Ism Schism

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Liberal-minded American Jews rightly regard Pamela Geller, who organized the Garland, Texas cartoon-of Islam’s-founder contest earlier this month, as an irresponsible provocateur.  What’s odd is that many of those very same liberal-minded American Jews enthusiastically champion (and generously support) another irresponsible provocateur.

That would be the “Women of the Wall” – the attention-addicted feminist group bent on holding vocal women’s services at the Kosel Maaravi that offend the sensibilities of the traditional Orthodox women and men who most frequent the site and have regularly prayed there in traditional fashion for decades.

It might seem at first thought that Ms. Geller’s stunts are in a category of their own.  After all, by snubbing her nose at the Muslim world, she courts violence of the sort that extremists within that world so readily and joyfully embrace.  In fact, her Texas event attracted not only a small crowd but two angry and armed Islamists who sought to spill blood but who were, baruch Hashem, killed before they could wreak the havoc of their dreams.

But Ms. Geller isn’t misguided only because of the violent reactions she invites. She is misguided because, put simply and starkly, it’s wrong to provoke people.  There is nothing wrong with condemning Islamist terrorism or holding the banner of free speech as high as one chooses.  But to try to make one’s points by insulting the sensibilities of all Muslims is boorish.

Which brings us to the “Women of the Wall.”  They are free to make the case that their feminist vision should trump Jewish tradition.  But seeking to flaunt their conviction in the faces of others for whom it is anathema is crass.

In its mission statement, the group declares its desire “to change the status-quo” at the Kosel, and that it stands “proudly and strongly in the forefront of the movement for religious pluralism in Israel.”  Were it well-mannered, it would limit itself to lobbying Knesset members and making its case to the public in as reasoned a manner as it can. Instead, though, it chooses to push its program squarely and harshly into the faces of Jews who cherish the “status quo,” i.e. the Jewish mesorah, and oppose the “religious pluralism” that seeks to undermine it.  That’s not advocacy; it’s indecent.

Celebrated writer and translator Hillel Halkin, no traditional Jew, doesn’t generally cover his head.  Yet he has written that, “in certain places – on a rare visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem, for example – I’ll put on a kippah even though I resent having to do it.”  And, referencing the Women of the Wall, he shared his imagined reaction were a fellow non-kippah-wearer to invite him to “a demonstration of bare-headed Jewish men at the Wall [where] we’re going to pray and sing and keep coming back every month until our rights are recognized.”  He would, he writes, “politely tell him to get lost.”

First, though, he writes, he would challenge the inviter: “Why insist on [forcing your issue] in the one place where it’s going to offend the sensibilities of hundreds or thousands of people?… If you need to go to the Wall, just cover your head and don’t indulge in childish provocations.”

Women of the Wall’s quest, Mr. Halkin asserts, has “to do only with the narcissism of thinking that one’s rights matter more than anyone else’s feelings or the public interest.”

That narcissism is even more pronounced these days, as – for better or worse – a temporary platform for “non-Orthodox egalitarian prayer” has been prepared at Robinson’s Arch, adjacent to the Kosel plaza, facing the Kosel and no less holy than where traditional prayer has been the norm. Women of the Wall’s leader, Anat Hoffman, though, has dismissed that accommodation as a “sunbathing deck” and “second-rate.”  Her group has apparently opted to shun the alternate site, preferring instead to continue to try to upset fellow Jews in the place where they have prayed in the traditional manner since 1967.

Shavuos approaches.  The anniversary of the moment when true Jewish unity was forged, when our ancestors – including those of Mrs. Hoffman and her American Jewish supporters – stood “like a single person with a single heart” at the foot of Har Sinai.

What unified Klal Yisrael then, of course, was their declaration of naaseh v’nishma, their embrace of the Torah whether or not they could “hear” everything it requires of them.  It was a commitment, in effect, to place the Torah above all else, above all the isms of the time.

And of the future, something contemporary provocateurs and their supporters might do well to ponder.

