Sep 12 2014

Every Step Up

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stair_stepsThis week, the Torah makes us uncomfortable. It tells us something that we don’t want to hear: that there are harsh consequences if we turn away from G-d and His Torah. We are His nation, and our lives and successes depend upon remembering this. The Ohr HaChaim reminds us that we’ve heard this before, in the Torah portion Bechukosai at the end of Leviticus. Why does the Torah repeats the curses, at double the length — and, unlike the first time, not follow with words of consolation?

He explains that the first set speaks to us as a nation, in the plural, leaving open the possibility that we might get the wrong idea: as long as part of Israel is doing the right thing, perhaps HaShem won’t be concerned about those doing evil. Thus the second set speaks to us as individuals — and, of course, the Torah cannot guarantee that every individual will experience, in this world, the consolation of Israel that follows. The Torah reminds us once again that every individual Jew is part of the entire nation, and we are all responsible for each other.

Recently, two Rabbis wrote op-eds debating the importance of intent versus practice. The first Rabbi argued that a person on a path of growth is “on the spiritual scale, light years beyond those who go through the motions.” The second countered that “putting too much emphasis on intention… [can] mislead people into thinking that the intent is equal to, or even more important than, the act itself.”

They are both right.

It is obvious that both the one who is filled with spiritual feelings of closeness to God yet does not act upon them, and the one who performs the Commandments but without feeling or devotion, suffers from a profound lack. Both of these things must travel together.

At the same time, however, we cannot minimize the accomplishment of being “halfway there.” The first Rabbi wrote his reflections after speaking with a woman who felt tremendous spiritual motivation, yet felt that a particular area of Jewish practice (which he left unspecified) so intimidating that she felt unable to move forward. And she felt unable to do even that with which she was fully comfortable, because of the philosophical hurdle she had yet to overcome. And on the other side, those who lack inspiration inevitably feel their observance falling away, because doing a ritual without feeling can leave a person simply feeling worse than before.

In both cases, a person’s bad inclination is trying to convince him or her not to do the right thing. Every single positive step has tremendous value, and that includes both the person who prays with sincerity but does not fully observe, and the person who observes everything but lacks emotion. Focusing upon the negative simply leads a person to a feeling of hopelessness, while placing our attention upon the positive leads us to aim higher in the future.

When I founded Project Genesis over two decades ago, I recall speaking to a Rabbi who was and remains one of the leading figures in Jewish outreach. Unlike many others, he was not enthusiastic. He said to me: “the goal of Jewish outreach is to help an uninformed Jewish person go from 0 to 1000. What you are doing can only help a person from 0 to 1!”

The years that followed proved him mistaken, in that many people found their Jewish lives tremendously enriched even if their sole source of inspiration came via the Internet. [Many of you have shared stories with us; I hope that if you are reading this and have a story of your own growth through Torah.org and other programs, that you will send it to us, either privately or in the comments.] But that was not why he told me, nearly a decade later, that he had changed his mind. Rather, it was the realization that one is infinitely greater than zero.

Every step up has tremendous value, and must inspire us to continue to grow in both spirituality and practice, every day of our lives.

Sep 05 2014

Chain of Events

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futureThe Torah reading begins this week with three seemingly unrelated laws. First it teaches us how an Israelite soldier must conduct himself if, in the course of capturing a city, he is attracted to a captive woman. Then it explains the laws of inheritance if a man has two wives, and would like to give preference to the eldest son of the wife he loves, although that son is younger than his true firstborn, who comes from a wife he dislikes. And finally, the Torah tells us about the wayward son, who sets himself on a path of evil.

Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki shows us that the Torah is teaching a profound lesson here. First of all, recognizing human nature, the Torah does not offer a blanket prohibition against marrying a captive. The morally reprehensible conduct of most victorious armies is, of course, prohibited — even if a woman beautifies herself in the hopes of winning a soldier, which was apparently not uncommon. Rather, the Torah demands that she be brought to his home, that her fine clothing and jewelry be exchanged for garments of mourning, and that she cry for her lost family. Rashi explains that the Torah is ensuring that the heat of the moment passes, and she appears in ugly clothes without makeup, the soldier has an opportunity to reconsider his rash interest.

And if he does go ahead and marry her anyways, Rashi adds, that is how he is going to end up with a wife that he dislikes. And that, in turn, is how he is going to find himself with a son committed to wayward behavior.

The Talmud in Sanhedrin says (with one dissenting opinion) that the laws of the wayward son are so intricate and difficult that they were never actually carried out. The Torah made it impossible, practically, for a young man to be punished with death for having disobeyed and stolen (specifically meat and wine). If so, what was the purpose of telling us a Commandment that was never applicable? The sole purpose of this passage, then, is the moral lesson to be derived from it.

The Torah does not tell us in every case that a behavior is prohibited. Human beings have different needs, and what may be appropriate and even beneficial for the spiritual growth of one person may be detrimental to another. Each individual must have the opportunity to choose the good, facing an inclination that wants to fool him or her into thinking that any permitted action will lead to a positive end. As we know, the world doesn’t work that way.

