Shooting From the Heart


Although blacks constitute approximately 13% of the American population, the FBI reported in 2013 that 38.5% of people arrested for violent crimes were African-Americans.

Statistics like that one, coupled with a largely unsavory urban black culture (not to mention what passes in some circles for black leadership), predisposes many of us to assume the worst about all blacks – or, at very least, to be sympathetic to law enforcement officers in their dealings with black suspects.

And, as a result, many white Americans tend to be wary of claims that black Americans are unfairly singled out by police for arrest, mistreated and even killed without justification.

So when, in 2013, George Zimmerman, a volunteer with a local “Neighborhood Watch” in Sanford, Florida, was acquitted by a jury of shooting to death Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black youth whom Mr. Zimmerman was following (against orders from a dispatcher to not do so) and with whom he got into an altercation, many of us felt that the volunteer’s claim that he killed the youth in self-defense was plausible, if not probable.  The subsequent protests over the killing were regarded by many as an indefensible rush to judgment.

And last year, when Eric Garner, who was illegally selling individual cigarettes on a Staten Island street corner, died after being put in a chokehold by police, it seemed self-evident that the overweight and asthmatic black man’s death was unfortunate but didn’t negatively reflect on the officer who applied the chokehold and who ignored Mr. Garner’s 11 wheezy pleas that “I can’t breathe.”  When a grand jury declined to indict the officer, that judgment seemed vindicated.

It was also last year that a grand jury elected to not indict Ferguson, Missouri policeman Darren Wilson, for killing Michael Brown, a black youth, in the line of duty; and the U.S. Justice Department declined to prosecute the officer for a civil rights violation. There were widespread protests over that killing, but also a widespread sense that the reaction then, too, had been misguided, and the protesters’ claims of police racism unjustified.

Then, though, came the blatantly racist e-mails exchanged by various Ferguson court and police employees, which led the Justice Department to assert “a pattern or practice of unlawful conduct within the Ferguson Police Department that violates the First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and federal statutory law.”  Mr. Wilson was not personally implicated in that ugliness, but the culture of bias clearly existed.

And now we are confronted with the case of Walter Scott, the 50-year-old unarmed black man stopped by a North Charleston, South Carolina police officer for driving with a broken taillight.  Mr. Scott was shot in the back and killed when he fled (presumably, according to reports, because he feared being taken into custody over missed child support payments).

Of all the recent cases, this is the only one where we needn’t – indeed, cannot – rely for judgment on either our preconceptions or anyone’s word.  A bystander’s cellphone video of the incident shows the policeman, Michael Slager, aiming and shooting at Mr. Scott’s back multiple times.

And there’s audio, too, of Mr. Slager telling someone, presumably his wife, that he had killed somebody who had “grabbed my Taser” – the stun gun used to subdue people engaged in violence or resisting arrest.  In the video, the policeman is seen calmly taking something from his patrol car, walking over to the man he had just shot to death and dropping the object near his body.

Mr. Slager is charged with murder.

There are, I think, two takeaways from the most recent story.  One is something the alleged murderer discovered in a this-worldly way but that believing Jews know well in a more profound one: “There is an eye that sees and an ear that hears” – and, of course, “all your deeds are recorded…” (Avos 2:1).

The other is that, while it’s only human to harbor preconceptions, it’s important to realize that presumptions can be wrong, and to recognize that racial prejudice, like religious prejudice, exists, and can lead to terrible things. Yes, most police are upstanding public servants who would never mistreat any citizen.  But by the same token, most blacks are law-abiding citizens.  There are black criminals, to be sure; but there are also trigger-happy racist cops.

And if any group should be rightly disturbed by the specter of innocent people being killed by armed authorities, it should be one that has been victimized by hatred and violence over most of recorded history.

© 2015 Hamodia


Evtach V’lo Efchad


The “bedikas matzah” (the search for matzah crumbs in the couch and the carpet) is over.  Post-Pesach, the vacuum cleaners have been recalled into service, and the boxes of Pesach dishes and utensils have been marched back down to the cellar (or up to the attic), silently passing their chametz counterparts being marched in the opposite direction.

