Exhibit A: Us

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It’s not his name but I’ll call him Yochanan, after R. Yochanan ben Zakkai, who, the Gemara tells us (Berachos 17a), was first to greet anyone, Jew or not, he passed in the street.

Yochanan and his wife – we’ll call them the Sterlings – have long used the services of a car repair shop run by an Egyptian Coptic Christian.  We’ll call him Samir. Another of Samir’s customers is Pinchas.

Pinchas related to me last week that he was at Samir’s repair shop recently and that Samir asked him if he knew Yochanan and his wife.  He did, he said, quite well.  And then Samir spent the next ten minutes singing the Sterlings’ praises.  They always smile at him, he related proudly, and ask him about how things are going with his business.  They never argue over charges.  They show an interest in him and make him feel valued.  “Some Jews I don’t like,” he admitted to Pinchas, “but people like them are the real deal.”

Coptic Christians, although they are Arabs, have been attacked repeatedly and savagely by Islamic radicals in recent years; many have been viciously murdered.  So Jews and Copts today share a common enemy. But Eastern Orthodox Churches like the Coptic one have their own long histories of Jew-hatred, and it persists today among many in contemporary Eastern Orthodox communities.

Samir, though, despite his religious background, is enamored of Jews, at least Jews like the Sterlings (and, I suspect, Pinchas).  He has no choice but to accept the evidence of his senses.

And yet, according to Google, the most asked question about Jews is why they are “so rude.”

We don’t have Nevi’im today; and if we did, Google would not be among them.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t, or shouldn’t, take to heart the yield of its logarithm.  To be sure, some of the belief that Jews (and that likely means “identifiably Jewish” Jews) are less than friendly surely emerges from dark places, from hearts polluted with senseless Jew-hatred.  But some of it, too, likely comes from us.

Not that we’re, chalilah, intentionally impolite.  But, unlike in centuries past, we live in open societies these days, and the sort of laying low and ignoring those around us that were sensible staples of Jewish life in other lands and times strike some of our non-Jewish (or Jewish but less observant) fellow citizens as aloofness and off-putting.

We have no choice but to face the fact that each of us today is a walking Jewish billboard, an advertisement for Torah.  A case can even be made that the Gemara’s admonition that a talmid chacham must act in an exemplary fashion at all times applies today, when most Jews are estranged from Torah, to all of us, learned or not, who embrace the Jewish mesorah.

That means, of course, eschewing not only rudeness but even the appearance of the same.  When entering a building or room, holding a door open for someone behind you isn’t a big deal to do, but it can be quite a big deal for the person behind you.

When facing a cashier (no less a human being, no matter how grumpy, pierced or tattooed, than any other one), a sincere “thank you” is in order.

And when driving, signaling one’s turns and lane-switches, not shooting into traffic and not double parking when it impedes others are signs of simple civility. And unless all your car windows are heavily tinted, you can rest assured that anyone you cut off or tailgate will take note of your appearance and draw the indicated conclusions.

Then there is the thing that won’t take any toll on anyone’s time, doesn’t cost anything and is easily within the reach of us all: the sever panim yafos, or smiling countenance, of Avos 1:15. We are to greet, in the Mishnah’s words, “every human” with it.  It involves eye-contact and a smile – a sincere one, acknowledging the humanity of the other.  That is an imperative in its own right, the proper conduct, according to Chazal, of a Jew.  But it also serves an auxiliary purpose, and it’s not a small one.

Last week, I noted the Rambam’s guide to attaining ahavas Hashem, contemplating the wonder of the world around us.  Chazal also tell us, though, that the mitzvah has another dimension: that we act “so that the name of Hashem is beloved through your hand” (Yoma 86a).

That might seem like a difficult thing, but it’s really not.

Just spend some time with Samir.

© 2015 Hamodia

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Clear Lens, Clear Image

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 I hadn’t planned to awaken at 3 a.m. on Wednesday night, even though it was the peak time for catching sight of meteors – commonly called “shooting stars” – born of the earth’s yearly passage through the trail of Comet Swift-Tuttle.

