Jul 11 2014

When Waging War is Pursuing Peace

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RED FLAG 04-3As Pinchas taught us, sometimes an act of violence promotes peace.

At the end of last week’s Torah reading, we are told that one of the leaders of the Tribes of Israel engaged in an immoral act, deliberately violating the Commandments. He did it brazenly, “in your face,” challenging Moshe and all of the Children of Israel. Everyone was crying, but Pinchas knew what he had to do: pick up a spear. And how did G-d respond? Per this week’s reading, He bestowed upon Pinchas His Covenant of Peace.

We have no prophets today, but neither are any necessary to understand that there is no evil in killing barbarians bent upon killing you.

To those offended by my use of the term barbarians, I offer no apology. These are not civilized human beings with the same values as you and me. People who target women and children, hospitals and kindergartens, are barbarians. People who loudly proclaim that they “celebrate death,” are barbarians. People who bring their own children into buildings after a phone call from the IDF warning them that the building is about to be destroyed, are barbarians.

It is clear that Israel is making a maximum effort to minimize civilian casualties. When the barbarians have their families gather on top of the roof of the building, the IDF changes its mind and doesn’t destroy it. When the barbarians launch a missile next to a residential or office building, the IDF waits until it can target the precise spot. Multiple times they have targeted the vehicles driven by leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, waiting until no pedestrians were nearby. They have even destroyed entire buildings while barely damaging nearby residences.

So we pray for the safety of the soldiers. We pray for the safety of every civilian, on either side. And when Hamas decides to abandon the path of terrorism and join civilization, no one should try to kill them. But in the meantime, terrorism must be stopped.

As someone put it previously, “if Hamas laid down its weapons, there would be no war; if the IDF laid down its weapons, there would be no Israel.” And in their effort to protect lives, the IDF is going to kill terrorists. There will be “Palestinian casualties,” the majority of whom, according to all accounts, were active terrorists and others warned to leave buildings that served as operations centers or storage locations for missiles, and came inside instead. Sometimes the pursuit of peace requires waging war, and our regret at casualties must be tempered by the knowledge that the IDF is pursuing peace, not war.

Jul 02 2014

May their Memory be a Blessing

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Two days ago, we learned the terrible news that the three kidnapped Israeli teens, Gilad Michael ben Ophir, Yaacov Naftali ben Avraham, and Eyal ben Uriel, were murdered by their captors.

10447130_10100112687794811_1138304077113508463_nMany words have been written, and many more will be, about this awful event. But of all the things that were said, a brief comment to Twitter by Rabbi Steven Burg, Head of the Eastern Division of the Wiesenthal Center, summed it up best: “The world does not understand that this is not political for Jews. This was deeply personal. We all loved #EyalGiladNaftali.”

In this week’s reading, the evil prophet Bila’am comes to curse Israel, and is forced to sing its praises instead. As he looks upon Israel, he says, “… they are a nation that dwells apart, and are not counted among the nations” [23:9]. Israel is not like other nations. When three boys are kidnapped, they are not someone else’s children — they are ours.

And then later, he speaks of us as one: “How goodly are your tents, oh Jacob, your dwelling places, oh Israel” [24:5]. We are all one. When three boys are killed, the entirety of Israel is wounded.

Rebbe Yochanon says in the Talmud [Sandhedrin 105b] that from these words of blessing, we can perceive the curse that lay in Bila’am’s heart: he wanted to pray that Israel not be given houses of study or prayer. He knew that only without them could Israel be defeated.

Traditionally, when a life is ended through murder, we say “may G-d avenge his death.” It is a sad demonstration of the widespread ignorance of Judaism, not to mention a backhanded insult to Israelis, that the “Forward” newspaper wrote that “‘may G-d avenge his death’ is often invoked at the burials of Israelis slain by Palestinians,” as if it were a call to violence or fraught with political meaning. In reality, exactly the same sentiment is traditionally voiced with regards to those killed by the Nazis, during the pogroms, and throughout our long and often painful history — the perpetrators of which are, of course, long since dead.

The ultimate vengeance for their blood is not further killing, but survival and growth. When we go into the house of study, that is our vengeance. When students around the world learn the six orders of Mishnah, that, as one survivor said regarding his grandchildren, is the best revenge against the Nazis. We do our part, and let G-d take care of the rest.

Several years ago, we created a web site, LzecherNishmas.com, where families and groups could arrange for the study of Mishnah in memory of the departed. Today there are ten different groups arranging for study of the full Mishnah in memory of these three boys.

One of our great Sages, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, is said to have remarked, after a few moments of stunned silence upon hearing of their end, that these boys had a tremendous merit — they brought us together to pray, to improve ourselves, to elevate ourselves in response to barbarity. May it continue to be so.

