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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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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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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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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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The Evidence in the Barrel

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Back in a previous lifetime, when I was a mesivta rebbe, I once heard a menahel exhort our talmidim to not get carried away on Purim.  As an illustration, he described how a certain Gadol on Purim simply went into his backyard and swung back and forth on a children’s swing.  The implication was that the Gadol hadn’t imbibed much.  I wasn’t so sure, myself. Ad d’lo yoda can express itself in different ways.

One thing is certain.  Kedoshim u’tehorim on Purim, unleashed from the constraints of full daas,  are more often seen singing and dancing spiritedly, even wildly, sharing divrei Torah and divrei sod that one might not ever hear from them the rest of the year.

Needless to say, and unfortunately, some who are less kadosh or tahor can overindulge on Purim and come to act very differently.  They may imbibe stronger things than wine (the preferred mitzvah) in excess, even to the degree of actually endangering themselves.  That is nothing short of a horrific Purim mask, an aveirah in the guise of a mitzvah.

But when the mitzvah is done right, though, even if the results are something more… well, dynamic than a placid visit to a backyard swing, something important about Klal Yisrael can be revealed.  After all, Rabi Iloi (Eruvin 65b) tells us that one way a person’s essence can be discerned is “in his cup,” in his behavior when inebriated.

Something so important, in fact, that I once witnessed a Purim celebration causing an Italian cook at a yeshivah where I once taught to investigate geirus.  By her admission, she told me that, over the years, she “had seen many people very drunk, but never so many people so drunk – without any fighting.”  All she saw was celebration, friendship, good humor and happiness, and that, she said, had impressed her beyond words.  (She was nevertheless dissuaded from her geirus plan.)

Chazal teach us (Shabbos, 88a) that something was lacking at Mattan Torah, and the lack only remedied centuries later in the Persian Empire.

Rav Avdimi bar Chama bar Chassa tells us there that “Hashem held the mountain over the Jews’ heads like a gigis [a barrel]” to force them to accept the Torah.  One approach to that statement is that it refers to the experience of being directly addressed by the Borei Olam.  Receiving direct communication from Hashem was so overwhelming, so traumatic, so crushing – after all, it caused our ancestors’ souls to leave them, and brought them to beg Moshe to be the only one to directly receive the final eight dibros – that it simply left no other choice but to accept His mission.

Experiencing the Divine fully does not leave one with truly free will to say “no.”

Rabbah comments that the “coercion” remained a remonstration against Klal Yisrael, that it colored our acceptance of the Torah as less than willful – until the “days of Achashverosh.”

For it was then that the Jews chose, entirely of their own volition, to perceive Hashem’s presence where there was no “mountain” held over their heads, where it was not only not overwhelming but not even obvious.  Our ancestors chose to see Divine Providence in seemingly mundane, if alarming, political happenings, took the events to heart as a message from Above, and responded with tefillah, taanis and teshuvah.  Thus, kiymu mah shekiblu kvar, they “completed” Mattan Torah, supplied what had been missing. The nation truly perceived Hashem, not only in thunder and lightning but in words inscribed on parchment and in a signet ring removed from a royal hand.

Moving back to what is revealed when Yidden have a proper simchas Purim, I’ve often wondered about Rav Avdimi’s strange choice of imagery. “Holding the mountain over their heads like a barrel.”  Wouldn’t a mountain looming above be galvanizing enough?  What’s with the barrel?

A gigis, however, throughout the Gemara, is a container for an intoxicating beverage.  Chazal’s description of the implement of coercion at Har Sinai, in other words, is a beer-barrel.

Rabi Meir in Pirkei Avos (4:20) admonishes us not “to look at the container, but at what it holds.” It wouldn’t seem outlandish to perceive some pertinence of that admonition to the gigis to which Har Sinai is compared. Or, in turn, to Purim, when wine allows the essence of Klal Yisrael, our truest nature, to be revealed.

Don’t dwell, Rabi Meir may be saying, on our compromised acceptance of Hashem at Har Sinai in a state of coercion, but rather at our wholehearted, free-willed embrace of Him in our states of mindless purity.

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Golden Silence

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The mother was understandably concerned.  Her first-grader was a sociable, talkative little girl, and so her teacher’s phone call was certainly disturbing.

