The Joy of Torah


(This first appeared on the front page of the Jewish Press, October 21,2016.)

Simchat Torah is the culmination of the entire festival season. Gone, at first glance, is the awe of Days of Awe, and the fearfulness of the period of judgment is replaced by a day of rejoicing and revelry. The change in mood is so striking – certainly from the solemn joy of Yom Kippur but even from the inner happiness experienced on Succot – that it is not unknown for the spiritual highs of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to be lost or forfeited in the riotous behavior some indulge in on Simchat Torah. This refers not just to the execrable drinking that occurs in certain precincts but especially to the ambiance that pertains in many (but by no means all) shuls.

Thus, one who takes a young child to shul only on Simchat Torah and Purim is probably not inculcating in that child the reverence that should typify our deportment in shul, and it will probably take years of training to reverse that impression. That is not to say that young children should not be taken to shul on Simchat Torah but rather that they should be put on notice that the conduct they will witness is atypical.

Undoubtedly, the festivities are cathartic for those who are uncomfortable with the seriousness of Yom Kippur. All of which begs the question: what exactly are we celebrating on Simchat Torah? Of course, one is obligated to rejoice when completing any cycle of Torah study, and so the conclusion of the annual Torah readings and its immediate renewal are appropriate grounds for rejoicing. These are milestones in life, and the transition from Moshe’s death with the Jewish people poised to enter the land of Israel back to the beginning – literally, “in the beginning” – reflects another year in which we have heard, studied, internalized and been uplifted by the Torah’s message. Now, another such year is beginning. And rather than going back to the same place – both in the Torah and in our lives – we are actually ascending a spiral staircase in which we gaze back at the previous year, cherish the insights that have shaped our minds and refined our deeds, and eagerly anticipate the next cycle of readings.

And so we dance, and do hakafot with the Torah in appreciation and gratitude for the divine gift to the Jewish people. Some argue today that hakafot on Simchat Torah are an example of the innovations that once characterized Jewish life that have now been frozen by a stultified Rabbinate. Well, not quite. The hakafot of Simchat Torah are actually extensions of the hakafot that are made throughout Succot. Every day of Succot we grasp our arba minim and march around the Torah that stands in the center. On Simchat Torah, we hold the Torah itself, and circumambulate the place from which the Torah is read. Better said, we are circling our version of Sinai – the shulchan from which the sounds of Torah emanate – and celebrating with “He who chose us from all the nations and gave us the Torah.”

After weeks of repentance and soul-searching, confessions and fasts, and on the verge of returning to our daily lives, we need to celebrate the Torah, elevate it in our eyes, show our love for it and prepare to re-integrate it in all its aspects. Amid all the celebrations, we must realize that dancing with the Torah is not an end in itself but a natural expression of our love for Torah. But that love is primarily actualized not by holding the Torah, waltzing, fox-trotting or tangoing with the Torah, or even kissing the Torah when it passes in front of us. That love is fully consummated only when we study the Torah, observe its laws, cherish it, and protect and preserve it from those who try to modify it to suit the times.

One cannot love the Torah and constantly find fault with it nor can one love the Torah and negate or minimize its divine origin. One cannot love the Torah and try to change it, anymore than one can love a spouse while trying to change that person as well. Both are futile quests. We can only change ourselves. Sometimes, we have to change ourselves to accommodate the spouse who might have an irritating trait or two (love conquers all). Sometimes we have to change ourselves and surrender to the dictates of a divine Torah, even when we find some of the commandments challenging in one way or another.

It is a basic rule of Jewish life that every person will have to struggle with at least one area of Torah, even if only because the Torah demands that we overcome our natural instincts and defer to G-d’s will. In theory, only the perfectly righteous observe the Torah without difficulty, but the perfectly righteous are not that large a demographic today. Nonetheless, true love of Torah always requires that we conform to G-d’s will rather than expect G-d’s will to conform to our needs.

Not long ago, a Yeshiva high school principal wrote that “the reconciliation of the Torah’s discussion of homosexuality represents the single most formidable religious challenge for our young people today.” Without at all discounting, trivializing or minimizing the struggle that some have with this issue, if such is “the single most formidable religious challenge for our young people today” they should count their blessings. And this conclusion accounts for the genuine pain many people feel over their circumstances, which is quite often heartbreaking and should always evoke our empathy. It takes into account the pain of families wrestling with this challenge. But the greatest reality – the one that governs our lives – is the reality of G-d’s existence and the laws of the Torah He gave us.

So the world has never spared the Jewish people formidable religious challenges, and to be sure, many Jews have unfortunately succumbed to those challenges. But imagine if our young people today had to deal with grinding poverty, relentless persecution, pogroms, the Holocaust, the Haskalah, high infant mortality and forced conversions. Imagine if these young people had to witness their families murdered before their eyes by an enemy driven to destroy them because of its hatred of Torah. Imagine if they had to encounter the Inquisition or were forced to abandon all their worldly possessions and flee into exile. Imagine if these young people had no job on Monday because they failed to show up for work on the previous Shabbat. Imagine if kosher food was not readily available in every supermarket, and there weren’t kosher restaurants aplenty to satiate every palate. Imagine if they had to travel hundreds of miles to use a mikveh, as some Jews in the former Soviet Union had to do. Imagine if they were denied the right to learn Torah under the penalty of death. Just imagine…

They should be thankful to have such a “formidable” challenge as the one they claim to have, even acknowledging that it is serious and often tragic. But we should wonder whether or not we are doing an adequate job in educating our young people that Torah sometimes requires sacrifice or pain or struggle, and observance of the Torah sometimes means that we cannot always get our way.

Not every desire can be reconciled with the laws and morality of the Torah, even if the zeitgeist decrees that you can always have everything you want, how you want it and when you want. It is just not true. That is when we show our love for Torah by surrendering to G-d’s will.