But awaken I did, and so I decided to go out on the deck to scan the sky for evidence of what is called the Perseid meteor shower.  My wife had never seen a meteor, and so I woke her up, thinking she’d want to join me.  (Thankfully, I was right.)  And baruch Hashem, we spied a couple of the ephemeral streaks of light in the relatively dark Staten Island sky, and recited the brachah of oseh maaseh bereishis.

Not everyone finds such things exciting; many people find amusement parks, performances or miniature golf more to their liking.

That’s unfortunate, I think.  Firstly, because nature is really so much more of a thrill.  Watching a caterpillar weave a cocoon or the butterfly it turns into leave the structure; witnessing a spider spinning its web; planting a seed and observing it as it grows into a plant; staring at even a comet-less night sky and contemplating the unimaginable distances of the suns one is viewing – all such astounding realities are more viscerally compelling than anything man-made.

Secondly, though, and more ultimately important, the thrills that nature offers us pave a path from mindlessness toward a most important mitzvah: ahavas Hashem.

At least, that’s what the Rambam states in Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah (2:2):

“And what is the way toward love of Hashem and fear of Him?  When a person contemplates [Hashem’s] great and wondrous acts and creations, and perceives in them His indescribable and infinite wisdom, he immediately loves and praises and extols and experiences a great desire to know Hashem…”

Yet, in the Sefer Hamitzvos (Mitzvas Aseh 3), the Rambam seems to take a different tack:

“…we should think about and contemplate His mitzvos and statements and actions, until we attain [an understanding of] Him, and experience an ultimate pleasure in that attainment…”

So, is “the way toward love of Hashem” to contemplate His universe, or His mitzvos?

The two seemingly different approaches to the mitzvah of  ahavas Hashem may not be what they seem.  As Rav Mordechai Gifter, zt”l, explained it, one might be describing the lens; the other, the view.  Rav Mordechai Pogramansky, zt”l, invoked a mashal:

A visitor to a city is shown a series of beautiful works of art in a museum but reacts to each with disdain, claiming to see only messy canvases.  Finally, a member of his entourage hits upon the idea of cleaning the fellow’s eyeglasses.  The visitor is subsequently deeply impressed by the art.

Before one can perceive Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s grandeur in the astounding magnificence of His creation – which path leads to love of its Source – one must first approach Creation as something other than an accident, as something containing meaning.  And the way to attain that foundational, vital recognition is to understand the concept of… mitzvos.

Because doing so impresses on us the idea of right and wrong, forces us to confront a choice: to view our lives as meaningless or as a mandate.  And if they are a mandate, there must be a Mandator.

Then, through that clear lens, one can truly see, and appreciate, to the extent a mortal can, the unfathomable wisdom inherent in the wondrous world around us.

It’s unfortunate that “science,” as the word has come to be used, has become the perceived enemy of emunah.  In truth, though, it is Scientism – the conviction that nature is all that there is, and that the wonder it engenders has no further point – that stands in opposition to the truism that Creation has a Creator.

Genuine science, though, the Divine implication-sensitive observation of the world around us, and of the worlds light-years (both literally and figuratively) beyond our ken, is a key to the deepest, most genuine feeling a human being can attain.

When, thrice daily, we declare that Hashem satisfies “all living things” with their needs, there is no comparison between just comprehending the simple meaning of the words and pronouncing them with keen awareness of the number of distinct species on earth (10 million on land, and another estimated 20 million marine microbial organisms) and the astounding intricacy of the way they all are provided their species-specific nourishment.

Reciting Ashrei can lead one to“…immediately love and praise and extol and experience a great desire to know Hashem…”

© 2015 Hamodia

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Be Alarmed

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Back in 2007, at just about this exact time of year, a priest in the Netherlands city of Tilburg was fined the equivalent of several thousand dollars for ringing his church’s bells early each morning. Local residents, it seemed, were not amused.

That very week, though, shuls around the world were sounding an early morning alarm of their own, as they will be doing soon enough this year.  No complaints were reported in Jewish communities then, or are expected to be registered this year, about Elul’s daily tekias shofar.

The Rambam famously described the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah as a wake-up call – bearing the unspoken but urgent message “Uru yisheinim mishinaschem”— “Awaken, sleepers, from your slumber.”   The slumber, he went on to explain, is our floundering in the “meaningless distractions of the temporal world” we occupy.

