Category Archives: Jewish Thought

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Mitzvos and “Making It”

In aveilus, I do not listen to music these days. But there is ambient music in many places that can’t be avoided, so I try at least not to enjoy it. Which doesn’t usually pose much of a problem.

Two places, though, where I have to spend a bit of time each weekday and where there is sometimes music – live, no less – are the ferry terminals in Staten Island and lower Manhattan.

There, too, the offerings are usually less than pleasurable to my ear. The strange lady who plays a saw hasn’t made an appearance in years; and the Mexican mariachi ensemble shows up only occasionally.

But there is an amazingly talented string quartet that sometimes shows up on the Staten Island side, and plays classical pieces for those waiting for morning ferries. It’s the kind of performance people willingly pay to see in a concert hall. And here it’s offered for free (though there’s a bucket for donations), and it is greatly appreciated by the crowd.

In the past, I would try to get up close to the music and to marvel at the dexterity of the musicians, their bows sailing slowly or swiftly, but always precisely, across the taut strings. These days, though, I stand back and try – it’s hard – to not find pleasure in the sounds. The onlookers stand there transfixed.

Until, that is, the doors to the ferry open. The spell is then broken and the mass of music aficionados suddenly morphs back into a bleary-eyed mob of commuters as the herd heads for, as P.T. Barnum would call it, the egress.

If the musicians are bothered by their rapidly dissipating audience, they don’t show it. They clearly are playing in the moment. The impromptu concert attendees, though, move quickly on, to something more important to them: their jobs.

Some are working stiffs, no doubt, low on the economic totem pole. Others, though, are headed to a particular place on the other side of the bay, a place called Wall Street. I overhear them sometimes talking about megamergers and stock options and bonuses; and the numbers they drop into their conversations drop my jaw as well. Maybe it’s just braggadocio, but if these guys make anything near the sort of money they claim, I can’t imagine what they do with it all. Okay, so they pay full tuition at their kids’ private schools; as we all know, that can amount to quite a pretty penny. But none of them, it would seem, have children in yeshivah or kollel. How may yachts, really, can one family use?

Financial “success” is something universally pursued, and no community is truly immune to the redifas hamammon virus. Jews, too, a noted baal mussar once noted, are easily infected; after all, he remarked, one of our ancestors was Lavan.

But, of course, not all yerushos are equal, and Lavan’s in this case is most properly shunned.

And improperly embraced, which embrace can lead to things like “cutting corners” in business dealings or taxes; or even to discussions of commercial matters or the stock market on Shabbos, something clearly forbidden by the halachah of v’daber davar.

To be sure, there’s nothing technically wrong with having prodigious economic goals. One can live a life of Torah and mitzvos and pursue financial achievement too. But the “too” is so very vital. Because only one of those things – mitzvos or “making it” – can in the end be one’s ultimate life goal. The other must be relegated, like the concert is by the ferry passengers, to second place – at best.

That point, I think, is made, obliquely but undeniably by the Tanna Rabi Yitzchak, who (Bava Basra, 25b) advised that, when davening, “One who wishes to become wise should face south; and [one who wishes] to become rich should face north.” That advice, the Tanna explains, is based on the fact that, in the Kodashim, the shulchan, which represents sustenance, is in the north, and the menorah, which represents wisdom, is in the south.

This is not the place to expound on the halachic ramifications of reconciling that advice with the Gemara in Brachos (30a) about facing Eretz Yisrael and the Makom Hamikdash. (Readers are pointed to the Tur and Shulchan Aruch on Orach Chayim 94; 1-3.)

But however one might endeavor to put Rabi Yitzchak’s advice into action, one thing is self-evident and certain: It is impossible to simultaneously face both north and south.

© 2017 Hamodia

Bursting Our Bubbles

Ever heard of Chartbeat? Assuming you answered no, well, neither had I, at least not until last week, when it was reported that the web analytics company released a new analysis of the reader preferences of 148 news organizations.

The apolitical company tracks what news stories are being read most at any given moment, along with where those readers came from and how long they spent on each story. Because so many news sources use the service, Chartbeat has abundant data that can be usefully crunched.

Which is precisely what two researchers at the firm did, first using readers’ political views to divide media into those tending to have more liberal readers and those with more conservative ones. The New York Times and the Washington Post are examples of the former; the Wall St. Journal and Forbes, of the latter.

The researchers then studied how many articles organizations in both groups published about a given news event, along with the amount of time their readers spent with the stories.

The Chartbeat analysis suggests that stories were generally covered equally by all the news sources, but that readers of particular political bent seemed to avoid certain stories: those challenging their pre-existent positions.

James Shepperd, a University of Florida professor of psychology, has written about that fact. “Generally,” he says, “people prefer information consistent with their beliefs, views and prior behaviors, and avoid information that’s inconsistent” with them.