Just because young and modern people disagree with something in the Torah does not make them right and the Torah wrong. Perhaps, indeed, it is the reverse. One would think that a primary focus of Jewish education today (in truth, I assume it is) would be to impart to children the reality of life as G-d mandated it to us. Only G-d’s vision of mankind is real – not anything that we concoct. Only G-d’s morality can preserve mankind’s hopes, dreams and aspirations. Only the truths of Torah can remind man that he is created in the image of G-d and has been given the tools with which to best serve G-d, perfect his soul and enjoy life on this planet.

Again, without trivializing anyone’s pain or the struggles they confront, it stands to reason that if we investigated every generation going back to ancient times, young people in every generation undoubtedly found something to take issue with in the Torah. When all their peers were worshipping idols, or marauding, or carousing, or eating any type of food, or enjoying the weekend (not Shabbat), or reveling in every new discovery and every act of rebellion against their elders, or when they saw their peers pursuing their life’s dreams and desires unfettered by any external restrictions – it is not difficult to envision that many of them felt spiritual “challenges” as well. Those who overcame them are our illustrious ancestors in whose merit we exist today. Those who succumbed to them disappeared into the mist of history and were lost to our eternal people.

Every generation thinks it is reinventing the wheel and faces trials that no one else had before. In truth the wheel grinds on, and in every age Jews confront obstacles to the observance of mitzvot and the love of Torah. What we can never do is measure the worth or viability of Torah by contemporary standards of morality. If we ever did, among other problems that would not be a Torah worth sacrificing for or even dancing with.

On Simchat Torah in the Torah reading, we indirectly reference the famous Mechilta (Parshat Yitro) that every small child is taught: “And He said, ‘Hashem came from Sinai, shone forth to them from Se’ir, appeared from the mountain of Paran…” (Devarim 33:2). To whom did G-d appear? The Midrash states that the nations of the world would have protested the giving of the Torah to Israel, so G-d first offered it to them. “He revealed Himself to the children of the wicked Esav (Se’ir) and asked, ‘will you accept the Torah?” They answered with a question: “Mah k’tiv ba?” What is written in it? G-d answered “You shall not murder,” and the children of Esav responded that homicide is a legacy from their ancestor, and so they rejected the Torah.

Ammon and Moav were also approached and asked “Mah k’tiv ba?” Told there are restrictions on lascivious behavior, they too declined, for their nations were founded on acts of immorality. The children of Yishmael were also offered the Torah and also asked “Mah k’tiv ba?” Informed of the prohibition “You may not steal,” they too protested. “Our forebear was blessed with this special talent, and so the Torah is not for us.

Conversely, when the people of Israel were offered the Torah, we answered “whatever G-d says we will do and we will obey,” “naaseh v’nishma” (Shmot 24:7). We did not ask “Mah k’tiv ba?” We accepted the Torah without investigation (even impetuously, as Rava, the great Amora, was taunted by a heretic, in Masechet Shabbat 88a) and only because we trusted the Lawgiver to give us a Torah that would guide us through life properly, satisfy every legitimate human need, and perfect our souls. We accepted the Torah unconditionally, even though to us it was an “aish dat,” a fiery faith that is not easily handled. We trusted G-d who is compassionate and merciful and knows the best way for man to live.

Some are still asking “Mah k’tiv ba?” – What is written in it?” – and conditioning their acceptance of the Torah on whether or not the commandments of the Torah suit them, their friends, their personalities, their business practices, their own moral conclusions, their family lives, their politics and their proclivities. But those whose acceptance of the Torah is predicated on “Mah k’tiv ba?” will never fully accept the Torah. They are substituting their morality for

G-d’s and, in effect, worshipping themselves.

Is that something to celebrate? Maybe on one’s birthday but that is not the meaning or import of Simchat Torah. On Simchat Torah we celebrate not the giving of the Torah but its incorporation into our lives and our profound joy in being entrusted with G-d’s eternal message for all of mankind. At the very least, we should feel an unlimited sense of gratitude along with the rejoicing.

How can we impart to younger Jews – raised in a world in which narcissism is considered normal and even healthy, and feelings matter more than truth or substance – the spirit of sacrifice, the nobility of surrender to G-d’s will, or the willingness to embrace moral notions that are Divine and objective but contrary to the prevailing norms?

Perhaps we can enlighten them as to the great people in our history who celebrated, loved and lived the Torah when it was not as easy as it is today: Rabbi Akiva (and countless others) who forfeited their lives to teach the Torah to the simple laborer who after a day of toil attends a shiur; parents who retain as their primary ambition in life raising children who love, respect and will learn the Torah; and communities that will faithfully transmit it unaffected by the winds of modernity that are gusting through others.

Those individual giants and committed communities have sustained us until today and will continue in the future. And we should underscore how every Jew has a share in that Torah, community and destiny if only he or she embraces them, a Torah that is “our lives and the length of our days.”  That is the true and enduring celebration of the Torah.

Chag Sameach to all!

Honored Guests

Every year we welcome into our Succot some of the most distinguished guests in Jewish history – the “Ushpizin” – Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Yosef, Moshe, Aharon and David. It is the Jewish dream team and a mystic’s delight, but for the rest of us – why are they here and what do they teach us?
Rav Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the UK, once told the following story. In the year 2000, he was invited to deliver the annual St. George Lecture at Windsor Castle, the first Jew ever so honored. He was overwhelmed by the thought of it – and what he would say – especially considering that Windsor Castle is the oldest royal castle in the world in continuous use since its construction in the 1070’s by William the Conqueror, a decade after the Norman Conquest. Kings and queens have used that residence ever since and much happened to us while they were there.

In the almost 1000 years since, Jews underwent great hardship in the UK – starting with the blood libel in Norwich in 1144, the massacre in York in 1190 (there’s a kinah that describes that), and the expulsion of Jews in 1290 by King Edward I. Jews did not return legally to Britain until Oliver Cromwell permitted them in 1657. And Rabbi Sacks wondered: if those Jews could talk, what would they say now?

