Año de la Corona

     That the coming Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) will be different than any we have previously experienced is a given. But does it not have the potential to be exceptional, perhaps even better than any other? It is saying a lot but let us explore how that is possible.

     The year of Corona has upended our lives in numerous ways. It became a mitzvah not to go to shul. The Talmud’s stark choice that extols the virtues of socializing – “either companionship or death” (Taanit 23a) – became a mockery of itself, when seeking companionship became a cause of death and isolation became the norm, a desideratum. Healthy people suddenly fell ill; communities suffered horrible losses. The world economy crashed. A robust economy in America and Israel became anemic, and many millions lost their jobs. Entire industries shut down, and some will not recover for years, if ever.

     Faith in government, already feeble, collapsed, and trust in the “rule of the experts,” a staple of liberal thinking since the Wilson administration, dissipated in the wake of contradictory and error-filled decisions. The same experts who were adamant about not wearing a mask became equally adamant about wearing one; ditto with the certainty (then lack of certainty) for surface transmission, for airborne transmission at 6 feet, 7 feet (or is it 27 feet?), for lockdowns versus herd immunity, for the efficacy of one drug over another.

       Indeed, “all the powerful men are like nothing before You… the wise men without knowledge, the scholars without intelligence.” Mankind, after a year like this one, should feel humbled, very small, vulnerable, and awestruck before the Creator whom we, evidently, do not control, and whose inscrutable will is beyond our ken. With all the obeisance paid to science – and all the fawning deference some want to show to “science,” however inconsistent and conflicting are its conclusions, and however limited its scope when measured against other vital global factors – it is abundantly clear that science does not have all the answers. It is risible to “follow the science,” when the science is confused, uncertain, too often wrong, and inconclusive. Here in Israel, the authorities are flailing about trying to find some way to halt or reverse the spread of Corona, this to the distress of many citizens who have little confidence that anything will change in three weeks after another lockdown – and that if it does change, that these Draconian lockdowns will have had anything to do with it.

     On Rosh Hashana, as we hail the melech elyon, the Supreme King, we also underscore the fragility of the melech evyon, the impecunious king – man – whose ego is as boundless as his ultimate capacities are feeble. The authorities, the experts, mean well and I presume that most are sincere. Man’s talents were enlisted to combat this deadly disease and many devoted people are making a difference, bringing relief to the ailing. But no one really saw this coming, knew with any certainty how to deal with it once it arrived, and thus are still struggling to arrest and overcome. It is most humbling. And it should remain humbling, even if a cure or vaccine is found.

     Those who pay careful attention to the davening remember all the phrases from the moving liturgical poem “u’netaneh tokef” that took on new meaning this year, and not just “Who will live and who will die.” “Who by fire” – and the conflagrations that bedevil the entire west coast of the United States. “Who by water” – and the floods that ravage various parts of the world suddenly and without warning. “Who by earthquake” – and the horrible toll that takes on human life. But all that is ordinary, part of the natural order, and even sadly familiar to us.

     But is this? “Who by magefa, plague?” Who thought a year ago that a plague would sweep across the globe, transforming the lives of every nation? “And who by chanika, stragulation?” Too many people, healthy people, within just a few minutes, found themselves unable to breathe for reasons that were not immediately discernible. Certainly those phrases should resonate with us this year, as we contemplate the greatness of G-d and the frailties of man, the pinnacle of His creation. Afflictions that we thought were relics of a bygone era are now part of our daily lives. If that does not cause us to take stock and look to the heavens, then nothing will.

     If so, then we are blessed – if that is the right word – to be able to “cast our eyes to the heavens and perceive who created all of this” (Yeshayahu 40:26). Many Jews will be davening outdoors, under the skies, braving the heat in some places and weathering the chill in others. Being in nature is a different experience than sitting in an edifice constructed by human beings. Shuls evoke awe – the House of G-d – but nature evokes a sense of majesty, a universe created by His word and wisdom and according to His will. It is the classic feeling of “Yir’at Hashem” (the awe of G-d’s transcendence), when man reflects on the wonders of nature and “is immediately taken aback, stricken with awe, and realizes that he is a small, insignificant creature, dark, standing with a paucity of knowledge in the presence of One with perfect knowledge” (Rambam, Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 2:2).

     That experience does not just fulfill the mitzvah of “Yir’at Hashem.” That experience is at the heart of Rosh Hashana, the coronation day of the King of Kings on which we sound the shofar to acknowledge and celebrate His kingship.

