McCain in hospital bed in Vietnam

No Regrets

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My employer, Agudath Israel of America, as a non-profit organization, is not permitted to endorse any candidate for public office.  I, however, write this column each week as an individual, not as an organizational representative.  Even so, though, I take no public position on the presidential race.

Aspects of the race, though, do strike me as worthy of consideration.

Like a recent radio interview with Donald Trump.  Among the candidate’s many interesting comments over the course of the campaign so far was his assertion last summer that Senator John McCain was “not a war hero.”

This, despite Mr. McCain’s having flown missions during the Vietnam war, having been shot down, seriously injured and captured by the North Vietnamese, having endured torture and languished as a prisoner of war for six years (two of them in solitary confinement) and having refused an out-of-sequence early repatriation offer.  Still, said Mr. Trump, Mr. McCain wasn’t “like people who weren’t captured.”

For his part, Senator McCain recently reiterated that he didn’t take the candidate’s comment personally, but he did, he said, object to the insinuation that other POWs were something less than heroic for their endurance of their own captures and imprisonments.  “What [Mr. Trump] said about me, John McCain, that’s fine,” said the senator. “I don’t require any repair of that.”

“But,” he continued, “I would like to see him retract [his] statement, not about me, but about the others.”

During a May 11 radio interview, Mr. Trump had the opportunity to do just that, and took it.  Well, sort of.  At least for a few seconds, before he cast doubt on what he had just said.

Asked about Senator McCain’s wish for a retraction, the presidential hopeful told his interviewer, “Well, I’ve actually done that.”  And, to make thing clear (at least for the moment), he added, “You know frankly, I like John McCain, and John McCain is a hero.”

The interviewer, seeking clarity, asked if that meant that Mr. Trump then regretted his earlier comments.  The response: “I don’t, you know… I like not to regret anything…. And what I said, frankly, is what I said.  And, you know, some people like what I said, if you want to know the truth. Many people that like what I said. You know after I said that, my poll numbers went up seven points.”

One wonders who was converted to the Trump candidacy as a result of his demeaning of Senator McCain’s experiences.  (Does some sizable number of unrepentant former North Vietnamese lurk within the American electorate?)  But, be that as it may, Mr. Trump’s bewildering backtrack was a striking contrast to an American official’s unqualified expression of regret a few weeks earlier.

Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, traveled to Kunduz, Afghanistan to issue an unreserved apology to the families of victims of the United States’ bombing of a hospital in that city last year that killed 42 people.

“As commander, I wanted to come to Kunduz personally and stand before the families and the people of Kunduz to deeply apologize for the events which destroyed the hospital and caused the deaths of staff, patients and family members,” he said. “I grieve with you for your loss and suffering, and humbly and respectfully ask for your forgiveness.”

Shortly after the mistaken bombing, President Obama also personally apologized for the carnage in Kundu.

The general and the president likely wish that they didn’t need “to regret anything,” no less than Mr. Trump.  But when regret is called for, they feel and express it.

No reader of this periodical needs to be reminded of the fact that feeling regret is a high Jewish ideal, the very fundament of teshuvah.  Many of us recite Viduy twice daily, and all of us on Yom Kippur. Regretting a wrongdoing is something for which our illustrious forebears Yehudah and Reuvein are praised, and for which they “inherited life in the next world” and were rewarded as well in this one (Sotah, 7b).

Whether the willingness to feel and express remorse is something desirable in an American president or something that will hinder him in dealing with the challenges of his office is, one supposes, an open question.  And how the American electorate feels about the matter is a question open even more widely.

But that, as Jews, we are enjoined to see regret, when it is indicated, as a desideratum, not a weakness, is no question at all.

© 2016 Hamodia

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hiroshima

Visitation Rites

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The saintly aura that has enveloped Ronald Reagan in the minds of many who consider themselves social conservatives and independent thinkers – and I count myself among them; and I voted for Reagan in both 1980 and 1984 – has eclipsed the memory of his infamous 1985 visit to the military cemetery in Bitburg, Germany.  Elie Wiesel famously told Mr. Reagan, “That place, Mr. President, is not your place.”

Bitburg comes to mind in the wake of the announcement that President Obama will be visiting Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, Japan, more than 70 years after the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city – and then, three days later, another, on Nagasaki – killing upward of 200,000 people and leaving unknown numbers with illnesses born of radiation exposure.  Mr. Obama will be the first sitting president to visit the site, and is being criticized by some for his plan to do so.