That’s true not only in politics. One study of Belgian and Dutch soccer fans found that readers were significantly less interested in news about their favorite team after a loss. Losers tend, in the study’s neological nomenclature, to CORF, or “cut off reflected failure,” while winners prefer to BIRG, or “bask in reflected glory.”

That’s unfortunate. We lose out by not exposing ourselves to points of view diametric to those we currently hold. Whether those points of view end up helping us more finely hone our own different ones, or whether they make us reconsider our assumptions, they are exquisitely valuable.

By CORFing and BIRGing, as we are so often inclined to do, we deny ourselves the ability to truly objectively analyze happenings and topics. There are almost always two sides to any story, and an accurate conclusion can really only be reached by weighing them both.

As a certain ex-president said in his farewell address: “We [have increasingly] become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on [all] the evidence that is out there.” Perceptive guy.

There are, of course, certainties in life, convictions we rightly embrace without reservation. A committed Jew affirms that Creation has a purpose, and that the goals of his own life are defined by Hashem’s will as communicated through the Torah and its interpreters. Most people  also consider near-certain the consensuses in specific realms of people presumed wiser in those realms, be they doctors, lawyers or tax advisors.

But to proclaim, without examining all sides of a particular controversial policy, action, official or piece of legislation, that we just know without question that it or he or she is good or bad is, in the end, an exercise in overreaching.

And even when we have made our personal analyses and taken positions and made the cases for our opinions, it is always beneficial to have in the backs of our minds – or perhaps even their fronts – a recognition of the fact that, for all our intelligence and best laid logic, we might still … possibly… be… wrong.

That realization is of more than philosophical import. It has a vital and practical ramification in the realm of human interaction, along the lines of Chazal’s statements (Berachos 58a and Bamidbar Rabbah,  21:2) that just as people’s faces are different from one another, so do they see things differently. A quest for truth requires us to perceive those with different views as, well, people with different views, not as illogical, intractable, irredeemable enemies of all that is good and right.

Newsprint, airwaves and cyberspace are saturated these days with precisely that latter sort of demagoguery; our society suffers from a malnourishment of modesty, not only in the realm of dress and mores, but in attitudes and stances as well. There is so little that any of us can truly know; yet so many are so certain of so much.

Trumpeting opinions that haven’t been honestly subjected to the test of different ones does not promote healthy, productive disagreement and discussion; on the contrary, it suffocates them.

© 2017 Hamodia

What the Doctor Ordered

A Dutch doctor who ordered an elderly dementia patient’s family to restrain her as she was given a lethal injection was recently cleared of wrongdoing by a panel that considered the case.

In 2002, the Netherlands became the first country in the world to decriminalize physician-assisted euthanasia. Since then, thousands of Dutch citizens (more than 5000 in 2015 alone) have been helped by doctors to kill themselves. The law requires that the patient’s suffering be “unbearable and untreatable.” In four years, though, the number of mental health patients killed by euthanasia has quadrupled.

According to a report issued by a Regional Review Committee, the unidentified patient, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease four years ago, wrote a living will saying she wished to die when the “time was right.”

Her condition deteriorated and her aging husband, unable to care for her, had her admitted to a nursing home, where she told staff members that she wished to die, “but not now.” Although some doctors said she was “gloomy” and “hopeless,” one doctor reported her “cheerful and peaceful.”

The home’s senior doctor asserted the time was right because of a deterioration in the woman’s condition, and the woman’s husband concurred, although the report states that the patient had “never verbally requested euthanasia.”

A sleep-inducing drug was placed in her coffee, but the more than 80-year-old woman resisted the injection intended to kill her. The doctor then asked the relatives of the woman to hold her down while she administered the lethal injection.

“I am convinced that the doctor acted in good faith,” said Jacob Kohnstamm, the committee chairman, although he added that “we would like to see more clarity on how such cases are handled in the future.”

Part of the calculus for achieving that clarity, whether made explicit or not, will be economic considerations. A University of Calgary study recently published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal identified “substantial savings” that Canada, whose doctor-assisted euthanasia law closely resembles the Netherlands’, can reap from its annual health budget by killing willing patients rather than caring for them.

End-of-life care can be long and expensive, the report explains, while euthanasia costs just a few dollars per patient.

Here in the U.S., the Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that there is no Constitutional right to assisted suicide, but that states have the power to allow or prohibit it. To date, five states have passed laws permitting the practice.

Despite the power of states here,  issues pertinent to physician-assisted suicide laws can still wend their way to the nation’s highest court.

In 2006, for example, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft tried to halt physician-assisted suicide in Oregon by contending that prescriptions written for that purpose did not meet the Controlled Substances Act’s requirement of serving a “legitimate medical purpose.”

The High Court ruled that Mr. Ashcroft could not block the law that way, but in a dissent to that ruling, the late, lamented Justice Antonin Scalia asserted that the legitimacy of physician-assisted suicide “ultimately rests, not on ‘science’ or ‘medicine,’ but on a naked value judgment.”