The Sedarim took place and their ethereal light shone.  Questions were asked and responses recounted.  Divrei Torah were delivered, and, for the fortunate among us, new insights were granted.

And the haftarah on Yom Tov’s final day (in chutz laAretz) was read.  Were we listening?

The excerpt from Yeshayahu (10:32-12:6) includes the Navi’s vision of the end of history, when the “wolf will dwell with the lamb” and perfect peace will reign among the world’s human inhabitants as well, for they will all recognize Hashem and His people.

The backdrop for the expression of that vision was the massing outside Yerushalayim of the army of Ashur, intoxicated with its successful conquest of much of Eretz Yisroel.  Its king Sancheriv and his henchman Ravshakeh mocked the Jews; brimming with self-confidence, they blustered and blasphemed. But the besieging forces were to meet a sudden downfall, as the Navi foretold, suddenly and miraculously smitten by Hashem’s malach, as recounted in Melachim II (18-19).

Yeshayahu then moves to his vision of a more distant future, when Moshiach will appear, Klal Yisroel will be rescued from all who wish them harm and “the land will be filled with knowledge of Hashem, like the waters cover the seabed.”

Yirmiyahu Hanavi also speaks of that era, giving voice to Hashem’s promise that one day “It will no longer be said, ‘Chai Hashem, Who brought the Bnei Yisrael up from the land of Mitzrayim,’ but rather ‘Chai Hashem Who brought the Bnei Yisrael up from the land of the north and from all the lands to which He cast them, and returned them onto their [own] land’.” (16:14)

In other words, despite the miracles and wonders of Yetzias Mitzrayim, the germinal event in Klal Yisroel’s formation, that geulah will pale beside the one yet to come.

Why, though? Didn’t our ancestors’ enslavement in Egypt seem a hopeless sentence, as we recalled on the Seder nights, and wouldn’t its continuation have spelled the very undermining of the Jewish nation?

The makkos and Krias Yam Suf , though, as powerful expressions of Hashem’s love of His people as they were, were but temporary interruptions of the natural course of things.  What the Neviim presage, though, is a permanent transformation of nature itself.

It has forever been the case that animals are both food and prey; it has always been so.  A world where the lamb will be able to invite the wolf for a visit is a world radically altered in its essence.  As is a world where Klal Yisrael has been gathered from the corners of the earth back to their promised home.  And a world where, instead of the “normative” hatred of Jews, all the nations will unite in humble servitude to Hashem and in reverence for His people.

There are already individuals among the umos haolam, in some very unlikely places, who have already embraced the truths of history, and who, from their distances, venerate Hashem and revere Klal Yisrael.  I personally have corresponded with one such a family, in a Muslim land, for more than a decade.  The day will come, the neviim assure us, that such recognition of truth will, as we might say today, “go viral,” and fill the world “with knowledge of Hashem, like the waters cover the seabed.” A striking simile in this, our world, enveloped as it is by an ocean of information.

The Navi’s vision of the future should intrude on our present.  All the threats against Klal Yisrael these days should remind us of Sancheriv and Ravshaka’s boastful rantings – and of their downfall.

And they should remind us, too, that it is Hashem alone, Who, as in Mitzrayim, will usher in the metamorphosis of the world the Neviim envisioned.  When we knit our brows and announce our confident convictions about whether this or that is the savviest geopolitical course; this or that a leader to be trusted; this or that a wise pundit or a fool, we are really just entertaining ourselves.

The only truth is, as Yeshayahu proclaims: “Behold, Hashem is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid… for great in your midst is the Holy One of Yisrael.”

 © 2015 Hamodia


Challenges to Tranquility


[This article appears in a new periodical, “InSight,” published by Rabbi Avraham Mifsud of Detroit.]

There are, they like to say, two types of people: Those who categorize people into two groups and those who don’t.  I generally don’t.  But I have found that the “two groups” model does seem to encompass most folks when it comes to facing change.

