Aug 12 2016

Anti-Semitism Remembrance Day

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auschwitz-971904_640If we think about it, it should amaze us that there are people who insist we must always remember the Holocaust — even for generations to come, long after the last survivors are lost to us — who are nowhere to be found on the Ninth of Av, when we remember the long history of hatred directed against the Jewish nation. How can we remember the Holocaust, while forgetting the tragic losses of earlier days?

Perhaps we need to give it a modern name: “Anti-Semitism Remembrance Day.” Because, of course, hatred for Jews, as Jews, is the source of all the tragedies found in our history.

Rabbi Naftali Z.Y. Berlin (called the Netzi”v from the acronym of his name) was the Dean of the famed Yeshiva of Volozhin in the late 19th century, when “anti-Semitism” was a new German euphemism for an old hatred. He explains, using the story of Yaakov and his father-in-law, Lavan, that anti-Semitism is rooted in two basic ideas: jealousy of (perceived) wealth, with a suspicion of fraud and theft, together with antipathy towards Judaism itself. As we know, Lavan suspected Yaakov of stealing his idols. Although Yaakov was opposed to idolatry, Lavan believed that Yaakov stole them only in order to disgrace them, to tear down everything Lavan held holy. And why would Yaakov do such a thing, if not for his Judaism? [Our Sages teach that all our forefathers, being prophets, observed Judaism and Jewish ethics.] This is what angered Lavan.

When we look through Jewish history, these two themes play out repeatedly. The Jews are repeatedly (and falsely) accused of stealing land and property, which is why financial boycotts against Jews are among the most basic of anti-Semitic activities. And whether it is the accusation that “you killed our god” to Jews as killers of prophets, children, or people in general, the idea that Judaism encourages atrocities towards others is the other lie at the root of all the hatred.

In the end, we know that we are hated for the best of our values — today’s entire “Judeo-Christian” value system stems from our teachings. And that is what gives us courage. G-d told us that we would propagate His values in the world, that we would be hated for it, that we shall always survive, and that in the end we will dwell securely in our land and bring peace to earth. So as we move forward to mourn all the destruction in our history, we must remember the light at the end of the tunnel — brighter than any mankind has yet seen.

Jul 29 2016

True Peace

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dove-canoeIn this week’s reading, G-d gives Pinchas His “Covenant of Peace.” He also makes Pinchas, Aharon’s grandson, part of the Kehunah, the priesthood. [As he was born prior to the anointing of Aharon and his sons, Pinchas did not become a Kohein until this point. Rash”i, Bav. Zevachim 101]

This seems an extraordinary response to a violent act. Pinchas killed Zimri, head of the tribe of Shimon, and the Midianite woman that Zimri openly took into his tent to encourage immorality. We can understand how this deed might “turn away the wrath” of G-d towards Israel, but how can it be called peaceful?

The Medrash teaches that when G-d wanted to create man, He first consulted with the angels — as the verse says, “Let Us make man” [Gen 1:26]. And when He did so, the angels argued with each other, divided into opposing camps.

In Psalms [85:11] we read: “Lovingkindness (Chesed) and Truth (Emes) ‘encountered’ each other, Righteousness (Tzedek) and Peace (Shalom) ‘kissed’ each other.” The word for ‘encountered’ is similar to when Yehudah approached Yosef to fight over the fate of their brother Benyamin [Gen. 44:18], while when Esav ‘kissed’ his brother Jacob [Gen. 33:4], the Medrash teaches that he intended to kill him.

In the argument, Chesed said that man should be created, because he would do acts of lovingkindness. But Emes said that man should not be created, because he will be filled with falsehood. Tzedek argued in favor, because man would do righteous deeds, but Shalom said no, man would be full of arguments and strife. So what did HaShem do to resolve the argument? He took Emes, Truth, and cast it to the ground!

The Kotzker Rebbe was known for his sharp, penetrating insights. And he asked, how does this resolve the argument? G-d “threw Emes to the ground.” It seems unfair, and besides, Shalom is still arguing against the Creation of Man. So how does removing Truth solve anything?

And he answered: “without Truth, Peace is easy!”

But of course, as he also observed, peace without truth is a false peace.

In order to have true peace, there must be truth. Pinchas acted to ensure that all who knew of Zimri’s sin, rather than be lured into duplicating that crime, instead would follow the path of truth — the path of G-d. Peace between Israel and their G-d is True Peace, and that is what Pinchas hoped to ensure.

Jul 15 2016

“You Stole Our Land!”

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RiskThis week’s Haftorah discusses Ammon coming to wage war with Israel. There was a man named Yiftach, who was the son of a concubine, rejected by his half-brothers. He had moved away, but was a natural leader — many gathered around him, though they were not exceptionally knowledgeable. The verse even calls his followers “empty people.”

