Category Archives: Chumash

Not-So-Smart Phones

The narrative of creation accounts for many details of our origins but obviously not all, so what is included must be of great import. And of course the Torah was not given to us to teach cosmology, science, or even history but rather to teach us morality – not how we came to be but why we came to be, and how we should live. And so the nuggets of information provided about the ancients should catch our attention.

Thus we are taught that Lemech had one son named Yaval, “and the name of his brother was Yuval, the forerunner of those who play the harp and the flute” (Breisheet 4:21). Yuval was the original music man. And Lemech’s other wife Tzila “also gave birth to Tuval Kayin, the forerunner of those who sharpen and craft implements of copper and iron” (ibid 4:22). These facts are certainly interesting, but what’s the point?

And note the contrasts: the Netziv commented that the harp and the flute have dueling functions; the harp soothes while the flute arouses. They are not generally played together, and yet Yuval played both. So too, the instruments that were manufactured by Tuval Kayin could also be put to disparate uses. Tuval Kayin, like his great-great-great-grandfather Kayin, was also a farmer, so he created tools that made the work easier. But Rashi wrote that that he was too much like his ancestor Kayin, who murdered his brother Hevel but was not very efficient in carrying out the dastardly deed, But Tuval Kayin was so named because he perfected the craft of Kayin, manufacturing weapons of homicide like knives and daggers. So too Yuval the music man who used his music for idolatrous worship. What exactly are we being taught?

The Wall Street Journal recently featured a long essay by Nicholas Carr that should wake us up to the realities of the new world and the potential dangers that technology present. We always see the good, the benefits and the advantages in every modern invention but rarely internalize the downside, the struggles, or the changes for the worse, if we even do more than pay lip service to it. And so it is with the ubiquitous Smartphone.

Smartphones have become indispensable; more than half its users cannot imagine life without a product that didn’t even exist less than two decades ago. Traditionally, we have worried about the moral and spiritual dangers that are extant. I, like many rabbis, have railed against people even bringing Smartphones to shul, much less using them during prayer. Sadly, some people just can’t help it, and can’t disconnect from these devices even for a few moments. We have all witnessed people answering emails or texting during the davening (a real embarrassment to the shul and its sanctity as well as an insult to G-d in whose presence they presumably stand) and all been irritated by phones ringing during davening (although, fortunately, it is less of a problem in our parts).  But the essay makes a different and much stronger point: these Smartphones are making us dumb and our children even dumber. And that is a real, and in many venues an uncontrollable, problem.

The advantages are numerous. Smartphone provide with heretofore unimaginable convenience and an ever-increasing array of diversions. Who could have dreamed even a few years ago of a hand-held device that serves as a phone, camera, mailbox, photo album, computer, every newspaper and magazine you want to read, every movie, television show or sports program you want to watch, a calendar, a diary, a siddur, Tanach, Shas, Shulchan Aruch and much more? But Smartphones come at a great cognitive cost, and that’s what the research is showing. Just hearing a ring or a vibration makes it more difficult to concentrate. And when people hear a buzz and don’t check their phones, immediately their blood pressure spikes, their pulse quickens and their problem-solving skills decline. The ramifications for us will be clear in a moment.

In one study, three groups of students were given a test. One was told to keep their phones on their desks, another in their pockets or purses and a third group in a different room. Those whose phones were in view did the worst, those whose phones were in another room did the best, and those whose phones were present but in their pockets came out in the middle. Their mere presence drains away our mental energy and detaches us from our surroundings.

Obviously, those who people who bring phones to shul will have worse kavana even if the phones are off, and kavana is something with which we struggle under the best circumstances. Even more seriously, schools that allow children to bring their phones are wasting the parent’s tuition money. The children will simply not learn as much, their cognitive skills and ability to concentrate will decline precipitously, and then we will wonder where we have gone wrong. It is also worth noting that the mere presence of a phone diminishes the concentration of all those who see it, even if they do not own it, because it reflects the universe of opportunities, delights and fantasies in the great beyond, which always seem more interesting that whatever one is doing at the moment.