In a speech two years earlier about a different subject, Justice Scalia raised the specter of assisted suicide one day being embraced by the Court. After decrying the Court’s discovery in the Constitution of “a variety of liberties” that “were so little rooted in the traditions of the American people that they were criminal for 200 years,” Mr. Scalia added that his colleagues might be prepared to discover a Constitutional right to assisted suicide, too.

“We’re not [yet] ready to announce that right,” he said, sarcastically. “Check back with us.”

Justice Scalia’s death last year made that facetious comment less humorous. Thankfully, though, the man designated by President Donald Trump to assume Mr. Scalia’s still-vacant seat, Judge Neil M. Gorsuch, has a clear paper trail on the issue, in the form of his 2006 book “The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia.”

“Human life is fundamentally and inherently valuable,” Mr. Gorsuch wrote, in support of the existing laws in most states barring assisted suicide.

Society’s task, he said, was balancing “the interests of those persons who wish to control the timing of their deaths and those vulnerable individuals whose lives may be taken without their consent due to mistake, abuse or pressure in a regime where assisted suicide is legal.”

In light of cases like the Dutch patient’s, and calculations like those in the University of Calgary study, a perceptive, thoughtful, conscientious mind like Judge Gorsuch’s on the High Court is just what the doctor ordered.

© 2017 Hamodia

Perceiving the Good

More than 40 years ago, at just about this time of year, the rebbi insisted I leave class. I readily obliged.

The details of what prompted my banishment, while amusing, aren’t important. All you need to know is that someone had called out something while the rebbi’s eyes were in his sefer, and that it hadn’t been I. (Admittedly, on a number of occasions during my schooling I would have rightfully been accused of various violations of rules or decorum. That particular time, however, I happened to be innocent.).

Irate at the unfairness of it all, I marched to the office of the principal, Rabbi Joel Feldman, shlita, announced with righteous indignation that my punishment had been unjust, and declared that I had no intention of ever returning to that shiur. I was convinced, I declared, that the rebbi, while a fine man, had it in for me.

I was surprised by the principal’s reaction. He didn’t ask me to identify the criminal (and, honoring the high school omertà code, I would never have told him anyway), but simply said, “Well, I can’t send you to the lower shiur; you’d be bored. So I guess I’ll send you to Rabbi Rottenberg’s shiur.”

Rav Yosef Rottenberg, shlita (may he have a refuah shleimah), was Baltimore’s Yeshivas Chofetz Chaim’s “high shiurrebbi at the time and its eventual Rosh Yeshivah. I was taken aback but readily accepted the offer.

That marked a turning point in my life. Although the shiur was somewhat over my head, I made some effort (for a change), and actually did some learning. Rabbi Rottenberg, a brilliant Torah-scholar and talmid of Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, truly became my rebbi. His broad knowledge of both Torah and worldly matters, not to mention his well-honed sense of humor, were inspiring. When I graduated, he recommended me to Yeshivas Kol Torah in Bayit Vegan, where I learned before returning to Baltimore and continuing my studies in Yeshivas Ner Yisrael.

I owe any hatzlachah I had thereafter to Rabbi Feldman, Rabbi Rottenberg… and Rebbi X (not his real initial), the one who ordered me out of shiur.

I don’t write those words facetiously. Hakaras hatov is due for any tov, intended as such or not. Why else, the baalei mussar ask, could Moshe Rabbeinu be “indebted” to the water or to the earth to the point where Aharon had to strike them to bring about the makkos of dam, tzefardeia and kinim? Inanimate objects can’t be objects of what we call “gratitude.” They can, though, be objects of hakaras hatov, “recognition of the good” – which is for our own benefit, not that of the objects.

And that requirement to recognize good exists even when the good is sourced in something negative. In last week’s parashah, Moshe is described by the daughters of Yisro as an “ish mitzri,” an “Egyptian man.” Midrash Tanchuma has it that the reference is to the “ish mitzri” Moshe had killed in Mitzrayim, whose death was the cause of his flight to Midyan. Moshe, in other words, in a sense, owed much to that Mitzri.

Many years after being kicked out of shiur, I myself, ironically, served as a rebbi and principal of a yeshivah, in an ‘out-of-town’ community. And one day, I found myself forced to leave – not just the classroom but the institution. A new overseer, working with a board of directors with a very different vision than I had of what the yeshivah should be, told me that he couldn’t guarantee my position for the following school year.

I was heartbroken to leave my beloved yeshivah and community. And more, to be forced to entertain something I had often said I would never do: move to New York. But Rabbi Moshe Sherer, z”l, had asked me to join Agudath Israel’s staff. Tearfully, my wife and I and our young family left our home of 11 years.

Fast-forward a few more years, after we had acclimated to our new location, and I to my new job, which I grew to deeply appreciate. One Shabbos in shul, I saw Rabbi Y. (not his real initial either), the overseer who was the cause of our exile. He was related to someone in the community and had come to visit.