      This past year – año de la corona – was the year of the crown in one sense, and not just because of the virus that bears its name. It should have forced us to take the imaginary crowns off our heads and realize how exposed we are, and how flimsy can be our lives, our grandiose plans and our aspirations.

     May the New Year be another año de la Corona – a year of the true Crown – when we anoint G-d as King over the entire world and include ourselves as well (in R. Yisrael Salanter’s sardonic phrase), as among His servants. And may He hear our prayers, heal our wounds, end the scourges that distress His creatures, bless us  all with life, good health, prosperity, peace and redemption.

     Shana Tova to all!

The Good Old Days

What wouldn’t we give to have civility in our political campaigns, mutual respect between competitors, and an end to the bitterness and polarization that afflicts our society (wherever it is)? Just like it was in the good old days.      
It doesn’t take much examination or research to reveal the terrible shortcomings and personal malice involved in politics and the shabby treatment of leaders.  But imagine having a president ridiculed for being “superficially read in the history of any age, nation or country” and who “could not write a sentence without misspelling some word.”  Erstwhile supporters wished him a “speedy death” and attacked him for “monopolizing the glories” of past successes.” He was excoriated for profiting from the presidency and even selling his soul to a foreign country for material gain and colluding with a foreign government to the detriment of the United States. He was accused of acting as if he considered himself the “Emperor from Rome.”Horrible.   
   Imagine having a president who is routinely lambasted by the media, lied about with wanton recklessness in the most personal ways, characterized as a “tyrant” and an “enemy of his country.” He, in turn, denounces them as “infamous scribblers” who did little but heap “abuse” upon him. These same relentless media attacks were instrumental in the president declining to seek re-election, seeking to avoid the “arrows of malevolence” they daily shot his way.  
Moreover, to maintain diplomatic discretion, this president refused to release documents to a Congressional investigation and dared Congress to impeach him. (Congress declined, perhaps because the presidential term was soon expiring.)    
  Cabinet members turned on him. One was accused of taking bribes to aid a foreign country, and he in turn threatened to expose the president’s dirty secrets  – a president, he claimed, who possessed a “small mind” that was filled with “prejudice.” The political class was so divided, angrily so, that the Vice-President foresaw that both sides would “bite like savages and tear like lions.” And when this Vice-President ascended to the presidency, his own Vice-President secretly urged a foreign country not to negotiate a treaty. He informed them that they would receive better terms when the incumbent was gone and he became president.      
Who would want to live through such exhausting, vitriolic times? We would all prefer the good old days, right?     
  Well, those were the good old days. The president referred to above was none other than George Washington. (All the quotes are drawn from Michael Beschloss’s “Presidential Courage.”) There was always animosity towards Washington but what precipitated this particularly venomous episode towards the end of his second term was the negotiation and ratification of “Jay’s Treaty” with Britain.Washington was accused of selling out his country – much like, the indictment ran, he had conspired with George III during the Revolutionary War. He was seen as easily manipulated and suffered through warring cabinet secretaries who soon devolved into the leaders of rival political parties that Washington abhorred.   
   The allegedly crooked cabinet secretary was Edmund Randolph, the Attorney-General and then Secretary of State, accused of asking a French minister for a bribe in exchange for which he would tilt US foreign policy towards France and away from Britain, France’s arch-rival. He resigned, the allegations were never proven – but Randolph did need the money.     His cabinet secretaries – especially Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton – clashed frequently, publicly and vehemently. Hamilton, popular today with Broadway theater goers, was reviled by his peers of all stripes as an immoral schemer, and worse. But he had Washington’s ear, long after he left his formal government position.    
  The most antagonistic media entity, the Aurora, was published by Benjamin Bache, grandson of Benjamin Franklin, who despised GW absolutely and, it would seem, irrationally. But his publication was not the only one. Washington decried the “malicious falsehoods” and “vitriolic abuse” that hastened his departure from public life (he declined to run for a third term) and, his wife Martha later asserted, led him to an early grave. As often happens, history treated Washington much better than did his contemporaries.     
GW’s Vice-President, John Adams, had both a grudging respect and a terminal case of resentment towards Washington, knowing that he, Adams, would never achieve a modicum of the acclaim that Washington had. But Adams did garner the same level of hostility from the press, and their relationship was amicable and good-natured compared to Adams’ relationship with his own Vice-President, Thomas Jefferson, who routinely plotted against Adams, conspired with France, and then defeated Adams for the presidency in 1800.  
These were rough times.  Hamilton loathed Adams (and others) and the feelings were mutual. Hamilton would vent his spleen anonymously in newspapers, and then draft letters to the editor under another pseudonym supporting his anti- Adams screeds. Adams, as President, was limited to fulminating against Hamilton to his wife and his diary.   
In one of the most bizarre incidents in this tumultuous era, Frederick Muhlenberg, a pastor and Congressman from Pennsylvania (a college in Allentown is named for him) surprised and enraged people by supporting Washington and endorsing Jay’s Treaty. He maintained his support even after his son’s fiancée’s father threatened to break off the shidduch. He voted for the treaty anyway; reacting a bit aggressively, his own brother-in-law stabbed him.     
And we complain?  
   “You shall surely place a king over you” (Devarim 17:15) that is, you should fear him, even dread his power and authority (Masechet Sanhedrin 19b). The king of Israel was revered, partly because he had absolute power and would not respond kindly to being disrespected but mostly because he was the embodiment on earth of G-d’s kingship. Human beings who do not possess that divine mandate (meaning, everyone else) are at the mercy of other people’s printing presses, social media accounts, ridicule, obloquy, agendas and poor character. The successful ones ignore it and focus less on personal popularity and more on getting the job done.  
    It is hard to say whether we should be encouraged or discouraged that today’s rancorous and crude electoral politics are rather tepid by historical American standards. But the next time someone laments the venomous modern campaigns and personalities, and longs for the good old days, just admonish them that they should be careful what they wish for. Even George Washington had his fair share of detractors, and still does. The good old days were not that good – and probably a lot worse. Politics tends to attract some unsavory characters. It always was and always will be – until the coming of the righteous Messiah when honor for the human king will reflect the honor of the true King. 