This is a true story and took place mere weeks ago in an “out-of-town” community.  The teacher, who called just after school had adjourned, recounted how “Leah,” six years old, had seemed ill at ease the entire afternoon.  In the morning all had seemed well.  But later in the day, although Leah seemed attentive, she was uncharacteristically quiet.  So quiet, indeed, the teacher said, that her little student wouldn’t even respond to questions or as much as open her mouth in class.  That was very unusual.

Leah’s mother, herself a long-time teacher and someone who, along with her kollelman husband, had wonderfully guided their older children through early childhood, had never before received such a phone call.  She was worried, but knew she couldn’t substantively respond to the report before seeing and speaking to Leah herself, and so, with her little one expected home any minute, she thanked the teacher for the “heads up,” and waited for Leah’s arrival.

The teacher, it turned out, had not been imagining things.  Leah walked into the house silently, and just retired to the couch, looking uncomfortable.  She wouldn’t respond to her mother’s “How was school?” or her subsequent “Is everything alright?”

“If you don’t want to tell me what’s wrong” her wise and gentle mother whispered to her daughter, a precocious child who, even at her tender age, can write full sentences, “Can you write down what’s bothering you?”  Leah nodded yes.

Pencil and paper in hand, the girl scribbled away.  At lunchtime, she wrote out, she had washed her hands and made the brachah for netilas yadayim.  But, then, when she went to her lunchbox, the sandwich she had expected to be there wasn’t!  So, she explained, she wasn’t able to speak.

The first feeling that washed over her mother, as one might expect, was relief.  Then, after giving Leah a piece of bread on which to make her Hamotzi, she felt pride.

Had Leah been a bit less bashful, she could have hinted to her quandary, or written a note about it, to someone at school and been given some bread.  Had she realized that speaking after washing for something pertinent to eating is permitted, she could have solved her problem by just telling her teacher about it.

But, being self-conscious and not knowing that halachic fact, she just chose to do what she felt she had to do to be a good Jew.  When the teacher was informed of what had happened, she was deeply impressed.  Ditto for me when I heard the story.

We adults often face difficult situations where halachic concerns come up against personal “needs.”  We seek, and often find, ways of satisfying both.  And then, of course, there are times when there is no seeming reconciliation of the two.  What do we do then?  Hopefully, the right thing.  Leah thought she faced an at least temporarily irreconcilable pair of challenges – wanting to talk but assuming it would be halachically wrong – and, to the best of her understanding, did the right thing.  She thereby became a teacher herself.

Dovid Hamelech sang to Hashem that “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings You have established strength…” (Tehillim, 8:3).

The straightforward p’shat of that passuk is, as per Metzudos Dovid, that the miracle of a human baby and his latent power of speech demonstrates Hashem’s “strength,” or power.

The Gemara (Sotah, 30b) applies the words to how, when our ancestors emerged from the Yam Suf and Hashem’s presence was manifest, even babies and sucklings declared “This is my G-d and I will glorify Him!”

Also implied by Dovid Hamelech’s words is that, as Resh Lakish in the name of Rav Yehudah Nesiah teaches us (Shabbos 119b), the world only perseveres because of the hevel shel tinokos shel beis rabban, “the mouth-breath of the youngsters in their places of study.”

That is usually understood to mean that Torah studied by the purest of souls, children, keeps the universe going.  And that is certainly true.

But I’ve often wondered at the word hevel, “mouth-breath.”  “Hevel,” in other contexts, means “nothingness.”

The story of Leah’s silence, though, makes me wonder if, perhaps, there are times when even a child’s silence, when it’s an example of how a Jew should see his obligations, can itself be a foundation of Creation.

© 2016 Hamodia

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Handling Success With Care

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Back in 1941 (no, I don’t remember it personally, but it’s documented), there was an American Jewish establishment group called the “Joint Boycott Council.”  It objected vehemently to Agudath Israel of America’s policy of sending packages of food and religious items to beleaguered and endangered Jews behind enemy lines in Eastern Europe.  The JBC considered that effort an affront to its own judgment that the risk that the Nazis, ym”s, might intercept the goods outweighed what Gedolim of the time considered to be the Jewish obligation.