First reaction: Oh, no! Not him!

But then, a deeper, more profound thought dawned: I owe this guy my new life. And I said to myself, as all feelings of hakaras hatov should ultimately impel us to say, “Baruch Hashem.”

© 2017 Hamodia

Much Ado About an Embassy

It was back in 1995 that the 104th Congress passed an act that mandated the move of our country’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Yerushalayim. Although the United States as a country has withheld official recognition of the city as Israel’s capital, the legislative branch has long made its sentiments clear.

The reason the law Congress passed has never been implemented is because Presidents Clinton, Bush, and Obama all viewed it as a Congressional infringement on the executive branch’s constitutional authority over foreign policy. Each invoked the presidential waiver on national security interests as justification for keeping the embassy in Tel Aviv.

President-elect Trump, however, has declared that he will not follow suit, creating excitement in parts of the American and Israeli Jewish publics; and, in other parts, grave concerns about what such a move might portend.

Some feel that the Palestinian leadership, and the Palestinian street that leads the leadership, need to experience an unapologetic and determined American action in recognition of Israel’s legitimacy, in order to “get real” and accept the facts of history. Others, more concerned about the apparent Arab cultural proclivity to violence, see an embassy move as courting danger.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that Mr. Trump’s plan to relocate the embassy is “great.” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sent a letter to Mr. Trump predicting that a move of the embassy to Yerushalayim “will have destructive consequences on the peace process, the two-state solution and the safety and security of the region.” P.A. “Chief Islamic Justice” Sheikh Mahmoud Al-Habbash sermonized that if the new U.S. administration carries out its embassy relocation plan, it would constitute “a declaration of war against all Muslims.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry seemed to concur, telling an interviewer that relocating the embassy would cause “an explosion, an absolute explosion in the region, not just in the West Bank, and perhaps [not] even [just] in Israel itself, but throughout the region.”

Former Israeli National Security Advisor Major General Yaakov Amidror was more sanguine, saying that an embassy move “for us [is] very important,” and any Arab protests would “be very minor.”

An intriguing idea for honoring the Trump pledge while limiting the likelihood of a Palestinian meltdown emerged from an Israeli news organization, which cited “senior Israeli Foreign Ministry officials” as contending that David Friedman, the next American ambassador to Israel, might work from an office in Yerushalayim, while the U.S. embassy proper would remain in Tel Aviv.

Surprisingly, Martin Indyk, who served as ambassador to Israel in the Clinton administration and as a special envoy to the region in the Obama administration, endorsed Mr. Trump’s plan. Sort of.

He said it was a good idea, but only if it were married to a broader proposal: making Yerushalayim the shared capital of both Israel and a Palestinian state, with Jewish suburbs under Israeli sovereignty and Arab ones under Palestinian sovereignty – an idea advanced both by President Bill Clinton in his last days in office and by Mr. Kerry in his recent speech; and placing the Old City under a special administration charged with maintaining the religious status quo and ensuring that the three religious authorities continued to administer their respective holy sites. That idea was supported by President George W. Bush during negotiations between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel and Mahmoud Abbas.

If a clear and unfettered move of the embassy to Yerushalayim in fact takes place, many Jews and others will rejoice. If it doesn’t, though, or one of the alternate plans is chosen, there will be broad disappointment.

Either way, though, something demands our reflection here: Whether or not Yerushalayim will host the American embassy, or some semblance of an official American presence, is not ultimately important. The source of the city’s kedushah, the Har HaBayis, remains “occupied territory” (even if Israel has a degree of security-related control over it). And “East Jerusalem,” whoever polices it, is a de facto Arab city.

The only embassy, in the end, that we rightly pine for is the Divine one, the Shechina for whose return to Tzion we pray daily.

Convincing the world to accept that Yerushalayim is the eternal Jewish capital is not our ultimate goal. The nations’ refusal to understand that truth is an outrage, yes. But, more trenchant, it’s a symptom – of our not yet having merited a third Beis Hamikdash on the site of its predecessors.

And it’s always imperative to address not the symptom but the sickness.

© Hamodia 2017

I Abstain from the Outrage

True or False?

  • The U.S. abstention to the recent U.N. resolution was the first time an American administration declined to veto a Security Council resolution critical of Israel and opposed by her.
  • The resolution is groundbreaking, and pledges the territory captured by Israel in 1967 to a Palestinian state.
  • It would remove Yerushalayim and the Kosel Maaravi from Israeli sovereignty.
  • It is one-sided, placing the blame for the stagnated peace process squarely on Israel.
  • President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry have sold Israel out.

The first four are demonstrably false.  The fifth, too.

Please don’t read further if you are not willing to consider a perspective different from the one you expect from this rightly respected newspaper and other “pro-Israel” news sources and organizations, including the wonderful one that employs me, Agudath Israel of America, which, like many other Jewish groups, condemned the U.S. abstention.  I am resolutely pro-Israel but not necessarily in agreement with every Israeli administration’s positions.  And, as I have pointed out on several occasions, while I proudly represent Agudath Israel, and convey its stances to the public and media, I exist as an individual too, and I write in these pages and in others from my own personal perspective.