Some individuals relish changes, are excited at the prospect of new circumstances, thrilled by interruptions of the norm.

And then there are the rest of us, we who are happiest when thing just blessedly stay the same, who are content with predictability, enamored of the status quo.

Changes, though, are part and parcel of life.  And so even those of us who are naturally averse to disruptions of our routines cannot escape them.  And among us, too, are two groups: Those who kick and scream (to no avail), and those who learn to come to terms with change.

There’s nothing wrong, of course, with wishing for peace and calm and stability.  No less a personage than our forefather Yaakov, Chazal inform us, “wished to dwell in tranquility.”

But as in Yaakov’s life, challenges to tranquility appear in every life.  Some take place, with Hashem’s help, as a matter of inevitable course, like adulthood and aging.  Others come as special blessings, like (hopefully) marriage, parenthood, grandparenthood, and – with Divine assistance – beyond.

Other changes, though, disrupt not only our status quos but our emotional equilibrium.  Things like illness, family problems, loss of employment, loss of loved ones…

Such uninvited and unwanted guests in our lives are vexing, of course.  They elicit the “Why me?” or “Why now?” or just the “Why?” laments, and can easily lead to feelings of resentment, anger and frustration.

Even Yaakov was not immune to seeing his many trials, even in retrospect, in a bitter light.  “Few and bad have been my days,” he tells Par’oh when the Egyptian  ruler, apparently noting our forefather’s wizened appearance, asks how old he is.

The Midrash considers Yaakov to have erred in that attitude, and even to have lost years from his life as a result.  Yaakov, to be sure, did indeed have a travail-filled life, and the travails were far from minor.  But he is held to account nonetheless for regarding them as negative.

Well, what then?  As positive?

Apparently yes.  It’s not easy, to be sure, but it’s right.

And it’s reflected even in halacha:  “Just as one offers a blessing over good,” Chazal teach and the Shulchan Aruch codifies, “so does one offer a blessing over bad.”

Our first, visceral, understandable, predictable reaction to unwanted change is usually negative.  But it’s misguided.  We need to realize that we need to have a second, more thoughtful, reaction, born of the admonition that even “bad” deserves a blessing – to internalize, and even express, the recognition that what seems unfortunate is, one way or another, for our benefit.

On Purim we celebrated Haman’s downfall.  Imagine, though, how things must have looked when Mordechai refused to bow to the Amalekite.  What a terrible, dangerous move that was.  It was born of Mordechai’s choice, to be sure, not an “act of Hashem,” but it was in accord with His will.  And it was something that certainly seemed to bode ill.  It ended up, to put it mildly, boding well.

Commemoration of Purim’s ge’ulah, the Gemara tells us, must take place in the month closest to the ge’ula of Yetzias Mitzrayim.  Think back about the beginnings of that redemption.  A decree to kill all newborn baby boys.  A baby being abandoned by his parents, left to his fate in the bulrushes.  Which led to his being taken by Par’oh’s daughter Bisya into the royal palace.  All, in the end, for the good.

It’s not only in the Torah, though, or the Megilla, that the inscrutability of seemingly “bad” happenings is evident.  In 1941, my dear father, may he be well, barely a teenager, joined the Bialystok Novardhok Yeshiva, which had relocated, first, like many yeshivos at the time, to Vilna; and then, in the case of his yeshiva, to the Lithuanian town of Birzh.  The Soviets, who had taken over Lithuania, gave the talmidim a stark choice: Become citizens of the USSR or retain your Polish citizenship and be considered foreign nationals.  The former status would mean being drafted and sent to the front, cannon fodder for the German army; the latter, being banished to Siberia.

My father and his colleagues and their Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Nekritz, zt”l, made the second choice, and were put on a freight train headed east to the frigid, forbidding place that would be their home for close to three years.  He remembers how, as the train prepared to depart, the Jewish townsfolk wailed and bemoaned the lot of the Siberia-bound boys.  How must those boys have felt?  Yet they grew in unimaginable ways during their Siberian ordeal.  And they survived the war to marry and have children.  And those children had children.  And those latter children are now raising their own families – two of them, as it happens, my father’s granddaughters, and their husbands,  in Oak Park.