And worse: we are impairing our social skills through addiction to these devices while our children are not developing any social skills at all. Relationships suffer, if real ones at all exist. Smartphones serve as a constant reminder of all the friends we could be chatting with electronically, so they grab at our minds even when we are talking to live people, leaving those conversations shallower and less satisfying. Read “Reclaiming Conversation,” by Sherry Turkle, and you will realize that the ubiquity of Smartphones makes us less productive (even as we think we are being more productive), destroys our capacity for self-reflection, and prevents us from living in the moment with real people. It has spawned a generation that prefers texting to talking and virtual interactions to real ones.

These phones are not just in our hands but they are inside our heads. They hijack our attention and constitute a “supernormal stimulus” such as the world has never before seen. And we remember less, because everything is out there, accessible with a few taps of a finger. But William James, the 19th century American psychologist and thinker, said that the art of remembering is the art of thinking. We encode certain information that enables us to think conceptually, to make intellectual associations. When we stop doing that we create delusions of intelligence, with people feeling they know more but actually know less about the world around them. That’s why so many college students struggle to place the Civil War or World War II in the right decade (or quarter-century) and have no idea how many Supreme Court justices or United States Senators there are.

The only hope – the only answer – is to learn how to disconnect. Shabbat is great for that but it only comes once a week. Shul is even better – twice a day, morning and night. Leave the phone at home, period, or in the car. Carve out disconnect time as well with spouse and children. And parents who send their children to school with Smartphones are forewarned; the phones are smart but the people who cannot disengage from them become dumber. That’s the science.

The Torah introduces these ancients as the pioneers of innovation, which began with them and has not ceased. Yuval’s music brings joy, inspiration and comfort but can also be used for debauchery and idolatry.  Tuval Kayin’s inventions were great for farming but also for homicide and mayhem. It’s not history; we are not accounting for the dates of the Bronze Age or the Iron Age. It’s Mussar, designed to tell us how to control all new inventions but not have them control us. Every invention is morally neutral, with positive and negative qualities. Rashi says that the sons of Lemech failed in their understanding and embrace of the new technology and let themselves be swept away by the immoral possibilities and their potential for evil and dehumanization.

That same potential exists in all of us, until we internalize the notion that everything created is primarily for the glory of G-d and must promote His service.

 

 

 

Advertisements

The Tribal Order

The nation of Israel was not formed as one bloc but rather divided into twelve different tribes with a common mandate and destiny. Such was noticed by the heathen prophet Bil’am who lifted his eyes “and saw Israel dwelling according to their tribes” (Bamidbar 24:2). It impressed him so much that he uttered words that accompany our daily entry in shul: “How good are your tents, Yaakov, and your sanctuaries, Israel.” What exactly did Bil’am see in our tents that was so “good”?

Rashi comments that Bil’am saw Israel dwelling according to our tribal formation, and he perceived that “each tribe [was] living by itself and not commingling, and that the entrances to their tents were not aligned so one person could not look into the home of his neighbor.” Such a nation he deemed worthy of having the Divine presence rest on it.

A few verses later, Rashi reiterates that Bil’am noticed that our tent entrances were not aligned, and perhaps there are two different points being made. One response was engendered by the tribal formation and the other by our tents. The entrances to the tents were not aligned for purposes of modesty and privacy. Too often people are tempted to find out what’s going on in someone else’s house; thus, this safeguard was enacted. Jewish law prescribes where we are allowed to build doors, windows, balconies and the like so as not to encroach on the privacy rights of others. We let others invite us in; we don’t intrude or insert ourselves where we do not belong. That is the definition of the “good tent.”