The wisdom, propriety and necessity of President Harry Truman’s decision to unleash nuclear destruction on the Japanese cities on August 6 and August 9, 1945 have been debated for decades.  Japan had attacked the U.S. first, at Pearl Harbor, had starved, beaten and executed American prisoners of war and seemed undeterred by Germany’s May 7 surrender to the Allies.

Truman maintained that the bombings, by accelerating the Japanese surrender, saved countless American lives. “The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor,” he proclaimed.  “They have been repaid many fold.” And the bombings had been ordered “in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans.”

Some historians, however, have judged these decisions harshly, maintaining that there were other paths toward Japanese surrender, and that the loss of life at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was unconscionable.

For its part, the White House has stressed that the visit is not intended as an apology, but rather is a symbolic gesture to promote Mr. Obama’s nuclear nonproliferation message and highlight the reconciliation between wartime enemies that are now close allies.

Nonetheless, knee-jerk Obama-bashers and knee-jerk “progressives” alike have registered their respective disgruntlements.  The former have long characterized the president’s acknowledgments of U.S. misjudgments as unwarranted and unpatriotic apologies; they claim that the president’s very presence at the site is an unspoken expression of regret.  And the latter believe that the U.S. in fact does owe Japan an unqualified and open mea culpa for the bombings.

Thus, “The Obama Administration Is Now Apologizing For America Winning World War II” reads the title of an opinion piece by David Harsanyi, a senior editor at The Federalist.  And “America’s enduring Hiroshima shame: Why Barack Obama should apologize for the atomic bomb — but won’t” is the title of an essay by syndicated columnist Jack Mirkinson.

The guy in the Oval Office just can’t win.

Lost, though, in the political discussion of the impending visit – as is so often lost in so many political discussions – is reason.  Not every expression of pain is a confession of guilt.  One can regret the effects of an act without regretting the act.

I don’t know if pediatricians apologize to toddlers for the pain they have inflicted on them after a required inoculation.  But I can certainly imagine a sensitive doctor acknowledging his small patient’s pain, including his role in creating it, while seeking to soothe the child.

Is the Commander in Chief of the United States visiting Hiroshima really much different?  Even if the optics indicate something more than a celebration of how far U.S-Japan relations have come over the past half-century, even if Mr. Obama’s presence at the site is seen as an expression of anguish at the great loss of life caused by our country’s nuclear attacks on Japan, even if one believes that President Truman was entirely right in his decisions, is it somehow un-American or reckless to be perceived as pained by the incineration of two cities’ populations?

Elie Wiesel was right about Bitburg.  It was not, and is not, a place for an American president.  It is a cemetery for a military that fought to advance the cause of an evil regime.  But, even if the Japanese regime was contemptible too, those who perished in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were civilians.

Words from the end of Sefer Yonah come to mind:

“Now should I not take pity on Nineveh, the great city, in which there are many more than one hundred twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, and many animals as well?”

© 2016 Hamodia

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jewish america

No, Rabbi Yoffie, That’s Not What I Wrote

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I have apparently upset Reform rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, the former president of his movement.  In Haaretz (http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.720279), he takes me to task for claiming, in an earlier op-ed in that paper, that Orthodox rabbis speak on behalf of American Jewry.

That’s not, however, what I wrote. As you can read at http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.718990 , I simply asserted that Reform Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the current head of the Reform movement, had overreached by claiming that he represents all American Jews.  In his own piece, in fact, Rabbi Yoffie does the same thing.

Some excerpts from his essay:

“[I]n a monumental act of self-delusion, Rabbi Avi Shafran asserts… that Reform rabbis… cannot claim to speak for American Jewry on such matters. But they can… The reason for this is that 90% of American Jewry is non-Orthodox…”

 “The overwhelming majority of American Jews… are horrified by the failure of the Jewish state to grant basic religious rights to all of Israel’s Jews.”

“To be sure, the 10% of the community that identifies as Orthodox is entitled to its views. But while Rabbi Shafran refers to this group as ‘sizable,’ it is not sizable at all.”

“Rabbi Shafran points out that the average number of children for middle-aged Orthodox Jews is 4.1, more than twice the number for other American Jews. But with an Orthodox birthrate that is so high, why are Orthodox numbers so modest? One reason is that a significant number of Orthodox Jews stop practicing Judaism… the percentage of yeshiva-educated children from classically observant homes who abandon their tradition could be as high as 33%.”

“My own guess is that the glum assumptions that demographers are making about intermarriage are mostly wrong, just as they are wrong about the ability of the Orthodox to keep all of their children within the fold…  And by the way, as sociologist Steven Cohen has pointed out, the membership of Reform congregations grew by more than 20% between 1990 and 2013.”