But how dark the future must have looked as that train pulled slowly away and gained steam.

Talk to anyone thoughtful over 60 – or anyone younger, if he or she is a perceptive person – and you can hear personal stories of how changes feared and then bemoaned turned out to be blessings.  Perhaps you can testify to your own.  If not, with Hashem’s help, you one day will.

“Reuvain” was once part of a small Jewish community centered around a yeshiva where he taught.  Over seven years, the yeshiva thrived, the community grew and remained close-knit, and Reuvain was sure that he and his family would live out their lives in that wonderful place.  Then, quite suddenly, circumstances entirely beyond Reuvain’s control dismantled the community and the yeshiva.  He found himself having to move thousands of miles away to become part of another institution and community.  He was devastated.

Eleven years later, Reuvain was still in that new place, and it had become a wonderful home for him and his growing family.  He wanted to stay there until Moshiach’s arrival.  But, once again, circumstances beyond his control, a school administration bent on a certain path, conspired to evict him.  He and his family picked up again, in tears, and moved to a place Reuvain had said he’d never want to do more than visit: New York

It’s been 20 years since that latter move, and Reuvain has grown to recognize the bracha in that move as well.  In fact, when his employment status changed radically and unexpectedly several years ago, a seemingly grave setback to his parnassah, it, too, turned out to be a blessing in disguise, allowing him more creative freedom and opening new doors for income.

“Reuvain,” something of a slow learner, will likely still react with pain at any future seeming setbacks. I know, because his real name is Avi and he is me.  But he won’t have any excuse; just looking back at his own life so far should reassure him that things that seem bad can be very misleading

The idea is enshrined in Rabbi Akiva’s motto of “All that the Merciful One does is for the good,” and in the account related about in the Gemara (Brachos, 60b) his being refused lodging in a certain town.  Rather than express anger or frustration, he simply pronounced his motto to the people of the town, and went off to sleep in a nearby field.  More problems awaited him there, as the candle he lit was blown out by the wind; the rooster that was to serve as his alarm clock was devoured by a cat; and his donkey killed by a lion.

Still and all, he simply reminded himself that all that Hashem does is for the good.  That night a regiment of soldiers invaded the nearby town, taking all its residents captive.  Rabbi Akiva was spared that fate, the loss of his flame and animal having rendered him undetectable in the night.

The Gemara continues, though.  When the townsfolk, marched out in chains, passed Rabbi Akiva, he said to them, “Didn’t I tell you that all that the Merciful One does is for the good?”

It’s a bit disturbing to read that final sentence.  What was Rabbi Akiva doing?  Mocking the unfortunate captives with his own happy escape from their destiny?

I don’t think he was doing anything of the sort.  Quite the contrary.  He was offering them encouragement, strength to face their own futures.  “I experienced adversity yesterday and last night,” he was saying to them, “and in the end it was clearly for my good.  You are experiencing adversity now.  Realize that, even if the change in your lives seems irredeemably evil, it is not.  It is, in some way or other, whether you can imagine it or not, for the good.”

We’re not always able, even in the long run, to recognize the good in what seems bad in our lives.  There are times, moreover, when adversity serves a purpose in itself, in ways we simply cannot see in this world.

But there’s a bottom line here, Rabbi Akiva’s parting message to the captives.  When we feel captive ourselves to changes we didn’t anticipate or want, we’re wise to hear in our heads his admonishing, encouraging words: “Didn’t I tell you that all that the Merciful One does is for the good?”


Handwriting Analysis Analyzed


The notion that one’s handwriting can evidence aspects of one’s character and predict likely behavior (“graphoanalysis”) is prevalent in some circles, including some Orthodox Jewish ones.

While I have no desire to interfere with the livelihoods of those who offers handwriting analysis services, I do feel a responsibility to offer accurate information to the public.