Nonetheless, with Ammon coming to fight them, Israel needed a leader, and they turned to Yiftach to lead and defend them. He sent Ammon messengers, asking why they were about to fight. What was the problem?

The message came back: “You stole our land!”

The land in question was an area which, many hundreds of years earlier, had been the subject of a war between the Ammonites and the Emorites. The Emorites won that war, and had lived in that land for centuries.

Then, as Yiftach explained to the King of Ammon, the Nation of Israel came up from Egypt and crossed the desert, hoping to enter their Holy Land. They asked permission of both Edom and Mo’av to pass through, and both nations refused them permission. So they went further north, avoiding the land of Mo’av, and sent messengers to Sichon, leader of the Emori, king of Cheshbon.

Sichon was not content to simply refuse permission: he gathered his army to war with Israel. Given no choice, Israel fought back and defeated Sichon… at which point the land became theirs. This land was on the east side of the Jordan River, where the tribes of Gad, Reuven, and half of Menashe stayed and lived. It was part of their inheritance.

The King of Ammon demanded land which they had lost fighting a war with the Emori, which had belonged to the Jews for hundreds of years, and was part of their Divine Inheritance. So Yiftach said to Ammon, you keep what your idol Kemosh gave to you, and we’ll keep what the L-rd gave us, and we will have peace between us.

The king of Ammon refused, waged war against Israel, and lost.

It is interesting that the King of Ammon is never named. Apparently, his name is not relevant. The idea that the Jews are stealing something from the non-Jews is a classic anti-Semitic trope, which recurs in different times throughout history under different names. Of course, I suppose we’d be hard-pressed to find another example of people claiming that the Jews are stealing Judean land from migrants from another land… oh, wait…

Jul 08 2016

The Power of Groupthink

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ducks-1339549_1280This week’s reading begins with the rebellion led by Korach against Moshe’s leadership. The first half of the reading discusses the rebellion and what transpired afterwards, so clearly there is much to learn from this story.

Korach sought honor and greatness. He was Moshe’s first cousin, and he felt slighted when Moshe, at G-d’s Command, appointed a different cousin to lead the family of Kehas ben Levi. Kehas had four sons; Amram was the oldest, and Amram’s two sons — Moshe and Aharon — were the leader and High Priest of the Jews. The next son of Kehas was Yitzhar, but the appointed leader of the family was not Korach ben Yitzhar, but rather Elitzafan, son of the youngest brother, Uziel. Korach believed that Elitzafan was given an honor that was rightly his own.

He also knew, however, that others would not join a rebellion for his benefit. What was in it for them? It’s like our Sages say: “Ayn adam choteh v’lo lo” — a person does not sin unless doing so is “his,” meaning, to his own perceived benefit. So Korach gave different people different reasons to join his rebellion.

He told the other Levi’im, why did Moshe limit the Kehunah, the Priesthood, to Aharon and his sons? Why should your sons merely be their assistants?

To the firstborn of other tribes, he said, why did Moshe take the leadership away from you, the firstborn, and give it to his own cousins the Levi’im instead?

And to the family of Reuven he said, why did Moshe give the Kehunah to his own brother, and not to your family, that of Yaakov’s firstborn son?

The tribe of Reuven camped on the same side of the Holy Mishkan (Tabernacle) as the family of Kehas, prompting our Sages to observe: “woe unto the wicked person, and woe unto his neighbors!” Because their families were nearby, Korach was more able to spread his evil ideas to them.

People like to imagine that they are objective and impartial analysts of a situation. The reality is that we are tremendously susceptible to peer pressure, and once a group adopts a particular ideology, every member of feels a hidden pressure to conform. And today, with the Internet, you don’t need to live next door to be exposed to evil ideas masquerading as just and good causes.

One person was mentioned as an early adherent of Korach’s rebellion, yet was not killed: Ohn ben Peles, of the tribe of Reuven. How was he saved?

Women have tremendous influence over their husbands. Korach’s wife encouraged him to rebel; Ohn’s wife, on the contrary, saved him. She asked him: what does it matter to you if the Kohen Gadol is Aharon or Korach? Either way, it’s not going to be you, so how do you benefit?

At that point, Ohn confessed to his wife that he was feeling the peer pressure: he had given his word that he would participate in the rebellion the following day.

So what did she do? The Medrash tells us that she first got her husband drunk and put him to bed. Then, she took off her head covering and let down her hair, and she and her daughter sat at the entrance to the family tent. So whenever someone came to collect Ohn, he saw the women with their hair down and turned away! This is why Ohn’s life was spared.

Why was it necessary to get him drunk first? Because she realized that even if he saw she was right, he was still vulnerable to peer pressure. He might have come out of hiding and gone along with them, simply to avoid their knowing that he wanted to back out!

Peer pressure, Groupthink, is incredibly powerful — and incredibly dangerous. Are we choosing our path because it is right, or because it is popular among our friends? None of us are immune, as we learn from the story of Korach and Ohn.

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