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.

Aug 01 2014

The Vision

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Givati_at_kosel2This week, prior to the Ninth of Av, we begin reading Devarim, the book of Deuteronomy. But the special name given to this Sabbath is not related to the Torah reading, but rather to the Haftorah, which is the first 27 verses of the book of Isaiah. It begins with the words “Chazon Yeshayahu ben Amotz,” “The Vision of Isaiah son of Amotz,” and thus this Sabbath is called “Shabbos Chazon,” “the Sabbath of the Vision.”

The vision provided by Isaiah is not an encouraging one. “Children I raised and elevated, and they have sinned against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s trough; Israel does not know, my nation does not consider” [Is. 1:2-3].

The prophet does not, in this passage, speak at length about the punishment for continued wrongdoing. Losing Divine protection is treated as an obvious consequence of Israel moving away from G-d; it is our choice. “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land, but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured with the sword, for the mouth of Hashem has spoken it” [1:20]. On the contrary, the focus is upon the need to correct ourselves.

What we have seen in the past weeks is not only a spirit of unity in the Jewish nation, but unity behind a positive value. As the Tower of Babel shows us, not all unity is positive. It is not enough to spout platitudes about “Ahavas Yisrael” (love of our fellow Jews) or “Achdus” (unity) as if anything Jews want is ok. That unity must be behind a positive value.

In this case, it is: the protection of Jewish lives. One of the Torah’s greatest precepts is that “you shall live by them [the Commandments],” requiring that G-d’s other laws (with few exceptions) be set aside in order to save a life. No one questions why the IDF Rabbinate told the soldiers in Gaza that they should eat on the Ninth of Av this year.

But similarly, I was pleasantly surprised to read that a popular author from Israel’s extreme left (who moved to a kibbutz because “Tel Aviv wasn’t radical enough”) opened an interview in a German weekly by asking the readers: “what would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap and starts shooting machine gun fire into your nursery?” The question is no surprise, it is one I asked rhetorically myself — the surprise is that someone so far out on the left would ask it, and in so doing assert the truth of Hamas’ crimes against Gazan civilians.

Unity alone is not enough – we must take it in the right direction. That is when “the Lord, HaShem, Master of Legions, Mighty One of Israel” says that “I shall be comforted of my adversaries, and avenge [Myself] from My enemies,” and declares that “I will restore your judges as it was at first, and your advisers as at the start” [1:24,26].

May we soon see the Ninth of Av changed from a day of mourning to one of joy.

Jul 25 2014

Stopping Baseless Hatred

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We are about to enter the period of time called the Nine Days, the beginning of the month of Av. The Ninth of Av is the tragic day when Israel mourned needlessly after the the evil report of the spies [Num. 14:1 ff.]. G-d said that because we mourned for no reason, that day would become a day of mourning. And so it has been, as by the time of the Mishnah it was the anniversary of five tragedies:

  1. Our anscestors were told that due to their needless mourning, they would remain in the desert for forty years and enter Israel only after all the adults of the time had perished;
  2. The destruction of the First Temple;
  3. The destruction of the Second Temple;
  4. The city of Betar was overcome, and all of its inhabitants, tens of thousands of people, were killed;
  5. The site of the Holy Temple was plowed through, making it totally barren.

Since then, many other catastrophies have been associated with the Ninth of Av: Pope Urban II declared the first Crusade to Jerusalem, which led to the destruction of entire Jewish communities in Rhineland and France and the loss of many thousands of lives; Jews were expelled from England, France and Spain (on or around the ninth); Germany entered World War I, which resulted in 120,000 Jewish casualties and set the events leading to the Holocaust in motion; Heinrich Himmler secured Nazi approval of the “Final Solution;” and the deportation of Jews began from the Warsaw Ghetto.

Even more recently, the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires was bombed on the tenth of Av (the Temple continued to burn into the tenth, and thus it is connected to the mourning as well). And less than ten years ago, the tenth of Av began the infamous “Disengagement” from Gaza, which led directly to Gaza becoming the largest terrorist base in the modern world and to what is arguably the longest ongoing war crime in modern history, the firing of over 12,000 missiles aimed at civilians.