Still here?  Good.

Since the Six-Day War in 1967, there have been 42 U.S. vetoes of Israel-critical resolutions – but, over the course of eight U.S. administrations, including the Reagan and George W. Bush years, more than 70 “yes” votes or abstentions. The recent Security Council abstention was noteworthy, though: it was the Obama administration’s first non-veto of a critical-of-Israel resolution in its eight years, the lowest count of any president since 1967.

The recent resolution has no practical effect and takes no position that has not already been taken by the Security Council (and most of the world’s governments).  It does not determine borders; it only reiterates the tired truism that Yehudah and Shomron are “occupied” territory.  Technically, that is not entirely accurate, since the land was not under any state’s legitimate sovereignty before its capture, but it is true that, of all the captured territory, only Yerushalayim was annexed by Israel.

And Yerushalayim’s status, although not recognized at present by the U.N., will not change in negotiations, should the peace process ever resume.  As Secretary of State Kerry said in his detailed post-vote speech, there must be “freedom of access to the holy sites consistent with the established status quo.” He reiterated that point, too, a moment later, declaring that “the established status quo” at religious sites must be “maintained.”

U.N. resolutions concerning Israel have long been consistently, notoriously and laughably one-sided.  This one, though, as it happens, while calling on Israel to stop building in settlements, calls too on Palestinians to take “immediate steps to prevent all acts of violence against civilians, including acts of terror” and to “to clearly condemn all acts of terrorism.”  That, at least for the U.N., is in fact groundbreaking.

As to Messrs. Obama and Kerry, consider a thought experiment.  Imagine – just as a theoretical possibility – that they both actually care deeply about Israel.  In fact, over his nearly 30 years in the U.S. Senate, Mr. Kerry was a reliable, stalwart and unapologetic defender of Israel.  Pretend that Mr. Obama is of similar mindset.  (Which he is, but if you’re convinced otherwise, just pretend.)  And that they both believe, honestly and deeply, that (whatever you or I may hold to be true) only a two-state solution can ensure Israel’s security and integrity, and that continued settlement-building gives the Palestinians an excuse (unjustified, but still) to not engage in peace negotiations.

What would the two men then rightly do, with only days left for their administration, if a resolution reiterating the world’s objection to that building activity and calling for negotiations were put on the Security Council table?  Veto it, against their convictions about Israel’s wellbeing?  Or try to send a message, as they prepare to leave the world stage, about what they feel is best for Israel?

They might be entirely wrong about that (although they might be right).  And, yes, the overwhelming blame for the lack of peace is unarguably on the Palestinian leadership and populace.  And yes, all of Eretz Yisrael is bequeathed to the Jewish People.

Still and all, the American leaders’ determination to issue a final, passive call for what they believe is in Israel’s best interest does not bespeak disdain for Israel, but precisely the opposite.

Which is why all the shouts of “betrayal!” and “traitors!” and “complicit!” are so very wrong and so very sad.  This is an administration that has stood by Israel time and time again for eight years, and that mere months ago forged a 10-year, $38 billion military aid package for Israel, the largest for any U.S. ally ever.

One can consider Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry (and most Israelis, as it happens, because a clear majority are in favor of a negotiated two-state resolution) misguided, if one must.  But one cannot slander them as Israel-betrayers.  Must everyone be either “with us” or “against us,” “friend” or “enemy”?  Can no one be with us and a friend but with a different perspective than our own?

What the outgoing U.S. administration wants from Israel isn’t capitulation to her enemies.  What it has always sought is a sign of willingness on the current Israeli government’s part to simply act decisively on its declared commitment to a peace process aimed at a two-state solution.  To be sure, even a restarted peace process is far from assured of success; there are many issues that could prove intractable.  And yes, there have been moratoriums on “disputed territories” building in the past, to no avail.  But an acceptance of yet another one, instead of a continuation of the recently accelerated pace of building, will put the ball again in the Palestinian court, and offer something to an angry world.

Yes, that world is unreasonable, obnoxious and ugly.  Not to mention ridiculously hyper-focused on Israel, when so many truly unspeakable true human tragedies exist elsewhere, ignored.

So why, so many ask, should its opinion matter to us?  That sentiment is what Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu expressed when he said, in the wake of the Security Council vote, that “Israelis do not need to be lectured of the importance of peace by foreign leaders” and that “Israel is a country with national pride, and we don’t turn the other cheek” and that he has had “enough of this exile mentality.”

And it is what he expressed, too, by summoning ambassadors of countries who voted for the resolution, and the American ambassador as well, to reprimand them, on the day that Christians consider the holiest on their calendar.  “What would they have said in Jerusalem,” an unnamed Western diplomat later fumed, “if we summoned the Israeli ambassador on Yom Kippur?” Think hard about that.

