Nov 17 2016

Don’t Follow the Herd


follow-herdLast week we learned that Avraham and Lot had separated. Lot moved to the fertile land surrounding the city of S’dom, yet he retained some of the traits of his holy and generous uncle. So when two disguised angels came to the gates of the city, he rose to greet them and to bring them into his house as his guests.

To the evil residents of S’dom, this was nothing less than a crime. The Torah tells us that the men of the city gathered around Lot’s house, intending to assault and brutalize his visitors. They came “young and old, all the people from every quarter” [19:4] — and Rashi explains that this meant that no one, not a single person, objected. That was the nature of the city.

The angels warned Lot to escape for his life, and he obeyed — but they told him not to look back, and when his wife did so she became “a pillar of salt” [19:26]. What does this mean? Because she was curious and looked over her shoulder, she was killed, turned into a salt lick?

The Medrash, quoted by Rashi, explains that we must look deeper. She became a pillar of salt because she had sinned with salt. What was her crime? Lot asked her to give a little salt to their guests, and she responded, “even this evil custom, you want to make the custom of this place?”

She was so influenced by the Sodomite culture that she, too, looked upon welcoming guests as evil. She had internalized S’dom’s inversion of morality.

Thus when they were escaping, and Lot was rushing as fast as he could to escape, she was not merely curious. She was not simply rubbernecking over her shoulder to see what had happened. Rather, she did not want to leave. She longed to return to S’dom’s culture.

This is the power of groupthink. When Hitler came to power in Germany, he encouraged ruthless, cruel barbarity as “strength” — and dismissed conscience as “a Jewish blemish.” And millions of people followed him as he turned morality to weakness and evil into good.

In the very same verse that the Torah tells us to follow majority rule, it also says to not follow the majority to do evil [Exodus 23:2]. The Medrash tells us that this verse is speaking to judges, telling them that the majority decides a case, but for a capital crime a majority of one is insufficient to pronounce guilt.

Yet in the simple words of the verse, we can find a lesson for ourselves as well. If someone tells you that you should follow the herd, as even the Bible says… then you are given your response: we must not follow the majority to do evil. Only when holy people discuss the correct path do we follow the majority of those holy people. Otherwise, we are enjoined to stand against the majority in defense of the good.

Nov 04 2016

Ends and Means


trolley-dilemmaThere is an old joke of a mugger demanding of a Jew, “your money or your life!”

The Jew doesn’t move, and the mugger demands, “hurry up already!”

To which the Jew responds: “I’m thinking, I’m thinking!”

Despite its play on antisemitic tropes, even Jews find it funny. Yet we know from the Bible that something very much like this actually happened. In the story of the Tower of Babel, we learn that the people of the world did not merely rebel against G-d. They rebelled against humanity as well.

The Medrash teaches that if a person was carrying a brick up the tower and dropped it, people would cry. Dropping the brick slowed down the construction of the tower, their supreme goal.

But if a person fell off the ladder to his death on the way down, people would not cry. This, as much as the rebellious nature of the tower itself, represented the corruption of human values. They placed inanimate objects ahead of human lives.

Often, the questions are not so clear-cut. In modern ethics, there is something called the Trolley Problem, a question asked 50 years ago. Imagine a trolley running out of control down a hill, and there are five people tied to the tracks further down. You are standing next to a lever. Should you pull the lever, it will save those five people, yet the trolley will roll down a side track and kill someone else. Are you supposed to pull the lever?

As it turns out, this is not merely a theoretical question. In 1929, Arabs rioted in Hebron, bent upon massacre. Yet they gave the Chief Rabbi of the city a choice: if he turned over the Ashkenazi Jews (of European origin), they would spare the Sephardim (from the Arab world).

The Rabbi refused. The Torah teaches that we are in no position to judge whether five people are of greater worth than the one. We can sacrifice ourselves to save others, but not pass judgment on other people. We cannot pull the lever.

Why is this so? Because in our Torah, human life is of infinite value. Every person has within them a spark of Divinity, which is infinite. Five times infinity is infinity. Infinity divided by 20 is infinity. We cannot place one infinity ahead of another.

We must remain aware that every person around us is of infinite value, and deserving of respect. And, yes, we must also recognize that each of us is of infinite value. We are important. No person is unnecessary or “worthless.” So don’t take yourself for granted!