No doubt, the shofar sounds we hear throughout Elul carry that message no less, calling on us to refocus on what alone is meaningful in life: serving the Boreh Olam.

Elul.  As old Eastern European Yiddish sayings go, the observation that, in Elul, “even the fish in the river tremble” is particularly evocative.

The image of piscine panic is meant to evoke the atmosphere of our hurtling toward the Yemei Hadin.  And, in fact, the weeks before Rosh Hashanah are infused with a certain seriousness, even nervousness, born of a sharpened cognizance of the fact that the world will soon be judged; and of the guilt that those of us who are not perfectly righteous – that would be all of us – rightly feel.

Sleeping through a physical alarm clock is always a temptation, and a danger. And even if the sound registers, we are all too easily drawn to hit the snooze button on the spiritual timepiece, busy as we are with all the “important” issues and diversions that take over our lives.

Sometimes, though, some of us wake up even before our alarm clocks go off.  It’s nice to get a sort of head start on full consciousness, so that we’re not terribly shocked when the beeping intrudes upon our sleep, insisting against all reason that the night is already over.

It may still be Av when you read these words, but there’s nothing wrong – and perhaps, in these particularly unsettled and challenging days, everything right – with getting a head start on Elul, with beginning to wake ourselves up even before Rosh Chodesh.  Just as Elul’s tekios are there to remind us of Tishrei, it’s ideal to discern the ethereal clock’s ticking during the month prior.

Hamodia’s Rabbi Hershel Steinberg recently related to me something the Pnei Menachem, zt”l, told him in the name of his father, the Imrei Emes, zt”l.  The Gemara in Brachos (61a) quotes Rabbi Yochanan as stating that it is better for a man to walk “behind a lion than behind a woman.”  The Imrei Emes perceived a deeper meaning beyond the straightforward one. “It is better to begin doing teshuvah during the month of Av, whose mazal is a lion (Leo),” he said, “than to wait until Elul, whose mazal is a woman (Virgo).”

At a family simchah last week in a shul hall, some of the celebrants held a minyan for Maariv.  While I was in the middle of Shemoneh Esrei, I felt a tug on my pants leg. I lifted one of my closed eyelids slightly to see that it wasn’t a snake or scorpion but rather one of my (utterly adorable, needless to say) grandchildren, a little blue-eyed girl of three.  She wasn’t in any danger or distress; she just wanted my attention.  I tried to keep it, though, on my tefillah.   There would be ample time to reassure her of my love for her after davening.

Before she gave up her quest, though, and decided her cousins were more fun than I was being, she gave it one last try and I heard her little voice implore: “Zaidy!  Wake up, Zaidy!”

I had to pause a moment at so delightful an “einekel moment.”

Now, however, thinking about Elul, even with Rosh Chodesh still a few days off, I wonder if there might not have been a more serious, if unintended, message for me in her words.

© 2015 Hamodia

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Say It Ain’t So, Mike

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In 1990, attorney Mike Godwin introduced what became known as “Godwin’s Law,” the contention that if an electronic discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on for long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone to Hitler, ym”s.

Philosopher Leo Strauss referenced something similar back in 1951, coining the means of argument that compares an opponent’s view to that of Hitler as “reductio ad Hitlerum.

Over recent weeks some critics of the U.S. administration have characterized its approach to curbing Iran’s nuclear weapons as dangerous appeasement, and President Obama as a reincarnation of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who famously crowed that the 1938 Munich Agreement with Germany heralded “peace for our time.”  Less than a year later, of course, Germany would invade Poland and Europe would be plunged into World War II.

Needless to say, even for those among us who consider the Iran deal ill-advised, there is a considerable gulf between proudly waving a piece of paper as proof of an evil man’s good will and an arduously crafted and enforceable agreement requiring an evil regime’s submission to intrusive inspections and monitoring.

But, inflated though it was, the Obama-Chamberlain comparison was one thing.

Another thing entirely was Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee’s contention last week that President Obama was marching Israelis “to the door of the oven.”  The candidate – no other way to read it – was calling the president a Nazi.