What he did say was this: I’m trying to put myself in the mindset of someone who inherits this castle and who lives here. The place is saturated with history. Every royal who lives here sees this home as his personal history, but also as the history of a nation. The residents therefore have moral obligations to the past and the future, and not just the present. Every resident becomes part of that history, the history of Windsor Castle, and he has to preserve it for the next generation of Windsors, the next generation of royalty. This is life lived not just an individual but in an historical context.

Jews, he said, do not have castles. We do not have castles but our history, our memory, is built through words. In context, he meant the hagada – the lecture occurred before Pesach – words that emanate from the commandment of “and you shall relate to your children on that day,” to impart the story of Israel to every new generation. We don’t need buildings of brick and stone if we know the words, and the words are transmitted from generation to generation, century after century, millennium after millennium, frequently under conditions of hardships and travails. And every child is taught the words, because that is his legacy – to transmit those words to his children.

Edmund Burke wrote that “a partnership is not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born.” Burke meant that everyone in society is part of the partnership – but we mean it as referring to the great Jewish odyssey. Indeed, the venerable Labor ideologue Yitzchak Tabenkin told David Ben Gurion not to accede to the partition demands of the Peel Commission, because he had “consulted” both his grandfather and his grandson, and neither would tolerate one generation’s surrender of the ancestral land of the Jewish people. No individual generation has the right to betray the past or the future.

I would take it a step further. Jews don’t have Windsor Castles; those do not represent our essence. We have our words but I would expand that too: what we have our experiences – experiences that we cherish, that define us, that keep us connected to G-d and to our people and that we transmit from one generation to the next.

We don’t need a fancy castle because we have a Succa – and in that Succa we hear the echoes of the giants of our history. The beauty of our history is that they – the Ushpizin – are the constants; we are transient. In our Succa, the guests are always the same – the Ushpizin; only the hosts change from year to year.

And what we convey most to our children are those experiences – of the Succa and the seder, of Shabbat and the shofar, of prayer and Torah study, of the innumerable acts and cherished values – that will both shape them and fully equip them with the means to live not just in the moment but in history, to see themselves as partners in the grand plan of the Creator in history.

“So that generations will know that I caused you to dwell in Succot when I took you out from the land of Egypt, I am G-d.” We dwell in the Succa so that we can transcend the generations – so that all generations will know that G-d has preserved us from time immemorial until this very day. Those Succot in the wilderness began our journey, which will culminate, as the prophet Zecharia taught, when all nations will come to Yerushalayim to celebrate Succot, in the era when G-d’s kingship will appear on earth and the entire world will pay homage to G-d, “and He will be One and His name will be One.”

The Optimism of Rosh Hashana

On Rosh Hashana, the Day of Judgment, all individuals and nations “stand in judgment before the Creator of worlds.”  Naturally, we are usually more preoccupied with our individual judgments, even if the global judgments are equally, if not more, influential. We see all around us the rise of evil, and the unwillingness to confront it; we see the suffering of millions, and the indifference of billions; we hear of threats to the good and decent as the wicked and brazen intimidate and silence. We wonder about reward and punishment, and confront the challenging and comforting words of the Mishna (Avot 1:7) “Do not despair because of [seeming lack of] retribution.”

The simple explanation is that there is a Judge and judgment, and G-d’s justice may be more deliberate than ours would be, but it will come. So do not despair. It will come. But there is another explanation as well.

There is no more visceral sensation that pervades our being this time of year than the ultimate question that hovers around us: “who will live and who will die.” It’s the question that cannot be avoided. Each year, for all the blessings in our lives, death takes its toll and makes our world a little darker and a lot emptier. Death – even the specter of death – brings with it a sense of vulnerability and helplessness. Rav Soloveitchik wrote (in his “Halachic Man”) that death and holiness are contradictions. In the confrontation between man and nature, man always loses. Life itself is transient and fragile. And in a world at war, in a world where Jews feel increasingly exposed because the evildoers are shameless and emboldened and almost all others are feckless appeasers, it is that world in perpetual conflict that led the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes to look at man’s life as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Rosh Hashana teaches us the exact opposite. We are confronted with the obligations of repentance, which is a reflection of renewal. The Gemara says (Masechet Shabbat 106a) that if one from a social group dies, everyone in the group should worry. And not just worry, as Rambam (Laws of Mourning 13:12) elaborates: whoever doesn’t mourn properly, as our Sages commanded, is “cruel,” i.e., is living in denial. What should one do? He should be scared, anxious, examine his deeds, and repent.

It is interesting that the proper response to loss – like to the Day of Judgment – is repentance, which forces us to refocus, to reconnect with the Eternal One and His reality, to triumph over the lure of the frivolous and remember that, indeed, our time here is limited. And that is life-affirming, not depressing.

That is the great message of the Mishna: “do not lose faith in the coming retribution.” It is not only that we believe in reward and punishment, and that the wicked will soon receive their just retribution. It also means “do not despair because of the existence of evil,” of suffering, of problems. Do not despair. Do not think that life is over. Do not even think that the world is filled with evil. None of that is true.

Rav Kook wrote on the verse we recite every morning (Tehillim 30:6) that “G-d’s anger endures for a moment” but to live according to His will is life itself. All the problems in the world, in our lives, are just “a moment,” and that underscores that the abundance of good that is “a life according to His will.”

Rav Kook: “the goodness and kindness in life are the permanent and dominant foundation of existence. It is evil that is temporary and ephemeral.” Evil is the exception, something extraordinary, and comes only to deepen and expand our appreciation of the good. That we don’t always see it like that is the problem with which we have to wrestle.

A person who sees the world as filled with death, pain, suffering and evil is not only mistaken, and not only loses his desire for and enjoyment in life, and not only fills the world with hatred and despair. But such a person also is not paying close enough attention – to see the blessings of life, prosperity, of children and grandchildren, of food, clothing and shelter, of all the opportunities we have to do good for others.