That’s a rich field to mine.  Let’s do some digging.

If the 90% of American Jews “identifying as non-Orthodox” – most of whom do not identify as Reform either – are “horrified” by Israel’s single Jewish standard for issues of personal status (or her “failure to grant basic religious rights to all its Jews,” in Yoffie-speak), then they are an astoundingly silent majority.

Not surprising, since there are almost as many American Jews who profess no religious affiliation at all as there are who say they are Reform.  Most of the former are uninterested in internal Israeli issues.  And many, if not most, of the latter may have no real connection to any Reform institution but simply use the word to describe their Jewish non-observance.  And they, too, have no particular concern about Israel’s religious standards.

No, the only ones “horrified” are Reform leaders and those among their congregants whom they have convinced to follow their lead. Those are the people Rabbis Jacobs and Yoffie can claim to represent.

As to the American Orthodox community, it is not only sizable – it’s about a third of the 35% of the American Jewish segment claiming to be Reform – but, more important, it’s growing, and at a robust rate.  “Every year, the Orthodox population has been adding 5,000 Jews,” says sociologist Steven Cohen. “The non-Orthodox population has been losing 10,000 Jews.”

And the most obvious indicator of any group’s future growth lies in the size of its youth population.  Roughly a quarter of Orthodox Jewish adults (24%) are between the ages of 18 and 29, compared with 17% of Reform Jews and 13% of Conservative Jews.  More significant still, no less than 27% of all American Jews under 18 live in Orthodox households.

If Rabbi Yoffie wishes to judge Orthodox numbers as “modest,” he can certainly do so, but they seem poised to become considerably less so.

Yes, there have been Jews who have left Orthodoxy (though, according to Pew, the percentage of them have joined Reform is zero).  But the percentage Rabbi Yoffie cites largely reflects a population of older Jews who, in most cases, may have once had an affiliation with an Orthodox shul but were never truly Orthodox (that is to say, halacha-observant) in the first place.  Orthodoxy’s current retention rate at present, by contrast, is formidable – and Orthodoxy has attracted many Jews from non-Orthodox, including Reform, backgrounds.

As to Reform, a full 28% of those raised in the movement, says Pew, “have left the ranks of Jews by religion entirely.”

How, then, in light of all the above, to explain Steven Cohen’s finding that Reform congregational membership has grown in recent decades?  That’s not a hard question to answer.  The congregational membership growth reflects the influx of non-Jewish spouses of Jewish members, and spouses who have undergone Reform conversions (which are not halachically valid).  Professor Cohen reports that the intermarriage rate among married Reform-raised Jews during 2000-13 stands at 80%.

Which brings us back to the original issue that compelled me to expose the falsehood of Rabbi Jacobs’ claim that he speaks for American Jewry (a claim adopted by Rabbi Yoffie as well): opposition to Israel’s longstanding commitment to traditional Jewish standards.

The thought of importing the standards of a movement that has proven disastrous to Jewish observance and continuity in the United States to the Jewish State is what should horrify any Jew concerned with the Jewish future.  The “multi-winged” model of American Jewry is an abject failure.  What is succeeding in Jewish America is what lies in the past of every Jew: the Jewish religious tradition that inspired the uncompromising dedication of the ancestors of us all. That is not “triumphalism.”  It is the very real triumph of our mutual religious heritage.

Projecting the Jewish future was never my goal. I cited the facts I did, and cite the ones above, only to show that Orthodoxy in America is formidable and growing.  And it is.  Rabbis Jacobs and Yoffie are entirely welcome to speak for their constituents, Jewish and otherwise.  What they have no right to do, however, is deem themselves the representatives of “American Jewry,” or to try to leverage that fiction to pressure Israel.  That was that I contended in my article, and it is unarguable.

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yarmuke

Ferry Tale

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Sitting among other commuters in the cavernous terminal, waiting for the next ferry from Staten Island to Manhattan, I sensed some commotion in my periphery.  Looking up from my reading, I saw a 40-ish man struggling against several ferry terminal employees, who were trying to get him to exit the room.

Homeless people regularly spend time in the ferry terminal, as they do in other transportation hubs in New York and elsewhere.  They’re often sleeping, and taking up seats with their bodies and their belongings. It’s easy to feel resentful toward them, especially if there are no other seats available.  Until, that is, one thinks about the fact that the large bags of sundry items they lug around and park nearby represent all that they own in the world.  And that their only options for getting rest or staying warm in the winter – other than to subject themselves to crime-ridden public shelters – is to bed down in train, bus or ferry terminals.