Jun 20 2014

The Importance of Unity

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At this writing, we are anxiously awaiting the rescue or release of the three boys kidnapped by terrorists, Yaakov Naftali ben Rachel Devorah, Gilad Michael ben Bat Galim, and Eyal ben Iris Teshurah.

All over the world, Jews have set aside their differences to pray for these three boys. At the Knesset, perhaps the focal point for disagreements between Jews, all the Jewish representatives said Psalms together.

tefilah-gatheringWhy does it take an event of this magnitude to unify us?

This week’s Torah reading focuses upon Korach, who led a rebellion against Moshe. What could be a more ridiculous idea? Everyone knew that Moshe was appointed by G-d and had led them out of Egypt. As mentioned last week, the Medrash even tells us that everyone had the opportunity to hear the Commandments directly from HaShem, but each time He spoke, their souls left their bodies. They were unable to hear Him directly, though Moshe could — which is the best indication of Moshe’s purity of thought and intent. It was the Jews themselves who turned to Moshe and asked him to transmit G-d’s message; for Korach to now turn around and claim that Moshe was changing the rules for his own benefit was both absurd and deadly.

For Korach and all his followers, it was all about their personal honor and benefit. They didn’t get the positions they thought they “deserved,” and so they acted out of jealousy. They were wrong, and as we see, to act upon their feelings certainly wasn’t worthwhile.

Whether or not a person is in the right, taking it personally is never worthwhile. The problem is that it’s difficult, in the heat of the moment, to remember the brotherhood between us that is more important than any argument we might be having. A story I heard this week from Rabbi Dovid Eisenberg illustrates this point nicely:

After someone passes away, there is a Jewish custom to accompany the body until burial. This means that even overnight, people stay with the deceased, as arranged by the Chevrah Kadisha, the burial society.

In one community, there were two people who had been in an argument, and never reconciled. For two decades they lived in the same community, sent their children to the same schools, saw each other in synagogue, at weddings, etc., and never spoke.

Then someone in the community passed away, and the person with the Chevrah Kadisha who arranged the shemirah, the watching of the body, was unaware of the argument between these two men. So he scheduled both of them to share the same shift, to watch the body at the same time.

So the two of them found themselves in a room, with just each other and someone who had passed on. They were confronted with the realization that all of us are, like the deceased person they were watching, headed to the World of Truth after our time in this one.

That one scheduling error caused a twenty year argument to disappear.

As a merit for Yaakov Naftali ben Rachel Devorah, Gilad Michael ben Bat Galim, and Eyal ben Iris Teshurah, may we all find an opportunity to reconcile our differences, and commit to remembering this without another tragic reminder.

Jun 13 2014

An Evil Report

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In this week’s reading we learn about the spies sent to look at the Land of Cana’an. As is clear from the consequences, their evil report, and the Children of Israel’s reaction, became their greatest sin in all their time in the Sinai desert — and it was initiated by “leaders of the Children of Israel” [Num. 13:3]. Even among the Generation of the Desert, those who heard the Voice of G-d at Mt. Sinai, those who set this in motion were on an exalted spiritual level. How could this have happened?

the-juiciest-gossipAfter they went through the land of Cana’an, these great men came home very discouraged. They knew that the Children of Israel had sinned previously, especially with the Golden Calf. They saw that the inhabitants were giants, and it would take open miracles for Israel to be victorious. So they concluded, erroneously, that Israel was no longer worthy of that level of protection — that G-d’s promise was not unconditional, that they would lose.

So what did they do when they returned? Did they go to Moshe? Moshe, of course, had a direct line to G-d, and they all knew it. Like all the rest of the Children of Israel, even these leaders, the spies, couldn’t withstand hearing G-d’s Voice directly — at Mt. Sinai, says the Medrash, their souls left their bodies both times G-d spoke to them, so they asked Moshe to listen and transmit to them. Moshe was thus uniquely able to tell them if Israel was or was not worthy, or if it mattered. His guidance stood above that of all the elders, all the judges, and certainly all the nation.

But what did they do? They didn’t turn to Moshe. They made their own judgement and spread their story via the rumor mill. And that was their failing. And all the Children of Israel listened to them, and not to Moshe — and that was their failing.

Had the spies turned to Moshe and let him reassure them, or had the Children of Israel known the difference between being a leading figure and having true leadership (and listened to the latter), they would have entered the land forty years sooner — all those adults would have entered the land rather than dying in the desert.

Have we learned from their experience?

Today, following the spies seems to be commonplace. Magazines and websites exist solely to gossip about leading entertainers and anyone else they choose. There are no shortage of outlets, especially blogs, whose primary purpose is to speak evil of Jews or Israel, and Jews read them. Today, anyone can set him or herself up and claim to be a “leader” — and get plenty of followers.

We, the Children of Israel, cannot afford to repeat the error of the spies.

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