I have personally always found Mr. Huckabee’s voice to be a refreshing one in the political arena.  On moral and educational issues, the former Arkansas governor and Southern Baptist minister generally reflects ideals valued by most religious Jews.  He has visited Israel numerous times. And he has a sense of humor (very important in my book), as evident in his naming the musical band he formed, “Capitol Offense.”

But his Iran deal comment was grotesque.

To be sure, the designs of Iran’s leaders today can certainly be compared to those of Germany’s 77 years ago.  That doesn’t, however, make anyone who wants to thwart Iran’s nuclear weapon dreams without declaring war a Hitler.

Criticism of Mr. Huckabee’s words drew fire not only from Democratic politicians but from nonpartisan groups like the ADL, and from Israeli officials.  Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, called the comment inappropriate and Israeli Transport Minister Yisrael Katz, while stressing that Mr. Huckabee was “genuinely concerned” with Israel’s future,  said: “Dear Mr. Huckabee, no one is marching Jews to the ovens anymore.”

Mr. Katz’s chiding, however, came from a brash Zionist place, evident from his further words: “That is why we established the State of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces; and if necessary, we will know how to defend ourselves by ourselves.”

To those of us familiar with the phrase kochi v’otzem yadi, such braggadocio is saddening. In this case, though, it’s also entirely beside the point.  What was offensive about Mr. Huckabee’s words wasn’t their insinuation that Israel is helpless; it was the vulgarity of the comment itself.

To wax meta, the comment is itself a comment – on the state of political discourse in the United States today.  Yes, there has always been a measure of rudeness in political partisanship, a small serving of snark in the way politicians and their fans refer to other politicians and theirs.

But there once was some degree of dignity that reined in excess when it came to political speech.  No more, though.  Decorum has left the building.

Part of the blame, of course, is the media.  Not just talk radio and other electronic forms of verbal blood sport.  But print media too, which seem to endorse not only “If it bleeds, it leads,” but “If it’s hating, it’s a high rating.”

And so, politicians eager for attention vie to outdo each other (and in Mr. Trump’s case, to outdo himself) in outrageousness, hoping to seize the news cycle for a day, or even a few hours. That all the shameful showboating seems to garner increased support says something about at least part of the contemporary electorate, and it’s not pretty.

What’s even more disturbing, though, is that even Jews are drawn into the jeering crowd around the boxing ring.

“The response from Jewish people,” Mr. Huckabee said as the criticism of his “oven” remark swirled around him, “has been overwhelming positive.”  How overwhelmingly sad.

There’s hope, though.  Later, the candidate admitted that, “Maybe the metaphor [of the oven] is not a good one.”

If he continues on that more thoughtful track, he may yet win back his dignity.  And who knows?  Maybe it will even prove contagious.

© 2015 Hamodia

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Spaced Out

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“Are we alone?” asked the oversized headline of a full page ad in the New York Times last Tuesday.  “Now is the time to find out,” it answered itself.

The open letter that followed was signed by Russian-Jewish entrepreneur and venture capitalist Yuri Milner and more than a score of astronomers and other scientists.  The gist of the missive was that humanity has an obligation to launch “a large-scale international effort to find life in the Universe” – presumably life other than the sort we know here on earth.  “As a civilization,” it continued, “we owe it to ourselves to commit time, resources, and passion to this quest.”

Among the resources, as a news story in the same paper and many others that very day explained, will be $100 million dollars of Mr. Milner’s fortune over the next decade.

Parochial a person as I am, I couldn’t help but think about what greater good – at least in my scheme of things –  so large a bag of dollars could do, how many yeshivos, Bais Yaakovs and kollelim it could pull back from fiscal cliffs, how many chessed groups it could fund, how many impoverished Jews it could rescue from hardship.

But even from the perspective of a less sectarian observer, wouldn’t a hundred million (yes, yes, I know, $100 million isn’t what it used to be, but still) be better put to terrestrial use?

After all, another Jewish boy who did well for himself, social network creator and billionaire Mark Zuckerberg, has bankrolled schools and hospitals in the U.S. and technological advances in the developing world. And Tesla founder and PayPal co-founder Elon Musk (whose maternal ancestry is not clear) created a foundation dedicated to providing solar-power energy systems in disaster areas.