The group picketed Agudath Israel’s offices that year and its chairman described the Agudah as “a sickly weed transplanted from foreign soil to the liberal American environment,” lamenting how it, and presumably the Orthodox Jewish community it served, will only “continue to poison the atmosphere.”

The Council is now long forgotten, but my, how the “sickly weed” has grown.  The Torah-true community in America proved itself not only hardy but a towering tree that bore, and continues to bear, most wondrous fruit.

Those of us born well after 1941 often take the thriving of Torah life and study for granted.  We hear about the challenges our parents and grandparents faced in the previous century, celebrate their accomplishments and feel secure in the world they forged for us.  That’s not a problem, of course… at least not until it is.

Case in point: Several suburban frum communities are expanding greatly these days, attracting Torah Jews from near and far.  The law of supply and demand won’t be violated, and what ensues are increased property values and willingness, on the part of some long-time homeowners, to “trade up” to larger homes in other areas.

That’s fine and good; and so is the effort by real estate agents to make the case to residents of such communities that they can benefit financially from the new desirability of their dwellings by putting their houses on the market.

What isn’t fine and good, though, is pressuring residents by visiting them, unbidden, to make that case.  And what’s even less fine and good is doing so on non-Jewish holidays, when residents are be more likely to be home but are undoubtedly more likely to resent uninvited guests.

Such solicitations have caused some towns, including Toms River, New Jersey, to update their “no-knock” rules and related laws, adding real estate inquiries to measures that already limit other types of solicitations.

An Associated Press story about that particular New Jersey town was recently widely published by media here and overseas.  It may be a local story, but when an item involves Jews, money and irate neighbors, it somehow tends to… hold… special interest.

The news article quoted one Toms River resident who claimed to have been badgered by an aggressive real estate agent to sell his home.  In local media, several others complained about feeling pressured by Orthodox Jews’ overtures.  The fact that a “no-knock” ordinance was unanimously endorsed by the local Township Council itself indicates that others had, or feared, similar experiences – and should be a wake-up call to us all.

Yes, to be sure, some of the pushback against the pushiness might be tainted with pre-existing resentment of Jews.  But that’s really beside the point. In fact, it intensifies the point.  Because acting in ways that give people who don’t like Jews in the first place reason to resent us, aside from being wrong, well, gives some people who don’t like Jews in the first place reason to resent us.

There is no doubt that the great majority of frum real estate professionals in Lakewood and elsewhere hew to high standards and promote their services in proper manners, using advertisements and mailings. But the small number (it may in fact be only one, but that’s one too many) who feel that it’s “just business” to be aggressive and intimidating toward potential clients are causing ill will against the entire community.  What’s more, they are ketanei emunah.

Because if they believed, as Jews should, that their parnassah comes from Above, and that our efforts to make our livings are entirely in the realm of hishtadlus, “simple, normal effort,” they would never imagine that acting more aggressively than others in their field could yield them some advantage or anything more than what was decreed for them in Shamayim on Rosh Hashanah.

And they should know, too, that the truest measure of Jewish success is acting “with pleasantness toward others,” in ways that make others say “Fortunate is his father who taught him Torah” (Yoma 86a).

© 2016 Hamodia

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trump

A Troubling America for Jews…

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American Jews might be excused for finding the circus more formally known as the current presidential campaign unthreatening, even amusing.  Unthreatening, because the leading Republican candidate has a Jewish daughter; the leading Democratic candidate, a Jewish son-in-law; and her rival is a bona fide member of the tribe himself.  All the candidates, moreover, have expressed support for Israel.

And amusing?  Well, no need to go into detail on that one.  We need a dictionary with more expressive words than “grandstanding” and “mudslinging.”

Some Jews, though, are worried by the Republican front-runner, despite his Jewish connection.  After all, Mr. Trump at one point indicated that, if elected, he would approach the Israel-Palestinian impasse as “a sort of neutral guy.”  But he later explained that he simply meant that he didn’t see how he could promote negotiations if he openly took sides. “With that being said,” the candidate added unequivocally, “I am totally pro-Israel.”

More troubling to many Jews, and understandably so, is Mr. Trump’s dog whistling (actually, often, out-loud shouting “Fido!!!”) to American bigots and general lowlifes.

To read the rest of this piece, which appears in Haaretz, please click here.

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