© 2015 Hamodia

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Musing: Science Catches Up to the Torah

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Interesting news reported this morning about a team of Yale paleontologists who applied a set of algorithms to genetic and morphological data and concluded that the ancestor of living snakes had hind legs, complete with toes and ankles.

it’s reminiscent of the late Carl Sagan’s observation that pain in childbirth seems to exist only in human beings, the result of a relatively sudden, “explosive” evolutionary growth in the size of the human cranium to accommodate the large human brain.  The brain, that is, that is able to engage in rational thought and make choices not born of mere instinct.  Daas, in other words, yields bi’etzev teildi banim.

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Anybody Out There?

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A mere week after NASA scientists announced their certainty of finding life on other planets within the next 20 years, a team of other scientists announced that, after searching 100,000 galaxies, they have found no signs of at least intelligent extraterrestrial life

The researchers used information from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer orbiting observatory (WISE) to look for energy radiating away as heat. “The idea behind our research is that if an entire galaxy had been colonized by an advanced… civilization, the energy produced… would be detectable in mid-infrared wavelengths,” explained Jason T. Wright, a Penn State University professor who initiated the survey. “These galaxies are billions of years old,” he continued, “which should have been plenty of time for them to have been filled with alien civilizations.

This search is nothing new.  Over the 1960s and 1970s, there was SETI, or the “Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence”; META, the “Megachannel Extra-Terrestrial Assay”; and META II. In 1972 and 1973, plaques depicting information about Earth were launched aboard the Pioneer and Voyager probes. In 1974, the “Arecibo message,” which carried coded information about chemistry and terrestrial life, was beamed into space. And in the 1990s, the “Billion-channel ExtraTerrestrial Assay” (BETA) was created, as well as a project harnessing the computing power of five million volunteers’ computers to crunch numbers that might reveal patterns indicative of intelligent life beyond our planet. Tens of billions of hours of processing time were consumed by the project.

So far, though, nothing.  No little green men.  Not even any green slime.

True, for 17 years, astrophysicists monitoring Australia’s Parkes telescope detected strange radio bursts signals, which were believed to come from another galaxy.  Recently, though, Emily Petroff, a PhD student working at the facility, showed that the signals were being generated by a microwave oven in its kitchen.

The prime candidate for rudimentary life in our own solar system, of course, is Mars.  Thus far, though, the four rovers that have been sent to the red planet haven’t discovered any of the molecules considered by scientists to be the “building blocks of life,” much less life itself.

Still, many scientists say there must be life out there.  Science doesn’t usually embrace beliefs unsupported by observations.  So, whence their conviction that there must be life elsewhere in the universe?  The answer is that it derives from a creed: that chance governs the universe – that randomness lies at the root of reality.

If probability, not design, is the loom on which the universe’s fabric is stretched, that creed’s canon proclaims, why should there be only a single, unremarkable planet in a single, unremarkable solar system in a single, unremarkable galaxy where there is life?

The high priests of Scientism even believe in miracles, as in their contention that life on Earth arose by chance from inanimate matter, something that, of course, has never been accomplished despite valiant efforts, in the lab. And that the astounding diversity of life emerged randomly.  And so, the creed reasons, why shouldn’t countless other worlds have done any less?

We, of course, know that Creation, including life, was an act of Divine will, not the yield of randomness.  To be sure, were life to be discovered on some other planet, it wouldn’t challenge us any more than the fact that life was discovered here on earth in hot springs and deep-sea vents, long assumed to be devoid of living creatures.

But intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos?  Unlikely. One thing is certain: all efforts to detect it have come up empty.

The Torah (Devarim, 17:3) speaks of a false prophet who will “prostrate himself… to the sun or the moon or to any host of heaven, which I have not commanded.” Rashi explains that last phrase as meaning “which I have not commanded you to worship.”

Reb Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev had a profound interpretation of that Rashi.

The reason one may not bow down to a heavenly body, he explained, is because they have not “been commanded” – they lack the free will necessary to accept or reject a Divine commandment.  One may, however, bow down in respect to a human being – because humans are singular, sublime creatures, beings who have been commanded, who uniquely possess the free will to accept and execute Hashem’s will.