And Bill Gates (Jewish only in the eyes of some anti-Semites, but he looks Jewish) has had astonishing success battling river blindness and other infectious diseases that afflict the world’s poor.

And George Soros… – well, okay, scratch that one.

One has to acknowledge the good in some billionaires’ dedication to the alleviation of poverty, illiteracy and disease. Seeking to decrease human suffering is a noble goal.  Casting about in the cosmos in the hope of finding other species, though… not so much.

Don’t get me wrong.  I have nothing against making the effort, as SETI (the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) has been doing (fruitlessly, it must be added) for decades.  But to the tune of $100 million dollars that could do so much actual good on this planet?  Mr. Milner shouldn’t expect a check from me.

What interests me here, though, isn’t the quest itself to seek intelligent life out there but rather just what it is that motivates accomplished men and women like Mr. Milner and those who signed on to his letter to pursue that quest.

On one level, I suspect that they, or at least some of them, may be whistling intellectually past the beis olam, so to speak, seeking reassurance that we humans are really not so special, and thus that we have no higher purpose than to serve ourselves (and, of course, explore the cosmos).

As Professor Stephen Hawking – one of the letter’s signatories and who in a 2011 interview asserted that the idea of an afterlife is a “fairy story for people afraid of the dark” – confidently proclaimed: “We believe that life arose spontaneously on Earth, so in an infinite universe there must be other occurrences of life.”

(A number of which civilizations, it might be presumed, have developed technologically well beyond where we are today and have been searching for us too, although we haven’t gotten the call.  Oh, never mind.)

But something else occurs, too, a more generous thought.  Maybe the compulsion to find intelligence outside our world is an expression – well disguised but present all the same – of a desire to find ultimate meaning to life.

Maybe, in other words, some of the alien-searchers have done what they could to paint over the innate human sense of the Divine, but have found that even the several coats of paint haven’t entirely obscured the sense that there is something more than this world. So they pursue extraterrestrials they imagine to reside in some faraway galaxy.

If enough of the paint chips away, they may yet come to realize that they were wrong but they were right.  Wrong about the little green men, but right that we are not alone.

We have a Creator and a purpose.

© 2015 Hamodia

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A Worthy, Timely Truth

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It’s intriguing – to be truthful, depressing – that as we prepare to focus on our galus and its causes we in the Orthodox world are witnessing acrimony born of true chinom, nothingness.

The sort of sentiments and language that are regularly being employed by opponents of the Iran agreement against anyone who isn’t convinced that it is “evil” or “insane” or “dangerous” is deeply wrong.  (Maybe there is corresponding rashness from the deal’s supporters.  I just haven’t encountered any.)

What seems lost on some is the fact that the issue isn’t “Israel’s security” against (take your pick:) “America’s needs” or “Obama’s worldview” or “hopeless naiveté.”  It is “Israel’s security” against “Israel’s security.”

That is to say, whether Israel’s security, along with that of the rest of the free world, is better served by an imperfect agreement (as all agreements must be) or by no agreement.  Reasonable, sane, and not evil people can disagree with that.  But they cannot – or, at least, should not – heatedly denounce those who see things differently from themselves just because… they see things differently from themselves.  That is chinom.

The Gemara teaches that “just as people’s faces all differ, so do their attitudes.”  The Kotzker is said to have commented on that truth with a question: “Can you imagine disdaining someone because his face doesn’t resemble yours?”

Think about that.  It contains a worthy, and timely, truth.

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Devils and Details

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Mere minutes after last Tuesday’s announcement of the nuclear deal struck with Iran – well before anyone could possibly have read its 159 dense pages of highly technical details – the usual suspects were busy weighing in.

Organizations, leaders and politicians with long-standing animus toward President Obama extended their hostility to the deal, which they characterized as a spineless capitulation to a rogue regime.  And knee-jerk defenders of Mr. Obama (a group that some imagine includes me, but doesn’t) heralded the agreement as the best thing since bagels.

Over ensuing days, open-minded observers waited patiently until experts had had a chance to carefully absorb the agreement’s terms and render their judgments. Alas, unanimity there wasn’t.