But Bil’am also saw us dwelling according to our tribes, each tribe to itself, and each entrance staggered so we don’t peer into the next tent. This is not modesty but propriety and broadmindedness. To peer into someone else’s tent means to scrutinize their conduct, to search for the slightest non-conformity, to seek out and highlight the differences, especially the failures or departures from the norm, that very often and improperly agitate and perturb us a little too much. The point is that all Jews are not the same. We were not formed as a linear, one-dimensional nation. If we were, then we wouldn’t dwell in tribes, and we would have our “entrances aligned,” all Jewish homes would look alike, sound alike and act alike. And that is not so and has never been so. We are a nation of tribes.

Among the most hollow, vacuous and pointless expressions we hear again and again is the call for unity. It sounds good – but unity occurred only happened at Sinai when we received the Torah. Indeed, if we were meant to have an imposed unity on the Jewish people, we would not have been divided into twelve tribes, nor would it be praiseworthy that Bil’am “saw that all the tribes lived apart and did not mingle.” We would all have to live together, do the same things in the same way, and never deviate. But each tribe has its own path and we glorify our own path and dismiss others out of ignorance. In effect, there are twelve paths to G-d, and each tribe represents a different one. I cannot emphasize enough that I am not referring to halacha here. The opposite is true. Every legitimate path – bar none – has to be faithful to Jewish law. But to think that there is only one way, or even that my way is necessarily better, holier or closer to G-d’s will, is a mistake. And so we are told not to “peer into the tent of our neighbors.”

This requires further explanation, so here is an example. In Israel today, there is a revolution taking place in the Charedi world, what is being called the rise of the “Charedi middle class.” There always were wealthy Charedim who subsidized most of the rest – but now there is a middle class that today has its own organizations, culture, websites and publications. They are more at home in general society even while not fully partaking of it. There is a multi-million dollar industry of advertising to the Charedi community, now that there are Charedi consumers who work (more than 50% of Charedi men of working age now work) and spend their earnings as they wish. Communities evolve.

I recently read an article on this phenomenon, and the author noted that when R. Simcha Elberg (longtime editor of Hapardes) visited Bnai Brak for the first time in the 1960’s, he dubbed it the “olam hachumros,” the world of stringencies. He did not mean it pejoratively as some people might take it, but descriptively, a world that chooses the most stringent interpretations of halacha in every aspect of life because they choose to limit their interactions with the rest of society. But he notes that traditional Jewry was never like that; it is something unique.

Is that approach wrong or a distortion of the true Torah? No; it’s just different. That’s a tribe, even if it’s not my particular tribe.  We have room for a tribe of machmirim who deserve our respect even if others choose a different way – and as long as they also realize there are different ways within halacha (and, again, I am not at all referring to the neo-Cons who proclaim themselves Orthodox but deviate from Orthodoxy in law, practice and ideology because of their absorption of modernist and non-Jewish trends). It is not better to be stringent, just like it is not better to be lenient. Halacha is case and fact sensitive, but even more importantly each religious grouping is just a different tribe.

It has been noted frequently that Mizrachi communities always studied Torah differently than in Ashkenazi communities, and halachic norms and emphases were also different. The Israeli Charedi is markedly different from the American Charedi, just as the American ModO increasingly has less and less in common with the Israeli dati leumi. These are all tribes of Israel.

One thing that we have learned over the course of history is that the religious eco-system is very finely balanced. You pull a little too much here and something unravels there, which is part of the Lakewood problem we are dealing with these days. If the only goal is Torah study, then you might tend to cut corners somewhere else in order to sustain it. If a college or higher education is deemed evil and unacceptable, thereby impairing one’s earning potential, money for self-sustenance will have to be acquired in some other fashion. On the other hand, if Torah study is not a primary value at all, then there is a tendency to cut corners somewhere else and our minds become littered with Western, non-Torah values that we talk ourselves into thinking are Torah values. And when college or higher education is perceived as a value in its own right, and not simply as a means to earning a living or gaining a broader perspective on life, there is no shortage of Jewish souls that have been lost treading that path. College attendance poses risks if you go and if you don’t go, unless you remain in a Yeshiva environment and that too is not a panacea.