So far, at least, such choosing beings are only known here on Earth.  Might there be intelligent extraterrestrials who have received their own Divine commandments?

I imagine some may “hear” such a possibility.

Personally, though, I think the silence out there speaks much more loudly.

© 2015 Hamodia

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A World of Wastage

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The recent rioting in my home town Baltimore brought two memories to mind.  One was the 1968 riots, after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.  I was fourteen, and while we lived several miles from where that violence transpired, it affected Jewish-owned stores in the inner-city, and it taught those of us who were born after the Second World War that malevolence and mayhem remained, unfortunately, alive and well.

Ostensibly, the recent rioting was a reaction to the death in police custody of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, whose spinal cord was nearly severed when in custody. Peaceful marches to protest that death were understandable, and in fact took place.  (The death was eventually ruled a homicide by Baltimore State’s Attorney.)  But then legions of young black men, many of them apparently high schoolers, began taunting and attacking police, setting fires and looting stores.  Most telling were the delighted smiles on many looters’ faces, indelibly captured on film. If Mr. Gray was at all in the minds behind the faces, he had been grossly obscured by something else, an ugly anarchistic glee.

The rioters’ small minds weren’t likely capable of appreciating the irony of their actions.  Not only the self-evident irony that they were destroying their own neighborhood (including a senior citizens residence under construction).  But also the irony of the fact that the image they projected to the world is precisely what feeds negative preconceptions about black men, of whom Mr. Gray was only the most recent to die as a seeming result of police actions.

That’s what Elizabeth M. Nix, assistant professor at the University of Baltimore and co-editor of the book “Baltimore ‘68: Riots and Rebirth in an American City,” told an interviewer, she is “nervous about”: “more violent images, more reasons for people to stereotype us.”

Baltimore’s mayor and Mr. Gray’s mother strongly decried the rioting.  A lawyer speaking for the dead man’s family said baldly that the rioters “dishonored Freddie’s legacy.”  And President Obama succinctly characterized the rioters “who tore up” Baltimore as “criminals and thugs.”

Only the ethically unbalanced could (and did) try to justify the Baltimore violence.  Could there, though, be something for those of us who would never think of committing burglary or arson to glean from the visceral disgust we felt at the rioters’ actions?

That question brings me to the second thing I was reminded of by the wanton destruction in Baltimore: the Sefer Hachinuch’s words on bal tashchis, offered in connection to the prohibition against cutting down a fruit tree during a siege (mitzvah 529).  The Baal HaChinuch (in loose translation) writes:

“Included in the prohibition is the destruction of anything for no reason… The way of meticulously religious Jews is to love peace and to rejoice in the welfare of others… they will not destroy even a grain of mustard… and any destruction that they see causes them pain … Not so evil people, cohorts of demons, who rejoice in the destruction of the world…”

“Rejoice in destruction” well characterizes the Baltimore rioters.  But we might ponder the positive example the Baal HaChinuch provides. For the Torah bar here is a high one.

Ours is a world of wastage.  Not only grains of mustard but unimaginable amounts of perfectly serviceable food are daily relegated to the garbage dump.  And it’s not only storekeepers and caterers (both of which are often required by law to dump past-prime produce) but all too many of us who see the value of things only in dollars, cents and convenience.  Why bother “recycling” that leftover challah into a kugel for next week when kugels will be on sale at the store?  Why freeze those leftover broken hamburgers when they don’t look appetizing and, anyway, the Nine Days are coming?  Why make the effort to ascertain whether those items are really chametz when it’s so much easier to just toss them as part of our “spring cleaning”?

And who among us thinks – as my mother, a”h, who was more keenly attuned to the import of bal tashchis than most of us, did – of using a plastic or foam cup more than once?  And when do we toss items of clothing – when they are in fact worn out, or when we simply fancy a change.

Admittedly, it’s odd to be stirred to such thoughts by the Baltimore rioting. Intentional, wanton destruction, after all, is a far cry from simple thoughtless wastage.  But lessons for our own lives can lie in unexpected places, and we do well to try to find them

© 2015 Hamodia

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Inform or Incite?