Winston Churchill said, quite insightfully, that the pessimist sees the challenges in every opportunity, whereas the optimist sees the opportunities in every challenge. If the Day of Judgment fills us with awe and trepidation – as it should – it is only because we wish to choose life, not because the alternative is mysterious and terrifying but primarily because of the opportunities that we are afforded in this world.

Rav Saadia Gaon taught us that the shofar is sounded on Rosh Hashana not only to inspire our repentance, induce our trembling on the day of judgment, or even to remind us of the coming redemption and the resurrection of the dead – but rather, in its most basic purpose, as an act of coronation: to accept upon ourselves His kingship and the world of good He has favored us with.

If, on occasion, “at night we lie down in tears” (Tehillim 30:6) – tears shed because of the misery and fear and sorrow we witness, sadness because of personal loss – still “by morning there is joy and song,” the joy of rejuvenation, and the sound of redemption. That is the eternal faith of the Jew. So, never despair and always be optimistic.

May we all merit hearing the sounds of song and salvation in the tents of the righteous, and be inscribed and sealed for a year of life and goodness, of good health and prosperity, of peace and redemption, for us and all Israel.

Enjoy this selection from the “Jewish Shofar” project.

To buy the digital CD, including other melodies, here is the Link


Name Changers

The Gemara (Rosh Hashana 16b) that four actions can change a person’s heavenly decree for the good: charity, changing one’s name and one’s deeds (maybe even one’s domicile) and crying out to G-d. Rambam places this directly in the realm of repentance – not just to avert a decree but to better oneself: “Among the ways of repentance is that a person constantly cries out before G-d with supplications, gives charity to the full extent of his ability, keeps far from sin, and changes his name, as if to say ‘I am someone else and not the man who committed these sins,’ and he changes his deeds for the good…” (Hilchot Teshuva 2:4).

For sure, merely changing one’s name without a concomitant change of behavior is fatuous, worthy of a criminal entering the witness protection program. He hasn’t changes his essence but is seeking to evade justice. But how does changing one’s name in the best of circumstances constitute any real change in the individual? After all, we are defined more by our deeds; our name just is a handy reference point to the person who does those deeds, for good or less-than-good.

We do not find that name-changing is a common practice among penitents today, but the Gemara and the Rambam are evoking a different experience than the literal act. The true penitent has to perceive himself as a different person, as someone else entirely, unencumbered by his past. That past might have been lamentable and might even have defined him in the eyes of the public, but that person has now been replaced by a new person. Same DNA makeup, different moral universe. The sincere penitent has become a different person, so it is prohibited, as Chazal teach (Bava Metzia 58b) to say to a penitent: “Remember your past deeds,” as if he is still who he was before.

But can name-changing erase the past? Should it?

For several years, activists in the black American community have been seeking (in some places, successfully) to erase the names on public places of some of the Founding Fathers of the United States, and change them to names that are more suitable to their interests. Their offenses are known. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe were all slave owners, and their names adorn cities, school, universities and other institutions. Monroe, in fact, is the only US President to have a foreign capital named for him – Monrovia, Liberia. John C. Calhoun, slave owner, Senator, Vice-President, Secretary of State and ardent segregationist, has a building named for him at Yale University, where several months ago, a black employee, irritated at a stained glass window depicting black slaves in what he perceived to be a pejorative way, smashed it to pieces. (He was fired and threatened with arrest. Our times being what they are, and the activists being who they are, he was never prosecuted for his vandalism and has been re-hired by Yale.)

Assuming that these activists are sincere and not merely engaging in a cultural power play so common in this overheated era, is there any merit to their argument? Should the Founding Fathers of this nation be dishonored because of the sordid aspects of their past, notwithstanding their astonishing achievements that changed the world for the good? Does erasing their names really erase our history, or is the notion of re-writing the past too Orwellian, too much like the old Soviet Union, to be taken seriously?

There are two approaches to these questions.

One can be called “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Jews have a long history, the longest of any nation still intact with a coherent and vibrant relationship with our ancestors, as well as the memory of numerous enemies that tried to destroy us over the millennia. Those enemies are often celebrated, perhaps innocently.

For example, the World Monuments Fund every year presents what it calls the “Hadrian Award” for excellence in architecture. It is named for the 2nd century Roman emperor Hadrian, who was renowned for being a patron of the arts, for his love of architecture and culture (he rebuilt the Pantheon that still stands in Rome, and for his humanitarian endeavors across the globe.

Hadrian was also a psychopathic mass murderer who brutally suppressed the Bar Kochva rebellion, and killed in his time hundreds of thousands of Jews. That rebellion only began after Hadrian banned the study of Torah and the observance of mitzvot in the land of Israel. Thousands of Jews went into hiding in order to cling to our faith. Hadrian, apparently, oversaw the torture and execution of some of our Talmudic giants, including Rabbi Akiva.

The Midrash illustrates the cruelty, caprice and vindictiveness of Hadrian with the following story (Eicha Rabba 3, Reish): A Jew passed by the emperor Hadrian and greeted him. Hadrian said: “How dare you, a Jew, deign to greet the emperor of Rome!” The Jew was beheaded. Another Jew then passed and did not greet the emperor. Hadrian stopped him and said: “How dare you, a Jew, not greet the emperor of Rome!” That Jew was also then beheaded. A puzzled officer then asked Hadrian: “You kill those who greet you for greeting you, and kill those who don’t greet you for not greeting you?”

Hadrian responded: “Are you trying to advise your king as to how I should kill my enemies?”

The four winners of the 2016 “Hadrian Award” were announced this past July.