Some found the inspections regimen less than ideal, the sanctions phase-out too lenient, the preservation of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure too frightening, the term of the agreement too short.  They warned of how the economic impact of the sanctions’ lifting will allow Iran to finance its non-nuclear murderous mischief throughout the Middle East; and wondered how a nation whose leaders have never paid any homage to honesty can be trusted to not cheat on its pledges.

Others sang the praises of Iran’s agreement to convert its infamous and impervious Fordo uranium enrichment facility, buried deep underground, into a closely monitored research lab; the requirement that Iran dilute or convert its stockpile of near 20% uranium so that it cannot be enriched to the 90% level required for a nuclear weapon; its agreement to render inoperable over two-thirds of the 19,000 centrifuges it has installed; the requirement that the country’s stockpile of uranium gas be reduced from some 10,000 kilograms to 300; its commitment to not enrich any uranium above 3.67 percent; and the disabling of the Arak facility from producing plutonium.

Other elements of the agreement were less open to simple judgments of “good” or “bad.”  Happily, inspectors will be tracking Iran’s uranium from the time it is mined to ensure that it is not enriched beyond the agreement’s terms; and fiber-optic seals, sensors and cameras will be keeping constant tabs on every known nuclear facility; all such sites and their inventories will be closely monitored by inspectors.  The movements of scientists and nuclear workers, moreover, will be tracked.   And the deal also gives inspectors the right to visit any other suspicious sites “anywhere in the country.”  But it also gives Iran 24 days to comply with such special requests.

Iran, indeed, could cheat.  But doing so would require the building of a covert enrichment plant, the secret procurement of uranium and centrifuges and, even more improbably, the transfer of scientists from known facilities to the covert one, despite the ongoing monitoring of the personnel’s movements.

To some, that is reassurance enough.  Others, including Israeli leaders, are less sanguine, to put it mildly.

“You have a large country, with a significant military,” President Obama himself averred about Iran last Wednesday, “that has proclaimed that Israel shouldn’t exist, that has denied the Holocaust, that has financed Hezbollah.  There are very good reasons why Israelis are nervous about Iran’s position in the world…”

But, the President contends – and it is a contention worth pondering – that the alternative, namely no deal, would be worse.  Sanctions, after all, have not prevented Iran from increasing its 164 spinning centrifuges in 2006 to its current 19,000.  It doesn’t take a nuclear rocket scientist to imagine what the mullahs would choose to do in the absence of an agreement.

It was always a wishful fancy that a “good deal” would mean the end of all Iranian nuclear activity.  No country has ever been forced to forgo nuclear development for medical or energy purposes.  The notion that the current hubristic leadership of Iran would, even under continued sanctions pressure, ever accept that humiliating “first” status made for a lovely dream, but a dream it was.

By definition, a deal means a compromise.  The U.S and its allies would have loved to end Iran’s nuclear program altogether, entirely and forever.  Iran would have loved to maintain its headlong rush to develop, and use, nuclear weapons.  Those, though, were necessarily starting positions, not some goals in a zero-sum game.  In the end, the evil player saved some face and won a pile of money.  The good one got up to 10, 15 or 25 years (depending on the provision; and, for some provisions, even longer) of likely effective prevention of the malignant entity’s malevolent designs.

Bad deal?  Maybe, maybe not.  But, as the numerous tragedies associated with Tisha B’Av demonstrate, it’s certainly a bad world.

With our mitzvos, though, and our tefillos and our mourning of our galus, we can change that, and merit the Geulah Shleimah. May it arrive quickly.

© 2015 Hamodia

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Faigy Mayer, o”h

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The loss of Faigy Mayer, oleha hashalom, a precious soul, is a stab to the heart of every caring Jew.  Faigy will be on the minds of many of us this Tisha B’Av as a personal calamity to add to the national ones commemorated on the Jewish day of mourning.

By her own account, Faigy faced deep internal adversity from her early youth, and a letter she left, read carefully, only corroborates the clouded lens through which she viewed her environment.  To blame her death, as some seem anxious to do, on the community into which she was born and that sought to nurture her is as repugnant as would be blaming the community she subsequently joined.

Her psychological challenges were not the result of her leaving her home and community, but arguably a cause of it.

The only takeaway from this horrible loss is the need to de-stigmatize mental illness – in all communities – and to realize the tragedies that, if left untreated, it can bring about.

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