previously. In this case, we just read about the Revelation at Sinai, receiving the Torah and some of its laws. Specifically, last week’s reading concludes that one must not cut the stones of the Altar with metal tools, and to have a ramp rather than steps up to the Altar, so as not to inadvertently reveal beneath a Kohen’s robes.

Those laws are “chukim,” laws provided by G-d that are not immediately logical or well understood. The “mishpatim,” judgements, that we read this week are civil laws — the foundations of civilization. Without rules of interpersonal conduct, one has anarchy. If the Torah had not provided us these rules, then like every other nation, we would have had to create them.

But based upon this, Rabbi Ciner adds a fascinating point: that the laws created by nations are simply a “consensus of what they want according to the time, place and situation that they find themselves.” “They” must be taken to mean the ruler and the ruling class, but the point is sound. The rules made are colored by circumstance.

He gives a perfect example: what was “entertainment” in ancient Rome? Gladiator fights! A gladiator was not a soldier, he was a performer. It was the ultimate reality show, as the gladiator faced dangerous animals, convicted criminals, and other gladiators — knowing that only one would emerge alive. The “noble” gladiator murdered others for the delight of the audience. And that is what we call ancient Roman “civilization” — a society that celebrated barbarism, calling murderous fights to the death a form of entertainment.

The Romans, of course, were the ones who conquered Jerusalem and exiled the Jews from their land. According to the ways of the world, the Jews should have been assimilated into Roman society. Instead, it is the ancient Roman civilization that is gone, and the Jews who are still here. Even more, the idea of murder for entertainment is anathema to the Western world. Why? Where did they get the idea that murder is evil? Where did they get the idea that there is such a thing as good and evil at all?

Good Shabbos!

Jan 28 2016

And Yisro Heard

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Listen-to-Your-CustomerIn this week’s reading, we are told that “Yisro heard all that G-d had done for Moshe and Israel his nation, for HaShem had taken Israel from Egypt” [18:1].

Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) asks: what did Yisro hear? He answers, “the parting of the Reed Sea, and the war with Amalek.”

These two events were, to say the least, public knowledge. The Medrash says that at the moment that the sea parted for the Jews, every body of water, even every glass of water, also parted. This happened so that everyone would know about the miracle done for the Jews at that moment. So, yes, Yisro heard, and saw. He was sitting in his living room about to have his tea, and it split before his eyes. But this also happened for every other Midyanite, and every other person. So why does the Torah say that Yisro heard? Everyone heard!

We learn from Yisro the essence of “hearing.” A “shomea,” one who hears, does not merely have a functioning inner ear. Yisro, the “Kohen Midyan”, the priest of the Midyanites, dropped everything to go join the Nation of Israel. Why? Because he alone really heard the message. G-d sent the message to every person on earth — but Yisro heard.

While computers are doing a better and better job of automating this task, it is still important that we save our work frequently. Anyone with computer experience has experienced the unique frustration of spending an hour or more at the keyboard working on an important task, and then having the computer freeze up or power off without the opportunity to save one’s work. Whatever we do not commit to the computer’s memory, we lose.

We ourselves are not all that different. We often claim to “hear” something that goes “in one ear and out the other.” G-d sends us messages. He enters the data. But it is our responsibility to process and save that data. When something happens, when we receive a message, we can only say we have truly “heard” if we remember, understand, and learn from the experience. In the Torah, “hearing” means “Sh’ma Yisroel” [Hear, Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One], and “Naaseh V’Nishma” [We will do, and we will hear…].

Did we get the message?

[Based upon a class by Rav Asher Z. Rubenstein zt”l of Jerusalem.]

Jan 14 2016

Changing the Times

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Changing the TimesFrom the entire Book of Genesis, we learn only three Commandments: be fruitful and multiply, circumcision, and to not eat the sinew in the thigh (the same touched by the angel that fought with Ya’akov). The first Commandment given to the nascent Jewish nation, under Moshe and Aharon, is to Sanctify the new month, with the appearance of the New Moon.

What is so important about this Commandment?

A look at Jewish history strengthens the question. When the Greeks oppressed the Jews prior to the events celebrated on Chanukah, they banned three Jewish practices: Sabbath, Circumcision, and Sanctification of the New Moon. The Greeks believed the world was natural and constant; one day was not holier than another, and in practical terms, Sabbath observance made the Jews very different from everyone else — so we understand why they objected to Shabbos. Similarly, they believed the body was naturally perfect; the word “gymnos” means nudity, and described the dress code of the original, ancient Olympics. To them, circumcision was mutilation of the human form. But what was wrong with the Jews Sanctifying the New Moon?