Sometimes, two people can ask a Rabbi a what appears to be the same question, and receive very different answers. This often has to do with the circumstances surrounding the question. It’s acceptable to eat kosher fruit off a nonkosher plate, if invited to a dinner where it would seem impolite not to eat anything at all. Does that mean it’s a good idea to keep nonkosher plates in your house, to use only for cold items? Of course not.

One must look down the road at the likely results of his or her actions: “who is wise? The one who perceives the future” [Talmud Tamid 32a, see also Rebbe Shimon in Chapters of the Fathers 2:13]. The Torah is warning us that you can’t simply look at the list of Commandments and say “it’s not forbidden, so it’s okay.” Nothing is so simple. The Torah is trying to set each person on a path of individual growth, and one must, with guidance, look to the future and choose the path that will lead to greater heights.

Aug 29 2014

Ferguson in the Torah

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FergusonOver the past few weeks, those reading the news in the United States have been confronted with two entirely different accounts of events in Ferguson, Missouri. In the first version, an unarmed man with his hands up was shot by police. In the second, a large, domineering man physically struck a smaller police officer until the officer, in fear for his life, shot his attacker.

Two such narratives can only take hold in an environment in which authority is not trusted. And indeed, in some countries the legal authorities have little to do with any actual justice. The Torah tells us, in this week’s reading, both that laws must be enforced rather than simply existing in a book, and that the leaders of a city must be dedicated to the welfare of each individual.

Our reading begins: “Judges and officers you shall put in all your gates” [Deut. 16:18], referring to each city. Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki says that the officers are not mere bureaucrats, but must use “rods and straps” as necessary to force people to accept the judgment of the judges. This, of course, could be a recipe for tyranny.

The counterbalance is found at the end of our reading this week. There we learn that the elders of the city are obligated to look out for the welfare of every individual, even a visitor. When a person is found dead outside a city, its elders must come to the site and declare “our hands did not spill this blood, and our eyes did not see [him]” [21:7]. Rashi asks, “could we imagine that the elders of the court are murderers? Rather, [this means that] ‘we did not see him and let him leave without food and without escort.'”

Ferguson is the result of a breakdown in trust between the authorities and the people whom they are supposed to serve, a breakdown which is sadly replicated across the country. A veteran police officer (and Professor of Homeland Security) from Los Angeles touched off a firestorm of criticism when he dared to say that the middle of a violent riot is not the ideal time to confront a police officer, and that approaching an officer aggressively is a bad idea. Despite acknowledging that officers can engage in bullying and even criminal behavior — and saying that these should be challenged via appropriate channels — he was widely characterized as an advocate for dictatorship, a police state.

What his critics do not realize is that denying officers any authority “on site” is advocating for anarchy. Officers in Ferguson did not show up in armored vehicles because they wanted to play with their overgrown toys, but because stores were being looted, cars were being burned, and they were facing bottles, Molotov cocktails and even bullets. The public order is not preserved by letting every miscreant have his way.

There must be a balance. The leaders of a city must be interested in the public good, and every individual must respect the law, or expect to face “rods and straps” until he does. That is the lesson of our reading, and as current events demonstrate, it is every bit as apt today as it was when the Torah was given. Human nature has not changed.

We are fortunate today to live, for the most part, in countries where the leaders of each city and nation are elected, and can be voted out if they do not serve the public interest. In such a system, appropriate legal methods exist to challenge and correct abuses when they happen. It is the obligation of every individual to observe the law, use the law to challenge its abuses, and try to change it where necessary — not to “take matters into our own hands” or encourage the anarchists among us.

Aug 15 2014

You Gotta Have Faith

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thank_you_inscription_04_hd_pictures_170884Have you ever had something bad happen, and said a quick (or not so quick) prayer?

The truth is, it’s really not supposed to be that way. [It's not? What do you mean by that?] Let me explain:

The Torah tells us that G-d wants to bless us. G-d wants to give us everything, as our kind and beneficent Father. And most of all, He wants us to come close to Him, rise spiritually, become more “godly” throughout our lives.

Unfortunately, due to our own failings, these often don’t travel together: if our lives are blessed with material success, we are not as focused upon G-d! This is what Moshe warns us about in this week’s reading: “Guard yourselves, that you don’t forget Hashem your G-d, to not observe His commandments and judgments and laws which I have commanded you today; that you don’t eat and drink, and build good houses and dwell in them… And you will say in your heart, my might and the strength of my hand have made for me all of this wealth” [Deuteronomy 8:11-12, 17].

When that happens, when we forget G-d after receiving His blessing — well, that’s when He needs to remind us Who is really in charge. But we shouldn’t need something bad to happen before we turn to Him. Our goal should be to recognize His kindness when we receive blessing — so that we don’t need less pleasant reminders to turn to Him at every moment.

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