Similarly, Lakewood may possess one set of problems but it is unlikely their rabbis are often asked, for example, about the propriety of attending intermarriages or same-sex marriages, a phenomenon to which some ModO rabbis, to their discredit, are increasingly amenable. That, too, is a price paid for indulging the modern culture and ethos.

Since there is no perfect system, we all have to learn from each other. Jews who mock the foibles of any group are really mocking themselves, a most distasteful, self-defeating and even masochistic tendency. Each tribe, like each individual, is a different composite of virtues and vices, of mitzvot and aveirot. No one is perfect – and that is why it is wrong and frivolous, even arrogant, to peer into someone else’s tent and demand that he conform to my standard, my stringency or my leniency. We are twelve tribes. There are tribes that emphasize Torah study, prayer, acts of kindness, modesty, public service, settlement, military service or the like, and historically it was always like this. Some people need stringencies to survive spiritually while others would be crushed by them, just like there are some who could benefit from a stringency or two but don’t embrace them because they are too comfortable in their spiritual skins, are at peace with their flaws, or often assume incorrectly that what they perceive as a “stringency” is actually the essential law.

To say that everyone has to be like me or like us is as foolish as saying there’s nothing we can learn from any other tribe. All are wrong. Each person must dwell under the banner of his tribe but all the tribes have to reflect fidelity to Torah. Our entrances are not aligned so that if we peer into someone else’s tent, our perspective is necessarily skewed. One comment of Rashi refers to modesty in our interpersonal relations but the other refers to the mutual respect and tolerance that all Torah Jews in all our different groupings – Ashkenaz and Mizrachi, Yeshivish and non-Yeshivish – and, indeed, all Jews, must have so we can grow together, learn from each other and strengthen each other.

And of our brothers and sisters who have rejected Torah and Mitzvot and created ideologies that rationalize their non-observance and, these days, defend even intermarriage, assimilation and opposition to Jewish rights in the land of Israel? Those who are still halachic Jews are part of the Jewish people but I fear for their future. Their numbers are dwindling even as their proclamations and threats become shriller. Are they, too, a tribe? I think not; it would be awkward to define a tribe of Israel as non-observant deniers of Torah, Mesorah and sometimes even G-d’s existence. But they are certainly part of the existing tribes, albeit less faithful and committed. They must find the leadership and the inner will that bring them back to Torah observance and full participation in Jewish life, and perceive themselves as valued members of the great odyssey of the Jewish people rather than as a bridgehead for the reformation of Judaism according to Western and secular values. That has undeniably been a road to oblivion. Witnessing it should evoke in us tears of anguish and openness to outreach and acceptance.

It is not unity that the Jewish people require but rather love – love of each other because of our diversity and not despite it, love of each other as individuals and as one nation that transcends our differences and even our flaws. Sin’at Chinam (baseless hatred), the Netziv wrote, is hatred for another because he is slightly different than you. Such hatred destroyed the Beit Hamikdash and has prolonged our exile. Ahavat Yisrael is the cure for all that ails us.

In so doing, the world will again look at us and admire our tents, our diversity and our common objective of bringing glory to G-d and His Torah and we will usher the world itself into the era of complete redemption.

The Leader Sets the Tone

(The following was published today in the Jerusalem Report.)

Is sin inevitable? We like to think not. In Parshat Vayikra, the Torah details the atonement procedures for a variety of sinners by routinely introducing the sin with the word “if.” “If the priest sins… if the entire assembly sins… if the individual sins…” (Vayikra 4:3, 13, 27). Only in reference to the ruler or king does the Torah insist on the inevitability of sin, as in “When the ruler sins” (ibid 4:22). Why must the ruler sin?