By requiring that the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Jewish Court, sanctify the Months, the Torah gives the Jewish people a share of control over the process. Witnesses had to come and testify, and the Sanhedrin had to accept their testimony and declare the new month Sanctified, in order for a new month to begin 30 days after the previous one. Otherwise, the new month would automatically begin on day 31. This means the Sanhedrin could move the holidays simply by declining to sanctify a new month.

We see this in the current calendar, which limits when certain holidays can and cannot begin: the best-known formula is “lo AD’U Rosh,” which means that Rosh HaShanah cannot fall on Sunday (aleph being the first letter of the Hebrew Alef-Bais), Wednesday (daled, the fourth) or Friday (vav, the sixth). This is because the Rabbis did not want Hoshanah Rabba (the last day of Sukkos, prior to Shemini Atzeres) to fall on the Sabbath, or Yom Kippur to be Friday or Sunday.

Again, this was established by the Rabbis, not the Torah. They established our present calendar when they saw that due to Roman persecution and dispersal, the Sanhedrin would not be able to sanctify the new month in normal fashion. And today, over 1000 years later, the times when holiness comes to the world are not simply given to us by G-d, but by us, the Jewish People, as well. This idea, that human beings could impact and change the world — not just physically, but spiritually — was foreign to the Greeks and their idolatry.

The Greeks of that time are, of course, ancient history. We, the Jewish People, continue to change the world.

Dec 30 2015

Pharoah and the Jews: a Case Study in Anti-Semitism

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Israel-Apartheid-WeekThe Biblical Book of Exodus begins with the tale of Pharoah and the Jews under Egyptian rule. Most people are at least vaguely familiar with the story, but few notice that it is the first account of organized, institutional anti-Semitism against the Jews.

At the end of Genesis, we learn that the insight and guidance of one prescient Jew saved the entire nation of Egypt from starvation and anarchy. Joseph, the son of Jacob, correctly foresaw that the region was destined to enjoy seven years of plenty, not knowing that seven dark years of famine would follow. He suggested that Pharoah build storehouses and implement a mandatory 20% tax during the years of bounty, rather than allowing the populace to consume and waste the excess.

Though Joseph came before Pharoah as an imprisoned slave, Pharoah was so taken with his foresight and advice that he appointed Joseph to be his second-in-command, and placed him in charge of this crucial project. Joseph was so successful that, as we see from the text itself, the Egyptians were able to not only feed their own, but even to sell the surplus to residents of other nations – such as ten brothers from Cana’an. Once reunited as a family, Joseph brought the entire clan to settle as a separate but loyal community of citizens under Egyptian rule.

Years later, a new Pharoah was crowned, one who claimed to be unaware of the Jews’ pivotal contribution to Egypt’s survival and enhanced international reputation. He insisted that something must be done about the Jews, for they had too much power. Otherwise, he said, the Jews could show disloyalty, joining those who come to wage war and (commentators differ on this point) either plundering Egypt’s wealth and carrying it off to Cana’an, or even expelling the Egyptians and taking the real estate for themselves.

To be certain, all of Pharaoh’s accusations were baseless lies – until his own blind hatred made them reality. He not only enslaved the Jews, he made their lives impossible, and tried to kill them out by drowning all newborn Jewish boys. The oppressed Jews cried out to G-d, Who punished the Egyptians with a series of plagues that killed their crops, their livestock, and even their firstborn sons. Oral tradition teaches that the Egyptians willingly handed over their wealth to the Jews so that they would leave and stop the plagues.

In the end, another bout of irrational hatred consumed Pharaoh. He ran to wage war against the Jews and drag them back – and he and his entire army were drowned.

Perhaps you find yourself among the many millions of people who believe this story to be nothing more than an interesting fable. If so, it is all the more necessary to ponder why it might be that although the Egyptian nation of that era has disappeared in the sands of history, the lies that Pharoah believed and told about the Jews are precisely those that continue to be circulated to this day:

  • The Jews have too much power and control.
  • They care only about themselves.
  • They think they are superior to us.
  • They are disloyal.
  • They will make war against the innocent.
  • They want to take our money and property.
  • They want to kill or exile us.
  • The Jews will do to us the very things we now plan to do to them.
  • And finally, all of this is the Jews’ own fault.

To which we might add one more: the Jews talk too much about their victimization at the hands of others. After all, they’ve been reading this story for over 3,300 years.

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