Apr 24 2015

Greater or Lesser

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Chain-of-GossipWhat separates human consciousness from that of animals is the ability to think in terms of ideas, and act based upon a conscious decision rather than instinct. How do we communicate these ideas to others, and build upon them? This comes to us through the power of speech. A parrot can mimic sounds; a human being can communicate and understand ideas and concepts.

This unique human capacity provides us with incredible opportunities to build. Speech enables us to learn and to teach, to work together to improve the world, and to communicate with our Creator.

But as we are warned in this week’s reading, the power of speech also carries with it a unique potential for evil. Rabbi Yisrael Mayer Kagan, the Chofetz Chaim (known by the name of his most famous work on the ethics of speech), explains that “Lashon Hora,” evil speech, comes in many different ways: verbal intimidation, hurtful remarks, gossip about others, and more.

He tells the story of a small town, hundreds of years ago, where a rumor circulated regarding one of the men in the congregation, accusing him of criminal activity. They sent a question to a leading Rabbi of that era; they said that for the time being they had not granted him customary honors in the synagogue, but were deciding what else they should do.

The Rabbi’s response was immediate and strong: that the leaders of that congregation must publicly beg forgiveness of the man. Why? Because they had publicly shamed him without definitive knowledge of his wrongdoing. Had there been witnesses proving his criminality, of course, a punishment would have been warranted — but to publicly embarrass him based on evil gossip was, said the Rabbi, literally worse than most anything the man could have done.

The misuse of the holy gift of speech surrounds us today. Leading entertainers comment that social media has created an incredibly hostile environment, where everyone is a critic, ready to condemn everything from the tenor of their voice to the size of their nose. We’ve added an entirely new word to the vocabulary: cyberbully. In some locales, they have rightfully decided that this term refers to a crime, one that has all too frequently led to tragic deaths.

Today we do not get Divine signals that we are doing wrong, which, our Sages tell us, was the cause of the spiritual blemish of tzara’as described in our reading. Who can claim that were that malady to exist today, he or she would not be blemished?

Fortunately, we have the guidance of people like Rabbi Kagan if we wish to improve, and stop misusing this great spiritual gift that we have been given. Let us, this week, resolved to do something more to improve in this critical area, and make the world a better place.

Apr 17 2015

A Foreign Fire

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20150417_120836Last night was the yahrtzeit, the anniversary of his passing, of Rav Zvi Elimelech Hertzberg zt”l, my wife’s grandfather. The Hertzbergs were amazing people — they took Holocaust refugees into their homes, treated them like children, and helped them go on to lead productive lives here in America. Someone pointed out to me not long ago that as a result of their efforts, there are hundreds of sincere, active Jews in Baltimore and beyond who otherwise would have been lost.

As the Rav of his shul, Rabbi Dovid Katz shlit”a, pointed out last night, Rav Hertzberg would also speak truth to power. He was fired from rabbinic posts for being too honest — until a group of devoted followers created a synagogue, named for his father Avraham zt”l, and set him up as their Rabbi.

At a time when it was extremely unpopular to do so, Rav Hertzberg drew lessons like┬áthe following, from this week’s Torah reading. It refers to Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aharon the High Priest, who went outside what G-d had commanded — and were killed as a result. Reading the passage, one could think that it was a cruel or capricious reaction to two people who were simply trying to do their own offering to G-d. But as Rav Hertzberg explains, the nature of their error, and HaShem’s response, offer an eternal lesson:

“And they brought a strange fire before God, which he had not commanded them” [Lev 10:1]

Our Sages explain (Sanhedrin 52) that their souls were burned, while their bodies remained intact. And from here we take [a lesson] to all the Jewish generations, that when one introduces a “strange fire” into Judaism, even with the best of intentions, if it is not in accordance with what G-d has commanded us, the result is that the soul is burned even if the body remains intact. For the Jewish soul depends upon observance of the Commandments of the Torah, its fences and supports, without adding or subtracting. If they come (Heaven forbid) to change even the tiniest thing [lit. “the end of a Yud,” the tip of the smallest letter], even if it appears that the body is intact, it is a body without a soul. The Jewish soul is only preserved by following the path of our fathers, and the heritage of our fathers, without change, repair, or addition.

When he said this, it wasn’t merely unpopular, it seemed entirely divorced from reality. At the time everyone thought that traditional observance was dying on the vine, that Jewish growth was about keeping up with the times.