Although he wasn’t one of the “regulars,” the fellow who had just entered the room clearly belonged to the fraternity of people with no place to call home.  He was laughing and moving somewhat animatedly as the ferry terminal personnel, who seemed to know him, gently escorted him out of the room.  “C’mon, Jerry,” one large uniformed fellow cajoled him, “Let’s go.”

“No, no,” the homeless man replied, and looked around the room.  “I just want to talk to… the rabbi!”

That would be me, of course.  Oy.

“No, you don’t, Jerry,” Mr. Burly said with a loud laugh.  “You leave the rabbi alone!”

“Just for a minute,” Jerry pleaded, and, releasing himself from his captor’s grip, he ambled over and introduced himself.  “Sholom aleichem, rabbi!  I’m Yosef Shmuel ben Aharon!”

I would never have guessed the fellow was a relative.  “Pleased to meet you,” I replied, smiling, and hoping my discomfort didn’t show.

“Would you happen to have a spare yarmulke on you, by any chance?” he asked.

I was taken aback by the unexpected request.  “I’m so sorry,” I replied.  “I don’t.”  Which was true, but, after he thanked me all the same and was led out of the room, I felt ashamed.  I was wearing a yarmulke under my hat, after all.  Couldn’t I have given it to him and worn my hat at work?  It might have looked a little strange as I moved my morning coffee from the kitchen to my desk, but it would not have eternally stigmatized me.

That entire day, my response to the homeless man bothered me.  Actually, at night, too.

The next day, I put a spare yarmulke in my pocket, just in case Jerry might be at the terminal again.  I had never seen him before, so I wasn’t optimistic. But when I arrived, there he was, sitting quietly in one of the waiting-area seats.  He didn’t see me and I just watched him from afar. When the call came for passengers to board the ferry, though, I went over to him and offered him the yarmulke.

His eyes opened wider than I imagined possible.  He took the yarmulke, leaped to his feet and practically shouted “Thank you so much!”

“My pleasure,” I said, and rushed to make it to the boat before the doors closed.

So many bein adam lachaveiro mistakes in life are not easily correctable, so I was grateful for the opportunity to undo one of my bad judgments.  And yet I worried, too, that I may have made a friend who would come to occupy more of my time than I might wish.  I try to use my commute for learning and reading.  I turn down ride offers from neighbors, so cherished is my “quiet time.”

So, even though I sincerely wished Jerry only well, and hoped that his new (well, to him) yarmulke would somehow benefit him, if only to identify himself as a Jew, I feared that I might have paved the way for a daily conversation with someone who might not even be mentally balanced.  But I didn’t regret my small gift; I knew I had done the right thing.  And that’s all any of us can do, no matter what consequences might ensue.

It’s been many weeks since my two encounters with Jerry.  I haven’t seen him since.

I know it might strike some as silly, but I can’t help wondering if he might have been placed there those two days just for me.

© 2016 Hamodia

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Siyum HaShas

How Dare Reform Rabbis Speak On Behalf of Diaspora Jewry?

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He may not have meant it as a threat, but Reform Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, certainly sounded like he was delivering an ultimatum when he warned that if an area at the Kotel Ma’aravi is not set aside for non-Orthodox services, “it will signal a serious rupture in the relationship between Diaspora Jewry and the Jewish state.”

Struck my ears like a Jewish version of a protection racket pitch.  “Hey, nice relationship you got there.  Be a real shame if anything bad happened to it…”

Those are the opening paragraphs of a piece I wrote that was recently published by Haaretz.  For the entire article, please visit

http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.718990

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man on mountain

Hubris Heights

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Three years ago, geneticists Drs. Stephen Friend, Eric Schadt and Jason Bobe set out to search international databases for people who were over 30 and healthy but who carried mutations that typically cause childhood diseases like Tay-Sachs or muscular dystrophy.  In other words, people whose genetic makeups should have disabled or killed them years ago, but for some reason did not.

The scientists recently reported that they found 15,597 people who seemed to fit the bill, but they had doubts about some of the data about the patients and were unsure if their genetic mutations indeed coded for the diseases they were predicted to develop.

Thirteen people, though, turned out to have verifiable mutations that definitely cause one of eight serious diseases before age 18 in all who inherit them.  Or, at least, so it had been assumed.  In those thirteen cases, no disease had occurred.

The researchers surmise that there may be some other genetic mutations in those people, and likely in many others, that somehow counteract the natural effects of the disease-causing mutations.  Further research will focus on identifying any such “protective” genetic factors.