The sin of leadership is predictable.  Lord Acton famously opined: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” A person entrusted with power and authority by others often internalizes a sense of his own greatness and invincibility, which is always unwarranted. Errors are covered up, and often mutate into sins and, even worse, Louis XIV’s conclusion that “I am the state.” Sin therefore becomes unavoidable, and undoubtedly the Torah employed the word “when” as a cautionary note to the prospective leader, so he should be immensely careful not to stumble, and also to engender in him at least a little humility.

Nonetheless, all leaders sin, and recent (and certainly, ancient) examples of leaders who succumb to the most pedestrian vices are so numerous as to be commonplace. The people usually are quite critical of the flaws of the leader, if only because the leader often makes decisions that displease some of them. Even if those decisions are correct, the aggrieved party still feels wrongly deprived and roundly disrespected, and decries the injustice of it all. “When” the ruler misbehaves, there will be people who take it very personally and show him little sympathy or compassion.

The great commentator Rashi highlighted the use of the word “asher” (“when”): “From the term “ashrei” (fortunate); how fortunate is the generation whose ruler takes to heart and seeks atonement for his unintentional sins, and even more for his intentional sins” (Vayikra 4:22). How fortunate indeed!

In 1987 an American president publicly admitted a mistake in a manner that has become exceedingly rare since. President Reagan spoke to the nation in the wake of the Iran-Contra Affair and began: “First, let me say I take full responsibility for my own actions and for those of my administration.” In the decades since, “I take full responsibility for my own actions…” has morphed into the passive expression of “mistakes were made;” by whom and for what in particular is rarely articulated. Part of the reason for this obvious flight from personal responsibility is the 24/7 news cycle that harps on any mistake and forever hound the confessor.

A generation in which personal accountability is a cherished value will breed leaders for whom personal accountability is both natural and appreciated. Conversely, a generation that flees from personal accountability – in which individuals routinely try to camouflage their mistakes or look for others to take the fall – will produce leaders who do the same. As the Talmud states (Masechet Arachin 17a) “the leaders mirror the generation, and vice versa.”

The ability to accept personal accountability is thus a telling insight into both the individual politician’s character, and the values of his contemporaries: especially the latter. These days, where the acceptance of personal responsibility has harmful consequences, it is simply more prudent to avoid it, blame others, or change the topic. That should not be, and this weakness afflicts all of us.

The leader sets the tone for his society, and his admissions (that are just recognition of his own limitations) can influence his peers to embrace the same value. It is not only that the leader apologizes, confesses, or concedes his mistakes; it is also that he takes to heart the need for atonement. On his own he realizes the value of accountability for mistakes, and that virtue is desperately needed by all people as well.

Historically, penance was an act of greatness, and leaders who admitted their failings or insecurities were more admired by their peers for their humanity and grace. As the leader does, so do the people; as the people do, so does the leader. “When the ruler sins…” is as much a reflection of the qualities of the ruler and the inevitability of mistakes as it is on the true value system of the people he serves. The average person can avoid sin through vigilance and self-control; the leader is more vulnerable, and rightly so, as he sets the moral tone for the entire society. Knowing the leader will sin, perhaps the people can not overreact to any of his failings. The nation that encourages, even celebrates, the acceptance of personal responsibility by its leaders is a nation that knows how to pursue justice, morality and ethical perfection.

 

Two-State Illusion

The Jewish people have been “refuseniks” long before Jews from the former Soviet Union heroically gave that designation such honor. Rav Soloveitchik explained that Yosef, nearly falling into the lecherous clutches of Potiphar’s wife, extricated himself in a way that the Torah (Breisheet 49:8) described in one word: “And he refused.” That word is set apart from the rest of the verse by a psik, a sort of bracket, after which Yosef offers several explanations to the trollop who pined for him. But those disparate explanations are not essential to the narrative. What is essential is that one word: “Va’y’ma’ein.” And he refused. Period. The refusal matters more than the reasons.