To that end, I feel it is worthwhile to share an article on the topic of “graphoanalysis” that I wrote for Ami Magazine back in 2011.  You can read it here.  Feel free to share the link with anyone you feel might find it thought-provoking.


Muddy Study


Have you heard the story of the scientist whose area of research was insects’ hearing?  He trained a flea to jump on command.  In the interest of his research, he pulled off one of the flea’s legs and ordered it to jump.  The insect complied, if a bit clumsily because of its handicap.  The scientist recorded the data – the delay in the jump, the distance covered, etc., on a chart. After a second amputation, the flea’s response to the command was even less impressive, and the new results were duly entered on the chart.  After a third leg was removed, the flea’s jump was greatly compromised, and the chart became host to the new data.  Finally, after being deprived of all of its legs, all the flea could do when ordered to jump was buzz about hopelessly on the table.

Solemnly, the scientist consulted his chart, created a formula to reflect his findings, and recorded his conclusion: “Fleas hear with their legs.”

The myopic researcher was brought to mind by a recent article about the work of two French economists, Ruben Durante and Ekaterina Zhuravskaya.  The piece, which appeared at MarketWatch, published by Dow Jones & Co., relates the pair’s investigation of the timing of Israeli military attacks against its enemies over an 11-year period.  The economists’ methodology was simple (and rather simple-minded).  They catalogued Israel’s military interventions from 2000 to 2011, and then compared them to what was going on in the news at the time – noting whether that news was “scheduled,” like a major sporting event, or “unscheduled,” like an earthquake or plane crash.

The scientists’ conclusion, in the synopsis of the MarketWatch article’s author, Brett Arends: “Israel habitually launches its most unpopular and, sometimes, deadly attacks against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to coincide with big news events here in the U.S., so that they don’t get too much public attention.”

In Mr. Durante’s and Ms. Zhuravskaya’s own words: “Israeli attacks are more likely to occur prior to days with very high news pressure driven by clearly predictable events.”  There were statistically significant upticks, they assert, in Israeli military action in the West Bank and Gaza Strip before sporting events, but not before things that the Israeli military could not anticipate.

So here, presumably, is the picture: Israel’s Prime Minister and top generals are huddled in the war room, analyzing a current threat against the citizenry.  They pick apart intelligence data about enemy plans, track militants’ movements by aircraft and satellites, consult weather forecasts and, for nighttime operations, moon phases.  And they decide that a strike is necessary.  “No! Wait!” shouts the Prime Minster. “The Super Bowl’s not until next Sunday!”

A few minor problems here.  First of all, did the researchers factor in the Final Four?  And what about avoiding the attention of the rest of the world, which really doesn’t care much about American sports?  Did the economists take soccer’s World Cup into account?  Hockey’s Stanley Cup?

And if the Israeli military/political complex is in fact guilty of the nefarious machinations imagined by the economists, well, the plot doesn’t seem to have worked very well.  When was the last time Israel launched an attack on her enemies and the world’s residents, glued to their sports event of choice, uh, didn’t notice?

Besides, don’t the Elders of Zion control earthquakes and plane crashes too?

Okay, that last argument was facetious. But no less so than the economists’ study, which proffered a wealth of charts and formulae to try to demonstrate a “statistically significant” correlation between attention-getting events and Israeli military action.  How much of a correlation, though, and how much of it may just reflect chance or statistical static isn’t entirely clear. What is clear, though, is that cynicism, born of the stylish if smelly anti-Israel atmosphere these days, informed the study.

A mistaken conclusion about how a flea hears is a rather minor matter.  An accusation of underhanded tactics hurled at a country trying to protect its citizens from murderous attacks, quite another.

The noted British psychologist H. J. Eyesenck famously observed that scientists can be “just as ordinary, pig-headed and unreasonable as anybody else, and their unusually high intelligence only makes their prejudices all the more dangerous.”  It’s a truism that, in our understandable and usually merited respect for science, we can sometimes forget.

Scientists are people too; and if they harbor personal biases, their prejudices can inform their “science.”  That’s not just unfortunate but, particularly today, downright dangerous.