The large majority of people carrying genetic markers for serious diseases will in fact experience those diseases.  But the recent report reminds us that things aren’t always as clear as they may have once seemed.  Medical death sentences are sometimes unexpectedly commuted.  Widely accepted treatments are sometimes found to confer no benefit – even, in some cases, to be detrimental to health.  Medical truths sometimes turn out to be fictions.

In the late 1980s, the Cardiac Antiarrhythmic Suppression Trial found that widely trusted medications for patients with a particular heart arrhythmia conferred greater mortality than a placebo.  That is to say they were worse than useless.

In 2005, a procedure known as vertebroplasty, the injection of medical cement into fractured bone, was performed more than 27,000 times in the United States.  A study in 2009 conclusively showed that the procedure was no better than a sham procedure where nothing at all was done.

Routine PSA screening, once the gold standard for identifying prostate cancer, is no longer recommended, as it turned out to have caused many unnecessary biopsies and surgeries.  Likewise for routine mammography screening for women in their 40s.

Such “well, now we know better” changes of policy are known as “medical reversal” and are nothing new. Ancient Greek medical researchers like Hippocrates and Galen contributed much to the understanding of the human body.  But the treatments that resulted from their findings and theories soon enough (well, what’s a thousand years in the larger picture?) fell victim to the Dutch anatomist Vesalius’s discoveries.  In the 17th century, William Harvey further revolutionized medical treatment.

The next century saw Edward Jenner perfect the art of inoculation, and then the medical revolution born of germ theory.  Then, the discovery of DNA opened an entirely new vista: genetics.

It is, of course, not surprising that medicine has advanced with time, and that we know more about the body and disease than ever before.  Such progress is true about science in general.  Aristotle’s understanding of physics pales beside what Newton laid out; and Newtonian physics was upended in fundamental ways by Einstein and later physicists and cosmologists.

But what’s important to realize is that much of what we know about medicine or other sciences is not so much based on what we thought we knew but rather reversed  it.

And yet much of the scientific establishment, and laymen who trust them implicitly, persist in the illogical belief that what we think we know will prove impervious to being overturned by future discoveries.  Why, though, should we imagine that our generation possesses ultimate knowledge?  Has there ever been such an animal?  Is there really any reason to doubt that a century hence some of our most cherished scientific knowns will prove to have been unknowns?

To be sure, we must utilize the medical understandings and treatments of our day.  But our minds must hold the thought, too, that changes will likely come on a future day.

As Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote, Hashem granted us two revelations: nature and Torah.  Immutable knowledge of only one of them, however, has been Divinely transmitted to human beings.  We can be mechadesh ideas in Torah, but only by building upon its unchanging truths. Nature, by contrast, remains an open question, and is thus subject to (and has long evidenced) conceptual revolutions.

Ignoring history, thinking that we have some ultimate understanding of the physical world, may provide solace to some.  But, in truth, it is the height of hubris.

© 2016 Hamodia

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violin string

Liberation Theology

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In the summer of 1776, Benjamin Franklin proposed that the Great Seal of the United States should depict Moshe Rabbeinu at the Yam Suf, his staff lifted high and the Mitzriyim drowning in the sea.  Jefferson urged a different design: Klal Yisrael marching through the Midbar, led by amud ha’eish and amud he’anan, the pillar of fire and the pillar of smoke.

American slaves in the 19th century famously adopted the imagery and language of Yetzias Mitzrayim to express the hopes they harbored to one day be free.  In one famous spiritual, they sang of “When Israel was in Egypt land… oppressed so hard they could not stand,” punctuating each phrase with the refrain “Let My people go.”

Similar references to our ancestors’ liberation from Mitzrayim informed the American labor and civil rights movements as well.  In his celebrated “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, Martin Luther King pined to “watch G-d’s children in their magnificent trek from the dark dungeons of Egypt… on toward the promised land.”  And he sought to assure American blacks that “the Israelites” suffered much before gaining their freedom, and so neither should his listeners give up hope.

It says much that so many have modeled their aspirations on the Divine extraction of goy mikerev goy, “a nation from the midst of a nation” (Devarim 4:34).  To the Western world, the account of our ancestors’ release from slavery is the mother of all liberation movements.  And, at least in a way, one supposes, it is.

But the reading of freedom as mere release from repression is sorely incomplete.  Because after Shalach es ami, “Let my people go,” comes a most important additional word: viyaavduni – “so that they may serve Me” (Shmos 9:1).  Klal Yisrael wasn’t merely taken from slavery to “freedom,” in the word’s simplest sense.  We were taken from meaningless, onerous oppression to… a different servitude, the most meaningful kind imaginable: serving Hashem.