Much better known than the Hadrian Award is the city of St. Louis, the second largest city in Missouri and a name that should stick in the craw of every Jew. That city was named for King Louis IX of 13th century of France, a devout Catholic, and canonized by his church for his piety, and especially for one particularly galling and hateful act perpetrated against French Jewry, a catastrophe memorialized in a kina (elegy) recited on Tish’a B’Av. At the behest of Pope Gregory IX, Louis IX seized all the extant copies of the Talmud in France – more than 1200 manuscripts in all, all painstakingly transcribed in an era two centuries before the invention of the printing press – and on one Friday, in July 1242, they were ceremoniously burned in the public square in Paris, 24 wagon loads in all.

With that, the era of the Tosafists effectively ended, most Jews soon left France, and the remaining French Jews were expelled in 1306.

Saint Louis? Not from this vantage point.

For sure, we Jews have plenty of grievances, and awards and cities named for rogues and villains, murderers and tyrants, are among them, but not very prominent among them. Should Jews boycott the city of St. Louis until it changes its name? (Suggestion: call it “Rabbi Yechiel,” after the great sage who headed the Yeshiva in Paris in the 1200’s and defended the Talmud against its detractors and burners. Of course, that will never happen.) Should an enraged Jew tear down the “Gateway Arch?” Of course not. But why shouldn’t the name “St. Louis” evoke such disgust and revulsion among the citizenry that good people will want to change the city’s name in order to avoid hurting the feelings of … anyone?

The answer is that there is a second approach to all these issues. It is this: We would do well to judge people on the totality of their deeds and not by their single acts that we find offensive. (Granted, there can be single acts that are so heinous that one is left with little choice but fusing that act with that person.) The premise is that no one is perfect, and that every human being is flawed. We should judge others by their essences and not by the lamentable, disreputable and even squalid activities with which they were also sporadically associated.

Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Calhoun and others were all slave owners, but none are being feted for being slave owners. Some of them, indeed, regretted the very institution even as they benefitted from it. Washington was the indispensable figure who led the American Revolution to victory, Jefferson was the primary drafter of the Declaration of Independence, Madison was the Father of the Constitution, etc. All played historic and positive roles, and should be rightly honored for them, notwithstanding the blots on their record.

No one is perfect and if the goal is to honor only perfect people by naming public entities after them, we will live in an anonymous world. Elihu Yale, who gave his money and name to that university, made part of his fortune as a slave trader. Abraham Lincoln himself made occasional racist comments, and FDR, JFK and even Martin Luther King, Jr., had a deplorable relationship with women and did not always treat their wives with the greatest respect. Not every politician with a bridge named for him was a tzadik.

True, anything named for Adolf Hitler, yemach sh’mo, would rightly cause offense, as his essence was evil. Other tyrants and dictators are the same. Their crimes against mankind were so extreme that there is no redeeming quality. We may not be able to see any good in Hadrian or Louis IX but others did, for whatever appalling reason. They had other dimensions to their existence than their hatred of Jews, as others see it. Accepting that outrage is part of the tolerance requested of those who want to live and interact in a civil society, and do not want to impose their views on the rest of society.

We can’t erase the past, and there is something admirable about the way some nations have examined their past wrongs and righted them. The Founding Fathers will always be the Founding Fathers, judged for the enormous good they did in the context of their times. That should be enough to engender a fair assessment of their lives and to honor their achievements.

And isn’t that how we ourselves want to be judged? By the totality of our personalities and not by our sins alone? The process of repentance involves as much an accounting of our sins as an acknowledgment of what we do right. We want to rectify our flaws but be judged on our essence, which longs for the good. Changing our names as part of the path of teshuva is a recognition that we are not our sins, and we do not want to be defined by our sins. So, too, we are not just our virtues. We are an amalgam of both, and we hope, pray and endeavor that our merits exceed our demerits – as individuals, as a nation and as a world.

Then we can leave our judgment in the hands of the True Judge who sees all and knows our hearts, and whose judgment is perfectly calibrated at all times to effect His plans for all mankind.

Been There

Imagine for a moment a US presidential election between two candidates, neither of whom is particularly beloved to the populace. One candidate is an undistinguished former Senator and lackluster Secretary of State who had few if any accomplishments in office but is breaking a social barrier by running for the presidency, and the other is a wealthy businessman with dictatorial tendencies and a populist streak and inspires devotion in his followers and fear and loathing in his adversaries. Even members of his own extended family support his opponent. Imagine also that exactly four years after one of these individuals is elected – after four years in office of abject failure, with simmering problems and no solutions – that utter catastrophe befalls the nation.

We need not let our imagination run that wild because such was the fateful election of 1856 that pitted James Buchanan against John C. Fremont. Buchanan, a Democrat, had served without distinction in the House and Senate, and as Secretary of State under President Polk. His sole qualification for the presidency, aside from the boxes checked off on his resume, was that immediately before the election season he was serving as American ambassador in Great Britain and so was removed from the disputes then raging over slavery. He remains the only lifelong bachelor ever to serve as president, shattering once and for all that important impediment to high office.

His opponent was the colorful Republican John C. Fremont, whose long locks flowed over his ears and whose beard gave him a dashing appearance. Fremont was a wealthy businessman who gained his fortune in an unorthodox way. He was by profession an explorer, one of many Americans to go west in the 1840’s blazing new trails and expanding America’s horizons. He ventured as far as California, and when the Mexican-American War erupted in 1846, Fremont was awarded a commission as a Lt.-Colonel, won several battles in California (including in the area of Santa Barbara) and almost immediately declared himself the military governor of California.

That did not sit well with his superiors. Fremont was eventually court-martialed and convicted but had his sentence commuted by President Polk. Back in California, Fremont found his fortune when his Mexican workers discovered enormous quantities of gold on land Fremont claimed as his own. He parlayed that gold into the purchase and development of extensive real estate holdings, especially around San Francisco, and into a career in politics, briefly as Senator from California and then the run for President as the first candidate ever of the newly-minted Republican Party.

