Sep 02 2016

True Vision


Space-EyeThe reading this week begins, “See I have placed before you today the blessing and the curse” [Deut. 11:26]. This is said in the singular form, rather than plural, and the Ba’al HaTurim explains that this statement, “see,” was made to each and every individual. Each of us has the blessing and curse lying in front of us, the ability to choose between right and wrong.

This does not mean, however, that the correct choice is always obvious. The same reading also discusses the possibility of a false prophet, coming to guide us to idolatry, even proving to us that his false god has real power:

When there shall arise among you a prophet or dreamer of dreams, and he shall provide you with a sign or wonder; and this sign or wonder shall come to pass as he told you, saying, ‘let us go after other gods which you do not know, and let us serve them.’ Do not listen to the words of this prophet or this dreamer of dreams, for Hashem your G-d is testing you, to know if you love Hashem your G-d with all your hearts and with all your souls.
— Deut 13:2-4

Throughout our lives, we are confronted with opportunities to choose the good — yet the good may not be immediately obvious. Sociologists talk about the “bandwagon effect,” in which even truly bad ideas are adopted at an increasing rate the more they are adopted by others.

A senior at Brown University wrote an article this week in which he advised incoming freshmen to “prepare yourself for insane anti-Semitism.” The movement to boycott Israel is a direct descendant of the Nazi boycott (via the Arab boycott, which predates 1948), it leads directly to anti-Semitic slurs and acts against individual students, yet it is adopted as a “moral” movement by people who have not bothered to look and discern the truth.

How often are we fooled, in our own lives, by things which appear moral or correct to others? Are we “going with the flow,” or are we looking at and evaluating the blessing and the curse?

This is the challenge of our reading, and it lies before each and every one of us.

Aug 19 2016

The Promise


ShofarProjectLLParshas VaEschanan, on the Jewish calendar, is read following the 9th of Av, the Day of Mourning over the destruction. It begins the “seven Sabbaths of consolation,” during which the Haftorah readings, from the prophets, promise that a bright future lies ahead.

We find this same message found clearly within the reading itself. G-d says that we will be exiled from our land due to our sins, and scattered around the earth. Yet when we seek G-d and His Word, motivated both by a thirst for knowledge and due to antisemitism, we will find Him.

Then, the Torah tells us, we will recognize that we have seen something unique in history: the claim that G-d Himself took one nation from the middle of another, and then enabled all of them to hear His Voice speak to them from within the fire. We will see that the Jews have always survived and flourished, even when faced with — and forced to pass through — the fire of hatred.

Today, both of the motivations to seek G-d found in this week’s reading are clearly present. The thirst for knowledge, for something deeper in life than simply “earning a living,” burst from a spark to a flame perhaps fifty years ago, and persists in this generation. And now, rising antisemitism is motivating even more people to seek Jewish wisdom, to understand both the source of the hatred and how Jews have withstood it through millennia.

We must respond to both of these needs, so that Jewish students faced with hatred can feel proud and inspired by Judaism. We will shortly be announcing a new project to help us reach this goal, both reaching Jews on individual campuses and expanding the content and teachings you find today on the newly-redesigned

We look forward to giving you more information about our new effort in the weeks ahead, but for a sneak peek you may visit for a brief introduction — and the opportunity to sign up for a mailing list devoted to that initiative.

Aug 12 2016

Anti-Semitism Remembrance Day


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


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.

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