The Hebrew word for freedom, of course, is cheirus, evoking the word charus, “inscribed,” the word the Torah uses to describe the etching of the words on the Luchos, the “Tablets of the Law.”  Chazal see a profound truth in the two words’ similarity, and teach us: “The only free person is the one immersed in Torah.”

What in the world, others might ask us, does immersion in an intellectually taxing corpus of abstruse texts, subtle ideas and legal/ritual minutiae have to do with freedom?

They would claim to feel most free lying on beach chairs in their back yards on a day off from work, sunshine on their faces and cold beverages within reach, with nothing, absolutely nothing, to do.  And, to be sure, there are in fact times when we all need to relax, to recharge.  But that’s not the meaning of freedom, at least not in the Torah’s view.

In the words of Iyov, adam l’amal yulad, “Man is born to toil” (5:7).  What we simplemindedly think of as “freedom” is not true cherus.  We’re here to labor, to study, to control ourselves, to apply ourselves, to accomplish things. Our “freedom” is release from the meaningless servitude some pledge to a master like money, chemicals, or this or that transient pleasure; and entry into meaningful servitude to something transcendent.

Truth be told, the freedom touted by “the velt” doesn’t even yield the fulfillment it promises. Or even happiness.  Winning the lottery and moving to Monaco to indulge one’s whims may be a common daydream, but, as countless accounts have borne witness, release from economic straits and the embrace of hedonism have yielded more suicides than serenity.

True freedom, ironically, comes from hard work.  Applying ourselves to our Divine mandate liberates us from the limitations of our inner Egypts, and brings true fulfillment, true joy.

Yesh chachmah bagoyim, Chazal tell us.  Listen to the words of the Indian poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore:

“I have on my table a violin string. It is free to move in any direction I like. If I twist one end, it responds; it is free.

“But it is not free to sing. So I take it and fix it into my violin. I bind it, and when it is bound, it is free for the first time to sing.”

What a perceptive mashal, and how inadvertently apt.

Because when our forebears were released from Egyptian bondage, as they prepared to embark on their path to viyaavduni, they paused to sing a song, Shiras Hayam.

© 2016 Hamodia

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Routing Rote

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“Please don’t bring your toys into my kitchen, young lady!” the busy mother warned her loaded-up little daughter.  The child’s response: “Well, it’s MY kitchen too!”

Her parents had a good laugh over that “memorable kids’ pronouncements” moment, and it returns to us this time each year, when parashas Metzora comes around.

Because of the miraculous malady called nigei batim that existed when our ancestors entered Eretz Yisrael and afflicted the walls of houses.  Such discolorations, we are taught by Chazal, result from tzarus ayin, literally, “narrowness of the eye” – the Gemara’s term for stinginess.

That cause is evident in the requirement (Vayikra 14:36) that the homeowner remove all of his possessions from the house before it is pronounced menuga.  The reason for that, the Torah explicitly states, is to prevent the possessions from being rendered tamei (as tumah only affects the house and its contents when the kohen renders his judgment).  So the Torah is pointedly demonstrating concern for protecting the homeowner’s things, a concern that is the antithesis of tzarus ayin.

What is more, Chazal point out, the rescued vessels sitting on the homeowner’s lawn reveal to neighbors who may have sought to borrow such items but were told by the tzar ayin that he hadn’t any, that the reality was otherwise.

And, finally, the hint the Gemara (Arachin [Erechin] 16a) sees as identifying tzarus ayin as the cause of the negaim is the phrase “and the one to whom the house belongs should come…” (Vayikra, 14:35).  The Torah is conveying that the homeowner’s perception of his house and other possessions – the idea that they are actually his – is what the nega is meant to explode.  In the Kli Yakar’s elaboration:

“The reason Hashem gave him an inheritance, a home full of good things, was to test him, to see if he would use his possessions to do good for others as well… for all that a person gives to others is not of his own, but rather from what the ‘Heavenly table’ has provided him…”

There are few, if any, communities as committed to tzedakah as ours.  The amount of charity that Orthodox Jews donate to help others is truly astounding.  Might there, though, still be room for improvement in our recognition of “whose house” it is?

Chazal created a specific vehicle for us to reflect on the reality that we aren’t the owners of what we tend to think is “ours”: birchos hanehenin – the blessings we recite before eating, drinking, or smelling fragrant spices, bark or flowers.

