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.

Aug 08 2014

Just your everyday Kiddush HaShem

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Last night my wife and I celebrated our anniversary in typically Jewish fashion: we went out for Chinese food. Initially we both ordered a dinner special, but in the waitress’ presence my wife changed her order to a slightly more expensive option. [For the locals, David Chu's crispy chicken Szechuan style is outstanding, and well worth the extra $1.40.]

This is relevant because when we got our bill, I could see a mistake without reading Chinese: the amounts for both orders were equal. We had been billed for two dinner specials. So when the waitress came back, I asked her to please make the correction.

RMuroff-MoneyDid we have to do that? No. Because it’s not standard practice among the nations of the world to voluntarily correct an error in their favor, we are not obligated to do more. But that is really the nature of Kiddush HaShem — sanctification of G-d’s Name — doing something that everyone recognizes is “the right thing to do,” whether or not everyone does it. Not everyone gets to be Rabbi Noah Muroff of Connecticut, who became an international news item by returning $98,000 discovered in a desk he had purchased. But we should do it nonetheless.

In this week’s Torah reading, Moshe tells the people: “behold I have taught you decrees and laws, as Hashem my G-d has Commanded me, to do them in the middle of the land, which you are going there to inherit. And you shall guard them and do them, for this is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations, which will hear all of these decrees and say, ‘just a wise and understanding people, this great nation'” [Deuteronomy 4:5-6].

Today, it may seem obvious that telling the waitress about the error is “the right thing to do.” But the story is told of a young Jewish man who, unaware of the richness of his own heritage, went to Eastern nations searching for spirituality. He was walking together with his teacher when the latter picked up a wallet he found on the ground, and pocketed it without investigation. The student asked if he wasn’t going to try to see who had lost it, and he responded that this was unnecessary, that it was destined that the wallet be his good fortune. This was enough for a young Jew to realize that something was amiss.

Yes, in our countries it’s different. Everyone recognizes that a spiritual leader, of whatever kind, ought to be returning that wallet. But where do you think they learned this wisdom? Is there something like that in Aesop’s Fables? I don’t think the sort of people who threw prisoners to the lions for entertainment would give someone back his dropped handkerchief before throwing him in!

The paradox of today’s Western world is that it bases its moral values upon the same “wise and understanding people” that it so often despises, persecutes, and accuses of imagined violations of those same morals. A recent example would be the UN Human Rights Council (populated by the representatives of such bastions of human rights and dignity as Syria, China and Venezuela) accusing the IDF of “indiscriminate” shelling that, just coincidentally, was 3.5 times more likely to hit a male than a female.

The best way to respond to that is through personal example. It is said that when Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky was a young Rav in Tzitavyan, Lithuania, someone came to him because the post office had made an error in his favor during a transaction. Rav Kaminetsky told the person to go back to the post office and repay the amount of the error. This happened several more times; it turned out that the Postmaster was surprised enough the first time that he deliberately tested other members of the Jewish community to see what would happen. Although the Rav left for America in 1937, the community he guided had sufficiently impressed that Postmaster that he personally helped save many Jewish lives during the Holocaust.

Simply do the right thing, whether or not you have to do it and whether or not others actually do — and not only will you be doing the right thing, but others will notice, as well.

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