Avraham refused to follow the debauched trends of his generation and ushered in a new era for mankind. Yitzchak and Yaakov both refused to buckle to their enemies and their inner strength and courage inspires us until today. Jews have always been refuseniks, and we would not be celebrating Chanukah this week but for a group of refuseniks called Maccabees who defeated a powerful Syrian army, rejected Greek culture, and overcame the Hellenist Jews of their generation who were trying to curry favor with the hostile, anti-Jewish establishment. Jews can refuse the enticements of sin, whether moral, physical or financial.

Herzl, Ben Gurion and Begin were all refuseniks in their own way, and today, we too are again called upon to be refuseniks, as the world community (read: UN) spearheaded by an American government led by a president, for whom so many Jews are still enamored, who has been waiting for an opportunity to stick it to Israel since his favorite preacher schooled him in the perfidies of the Jews. Yes, yes, this US government has provided Israel with $25B in military assistance in the last eight years, most of it spent in America; the same government has also furnished Iran with $100B to spend as they wish on terror, mayhem and the development of nuclear weapons.

Some Jews are irredeemably leftists and Obama supporters and nothing can happen that will change their minds. They have a unique capacity to be spat upon and then to exclaim with joy that it is raining. Gishmei Beracha. Or maybe Gishmei Kelala. Those “Jews” – make no mistake; a disproportionate number of them are not halachic Jews but the product of the scourge of intermarriage that is devouring American Jewry – would sooner blame Israel than open their eyes to Obama. Spare me the crocodile tears of those Obama supporters, some of whom voted for Obama twice, who now castigate him and offer platitudes of support for Israel, and of course would have voted for him a third time given the opportunity.

Obama is as much a product of his background – anti-Israel, liberationist theology – as John Kerry is of his: grandson of an apostate Jew who changed his name from Kohn to Kerry to try to pass himself off as Irish. We are now, indeed, being encircled by the rings of Kerry who does not even recognize his delusions. For example, 2.75 million Palestinians do not live under “Israeli military occupation,” as Kerry claims. Even ignoring the inflated number of Arabs living in Judea and Samaria, more than 90% live under an autonomous Arab government. If they cannot vote, it is because the brutal Arab dictatorship under which they live does not allow elections. And if those Arabs cannot enter “Israel” at will, it is because Israel is supposed to be a separate country, especially according to Kerry, and countries have the right to determine who can and cannot enter. That should be obvious.

Obama’s treachery was widely predicted, including in this space, and it is still entirely possible that he will recognize a “Palestine” before he is shown the door. But, as is the case with almost everything that Obama did as president, certainly domestically, it can all be reversed and erased. That is not to say that it will be easy. It is entirely in keeping with Obama’s world view that he has alienated Israel (and other US allies) and befriended Iran and Cuba. He hates Netanyahu and loves Castro. He has a fierce hatred of the fulfillment of Jewish destiny in the land of Israel even as he has bolstered and promoted the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and presided over the spread of Islamic terror across the globe. What a legacy.

UN Resolution 2334, orchestrated by the Obama administration, is similar in many respects to another act of treachery by Jimmy Carter, later exposed to be a rabid Jew hater. On March 22, 1979, Carter abstained on UNSC Resolution 446 that condemned Israeli settlements, including Jerusalem (!), stated they had no legal validity, violated international law, and deplored … yada yada yada. But Jews are refuseniks, and since 1979, almost 500,000 Jews have populated Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem. May the current resolution result in similar growth!

Resolution 2334 differs substantially in only two respects: it calls on the world to “distinguish in their relevant dealings” between Israel “proper” and Judea and Samaria, effectively lending support to a boycott of Israel. And it refers repeatedly to the “two-state solution” and how settlements impair the “two-state solution.” It is time for that narrative change.