1370626668What can we do? We are told that the Second Temple was destroyed due to needless hatred between Jews. This is a time to focus our energies on increasing brotherhood and love between members of the Jewish people, especially keeping in mind the situation facing those of us who live in the Holy Land today.

Dr. Rene Levy, a neuropharmacologist in Seattle, recently sent me a copy of his book, “Baseless Hatred: What It Is and What You Can Do about It.” It could not be presented to you at a more appropriate time. It is a comprehensive study of the phenomenon of needless hatred, with suggestions for prevention and repair.

The book looks at hatred as a topic of intellectual study, increasing our awareness of the issue and, at the end, inspiring us to do better. It looks at the understanding of hatred by psychologists, neurobiologists, and of course our Sages. An entire section is devoted to Israel and the Jews, referring to the hatred of the State of Israel and the “new anti-Semitism” (it is worth noting in this context that Dr. Levy grew up in France, and received his BS in Pharmacy from the University of Paris before moving to the United States to study for his PhD). It received favorable reviews from not only Harav Shlomo Maimon, the head of the Rabbinical Court of Seattle, but a series of professors, Israeli politicians, columnists and others. In the truest spirit of brotherhood, there is something in this book for every reader, to be both informed and inspired. You are invited to read more about the book (and learn where to buy it) on its website.

For a more traditional, “mussar” (ethical) approach to increasing love and harmony, one can turn to books such as “Ahavas Chesed” (lit. the love of kindness) by the Chafetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisrael Meyer Kagan) among others. May our study of love over hate turn to practice, and bring us to the time when, we are promised, the Ninth of Av will be known as a day of joy, rather than tragedy.

Jul 18 2014

An Honest Message

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This week’s reading begins by talking about the importance of keeping our word. If a person makes a promise or oath to G-d, says the Torah, he may not make his words “secular” or “profane” by failing to fulfill his commitment. To make this type of promise and then fail to fulfill does not merely mean his words lose their holy commitment — it profanes the holy, disgraces the ability that he was given.

wordsIn reality, an oath to G-d is doubly holy. The opportunity to make such a promise is a holy thing — but the gift of speech itself is also a holy thing. It is that which distinguishes humans, who have a neshama, a soul, from animals, and is the expression of our souls. In many different areas, the Torah tells us to strive for honesty and truth. We have to keep our word, and be forthright rather than concealing our intent.

I’m choosing this topic because I believe that this week, we were party to what I suspect was an ethical failing. It concerns an advertisement which we were asked to send on behalf of Israel’s self-defense. It took a partisan tone, claiming that “the Obama administration is blaming Israel for not making peace with a terrorist organization,” and inviting people to sign a petition for suspending aid to the Palestinian Authority as long as it is united with Hamas — something with which most of us would agree, whether or not we agreed with the criticism of President Obama’s position.

Sending an advertisement is not, of course, an endorsement. While we aren’t going to advertise nonkosher products or something which we feel isn’t in accordance with our mission of encouraging Jewish growth, we’re not putting our certification on an ad either. If someone wants to pay us to send out a political message, we should be happy to do it, whether or not we agree.

But those who clicked on this particular ad were asked, on the website, to sign the petition in order to “Stand with Israel against President Obama and Sec. John Kerry” — which isn’t what the ad said. And one reader went further, and looked at the rest of the site. Navigating directly to the home page, one is greeted with a petition to impeach the president (!). And on the projects page, there is a document on “thirteen reasons to impeach Obama,” followed by several links including four different other petitions, none of which provide any information, merely a slogan like “it’s time to secure the border,” or “stop Iran’s nuclear development” and a place to sign.

It’s likely that they are just gathering email addresses for a partisan mailing in the future, rather than actually submitting them somewhere. And it’s also possible that they have set up five different petitions, but it doesn’t seem likely. It appears that those who sign the petition for Israel are effectively signing the petition to impeach the president.

Again, they are probably just adding names to a politically-tinged roster for future mailings. But I want to apologize to anyone who felt the ad didn’t express its intent more forthrightly, because we, in retrospect, feel the same way.

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