There was a third-party candidate as well in this election. Former president Millard Fillmore ran on the ticket of the self-proclaimed “American Party,” nicknamed the “Know-Nothings.” They were a party with a single cause – opposition to immigration; at that time, the disfavored immigrants were Catholics from Europe. There is no truth to the rumor that Fillmore promised to build a wall along the Eastern seaboard to prevent Catholic immigration and have the Vatican pay for it. In any event, American society today is much more efficient, so Fillmore’s party has been subsumed by one of our two parties.

All things considered, Fremont was the superior candidate and despite his intriguing resume would have made a better president, but who knows? Buchanan the Democrat was pro-slavery in an understated way, and as a northerner (the only president ever to be born in Pennsylvania), it was assumed he would attract some Northern votes along with those of the Southern pro-slavery crowd. Fremont the Republican was anti-slavery, as were most Republicans of that era, and that moral stance forced his own father-in-law, Senator Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri, to oppose Fremont and support Buchanan.

Democrats accused Fremont of being unfit for the presidency and claimed that he would surely provoke a civil war. In the end , of course, it was Buchanan who won and whose failures as president made the Civil War, the bloodiest in American history, inevitable. The election was closer than it seemed.  Buchanan won 45% of the vote to Fremont’s 33%, but the anti-immigrant Fillmore earned a startling 22% of the vote as the third-party candidate. Absent Fillmore’s involvement and siphoning of votes from the other two candidates, Fremont might have won and American history might not have taken the dark turn it did. Fremont carried most of the north, but even lost his own state of California; Buchanan swept the slave south and his home state of Pennsylvania (then, the second largest state after New York). Fillmore won Maryland and that’s all, and soon faded into obscurity.

Buchanan as President, despite his gaudy resume, allowed the fight over slavery to escalate. He supported the Dred Scott decision wherein the Supreme Court ruled that Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in the territories and basically allowed this moral and civil problem to fester. It festered into the outbreak of the Civil War a month after Buchanan left office and Abraham Lincoln was sworn in. Such is the price for failed leadership in a time of crisis and for stale ideas when new thinking is required.

Fremont fought in the Civil War for the Union, later moved to New York, died in 1890, and is buried in Sparkill, New York in Rockland County, just a few miles south of the Tappan Zee Bridge.

Is past prologue? There has never been an election in American history as the one we are enduring this year, in which both major candidates are despised and distrusted by large majorities of the populace – the crank versus the crook. It is fair to say that this is the first election in which few, if any, supporters can make a plausible argument for the candidacy of their favorite, and must suffice with the contention that the other candidate is simply awful and whose election will be catastrophic. And perhaps everyone is correct.

It recalls the old joke of the preacher who was asked to eulogize the most hated man in town. He starts to speak, falls silent, and realizes that he has nothing to say. He pauses, and then asks the assembled: “Is there anyone present who can say anything nice about the deceased?” The audience is silent, for a minute, and the preacher asks again: “Can anyone say anything nice about the deceased?”

Silence, again, until a man in the audience stands up and says: “His brother was worse.”

Unfortunately, there are consequential issues facing an America in decline that will not be seriously addressed because of the quality of these candidates – one whose policy positions are unformed, to say the least, and therefore fluid, and the other because it’s hard to believe a word she says. These issues will define the America of the future far more than most people realize. A few examples:

Is there such a concept as an “illegal immigrant” or are foreigners who enter this country without authorization merely people lacking documentation?  Should the United States have open borders like Europe has today? Does America still aspire to be a world leader or should it be content to follow the lead of international organizations? The United States’ engagement in the past century in world affairs allowed the good guys to prevail in both World Wars and the Cold War. Does the US have a dominant role to play in the conduct of the current world war?

Should the government control the economy or should government allow the marketplace to pick winners and losers, products and services, prices and wages? How much government involvement is necessary and how much is stifling? Must government guarantee to every person equality of outcome or just equality of opportunity? Should government enforce an equitable distribution of income and assets among the citizenry, even if it means confiscatory action against those perceived as too wealthy?

Which takes precedence in the hierarchy of values in America – religious liberty or political correctness? Should individual freedoms and personal liberty be curtailed if a minority or even a majority finds them offensive?

Neither candidate has addressed these questions beyond the issuance of platitudes. Neither seems capable of or interested in addressing them with any degree of cogency or sophistication. We all still have to vote but the only clear outcome is that this polarized country will be even more polarized regardless of who wins. That does not bode well.

Welcome to the election of 2016, whose analogies to an election 160 years ago should not be ignored. Somewhere, Buchanan, Fremont and Fillmore are smiling. Or, maybe, given the outcome of their election process and the horrendous war that broke out several years later, they too are crying.

The Beauty of Israel

Our Sages taught us (Kiddushin 49b) that “ten measures of wisdom descended to the world; the Land of Israel took nine, and the rest of the world took one. Ten measures of beauty descended to the world; Yerushalayim took nine and the rest of the world took one.” Other nations have a disproportionate share of wealth, poverty, arrogance, and might – all as the Creator saw fit to apportion.

Certainly faithful Jews accept the words of our Sages without question or hesitation, even if the notion of the pervasive wisdom in the land of Israel is not always obvious at first glance. Indeed, things happen here daily that cast doubt on that dictum. Even the beauty of Yerushalayim is not always apparent, unless the dictum refers to spiritual beauty, which it probably does.

Without being too brazen, I would edit the words of the Sages as follows: “Ten measures of beauty descended to the world; the Land of Israel took nine and the rest of the world took one.”

That seems about right.

There are many beautiful places across the globe, scenes of the majesty of nature, locations of such astonishing splendor that they serve as testimony to our Sages’ comment (Berachot 10a) “there is no Artist like our G-d.” I have been fortunate to visit many of them and even recite the blessing that acknowledges G-d “who made the works of creation.” I hope to visit others. But the Land of Israel is unique in the sheer number of stunning vistas that are compacted into what is, after all, a relative tiny country, barely the size of New Jersey.