The problem is as much branding as it is politics and Jew hatred. There are problems and there are solutions, even if sane, realistic people recognize that not every problem has a solution. The very phrase “two-state solution” is the kicker. If there is a solution to a problem, only a nut would reject the solution and allow the problem to fester. It hasn’t dawned on the geniuses in the striped pants world (although it certainly motivates those who favor Israel’s demise) that the two-state “solution” is no solution at all. No reference was made to a two-state “solution” in Resolution 446 because it was then a dead letter. No rational person believed then that partitioning Israel and awarding its sworn enemies half its territory would be a solution to anything, except to those who perceive Israel’s existence as a problem. No rational person should believe it today.

We have to change the brand. Every time someone says “two-state solution” just write, blurt out or yell “two state illusion.” It is an illusion – indeed, a delusion – to think that an independent “Palestine” will bring peace. There never was an independent “Palestine,” there is no such political identity, no historic Palestinian figures from the 19th century going back to creation, and no means for even a peaceful “Palestine” to sustain itself as a state on territory that lacks material resources and infrastructure. It is a fabricated identity, fabricated not to buttress Arab claims but merely to suppress and eliminate Jewish claims. It is therefore not surprising that the “Palestinians” refused a state before 1948, made no effort to create a state when Jordan and Egypt controlled these territories from 1948-1967 and have rejected several ill-advised attempts to award them a state in the last 15 years. Let’s get real.

“Two state illusion” rolls off the tongue, and when uttered repeatedly, it makes a “two-state solution” sound much less appealing or even sensible. And it is a tribute to a number of Jewish activists that the Republican Party platform this year withdrew its support for the “two-state illusion,” and the incoming Trump administration seems presently disinclined to advocate it. And why would it? It can’t work, and if it could work, it would have worked already.

Much of the chatter makes it seem as if the “two-state illusion” was long-standing American and Israeli policy. It is not. Even the Oslo Accords did not endorse a “Palestinian” state, and the US only signed on to it at the urging of Ariel Sharon in 2004. Sharon encouraged the Bush Administration to support such a state in exchange for recognition of the settlement blocs as legal. This, sadly, was another disastrous legacy of Ariel Sharon. George W. Bush issued such a letter in June 2004, but US support of the settlement blocs was repudiated by Hillary Clinton in 2009 even as she pocketed the “two state illusion” as US policy conceded by Israel. Well, times have changed, and as Einstein noted, only the insane keep repeating the same actions and hope for different results.

Judea and Samaria represent Israel’s past and future. It is immoral to say that Jews can live in Shiloh, Illinois and not the original Shiloh. To articulate that sentiment is to be on the wrong side of history and to mock the Bible. Obama and Kerry are on the wrong side of history. In the story of Chanukah, it is distressing to note that most Jews sided with the enemy, the Syrian Hellenists who tried to stamp out Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel and eradicate the Torah itself. Those Jews were on the wrong side of history. Many of the battles of the Maccabees were fought on land that neither Obama nor Kerry recognize as Jewish. But it was then and is now.

Those Jews who are turning on Israel are also on the wrong side of history. It is patently clear that the closer Jews are to Torah the greater is one’s commitment to the land of Israel, whose possession by Jews is obviously a major element of the Torah.  Of course, there are observant Jews who are still enthralled with the two-state illusion but they are an ever declining minority of the Torah world. So be it.

The battles that are being waged now for the land of Israel during the celebrations of Chanukah are reminders to us that the old antagonisms still exist in every generation, and that the spirit of the Jewish refusenik that has animated us throughout history will give us the strength and courage to refuse even the entreaties of people who perceive themselves as well-meaning in their quest to hound, diminish and weaken Israel.

That light still shines in every truly Jewish home, and will shine forever.

Happy Chanukah!

 

Modern Exodus

The Midrash (Tanchuma Beshalach 10) relates that when the Jewish people left Egypt and miraculously crossed the Red Sea,  the water was divided into twelve different paths, twelve bridges, one for each tribe. But why couldn’t we all cross on one bridge – why did each tribe need its own bridge?

