Jun 10 2016

A Unique Encounter

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flowers-mountainThe Torah teaches that at Sinai, G-d did not reveal Himself to a single individual. Rather, He spoke to the entire Jewish nation.

Rabbi Moshe Maimonides, the famed Jewish scholar of over 800 years ago, calls this event the foundation, the “pillar upon which our belief revolves.”

Why is this not circular reasoning? The answer is that this event is not something taken on faith, itself. Every Jew today knows that at least until recent generations, his or her forebears believed that this event actually happened — Maimonides says “the best of all witnesses testified” about it.

He points out, further, that there has been no similar event in history, and that the Bible itself tells us that this will never happen again. Moshe warns the Jewish nation to never forget “the things which your eyes saw,” and to teach this to the next and following generations [cf. Deut. 32].

Many have tried to explain that this was merely a story, that it never actually happened. But when they try to explain it in detail, an alternative story stops making sense.

Imagine a village in Brazil, along the Atlantic Ocean, that holds a festival every spring. The festival, they tell you, is a celebration of a miraculous event 400 years ago, when a flood swept through their community. The flood did massive damage, washing away entire buildings, yet afterwards not a single villager had perished. And they celebrate that miracle with an annual event. And they present you with records copied by hand from originals dating all the way back to that period.

Would anyone disbelieve the story? Would people argue that the village elders just made it up at some point? Everyone would agree that this almost certainly happened; there is no reason to discount it.

When we look around us today, we see billions of adherents of religions based upon Judaism. There are literally hundreds of religions and sects which claim that they and they alone have the correct theology. There are Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Catholics, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Mormons — and the list goes on — most of which differ on core theology.

Obviously, the best way to start such a religion would be to create the tale that G-d Returned, spoke to a new group of believers, and explained His new rules. But the Torah asserts that “when you shall look back at the days before you,” you will see that this story was never told prior or after Sinai. The Rambam elaborates: “that there was never anything like this prior, and there will be nothing like it afterwards, this being that an entire individual nation shall hear the words of the Holy One, Blessed be He, and that they shall see His Glory eye to eye.”

Maimonides teaches that this has not been done, because it cannot be done — because the Jewish Encounter with G-d is truly unique in human history.

Jun 03 2016

It’s Not About Our Enemies

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passing-stormThis week we read a very uncomfortable section of the Torah. G-d warns us that bad things will happen if we don’t keep His rules in His land. Keep the rules, He says, and things will be wonderful. But if you don’t, punishment will come to the Jewish Nation.

Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, known as the Netzi”v (the Hebrew acronym of his name), was the Dean of the famed Volozhin Yeshiva in Europe in the 19th Century CE. He says that we can tell where the punishment is coming from because it’s a punishment. It’s not an ordinary conquest of one nation over another.

When one army overcomes another, they don’t punish the population on the losing side. Even losing soldiers are released once they are known not to pose a further threat.

But if a group of people rebel against the King, that’s an entirely different story. After he puts down the rebellion, he will harshly punish those responsible — because he expected their loyalty.

So Kings would not exile populations or destroy their temples to their idols. What befell Israel, in accordance with the warnings of this Torah Portion (and similarly near the end of Deuteronomy), was extraordinary and even nonsensical in terms of warfare and geopolitical domination.

But it makes sense in the context of a punishment.

Since, the Netzi”v writes, G-d made a covenant with the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, in which they would be His unique nation and guard His rules, it is the breach of those rules which explains why the people of Israel were punished.

As we know, this was used throughout history to “prove” that G-d had abandoned his nation. But the Torah itself says otherwise: “And even with that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, and I will not be disgusted with them to eliminate them, to nullify my Covenant with them” [26:44]. As Rashi explains, “and even though I will due to them this repayment [for their bad deeds] that I have described, ‘when they are in the land of their enemies,’ I will not reject them ‘to eliminate them,’ and to ‘nullify my Covenant’ which I have with them.”

The word “l’chalosam” is precise. It doesn’t mean simply to destroy, but to eliminate. Even in the punishment, we see G-d’s Promise to the Jewish People. Other nations can be eliminated, either physically or through a change to their ideology and beliefs such that they are no longer who they were. But the Jews have a promise from G-d — that no matter how bad things may be, we remain the Eternal Nation.

It is those who oppress us who disappear. The last group that tried to kill us is now society’s worst epithet, and we are here.

That promise stays with us always!