It may feel gratifying to snub one’s nose at real or perceived enemies. Personally, though, I am a talmid, so to speak, of Rav Elchonon Wasserman and Rav Reuvein Grozovsky, zecher tzaddikim liv’racha, not of Reb Bibi Netanyahu.  I believe that we are indeed in exile, in galus; that “secular Jewish nationalism” is wrong and dangerous; and that a modicum of modesty is demanded of all Jews, especially those who claim to represent other Jews.  I believe that humility, not arrogance (and certainly not “kochi v’otzem yadi”) should be the operative principle of Klal Yisrael, and of anyone who deigns to lead a “Jewish state.”

Maybe, with the help of the Trump administration, Israel will be able to cow the 2.8 million Palestinians in “the territories” into submission.  And maybe Hamas will not be able to seize whatever peace-seeking Palestinian hearts and minds are left.  Maybe all will be well, Israelis will sleep safely and the fears of the Obama administration will prove to have been without warrant.

Maybe.

But whatever may happen in the future, what the present requires of us, al pi mesoraseinu, I believe, is hatznea leches and hakaras hatov, not snubbing, sneering or insults.

© Hamodia 2017

 

Misguided Magical Thinking

On June 5, 1944, Erwin Rommel, the greatest German general of World War II, left occupied France to return to Germany for his wife’s birthday the next day. He was expecting an American invasion of Northern France, but a storm in the region, and the chief German meteorologist’s prediction that the weather would not be changing soon, led him to conclude that an invasion was not imminent.

Mrs. Rommel’s birthday is, of course, more remembered by history as D-Day, when American troops landed at Normandy, the largest seaborne invasion in history and the beginning of the liberation of German-occupied northwestern Europe from Nazi control.

The following year, when U.S. President Harry Truman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin issued the Potsdam Declaration, an ultimatum calling for the Japanese to surrender, a questionable translation of a Japanese word in Japan’s response may have led to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

A translator rendered mokusatsu – which literally means “kill with silence” and may have been intended to signal a simple reluctance for the moment to respond – as “reject.” President Truman took Japan’s reply as a statement of defiance, and ordered the bombings that took the lives of an estimated 200,000 people, half of them after months of agony.

More than thirty years earlier, the Titanic sunk, and more than 1500 people drowned in the North Atlantic Ocean. Ship lookout Fred Fleet, who survived the disaster, told the official inquiry into the tragedy that had he had binoculars, he would have spied the iceberg that sank the ocean liner in time to avoid it. Binoculars had in fact been on board, but were in a locked cupboard. The ship’s former Second Officer, David Blair, who had been removed from the ship before it sailed, neglected to leave the key with his replacement.

A birthday party, a mistranslated word, a missing key – each proved momentously consequential.

As did, more recently, a click on a computer keyboard. The consequences were not – at least as far as we know now – as momentous as the party, word or key. But history may have been changed by the click all the same.

Back in March, Clinton campaign chief John Podesta received an email warning, ostensibly from Google, informing him that someone “just used your password to try to sign into your Google account.” The message continued: “Google stopped this sign-in attempt. You should change your password immediately.”

An aide, suspicious of the message, sent it to a Clinton campaign computer technician to check it out.

“This is a legitimate email,” the aide, Charles Delavan, replied. “John needs to change his password immediately.”

And with a subsequent click on the “Google” message, a decade of emails that Mr. Podesta maintained in his personal account — a total of about 60,000 — were unlocked for the use of possible Russian hackers. Mr. Delavan, in an interview, said that his bad advice was a result of a typo: He knew this was a “phishing” attack, an attempt to fool the recipient into allowing access to his account. He had meant, he said, to type that it was an “illegitimate” email or that it was “not legitimate.”

Whether the pilfered emails, which included embarrassing exchanges about various people and things, played a truly pivotal role in eroding Mrs. Clinton’s apparent lead during the weeks before the election cannot be known. But that they drew great and negative attention isn’t disputable.

And neither is the truism that historical happenings can hang on what seem trivial, almost random, things. To some people, that is just evidence of the folly of the cosmos, the meaninglessness of life. To those of us, though, who realize that human life and history have ultimate meaning, and that a Divine hand guides both our personal lives and the collective one of the world, such “trivialities” are not trivial at all.

We tend sometimes to lose ourselves in the turmoil of our hishtadluyos, the efforts we make, as we are enjoined to do, to effect desired outcomes – personal, communal, political. And we begin to think, in the backs of our minds (or, worse, even in their fronts) that our actions per se directly bring about the results that follow. It is that sort of imagining that fuels the wild passions some exhibit about politics.

An antidote to that misguided magical thinking, a reminder of Who is always ultimately in charge, consists of contemplating just how easily the world can change through no intentional action of our own, or of any mortal.