© 2015 Hamodia





And In Third Place…


And so the horse trading begins.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has gotten down to the nitty-gritty business of cobbling together a government coalition.  Particularly attractive stallions, thankfully, will be the religious parties, the Prime Minister’s “natural partners,” as he calls them, although, apparently unnaturally, he jettisoned them the last time around.  Their being in Bibi’s good graces (for now) is happy news.

What many may not see as happy news is the remarkable fact that, after Likud and the Zionist Union (Hamachaneh Hatzioni), the third largest winner of votes was… the “Joint List” (Hareshima Hameshutefet) – the new Arab party, comprised of four previous Arab parties.

No one is concerned that the Joint List’s 13 seats will make it an attractive partner to a Likud-dominated government – or, for that matter, any government.  Nor would the Joint List itself consider being part of either.  Its very essence is oppositional.

The genesis of the Joint List, though, holds some irony; and its success, perhaps, something positive.

The impetus for the joining together of the four Arab parties, representing utterly disparate, contradictory, ideologies – communism, feminism, Islamism, and Palestinian nationalism was legislation passed last year raising the electoral threshold from 2% to 3.25%, or at least four seats.  None of the Arab parties saw themselves as viable in that calculus.  So they decided on a sort of multiple-wives marriage of necessity.  And ended up with more seats than their combined catch in 2013.

The irony?  The law that brought them together was pushed through by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, whose own party, Yisrael Beiteinu, scored only six seats this time around, less than half of the Joint List.

The head of the Joint List, lawyer Ayman Odeh, somehow managed to herd the cats that comprise the list. He also strikes a moderate, unflappable pose.  In a campaign ad, he appears at a Jewish family’s Shabbos table, after the mainstream party candidates have burst in and made their cases.  They leave when Mr. Odeh enters and, smiling, he says to the Jewish family, “We all live in the same building together and we all want the same thing: Equal rights, peace and quiet.”

And in a debate, when Mr. Lieberman told Mr. Odeh that he should better be in Ramallah or Gaza and that “You’re not wanted here,” the Arab, who was born in Haifa, calmly responded to the Russian-born foreign minister, “I am very wanted in my homeland,” and went on to emphasize what he characterized as his party’s universalist and democratic message.

To be sure, some of the cats in his herd are anything but universalist or democratic. Which is why the Joint List’s campaign slogan was the soothing but hollow “The Will of the People.”

So what possible role could the Joint List play in the Knesset?  It will surely use its votes to oppose measures it sees as expansionist or anti-Arab.  But beyond those things, which the liberal parties will oppose no less, are there any other causes such a confederacy of incoherence might embrace?

Practically speaking, the Joint List’s fractious felines can probably come together on the issue of Arab poverty, and Israel’s insufficient assistance to that sector of its citizenry.

Israel ranks high among developed nations in the percentage of its citizens living in poverty.  Economist Paul Krugman attributes that in part to “policy choices: Israel does less to lift people out of poverty than any other advanced country.”

According to a 2013 National Insurance Institute report, the poverty rate among Israel’s Arabs – some 20% of the population – was 47.4%.

The same report estimates the poverty rate at the time among Israeli chareidim (approximately 10% of the population) at 66%.  Both communities’ high poverty can be attributed, at least in part, to low earnings and government cutbacks in child allotments.

So it might not be outlandish to imagine that, however either impoverished sector may feel about each other, both will vote to bolster any legislation put before the Knesset designed to assist poor families.  Stranger unplanned but de facto alliances have taken place.

For Jews who perceive Israel in nationalistic or religious colors, the emergence of an Arab party with 13 seats in the Knesset may seem like a violation of the idea of the state.  Those of us, though, who see Israel as a wonderful democracy and haven for Jews but who are not flag wavers or Yom Ha’Atzmaut celebrators  might dare to hope that the Joint List, the abhorrent nature of some of its members notwithstanding, might end up actually helping advance the Israeli societal good.

© 2015 Hamodia