Such brachos state that what we are about to enjoy is a gift, not a birthright.  As the Gemara notes (Brachos 35a), the passuk that says that “To Hashem is the earth and all it contains” (Tehillim, 24:1) does not contradict the one that says “And the earth He gave to human beings” (Tehillim 115:16): “One [verse] is [referring to] before the brachah [is recited]; the other, after the brachah.”  Once we acknowledge the gift, recognizing that it wasn’t truly “ours”, we are permitted to enjoy it as if it were ours.

The impact of that truth only happens, though, when we think of what we’re saying. If we, for instance, pronounce the nine simple words meant to thank Hashem for the beauty, tastiness and nourishment of an apple as a string of slurred semi-words (the first three as “buchatanoi”), taking two seconds rather than the five or six needed to actually say all the words clearly and focus on their meaning, we’re missing the point.

It’s an occupational hazard of observance, of course, to become so accustomed to a tefillah or brachah that we don’t give it the attention it requires.  It’s what the Navi Yeshayahu describes as mitzvas anoshim melumadah (29:13), rote observance of mitzvos.   But occupational hazards are hazards all the same; and just as the construction worker needs to secure his helmet, we need to secure our mindfulness when saying the words that permit us to partake of blessings.

There’s irony in the fact that as materially blessed a generation as ours may need a renewed focus on brachos.  But we would do well to emulate true talmidei chachamim and nashim tzidkaniyos (and baalei teshuvah), who manage to rout rote.

The little “MY kitchen!” girl has a family of her own today.  She is not only a paragon of politeness but an inspiring, delightful parent.  She and her wonderful husband teach their children – as, with her innocent bluntness decades ago, she taught her parents – just Whose kitchen it really is.

© 2016 Hamodia

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winner

And The Winner Is…

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“Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser,” the famous, and famously blunt, General George S. Patton declared in a 1944 speech.  “When you were kids,” he explained, “you all admired the champion marble shooter, the fastest runner, the big league ball players, the toughest boxers.”

A few years later, UCLA Bruins football coach Henry Russell (“Red”) Sanders effectively concurred with the general.  “Winning isn’t everything,” the coach told his charges, pausing a moment for effect, “It’s the only thing.”

Fast-forward to today, when presidential candidates seem tireless in trumpeting victories and portraying themselves as winners.

It’s not just wishful thinking that impels coaches and politicians to promote their winning ways. They know there is practical value in that self-portrayal.  Namely, the “bandwagon effect” – the fact that winners tend, by their very victories, to pick up fans.

And indeed, while correlation isn’t causation, Donald Trump’s popularity seems to have risen at about the rate at which he has labeled himself a winner, and other people losers (among them an 87-year-old woman who sued him over a real estate venture, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer and Senator John McCain).

Politics, though, are just politics.  And sports are only sports.  There is, though, also these days a very different example of the allure exerted by “winning teams.”  That pull, unfortunately powers not only mundane enterprises but some of the darkest evils that humanity (using the word in its broadest sense) has to offer.

There’s no doubt that Islamist groups whose members exult in killing and maiming men, women and children who pose them no threat are manifestations of what is implied by pereh adam: utter barbarism.  Terrorists revel in violence for violence’s sake.

But the mayhem that such groups spawn and celebrate also serves to garner them new recruits.  It might seem confounding to civilized people that terrorists’ carnage advances their recruitment goals.  Sadly, though, it does.

“My brothers,” enticed a French-language social media message sent to young people’s phones in the immediate wake of the recent terror attacks in Brussels, “why not join us in the fight against the Westerners, make good choices in your life?” Don’t you see, the message seems to be saying, how successful we’ve been?

To be sure, psychological frailty, vulnerability to radical politics or theologies and even boredom play parts in leading some young Westerners to join barbarous organizations.  But those who study terrorism confirm another factor in those decisions: a perception of the sociopaths as “winners” in some malignant Monopoly game, in which the board pieces are human beings and the currency is destroyed lives.

Through would-be recruits’ loony lenses, the civilized world, by virtue of its inability to eradicate the evil players, would seem to be a “loser.”  The crowded bandwagon these days is the wicked one.

There is no word for “winner” or “loser” in Tanach.   To be sure, there are advances and retreats, as when Yisrael is “gavar” – gains the upper hand – and when, chalilah, Amalek does; and military gains and defeats.  But the word we use in Hebrew for victory, “nitzachon,” seems to date only from later times.

In fact, the closest nitzachon-relative in Tanach, used repeatedly in Tehillim, is menatzeiach, as in “lamenatzeiach,” where it means “leader” or “conductor.”  The implication of the word isn’t power or victory, but, rather, example-setting and facilitating.