© 2016 Hamodia

An Unfortunately Necessary Letter

I was privileged and humbled to be asked to join a group of rabbis more distinguished than I and spanning the Sephardic, Yeshivish, Hasidic, Kiruv and Centrist Orthodox world to deliver an important message.  The signatories are immediately below; and the letter, below that.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein Editor, Cross Currents

Rabbi Shalom Baum President, Rabbinical Council of America

Rabbi Yosef Benarroch Rosh Midrasha, Midreshet Eshel Mara D’atra, Adas Yeshurun Herzliya Synagogue Winnipeg, Canada

Rabbi Moises Benzaquen Mara D’atra, West Coast Torah Center Rosh Hayeshiva, Harkham Gaon Academy Los Angeles, CA

Rabbi Joseph Dweck Senior Rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese Sephardi Community of the United Kingdom

Rabbi Daniel Feldman Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary

Rabbi Ilan D. Feldman Mara D’asra, Congregation Beth Jacob Atlanta, GA

Rabbi Efrem Goldberg Mara D’asra, Boca Raton Synagogue Boca Raton, FL

Rabbi Micah Greenland International Director, NCSY

HaRav Mayer Alter Horowitz, Bostoner Rebbe of Yerushalayim

Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky Rosh Yeshiva, Darche Noam Jerusalem, Israel

Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin Mara D’asra, Congregation Beth Avraham Joseph (BAYT) Toronto, Canada

HaRav Gedalia Dov Schwartz Rosh Beit Din, Beis Din of America and Chicago Rabbinical Council

Rabbi Avi Shafran Media Liaison, Agudath Israel of America

Rabbi Yitzchak Shurin Rosh Midrasha, Midreshet Rachel V’Chaya

HaRav Michel Twerski Mara D’asra, Congregation Beth Jehudah Milwaukee, WI

 

 

The text of the statement:

As rabbonim and mechanchim, we are greatly concerned about the popularity in some circles of a “kiruv” approach that does not bring honor to the Torah ha-Kedoshah but, on the contrary, creates considerable chilul Hashem.

Earlier this year, Rabbi Yosef Mizrachi apologized for one particularly offensive statement he made on several occasions. But he has voiced, both before and since that apology, many things that reduce complex issues to simplistic and misleading sound bites. He has also repeatedly arrogated to “know” why unfortunate things happen to various people and has presented subtle statements of Chazal in superficial and deceptive ways.

That method may entertain and even stimulate some audiences, but it does no justice to the Jewish mesorah. And, especially with the worldwide audience enjoyed by any public speech these days, misleading assertions even when offered with the best of intentions, are particularly objectionable, and even dangerous.

Jewish institutions must be discerning about the credentials and the histories of those to whom they offer the honor of acting as teachers of Torah. We urge all shuls and organizations to act responsibly and take seriously decisions about whom they invite to address their gatherings.

letter

 

Ripe Citrons and Ruby Slippers

On the first day of Sukkos, after tens of thousands of Jews had paid princely sums for flawless specimens of a particular citrus fruit, payments were made by others, too, for a very different reason.

That day, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History launched a public campaign to raise $300,000 in order to restore and preserve a pair of slippers, those that were worn by the main character in the 1939 film production of a children’s classic.

“The shoes,” explained the Smithsonian, “are fragile and actively deteriorating.”  Their color, appallingly, “has faded, and the slippers appear dull and washed-out. The coating on the sequins that give the shoes their hallmark ruby color is flaking off its gelatin base. Some threads that hold sequins in place have broken.”  Something had to be done.

The campaign, which aimed at repairing the footgear and constructing a special temperature-controlled and light-controlled enclosed environment to ensure that the slippers last into perpetuity, was intended to span three weeks.  By Shemini Atzeres, though, it had already exceeded its goal, and donations continue to pour in.  Support came from 41 countries, with the highest concentration of donors in New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.  And likely the fictional town of Chelm.

To paraphrase the prayer recited by mesaymim, “We expend funds and they expend funds.”  And what an intriguing contrast the respective mass expenditures provide.

“Conserving an American Icon” is what the Smithsonian dubbed its save-our-slippers movement.  “Icon” is a word borrowed from the Greek, and can mean “idol.”  Whether the good-heartedly nostalgic donors to the Keren HaSlippers, for their adoration of physical objects,  can be categorized as idolaters is not something I am prepared to say, or qualified to judge.  But such simpleminded devotion can prove something of, if an irresistible pun can be forgiven… a slippery slope.

After Yom Tov, of course, many esrogim were either consumed fresh or, processed, as jelly.  Others were just put aside to petrify.  While the fruits were immensely valued for seven days, they had an expiration date, so to speak, one unrelated to their freshness.  And that speaks to the essential difference between how a Jew looks at an esrog and how a sentimental soul sees a theatrical relic.  The esrog is a means of performing a mitzvah, not an inherent object of adulation.  It is valuable for the opportunity it provides to serve Hashem, a means toward a goal, not something to be venerated.  And so, once its purpose as a path toward the performance of a mitzvah has been fulfilled, it reverts to a mere fruit.