Today his words could be called prophetic. Today we see that all the new ideas led to generations that abandoned Judaism entirely. Put it this way — the synagogues that fired Rav Hertzberg for his lack of political correctness have all closed, while his shul, which functioned without a Rav for over two decades (so tight was the “family” he created), is still thriving today.

May the Neshama of HaRav Tzvi Elimelech ben Avraham zt”l have an elevation, and may his memory be a merit for us all.

Apr 02 2015

Not Just Once

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Just before Purim, a non-Jewish woman asked me about the holiday. After I explained a little bit about Haman and his plan, she asked, “so Hitler wasn’t the first?” They really have no idea.

We read in the Haggadah, “for not only one has risen against us to destroy us, but in every generation they rise against us to destroy us, and the Holy One, Blessed be He, saves us from their hands.”

When we look at the news, it can be very disheartening. A leading Iranian general has announced that “wiping Israel off the map” is “non-negotiable.” And the leading “civilized” nations continue to negotiate with Iran, as if it could be treated as a rational power, as if its positions were completely understandable and logical. Imagine if Himmler had announced that wiping Spain off the map was “non-negotiable” — even Neville Chamberlain wouldn’t have made a deal.

The Jewish Nation is different. Israel, the modern country, is different, because it’s the only country governed and populated primarily by Jews. In that context the Iranian position is not only considered rational, but is shared by hundreds of millions of people. Today, the so-called “BDS” movement places a new, sophisticated veneer on “anti-Semitism,” itself a euphemism created by academics barely a century ago. Forget comparisons with South Africa, BDS is bought and paid for by nationals of countries which Jews — and, for that matter, those with an Israeli stamp in their passports — are forbidden to enter. Yet this vulgar hypocrisy goes unmentioned, because the target isn’t really Israel at all, but Jews.

As the Haggadah tells us, this is the same ancient, irrational, murderous prejudice that has existed since Esav sent his son to murder Yaakov — and since Lavan, Yaakov’s father-in-law, plotted to destroy him. And that is the message of the Haggadah: keep the faith. Do what Jews have done since the beginning of our history, and “the Holy One, Blessed be He, saves us from their hands.”

G-d took the Jewish People out of Egypt to be His, to be close to Him and promote His vision for the world. On Passover we relive that departure from Egypt, the liberation from bondage. We break free from human limits to belong only to G-d. We know that the plans to destroy us today will not succeed, as they have failed in every generation. The Holy One, Blessed be He, saves us from their hands!

Mar 27 2015

Freedom to Serve

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rules_imageI have commented many times that “Let My People Go” must be the most famous half-quote in the Bible. Exodus 7:26 reads as follows: “And G-d said to Moses: Come to Pharoah, and say to him: So says G-d: let My people go, and they will serve Me.” The verse does not call for liberation from all controls and limitations — rather, it is about whose controls and limitations will apply.

Every government imposes rules — we recognize them as necessary for the preservation of civil society. We know that an entire section of the Commandments, called Mishpatim (Judgments), consists of laws which governments must create. But we also know that the laws created by governments go well beyond these basic requirements. Society would not collapse without laws regarding treatment of the American flag. Elsewhere in the world, speaking badly of Mohammed is a capital crime.

Because they represent nothing more than the will of the current government, the rules can change at any moment. This is true even of laws that represent a moral judgment, the claim that something is morally right or wrong. The Mormon Church was forced to abandon polygamy. Why? Because we said so. Today courts compel state governments to recognize what was considered morally wrong (and illegal) less than a century ago. Why? Because we said so.

The Torah tells us that G-d created an Eternal Covenant with the Jewish People — and an Eternal Guidebook for them to follow: “For I am HaShem, I do not change, and you, the Children of Yaakov, are not consumed” [Malachi 3:6]. G-d gave us a set of laws that will last until the end of time, and which will preserve us. No matter the era, no matter the human condition, the guidebook to life does not change.

In response to disturbing news about the decline of Jewish affiliation and involvement, we hear frequent calls for Judaism to change to meet the times. They are getting it exactly wrong. What ultimately appeals about Judaism, about Torah, is that it responds to the times without bending to the times — that it applies ancient principles to new situations that arise in every generation. Through the Torah, we connect ourselves to G-d, and to eternity.

On Passover, we relive this special opportunity to transcend the laws and feelings of the moment, and to respond to the eternal. May we grasp this opportunity and enjoy a happy, and spiritually elevating, Passover!

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