Aug 01 2014

The Vision


Givati_at_kosel2This week, prior to the Ninth of Av, we begin reading Devarim, the book of Deuteronomy. But the special name given to this Sabbath is not related to the Torah reading, but rather to the Haftorah, which is the first 27 verses of the book of Isaiah. It begins with the words “Chazon Yeshayahu ben Amotz,” “The Vision of Isaiah son of Amotz,” and thus this Sabbath is called “Shabbos Chazon,” “the Sabbath of the Vision.”

The vision provided by Isaiah is not an encouraging one. “Children I raised and elevated, and they have sinned against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s trough; Israel does not know, my nation does not consider” [Is. 1:2-3].

The prophet does not, in this passage, speak at length about the punishment for continued wrongdoing. Losing Divine protection is treated as an obvious consequence of Israel moving away from G-d; it is our choice. “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land, but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be devoured with the sword, for the mouth of Hashem has spoken it” [1:20]. On the contrary, the focus is upon the need to correct ourselves.

What we have seen in the past weeks is not only a spirit of unity in the Jewish nation, but unity behind a positive value. As the Tower of Babel shows us, not all unity is positive. It is not enough to spout platitudes about “Ahavas Yisrael” (love of our fellow Jews) or “Achdus” (unity) as if anything Jews want is ok. That unity must be behind a positive value.

In this case, it is: the protection of Jewish lives. One of the Torah’s greatest precepts is that “you shall live by them [the Commandments],” requiring that G-d’s other laws (with few exceptions) be set aside in order to save a life. No one questions why the IDF Rabbinate told the soldiers in Gaza that they should eat on the Ninth of Av this year.

But similarly, I was pleasantly surprised to read that a popular author from Israel’s extreme left (who moved to a kibbutz because “Tel Aviv wasn’t radical enough”) opened an interview in a German weekly by asking the readers: “what would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap and starts shooting machine gun fire into your nursery?” The question is no surprise, it is one I asked rhetorically myself — the surprise is that someone so far out on the left would ask it, and in so doing assert the truth of Hamas’ crimes against Gazan civilians.

Unity alone is not enough – we must take it in the right direction. That is when “the Lord, HaShem, Master of Legions, Mighty One of Israel” says that “I shall be comforted of my adversaries, and avenge [Myself] from My enemies,” and declares that “I will restore your judges as it was at first, and your advisers as at the start” [1:24,26].

May we soon see the Ninth of Av changed from a day of mourning to one of joy.

Jul 25 2014

Stopping Baseless Hatred


We are about to enter the period of time called the Nine Days, the beginning of the month of Av. The Ninth of Av is the tragic day when Israel mourned needlessly after the the evil report of the spies [Num. 14:1 ff.]. G-d said that because we mourned for no reason, that day would become a day of mourning. And so it has been, as by the time of the Mishnah it was the anniversary of five tragedies:

  1. Our anscestors were told that due to their needless mourning, they would remain in the desert for forty years and enter Israel only after all the adults of the time had perished;
  2. The destruction of the First Temple;
  3. The destruction of the Second Temple;
  4. The city of Betar was overcome, and all of its inhabitants, tens of thousands of people, were killed;
  5. The site of the Holy Temple was plowed through, making it totally barren.

Since then, many other catastrophies have been associated with the Ninth of Av: Pope Urban II declared the first Crusade to Jerusalem, which led to the destruction of entire Jewish communities in Rhineland and France and the loss of many thousands of lives; Jews were expelled from England, France and Spain (on or around the ninth); Germany entered World War I, which resulted in 120,000 Jewish casualties and set the events leading to the Holocaust in motion; Heinrich Himmler secured Nazi approval of the “Final Solution;” and the deportation of Jews began from the Warsaw Ghetto.

Even more recently, the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires was bombed on the tenth of Av (the Temple continued to burn into the tenth, and thus it is connected to the mourning as well). And less than ten years ago, the tenth of Av began the infamous “Disengagement” from Gaza, which led directly to Gaza becoming the largest terrorist base in the modern world and to what is arguably the longest ongoing war crime in modern history, the firing of over 12,000 missiles aimed at civilians.