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Many who recognize the evil that permeates radical Islam likely felt a reflexive satisfaction at the recent ruling of U.S. District Judge John Koeltl that New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority cannot reject an anti-Islamist advertisement.

The ad, created by the “American Freedom Defense Initiative” (AFDI), presents a keffiyeh-wrapped head of a man, only his eyes showing, next to the words: “Killing Jews is Worship that draws us close to Allah,” a quote attributed to Hamas television.  Below that is the legend: “That’s his Jihad. What’s yours?”

That final phrase is a pointed parody of a Muslim advocacy group’s ad campaign several years ago to try to detach the word “jihad” from its “holy war” connotation.

Telling quote, clever ad.  And, according to Judge Koeltl, within AFDI’s rights to run.

The MTA had notified AFDI that it would not accept the ad (one of four that the group purchased space for on the sides of New York buses) because it could incite violence.  A simpleminded Muslim, the MTA claimed, might misunderstand the ad’s true message and be inspired by its quote to kill Jews.  Rejecting that argument, Judge Koeltl noted that the ad had had no such effect when it ran in San Francisco and Chicago in 2013; and he ruled that “Under the First Amendment, the fear of such spontaneous attacks… cannot override individuals’ rights to freedom of expression.”  (The MTA has a month to appeal his decision and has said that it will reject all political ads.)

Judge Koeltl, apparently referencing a disclaimer to accompany the ad, also said he believes the MTA underestimates “the power of counter-advertisements to explain that the MTA does not endorse the ad…”

The person behind AFDI is activist Pamela Geller.  She is, laudably, committed to exposing Islamist extremism.  But she has also given ample cause to doubt her judgment. She has written, for example, that “Hussein” – her way of referring to President Obama – “is a muhammadan [sic]. He’s not insane … he wants jihad to win.”

And she responded to criticism leveled at her by several prominent Jewish organizations by labeling them “Dhimmi Jewcidals” and contending that they are worse than “the Judenrat [which] didn’t protect and defend the Nazis’ war on the Jews [but only] went along… They didn’t advance and promote it.”

She also is planning a contest for the best cartoon of the founder of Islam. The “Draw the Prophet” event is scheduled for May 3, in the same Garland, Texas location where a Muslim group held a solidarity conference in January.  If she imagines that non-radicalized Muslims will not be insulted by her contest, she has a formidable imagination.

And the AFDI ads, although their points are valid ones, present several problems.  First, they are read by many as implicating not only those who use their religion to spew hatred and wreak mayhem but all Muslims. Ms. Geller denies that accusation, but it’s not an unarguable one.

Secondly, while the ads aren’t likely to be misunderstood as encouraging violence against Jews, they are entirely likely to foster ill will among Arabs and Muslims – against Ms. Geller and, perforce, all defenders of Israel in general, who will be seen, fairly or not, as her enablers.

Thirdly, the same First Amendment right that permits the AFDI ads permits potential ads portraying Israel as a murderous, fascist state, or Jews as nefarious would-be world-domineering devils.  Those contentions may be lies but such false speech is arguably free speech too.  Does Ms. Geller really want to risk igniting an ad war?

To be sure, there is a need to call attention to the evils of Islamism and to try to undermine anti-Israel sentiment, but attempting to do so with inflammatory ads on the sides of buses may not be the most effective way to advance those goals. Or the right way.

Informing is one thing; incitement, another.

A spokesman for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio didn’t mince words.  “These anti-Islamic ads,” she said, “are outrageous, inflammatory and wrong… While those behind these ads only display their irresponsible intolerance, the rest of us who may be forced to view them can take comfort in the knowledge that we share a better, loftier and nobler view of humanity.”

That loftier and nobler view of humanity may or may not be justified.  But that’s not the issue.  The issue is  whether ads like AFDI’s help or hinder the goal of winning hearts and minds.

The answer seems obvious.

© 2015 Hamodia

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Shooting From the Heart

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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

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Evtach V’lo Efchad

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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

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Challenges to Tranquility

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[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?”

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