May 27 2016

The Simple Truth

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There is a deceptively simple Commandment in this week’s reading: “a man shall not deceive his brother” [Lev. 25:14]. This is distinct from being a false witness [Ex. 20:16], denying having another’s property [Lev. 19:11] and false judgment, “distance yourself from a lie” [Ex. 23:7]. The topic in this case is financial deception, Ona’as Mammon.

maxresdefaultA person is forbidden from overcharging, misrepresentation and deception, whether when buying or selling. This applies both to hidden defects in an object for sale, and purchasing a valuable antique at a cheap price because the seller is unaware of its true value.

I remember the first time I wanted to buy a car once I was out of school. I was told there was a person in Baltimore named (Rabbi) Meir Sher, at Sher Auto, from whom people purchased vehicles “sight unseen.”

It seemed unbelievable. The business of used cars is known for misrepresentation and deception. Look up “used car salesman” on Google and it will helpfully offer modifiers like “slick,” “shady,” and “dodgy.” You can’t even sell “used cars” anymore — you sell “certified preowned vehicles!” It’s not used, it’s just “preowned,” like a decorative piece is “preowned.” The previous owner had it in their garage and never drove it.

In Baltimore I heard about another dealer named Eli Feldman, with a company called Maven Motors. In total, we have acquired three vehicles from him over the years, and have had fewer problems with his vehicles — used — than with a brand-new minivan we bought from the showroom.

I don’t think it’s coincidence that Rabbi Sher reads his prayers slowly and exactly, or that Eli Feldman is the nephew of the Dean of Ner Israel Rabbinical College. These are people who understand our religious obligations, and live those obligations.

And perhaps this explains why there are now several other successful vendors of used cars in Baltimore (e.g. CarZone Autos, which offers “Over 200 Used Cars to Choose from”, who are also observant Jews. When people know that they can trust you not to deceive them and have a good experience, the word gets around. Instead of having to use euphemisms like “certified preowned,” their honesty makes for good business!

May 19 2016

The Hidden Holiday

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Giving-of-the-TorahIn this week’s reading, we read about the upcoming holiday of Shavuos, the time of the giving of the Torah to the Jewish Nation. But if you look in the Torah text, you won’t find that this was when G-d spoke to us at Mt. Sinai. Nowhere does it mention that this is anything other than a holiday of “Shavuos,” weeks (and a time for offering of first fruits). The name Shavuos is appropriate because we are told to count seven complete weeks following the first day of Passover, 49 days, and to celebrate this holiday on the fiftieth day. But why does the Torah not mention what the holiday is about? All it says is that after counting seven weeks following the offering of the Omer, on the second day of Pesach, there should be a holiday.

One answer is found in the fact that Shavuos does not have a set date on the calendar. Hebrew months can be either 29 or 30 days in length, depending upon testimony after seeing the New Moon. Since Shavuos occurs precisely 50 days after the beginning of Passover, during which the two months of Iyar and Sivan begin, the holiday could fall anywhere between the 5th and 7th of Sivan (until the calendar was set by the second Hillel).

This is because Shavuos is not about a particular date, but recalls the culmination of a process that was set in motion with the Exodus from Egypt celebrated on Pesach. The Nation of Israel ascended and purified itself for seven weeks, and was then ready to receive the Torah.

Although we say in the Haggadah that had HaShem only done a few of the great things that he did for us, “Dayyeinu,” it would have been enough, we know that the purpose of bringing us out from Egypt was to be His Nation and to follow His Torah. When the Torah describes Shavuos for the second time in Deuteronomy, it says “And you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and you shall guard and do these statutes” [Dev. 16:12], and Rashi comments: “It is on this condition that I redeemed you, that you shall guard and do these statutes.” Thus the process of redemption from Egypt and the giving of the Torah are directly connected, and all part of the same celebration.

The Aruch HaShulchan gives another answer, mentioned by Rabbi Yehudah Prero in his Yomtov class. We mention specific things on Pesach and Sukkos because they happened at specific times — the Exodus from Egypt, and the protection of Israel in Clouds of Glory.

The Torah, however, is given to us anew every day. And every day it is incumbent upon us to thank and bless G-d for giving it to us. It did not only happen once; G-d continued to give Torah to Moshe throughout the 40 years in the desert, and continued to teach the Prophets and even more recently through Divine Inspiration. The giving of the Torah is an ongoing process, not limited to one day on the calendar.

The Torah is something we must celebrate every day!

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