Ask The Rabbi, Part 6

Last year, I was invited to be part of a panel of rabbis to submit answers to questions posed by the editor of the Jewish Press. The column appears bi-weekly, and I take this opportunity to present my approach to the questions raised.  Each question is fascinating in its own right, as are the variety of answers proffered.  All the answers can be viewed at Jewishpress.com.

Here is the sixth selection with my take on these issues    – RSP

Is it appropriate to share mother-in-law jokes?

Humor is often used to defuse tension, and no relationship is fraught with more tension than that of in-laws. The Talmud (Yevamot 2a) itself refers to mothers-in-law as tzarot (rivals or adversaries) as in the worst circumstances they compete for the affections of their child with the new spouse. But those are under the worst circumstances, which is not to say they don’t occur with some frequency.

Certainly, one has to respect one’s in-laws (see Yoreh Deah 240:24, and Taz 19), presumably out of gratitude that they gave life to one’s spouse. Warm relations with one’s in-laws gladden your spouse and make for a better marriage, notwithstanding the occasional bumps in the road in any relationship. And it is those bumps that have engendered the popular mother-in-law jokes.

Generally, one is not allowed to joke about a person even if that person will not be offended by it, because who for sure knows whether offense is taken? Jokes about the individual would therefore be inappropriate; conversely, jokes about the institution are less troubling, especially if the mother-in-law knows they are in jest. (Sometimes it seems as if the primary purpose for the creation of the Internet was the sharing of jokes.)

We shouldn’t be so stuffy as to disallow any form of humor, particularly when it is playful and not malicious. Chazal (Avot 6:5) even noted that “mi’ut sechok,” a little humor, is one of the 49 ways through which the Torah is acquired. Chazal didn’t say “no humor,” but rather “a little humor.” It should be acceptable in this context as well. After all, even Moshe Rabbenu, given the choice of living with his in-laws or returning to his enslaved brethren in Egypt, left Yitro and returned to the house of bondage. Doesn’t that say it all?

 

For hundreds of years, Jews in Poland fasted on the 20th of Sivan to commemorate the tens of thousands of Jews killed in 1648-49 in the Chmielnitzky uprising.  Yet, we don’t fast today for the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust.  Why not?

We probably should but there are several reasons why we don’t. Some point to a statement in the kinot – “for we may not add a new day of mourning over ruin and burning,” a reference to the Crusades. But as the question implies, the fact that Jews in Poland did fast renders that reason less than compelling, even if the kinot were an authoritative halachic source.