1370626668What can we do? We are told that the Second Temple was destroyed due to needless hatred between Jews. This is a time to focus our energies on increasing brotherhood and love between members of the Jewish people, especially keeping in mind the situation facing those of us who live in the Holy Land today.

Dr. Rene Levy, a neuropharmacologist in Seattle, recently sent me a copy of his book, “Baseless Hatred: What It Is and What You Can Do about It.” It could not be presented to you at a more appropriate time. It is a comprehensive study of the phenomenon of needless hatred, with suggestions for prevention and repair.

The book looks at hatred as a topic of intellectual study, increasing our awareness of the issue and, at the end, inspiring us to do better. It looks at the understanding of hatred by psychologists, neurobiologists, and of course our Sages. An entire section is devoted to Israel and the Jews, referring to the hatred of the State of Israel and the “new anti-Semitism” (it is worth noting in this context that Dr. Levy grew up in France, and received his BS in Pharmacy from the University of Paris before moving to the United States to study for his PhD). It received favorable reviews from not only Harav Shlomo Maimon, the head of the Rabbinical Court of Seattle, but a series of professors, Israeli politicians, columnists and others. In the truest spirit of brotherhood, there is something in this book for every reader, to be both informed and inspired. You are invited to read more about the book (and learn where to buy it) on its website.

For a more traditional, “mussar” (ethical) approach to increasing love and harmony, one can turn to books such as “Ahavas Chesed” (lit. the love of kindness) by the Chafetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisrael Meyer Kagan) among others. May our study of love over hate turn to practice, and bring us to the time when, we are promised, the Ninth of Av will be known as a day of joy, rather than tragedy.

Jul 18 2014

An Honest Message


This week’s reading begins by talking about the importance of keeping our word. If a person makes a promise or oath to G-d, says the Torah, he may not make his words “secular” or “profane” by failing to fulfill his commitment. To make this type of promise and then fail to fulfill does not merely mean his words lose their holy commitment — it profanes the holy, disgraces the ability that he was given.

wordsIn reality, an oath to G-d is doubly holy. The opportunity to make such a promise is a holy thing — but the gift of speech itself is also a holy thing. It is that which distinguishes humans, who have a neshama, a soul, from animals, and is the expression of our souls. In many different areas, the Torah tells us to strive for honesty and truth. We have to keep our word, and be forthright rather than concealing our intent.

I’m choosing this topic because I believe that this week, we were party to what I suspect was an ethical failing. It concerns an advertisement which we were asked to send on behalf of Israel’s self-defense. It took a partisan tone, claiming that “the Obama administration is blaming Israel for not making peace with a terrorist organization,” and inviting people to sign a petition for suspending aid to the Palestinian Authority as long as it is united with Hamas — something with which most of us would agree, whether or not we agreed with the criticism of President Obama’s position.

Sending an advertisement is not, of course, an endorsement. While we aren’t going to advertise nonkosher products or something which we feel isn’t in accordance with our mission of encouraging Jewish growth, we’re not putting our certification on an ad either. If someone wants to pay us to send out a political message, we should be happy to do it, whether or not we agree.

But those who clicked on this particular ad were asked, on the website, to sign the petition in order to “Stand with Israel against President Obama and Sec. John Kerry” — which isn’t what the ad said. And one reader went further, and looked at the rest of the site. Navigating directly to the home page, one is greeted with a petition to impeach the president (!). And on the projects page, there is a document on “thirteen reasons to impeach Obama,” followed by several links including four different other petitions, none of which provide any information, merely a slogan like “it’s time to secure the border,” or “stop Iran’s nuclear development” and a place to sign.

It’s likely that they are just gathering email addresses for a partisan mailing in the future, rather than actually submitting them somewhere. And it’s also possible that they have set up five different petitions, but it doesn’t seem likely. It appears that those who sign the petition for Israel are effectively signing the petition to impeach the president.

Again, they are probably just adding names to a politically-tinged roster for future mailings. But I want to apologize to anyone who felt the ad didn’t express its intent more forthrightly, because we, in retrospect, feel the same way.

Jul 11 2014

When Waging War is Pursuing Peace


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.

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