I thought of this while gazing at three particular sites. To look out at the Mediterranean Sea as the sun is setting is to glimpse eternity, serenity and the infinite wonders of G-d’s world. The sea does not stop; it is as if there is nothing beyond it. It is exquisite in its tranquility. All the worries of life, all the turmoil around the globe –even in some of the countries that border on the Mediterranean – fade into nothingness. The Mediterranean, dubbed by our Sages the “Great Sea” because it borders the Land of Israel, has seen so much history and been at the center of civilization. Yet, its peace is undisturbed.

We spent two days in Mitzpe Ramon that overlooks the Machtesh Ramon, the Ramon Crater, Israel’s version of the Grand Canyon. (Yes, I know it is not technically a crater.) It was formed not by the impact of a meteorite or a volcanic eruption but by the receding of the ocean waters that once covered the Negev and receded during the third “day” of creation when G-d separated between the waters and formed dry land. It was essentially untouched since then, giving rise to rock formations of dazzling colors – and right in the middle of the desert. The canyon, the cliffs, the stark beauty of the hills and valleys all engender a profound sense of humility in the person who happens upon it. “A generation comes and a generation goes, but the earth endures forever” (Kohelet 1:4). That earth, that endures forever, is on spectacular display in Machtesh Ramon.

Just a few kilometers north of the town (which is less than 20 miles from the Sinai border) is the Kerem Ramon, the Ramon Vineyard, one of the largest vineyards in Israel. It encompasses hundreds of acres – and smack in the middle of the desert. The pioneers of early Israel vowed to make the desert bloom, in the famous cliché, and they largely succeeded. And here, modern pioneers, graduates of the Yeshivat Hesder in Mitzpe Ramon, have done it again. Across the street, literally, is desert, untended brown earth that has been barren for millennia. In the near horizon the mountains of the desert loom large, austere and forbidding in appearance. And that is what this vineyard looked like just a few years ago – bleak, brown earth – until faithful Jews acted on G-d’s promise to the Jews who would return to Israel after a long and bitter exile: “For G-d will comfort Zion and console all its ruins. He will turn its desert into Eden, and its dry places like G-d’s garden” (Yeshayahu 51:3). Indeed.

Perhaps the most striking feature that comprises the beauty of the land of Israel is the eye-catching array of colors. The blue of the sea and the blue of the sky; the greenery of the fields and the blue of the sky; the oases in the desert – the lush greenery set off against the austere brown – that offer  hope and suggest limitless possibilities. It is a panoply of rich and vibrant colors that bring nature, and the human imagination, to life, and invariably to appreciation for the handiwork of the Creator.

When I was a teenager, a Rebbe assigned our class a project in tefila (prayer). Each student was asked to choose a verse from the prayers and depict that verse in pictures. I chose a verse from Hallel: “The heavens are the heavens for G-d and the earth was given to man” (Tehillim 115:16). My pictures contrasted G-d’s domain with that of man and compiled them for my project. “The heavens are the heavens for G-d” – the azure sky with tufts of clouds lazily ambling about, the infinity of space where all is calm and peaceful, the sunsets that fill us with awe. “And the earth was given to man” – scenes of violence, terror, war and hatred (even then!). Scenes of the brutality of man to his fellow man that seemingly has no limits, no boundaries, and no end. Scenes of vulgarity and coarseness that belie the image of G-d with which every human being is endowed.

Of course, the Rebbe told me that I misconstrued the verse, which is just as well, but nonetheless. When will the beauty of the natural world – especially of the Land of Israel – be appreciated by mankind enough to call a halt to man’s volcanic eruptions of hatred, anger and violence?

Perhaps when, despite my emendation above, the Land of Israel also reclaims the nine measures of wisdom with which it was blessed and shares its conclusions with willing listeners across the world. Then the beauty above will be matched by beauty below as well and He who has made peace in the heavens will bring peace upon us, all Israel and His troubled world.

The Sensitive Rabbi

Is there such a thing as being too sensitive?

The question itself will be deemed by some as lacking sensitivity! But even as the heart tells us “no” – one cannot be “too” sensitive – the mind teaches us that, yes, there is sensitivity that is counterproductive, and harms both protagonist and subject. Intellectually, we realize that, at times, compassion, sympathy and sensitivity can be misplaced. The parent who succumbs to a child’s cries for endless pieces of candy is acting as compassionately as the surgeon who refuses to make an incision in his patient to avoid causing him pain, and as unwisely. Neither is acting as a parent or surgeon should.

As the famous comment of our Sages (Kohelet Rabba 7:16) taught, “One who is compassionate to the cruel will eventually be cruel to the compassionate,” a truism confirmed repeatedly in recent times, especially here in Israel. While our default position must be sensitivity, there are times when we must limit or even overcome those natural instincts in order to maintain our value system and properly serve G-d. Unlimited compassion is far better than the opposite but can be equally destructive.

Admittedly, this notion is a tough sell today. We are living through an era in which the pull of the heart matters more than the conclusions of the mind, feelings more than facts, and perception more than reality. This is true in politics, race relations, the wars of the sexes, and a host of other issues. Truths, even obvious truths, must be suppressed, and that is the world we live in. But the ascription of spiritual gravitas to “feelings” threatens to transform the Jewish and general worlds beyond recognition, undermine the Torah, render parenting more difficult than it already is, and distance us from G-d.

Certainly, rabbis are called upon to show sensitivity constantly, which is understandable, but therein lies the modern dilemma. One of my colleagues recently suggested that rabbinic responses to a number of issues have been colored by the conflation of the role of the rabbi with that of the social worker or therapist. (That is not entirely surprising. I once asked a non-Orthodox rabbi what led him to become a rabbi, seeing as he did not believe in the divine origin of the Torah, and he told me that he saw himself as a “social worker with a better title.”) But while a rabbi engages in therapy of sorts, he is not a therapist, nor is that his primary role.