To be sure, there are objects in our own world that possess inherent holiness, like kodoshim, meat or flour-offerings from korbanos brought in the Beis Hamikdash; or, today, a sefer Torah.  But kodoshim is, in the end, consumed or burned, and a sefer Torah’s holiness derives from the words it contains, not from ink and parchment themselves; and when it is no longer usable, it is buried.

There are, moreover, Jews who treasure objects that were once used by great tzaddikim. But only, at least properly, because of the objects’ connection to those tzaddikim, who were in fact worthy of veneration because of the lives they lived.  Rather different, to greatly understate things, from an artifact of a theatrical production.

Non-Jews, and Jews unfamiliar with their spiritual heritage, if aware of the prices paid by observant Jews for esrogim, must think us strange.  After all, the most beautiful, symmetrical, aromatic lemon in the Trader Joe’s bin commands at most fifty cents.  And it has a nice, smooth skin, too.

And if they knew of all the other substantial expenditures we make, for talmud Torah, for Shabbosos and Yamim Tovim (for Pesach alone!), for kosher meat, for tzeddaka… they would surely think us entirely unhinged. They, though, don’t comprehend what a mitzvah means to a heartfelt Jew.

If only they could truly appreciate the meaning of a mitzvah, they would perceive the deep contrast between cherishing a meaningless prop and valuing a precious objet d’mitzvah.  If they only, so to speak, had a bren.

This past Sukkos gave us an example how starkly divergent are our world and the one “out there.”

A set of footwear was confirmed in the status of an icon, and a large sum was dedicated to its preservation – at least in the hopes of curators and now grown-up children – for eternity.

And a mitzvah was, as every year, performed at considerable expense by Jews, affording them actual access to eternity.

© 2016 Hamodia

The Sukkah Still Stands

There is simply no describing the plaintive, moving melody to which Yiddish writer Avraham Reisen’s poem was set.  As a song, it is familiar to many of us who know it thanks to immigrant parents or grandparents.  And, remarkably, the strains of “A Sukkeleh,” no matter how often we may have heard them, still tend to choke us up.

Based on Reisen’s “In Sukkeh,” the song, really concerns two sukkos, one literal, the other metaphorical, and the poem, though it was written at the beginning of the last century, is still tender, profound and timely.

Thinking about the song, as I – and surely others – invariably do every year this season, it occurred to me to try to render it into English for readers unfamiliar with either the song or the language in which it was written.  I’m not a professional translator, and my rendering, below, is not perfectly literal.  But it’s close, and is faithful to the rhyme scheme and meter of the original:

A sukkaleh, quite small,

Wooden planks for each wall;

Lovingly I stood them upright.

I laid thatch as a ceiling

And now, filled with deep feeling,

I sit in my sukkaleh at night.

 

A chill wind attacks,

Blowing through the cracks;

The candles, they flicker and yearn.

It’s so strange a thing

That as the Kiddush I sing,

The flames, calmed, now quietly burn.

 

In comes my daughter,

Bearing hot food and water;

Worry on her face like a pall.

She just stands there shaking

And, her voice nearly breaking,

Says “Tattenyu, the sukkah’s going to fall!”

 

Dear daughter, don’t fret;

It hasn’t fallen yet.

The sukkah’s fine; banish your fright.

There have been many such fears,

For nigh two thousand years;

Yet the little sukkah still stands upright.

As we approach the yomtov of Sukkos and celebrate the divine protection our ancestors were afforded during their forty years’ wandering in the midbar, we are supposed – indeed, commanded – to be happy.  We refer to Sukkos, in our tefillos as zman simchoseinu, “the time of our joy.”

And yet, at least seen superficially, there seems little Jewish joy to be had these days.  “State actors” openly threaten acheinu bnei Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael.  Enemies bent on killing Jews attack them, there and elsewhere in the world.  Here in America, an ugly current of anti-Semitism emerges at times to remind us that it thrives in the dirt underfoot.  The internal adversaries of intermarriage and assimilation continue to intensify and take their terrible toll.

The poet, however, well captured a Sukkos-truth.  With temperatures dropping and winter’s gloom not a great distance away, our sukkah-dwelling is indeed a quiet but powerful statement: We are secure because our ultimate protection, as a people if not necessarily as individuals, is assured.

And our security is sourced in nothing so flimsy as a fortified edifice; it is protection provided us by Hakodosh Boruch Hu Himself, in the merit of our avos, and of our own emulation of their dedication to the Divine.

And so, no matter how loudly the winds may howl, no matter how vulnerable our physical fortresses may be, we give harbor to neither despair nor insecurity.  Instead, we redouble our recognition that, in the end, Hashem is in charge, that all is in His hands.

And that, as it has for millennia, the sukkah continues to stand.