Maybe that’s a lesson about how to understand true success.  Yes, there are indeed enemies to be fought, like those who threaten innocents today.  And even an irredeemably evil one, Amalek, to be utterly destroyed in the future.  But, here and now, our success lies in our being the best specimens of a tzelem Elokim we can be: not “winners” in any temporal contest but examples of dedicated service to Hashem.

As to the “loser” called civilization, it in fact cannot effectively prevent people bent on murder from acting on their evil urges.  But an eventual vanquishing of all evil does, nevertheless, await, ready to arrive with the geula shleima, may it be soon.

There will then be a true nitzachon over evil, exemplified in what the Navi Yeshayahu (11:9) foresees and relates in Hashem’s name: “They will not harm nor destroy in all My holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of Hashem, as the waters cover the sea.”

That victory may still lie in the future, but it will be an ultimate, permanent one.  The root of nitzachon, after all, is netzach.

© 2016 Hamodia

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too loud

Hear Me Out

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You probably know that when a person loses some hearing, it can never be recovered.

But did you know that 10 million Americans suffer noise-induced hearing loss?  Or that exposure to some common sounds, even for limited periods of time, can cause permanent hearing damage?

Loud sounds damage microscopic hair cells, known as stereocilia, that line the ear, leading, in time, to the need to use hearing aids.

Uninterested?  Stay with me, please.  This is going somewhere important.

According to the World Health Organization, 15 minutes of 100 decibel noise is considered unsafe.

The music of an average chasunah band registers at approximately 110 decibels – with many bands considerably, even greatly, exceeding that.

In fact, professional musicians are almost four times more likely to suffer noise-induced hearing loss than other people, according to researchers who analyzed health insurance records of 7 million people from 2004 to 2008.

The professionals were also about 57 percent more likely to suffer tinnitus – constant ringing in the ears.

Musicians have learned the hard way about the damage they cause to themselves, and that is why one sees many musicians wearing earplugs when they perform.

Baruch Hashem, multiple chasunos take place every night when halachah permits.  The community has grown, and so has the number of simchos it celebrates.  But there is a hidden cost to those celebrations: future hearing loss to the celebrants.  Especially children who are present, as a child’s ears are more sensitive than those of adults to sound.

Published research yields the fact that about 12.5 percent of American children between the ages of 6 and 19 have measurable noise-induced hearing loss in one or both ears.  And the average American child is probably not as often exposed to loud music as are siblings of chassanim and kallos.

There’s no escaping the fact: When we attend simchos that feature loud bands, we are injuring ourselves; and, if they are with us, our children.

Many people innately sense that fact, even if they are unaware of the science or statistics. They just feel discomfort or pain in their ears at celebrations.   One increasingly sees chasunah attendees who had the prudence to bring earplugs, and who quickly put them in place as soon as the band strikes up.  And others who, in pain, run out into the lobby to escape their audio-rodef.

Can anything be done about this hidden danger?  Of course.  We just need the will and foresight to do it.

My wife and I, baruch Hashem, have had the good fortune to walk most of our children to the chuppah.  At every chasunah but one (where the mechutanim’s good friend, a band leader, supplied the music), there was a one-man band, in which circumstance the volume of the music is more easily controlled – and control it the band-man did, as per the instructions he received.

I have attended many chasunos with any number of band members, and can attest to the fact that the simchah felt and expressed by the guests at our chasunos was in no way less enthusiastic than at any multi-instrumented affair.  Or any louder one.

Band leaders will tell you that their parnassah is dependent, indirectly, on the loud volume of their musical offerings.  Friends of the chasson and kallah, they claim, insist on louder music, “to get them going.”  And those friends will, b’ezras Hashem, be celebrating their own marriages one day, and will surely hire only the loudest bands.

If that is true, then the chasson and kallah in those cases are, sadly, bereft of true friends, who would not need their eardrums overstimulated to celebrate their friends’ marriages.  Music should aid the simchah; it is not what creates it.

So, when you are next planning to walk your child to the chuppah, consider doing one of two things:

Distributing earplugs to all guests as they sit down to the seudah.

Or stipulating to the band person or leader, when he is hired, that he will only be compensated for his great and appreciated efforts and talent if the music is kept to whatever decibel level you decide is safe for your guests. (Someone with the ability to download a decibel-measuring app to a phone can aid you here.)

You’ll be doing your part not only to make the simchah more enjoyable to the majority of the guests, but to help ensure that when the chosson, kallah and their friends are walking their own children to the chuppah, they won’t be wearing hearing aids.

© 2016 Hamodia

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