Oct 28 2016

We’re all in This (World) Together


With an insight that my friend Rabbi Leonard Oberstein called prescient, the very first comment of Rashi on the Torah quotes a Medrash:

Rebbe Yitzchok says: He did not need to begin the Torah [here,] but from ‘this month will be for you the first of months’ [Exodus 12:2], for that is the first Mitzvah that Israel is Commanded to follow. What is the reason to begin with ‘The beginning?’… That if the nations of the world will say to Israel, ‘you are thieves, for conquering the land of the seven nations,’ they will say to them, ‘all the world is the property of the Holy One, Blessed be He. He Created it and Gave it in accordance with what is right in His eyes. By His Will He Gave it to them, and By His Will He Took it from them and Gave it to us. [Yal. Shim. Ex. 247]

globe-1674102_1920This Torah portion teaches many other lessons that are as relevant today as ever. The idea that we have a single Creator, Ruler of heaven and earth, is one example. Much as Kant and others attempted to prove otherwise, to truly live a moral life requires that we acknowledge a standard greater than our own, one that we must follow even when, frankly, we don’t want to. Monotheism enables and indeed requires that single, objective standard. Under polytheistic idolatry, the wishes of one “god” often contradict the desires of another; when we ourselves determine morality, our judgment is clouded by temptation and self-interest.

We also learn that we were created in the image of G-d. Every person has a spark of Divinity within him or her. Every life has infinite value, and thus the preservation of life becomes a critical responsibility of every person.

We learn the brotherhood of man. All of humanity are brothers, descended from a single father and mother. We cannot ignore “our brother’s blood.”

We even learn our responsibility as custodians of the earth, as Hashem gives to Adam and Chava rulership over all other creatures, bringing each one to Adam to name, and gives all growing things to them to eat.

It is no coincidence that anti-Semitism accuses Jews of opposing all of these values. Besides “stealing” the Jewish homeland, Jews are accused of killing non-Jews at will and destroying the earth, and considering non-Jews to be subhuman (there’s even a concocted quote from the Talmud to prove it)!

The lessons of Judaism serve as their own rebuke to these nonsensical canards. We are all one human race, like it or not, says the Torah. All that the Western world now calls “Judeo-Christian ethics” emerges from the Torah’s lessons, guiding us to perfect ourselves — to live as godly individuals. We await the day when “all who dwell on earth will recognize and know that to You every knee should bend… As it says, ‘And Hashem will be King over all the land, on that day Hashem will be One, and his name One.'” [Zechariah 14:9]

As we begin to read the Torah for another year, let us remain mindful of its ability to transform and elevate us like nothing else!

Oct 06 2016

Time for a Reboot




When a computer device of some kind isn’t operating correctly, the first question any technician will ask is, “have you tried rebooting?” The option may be called “Restart,” but it means the same thing: clean out apps that are running, wipe the memory clean, and start up again.

Judaism teaches that people are basically good. In essence, we want to do the right thing. But we succumb to temptation. We do bad things. We let ourselves learn bad habits until we find ourselves in a rut, unable to get back onto level ground.

It’s as if we need our own “reboot” system. And we have one.

This is the concept of Teshuvah. Teshuvah is often translated as “repentance,” but in common usage “repentance” is taken away from its simple meaning. As of this writing, the Wikipedia entry on “Repentance” insists that “The doctrine of repentance as taught in the Bible is a call to persons to make a radical turn from one way of life to another.” Despite that claim, this idea is found nowhere in Judaism — and we did have the Bible first. It doesn’t have to be “radical!”

The word Teshuvah comes from the Hebrew root “to return.” It is about getting back to where we were always supposed to be, following the path we were always supposed to follow.

Today, many people will colloquially refer to a person who adopted traditional Jewish observance in adulthood as a “Ba’al Teshuvah,” but that is not the classical meaning of the term. It means “Master of Return,” and this is something everyone should be — especially on Yom Kippur.

Four Steps to Teshuvah

Our Sages provide a relatively straightforward three process for Teshuvah:

  1. Regret – a person must sincerely regret wrongdoing
  2. Abandonment – the person must commit to not doing the misdeed(s) anymore
  3. Confession – to cement the process, the person must then admit to G-d what was done wrong in the past, along with his or her commitment not to do so in the future

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