Thus, this colleague noted, a therapist rarely offers value judgments to his client. His function is to listen, empathize, connect with the emotional world of the patient and try to help him/her navigate the unstable terrain on which the patient walks. Value judgments are usually inappropriate and often unhelpful. Conversely, rabbis (clergymen, generally) are expected to give value judgments. They too must seek to understand the emotional world of the person, but that world, rather than benign, is governed by our relationship with G-d. Indeed, the rabbis’ world view – unlike that of the therapist – is ideally always shaped by the laws and values of the Torah. The proffer of values need not be heavy-handed but can never be completely discounted or ignored.

If the therapist’s principal task is to help the person become psychologically healthy, the rabbi’s role is to help the person become spiritually healthy. The therapist tries to get the person right with the world; the rabbi tries to get the person right with the Almighty. Obviously, there are areas that overlap, but there are also boundaries that should not be blurred even if the ways we negotiate that arena may differ from case to case. The rabbi – unlike the therapist – must eventually speak the language of “permitted, forbidden, can, may, should, should not,” and if he doesn’t, he has not merely improperly conflated the two roles but he has essentially vitiated the rabbinic role. That is done sometimes for good reasons – a desire not to cause pain or an excess of sensitivity – and sometimes for bad reasons – a craven need for popularity or a fear of bad press among the opinion-shapers of today.

Rabbis and rabbinical organizations have been wrestling for some time with a number of issues in this genre. More often than not, this has resulted in confusion, not clarity, as political correctness clashes with halachic correctness, and some rabbis willfully act more as therapists and social workers (if not social trendsetters) than as rabbis. Thus, the halacha is usually black and white – after all, that is why it is called Halacha, the way we walk – and no amount of hand-wringing or pressure will change that. There are limits beyond which the halacha cannot go. Is that insensitive? It is not meant to be, but one can argue that honesty shows greater respect for the other side than a faux sensitivity that raises expectations that will never be met.

There are approaches to sins and sinners that most rabbis use that do not require denial, acceptance or vilification. Here’s one, mine, and quite common: we are all sinners but I do not have to delve into each person’s private life to ascertain their level of religiosity. Why is it anyone’s business? It is certainly not my business. What is unacceptable is the glorification of the sin, its public advocacy and its celebration – and that applies to a host of sins. The Rambam (Laws of Repentance 2:5) says that one who publicizes his sins against G-d is brazen, and so there is virtue in concealing such sins from others. Such a person is a Jew who is in as good standing as any other Jew. That is the difference between the sinner, which we all are to varying degrees, and the heretic, who denies that what he is doing is divinely proscribed.

Of course, that requires the rabbis to use the language of “sin,” which, it seems, the rabbi qua therapist has been loath to do. Sin is a sign of human frailty. It is our constant but unwanted companion in life. But the notion of “sin” presupposes that there is an objective morality (of divine origin) that distinguishes between right and wrong, moral and immoral. A rabbi who fails to use the language of sin has ceased to function as a rabbi. Similarly, a rabbi who encounters a person addicted to a certain sin – and there are numerous possibilities; consider the rageaholic who is prone to violent outbursts – and discourages that person from seeking help to overcome that addiction has acquiesced in the sin and failed as a rabbi. The treatment might work and it might not work, but foreclosing the option is irresponsible and insensitive. It can even be spiritually devastating.

To be fair, the rabbinic model of the Hasidic Rebbe is more aligned with the “rabbi as therapist” than the so-called “Lithuanian” model, if only because the Rebbe serves also as a father figure to his followers. It is easy to imagine a Rebbe telling an individual with lascivious tendencies that he should do whatever Mitzvot he can do and not define himself by the sin, and such is right and proper. It would be inconceivable, though, that the Rebbe would not also gently remind his interlocutor that his conduct is nonetheless a sin, and offer ways to overcome it. But we cannot deny the more common model symbolized by Moshe himself, that of “yikov hadin et hahar” – let the law bore through the mountain. The Law is the Law is the Law. That is Torah truth but also most unwelcome in the parts of the Jewish world that prefer nuance to truth, and gray to black and white.

There is something even off-putting about a discussion of integrating sinners into the community. When have we ever had a community that did not have sinners? Indeed, the Gemara (Kreitot 6b) states that “any public fast that does not include the intentional sinners of Israel is not considered a public fast.” Being inclusive of sinners is routine; we should not pretend it’s revolutionary.

What compounds the problem is the obliteration of all traditional moral norms in society, especially during the Obama years, which has made even the promotion of traditional morality something akin to a hate crime. Often, the appeal to the heart strings is palpable – the quest for love, happiness, fulfillment and satisfaction in life. “Does G-d want to remove from some people the possibility of love? Does G-d want to deprive any person of happiness or physical gratification? Does G-d not want people to be who they are?” Those may be powerful questions, but ones that we need not necessarily fully answer, except to say this: the Jewish laws of sexual morality and Kashrut are chukim (Rambam, Shemona Perakim, Chapter 6), which defy simple understanding. They are decrees from G-d that bind the faithful even if we do not fully comprehend them or their particulars. As such, they are the primary means by which we show our fidelity to G-d and our commitment to the way of life He assigned to us in His wisdom, compassion and love. They connect us to G-d, as indelibly as letters engraved in stone. That will not change.

To some people today, the utterance of simple truths is utterly unacceptable. They seek not a dialogue but a monologue enforced through threats and intimidation. But truths, uttered or even unuttered, still remain truths. Providing a forum to air one’s pain is, indeed, sensitive, but when one later encounters the brick wall of G-d’s law, the collision will be even more jarring. There is a better way – mutual respect and mutual sensitivity. That is, mutual respect, not just for the struggles of all sinners but also respect for the integrity of G-d’s law and the limits He imposed on us. And mutual sensitivity, especially for those faithful Jews who try to observe the Torah amid personal sacrifice and against the current of modern society, and even for rabbis who will not pander to the modern ethos or always make people happy but rather strive to bring all people closer to G-d and serve Him and His people with faith and honesty.

That is being truly sensitive to the primary objectives in life of every living being. We should try it.