I think the real reason is broader and an unhealthy reflection on our society today. Polish Jews formed one community. It is probably fanciful to say that all were religious but at least they all saw themselves as part of one nation. Sadly, that is no longer true in Jewish life. Polish Jewry had a central leadership body – the Council of the Four Lands – that could issue decrees to which all Jews felt bound. We no longer have a respected council of leaders that all Jews respect.

Moreover, how many Jews today fast the established four fasts, such that a decree to establish another would be heeded? Fasts are designed to be catalysts for teshuvah, repentance. How many Jews sincerely engage in acts of repentance? The Holocaust devastated mainly, although not exclusively, Ashkenazic Jewry. It would be very difficult to convince, say, most American Jews to accept an additional fast.

That being said, the current observances of Yom Hashoah fall short of a meaningful commemoration of this unique and horrific calamity. They tend to consist of contrived ceremonies, survivor accounts, hollow expressions of “Never Again,” and the pursuit of the broader agenda of the organizers. There is little religious perspective added, and almost no attempt to fit the Holocaust into the context of Jewish history before and after it. That might have to wait another generation and those proper observances will include a public fast.

 

Should the average Jew learn Kabbalah?

Much depends on how we define “Kabbalah.” Certainly traditional Kabbalah bears absolutely no relationship to the mass market Kabbalah that distributes amulets and holy water, emphasizes the recitation of enigmatic texts and is mostly New Age-type self help for the vulnerable.

Traditional Kabbalah, as taught in the Zohar, the writings of the Ari”zal and his disciples and later expositors as well, focuses on the inner workings of the universe, a deeper understanding of G-d and the role of Israel in the world. It tries to resolve the conundrum of how an incorporeal G-d created, sustained and continues to relate to a corporeal universe. The problems lie in the broad use of physical imagery and anthropomorphic terms to refer to these extremely esoteric concepts. These expressions are liable to engender in the casual reader a grave misunderstanding of fundamental principles of the Torah, especially relating to the nature of G-d.

Generally, these rarefied subjects in the Torah are limited to those, as Rambam writes in a related context (Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 4:13), “whose stomachs are filled with bread and meat, i.e., to know what is permissible and prohibited in the Mitzvot…and these must precede [the stroll through the Pardes, the orchard] because they train us how to think, perfect this world and prepare us for the world-to-come…”

Rambam underscores that even the greatest sages were not always comfortable with this study. How less comfortable, then, should be Jews who are not yet filled with the wisdom of Torah, are not fully observant, nor conversant with Jewish philosophy! The immature student of Kabbalah can be easily harmed by its study and draw incorrect and heretical conclusions about G-d.

We should all be extremely hesitant before embarking on such a study, and only then with a qualified teacher.

 

 

 

Exit Strategy

This is one of the truest but most difficult lessons in life: it is better to leave when they want you to stay than to stay when they want you to leave. Said another way, it is better to leave too early than to leave too late.

I certainly experienced that in my own life in the last nineteen months. We should all be equipped with an internal clock that tells us when it is time to stop doing something you enjoy, and were successful at, and let others have their shot. But we are not so equipped. And it is not an exact science. Our departure times cannot be calibrated like trains in Europe and this has always been a bane of the rabbinate and, classically (because the duration of a career is much shorter) in sports. Those who recall the great but aging Willie Mays falling down in the outfield know the sensation. No rabbi, doctor, lawyer, businessman, hi tech genius or athlete wants to fall down on the job. And this applies with particular cogency to politicians.

This is not about Joe Biden (although it could be) but about Binyamin Netanyahu, who is Israel’s longest serving prime minister but is now hemorrhaging support and under siege. Granted, his enemies will always despise him and the criminal charges against him are frivolous, which is not to say he will necessarily be acquitted of them. Anyone who feels that Netanyahu has exploited his office to get rich will not be dissuaded by evidence or reality. It has become common in western societies for opposition politicians to use prosecution to weaken and then disable leaders who cannot be defeated at the polls.

Netanyahu is losing support among his followers, his base, and that warrants some analysis. Israel’s government has been paralyzed, more or less, for several years now, with repetitive and inconclusive elections. Netanyahu has not been able to, and cannot, form a parliamentary majority of like-minded coalition partners; whatever the reason, that is the reality. It is possible – and certainly will happen down the road – that other Likud or right-wing figures would be able to cobble together a governing coalition but PM Netanyahu has alienated so many people in his own party, and certainly in the other sectors of the Israeli political system, that he has crashed into his electoral ceiling.

