Jun 03 2016

It’s Not About Our Enemies


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


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


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!

May 05 2016

Learning from Tragedy


herodian-stones-on-streetIn this week’s reading, the Torah takes a lesson from the deaths of the two sons of Aharon, Nadav and Avihu, who brought a “strange fire” before G-d (as described in Lev. 10:1-3). Following their deaths, the Torah tells us: “HaShem said to Moshe, speak to your brother Aharon, and he shall not come at all times into the holy place” [16:2].

Rebbe Eliezer ben Azariah explains this with a parable. A sick person goes to a doctor, who tells him not to eat cold foods or sleep in a damp place. Another advises him not to eat something cold or sleep in a damp place, in order that he not die like so-and-so did. This second doctor urged him to take the advice much more. This, says Rebbe Eliezer, is why Moshe was told to give this instruction “after the deaths of the two children of Aharon.”

Even in tragedy, we are told to find opportunities for growth.

At the end of Tractate Makkos, the Talmud says that Rabban Gamliel, Rebbe Eliezer ben Azariah, Rebbe Yehoshua and Rebbe Akiva all traveled to Jerusalem after it was destroyed. When they reached the Temple Mount, they saw a fox come out of the area of the Kodesh Kedoshim, the Holy of Holies. The other 3 rabbis cried, but Rebbe Akiva laughed.

Why did he laugh? He explains that Yeshayahu HaNavi, the prophet Isaiah [Is. 8:2], connects the prophecy of Uriah, who said that “Zion will be plowed like a field” [Michah 3:12] with that of Zechariah, who said that “elders, men and women, will sit again in the streets of Jerusalem.” [Zechariah 8:4] Until seeing the fulfillment of the prophecy of Uriah, said Rebbe Akiva, he could be afraid that the prophecy of Zechariah will not be fulfilled. But now that the prophecy of Uriah is fulfilled, he concluded, it is certain that the prophecy of Zechariah will be fulfilled as well!

The other three acknowledged the truth of Rebbe Akiva’s remarks, and declared that he had consoled them. But what did he mean? How did Rebbe Akiva know that the apparent fulfillment of one prophecy proved that the other would be fulfilled as well?

What Rebbe Akiva knew was that the prophecy was not describing a natural occurrence. There was no room for confusion. It is one thing for an invading army to destroy property, even religious sites. ISIS is bulldozing sites today. But besides that the Romans, idolators who worshipped dozens of gods, did not destroy other religions — to plow it over, as if it were a field? Where have we ever heard of someone making such great efforts to completely obliterate evidence of the building? And yet we know that happened, and it happened on Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of Av.

When one sees evidence of this irrational, miraculous hatred, and the miracle of Jewish survival, we must also recognize that we are seeing the evidence of Jewish redemption.

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