Had he stepped aside this past March – when again his coalition fell just short of a Knesset majority – he might have been hailed as Israel’s greatest prime minister. Having weathered the Corona virus storm, he would be extolled for presiding over an unprecedented era in Israeli life of peace and prosperity, of growing international appreciation and diplomatic recognition, of leading the world’s charge against the Iranian nuclear program, of forming the closest possible ties with the United States, and of ushering Israel into the forefront of the world’s economies and technological entrepreneurs.

Instead, the Corona virus returned with a vengeance (it probably never really left) and Netanyahu had no coherent plan to combat it – much like every other leader (and critic of that leader) in the world. And now his failures stand out. Like elsewhere, Israel’s economy has taken a Corona hit and unemployment is high. The unfulfilled promises loom large – annexation of even part of Judea and Samaria, the legalization of settlements and their protection against baseless and evidence-free lawsuits, the on-again, off-again building/freeze in the settlements, limiting the powers of the Supreme Court and the Attorney-General, two institutions that frequently undermine democracy, and others.

For sure, some of these are – and will be – trotted out as new promises in the next election campaign and those who believe it deserve to be fooled again. But why do people hang on too long and ruin their legacy?

One reason is the belief, sincere or otherwise, that only they can do the job and there will be deterioration in performance, productivity and achievement if they leave. Whether or not it is true is irrelevant. The old quip – “the graveyards are full of indispensable men” – still pertains. The departure of a long-time leader causes feelings of displacement, confusion and occasionally even despair, but somehow the world muddles on. It is not the same, which is not to say that it is better or worse.

The second reason is more prevalent. It is difficult to relinquish positions of power and influence. King George III, just defeated by the colonies, and informed that General George Washington was going to resign his commission, give up power and return to Mount Vernon, said, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” It was unthinkable, and Washington did it twice!

Both reasons are often conflated and both played a role in the passage of the 22nd Amendment to the United States Constitution that limits the service of an American president to no more than two terms. Proposed in 1947, and ratified less than four years later, it was an obvious reaction to FDR’s triumph in four consecutive elections, unprecedented in American history.

One might well ask: isn’t this amendment, and aren’t term limits generally, extreme encroachments on the democratic process? After all, FDR won his elections because majorities voted for him, albeit declining majorities in 1940 and 1944. But he won fair and square. Why, then, the limitation?

The paradox of the two reasons cited above for hanging on – the leader’s belief in his indispensability and the difficulty in relinquishing power – is that large numbers of people come to believe the same thing. It is the power of incumbency, the comfort level the electorate has with a reining leader. Life becomes, to some extent, unimaginable, without them.

Nothing is normal in politics or life these days but unremarked upon is this anomaly. If President Trump is re-elected (as of this writing, he has a greater than 47% chance of re-election) and he serves another full four years, it will be the first time in American history that four consecutive presidents each serve two full terms. In fact, when his three predecessors (Obama, Bush and Clinton) each served eight years in office, that became only the second time in American history such occurred, and the first in almost two centuries. Not since Jefferson, Madison and Monroe (1801-1825) did three consecutive presidents serve the full two terms. Presidents 42, 43, and 44 pulled off a feat that had not happened since it was done by Presidents 3, 4 and 5. That encompasses a lot of years and a lot of presidents, and yet it is true.

Incumbency carries great advantages but the recent success of presidential incumbents might be attributable at least partly to the public’s realization that he will be gone anyway in, maximum, another four years. Leader fatigue has no time to set in. (That is generally; among Trump’s detractors, “leader fatigue” beset them on January 21, 2017, if not already on November 9, 2016.)

Parliamentary democracies have no such built-in constraints. Thus, except for Menachem Begin who resigned and left office, Israel’s prime ministers have exited office repudiated by the voters (except for the two extraordinary cases of assassination and criminal corruption).

What is Netanyahu’s exit strategy? Well, he has none and thus his tenure is not likely to end well. Understandably, he does not want to leave by being forced out by his enemies. But he does have the ability to change course, groom successors and plan a comfortable post-politics life that can be filled with new challenges suitable for a person of his talents. It stands to reason that the tendentious criminal charges against him would disappear as well.

For that, one needs to sing a few bars like Kenny Rogers once did: “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run.” Most don’t know that, and their reputations, businesses, and careers suffer.

But those who know often find great rewards in the “after” life. It pays to plan and then to carry out that plan.