I think the answer is that in redemption, as in life, one size does not fit all. Even in leaving a bitter exile, we did not all leave the same way (and we don’t all leave the same way), nor do we leave at the same time with the same motivation. Some bridges are smooth, others filled with potholes. Some have tolls – quite exorbitant tolls, which extract a very high price from us – and some are free, and include beautiful vistas. Some are heavily trafficked, and others are smooth sailing. But each tribe found its own way to cross.

Recently, I read a fascinating history of the Soviet Jewry movement that I recommend, published in 2011 by Gal Beckerman and entitled “When They Come For Us, We’ll Be Gone” (from the Safam song of the late 1970’s). It depicts what is nothing less than a remarkable and miraculous chapter in Jewish history that today we take for granted. I knew some of the broad strokes and details, but much of it I did not know. It behooves us to learn it, to know about and to draw conclusions from it. Because we lived through it, as our Sages state (Nida 31a), we have trouble seeing the miracles that took place right before our eyes. What miracles?

It was a miracle that a semblance of Jewish identity remained after so many decades of Communist suppression of Torah, and paradoxically it endured because the Soviets were so obsessed with controlling the lives of their citizens that the government recorded their Jewish nationality on their internal passports. But for that, Jews could have completely assimilated. In essence, they were made to feel like they were Russians, Georgians, Ukrainians, etc. – but not completely. Still outsiders. Even intermarriage didn’t help the Soviet Jew conceal his Jewish roots.

It was a miracle that Jewish groups were able to accomplish anything, with all the infighting that took place. As in most successful enterprises, a few passionate people led the way often against strong opposition until too many establishment Jews thought to make amends for what was largely American Jewish inaction during the Holocaust. Israel had an intelligence unit already in the 1950’s designed to encourage aliya with agents in America, and it also met resistance from American Jews who had a much more modest, even timid, profile back then. There was a long-running dispute between political refuseniks (who pressed the issue of human rights, freedom for all, etc.) and the cultural refuseniks, who wanted to deepen their connection to Judaism, Torah and Israel. They didn’t always work together, and the Soviets treated them differently as well.

There was a long-running dispute between those who favored quiet diplomacy and those who supported active, and occasionally violent, protests; those who supported Scoop Jackson – one of the righteous Gentiles of the last half-century – and his linkage of human rights and freedom of emigration to trade benefits for the Soviets, and those who were vehemently opposed to linkage (think Kissinger, et al); those who wanted to coddle the various presidents and those who wanted to challenge them. (As nothing ever changes in history except the names and the dates, the exact same debate is taking place today over the United States’ dealings with Iran, the threat of renewed sanctions, and the call in Congress for legislation that would immediately implement sanctions when the talks break down in June. And – again, echoes of the past – between those who want to indulge the President thinking that access and photo ops equate to power and influence and those who want to challenge and publicly defy him.)

We should never underestimate what President Reagan did to liberate Soviet Jews, along with George Schultz and even then-Vice President George Bush. The Reagan administration was the first to raise Jewish rights at every meeting in every forum with the Soviets, alternately surprising, antagonizing and even insulting a parade of Soviet dictators. It was Gorbachev who, initially opposed to Jewish rights and emigration as were his predecessors, realized soon after taking power that the jig was up. Kremlin archives now reveal minutes of the Politburo meetings when he informed his cohorts that their nation could not sustain itself without Western assistance, and that assistance would not be forthcoming without human rights and freedom for Jews. (Brezhnev and others had stated among themselves in the 1970’s that the Soviet empire would not survive an open emigration policy. They were right.)

And Reagan was astute enough and humble enough to tell Gorbachev that he can do it at his own pace and announce it for his own reasons – as long as he does it – and that Reagan would not claim credit for it, and would not gloat or embarrass Gorbachev. And that is what happened.

The Soviet dictators present as something out of ancient history even though it was just a few decades ago – the evil, the capriciousness, the insecurity they bred throughout the public. They were true believers, at first incredulous that anyone would want to leave their Communist paradise, and then offended beyond reason when so many did. The numbers fluctuated – from tens of thousands of emigrants in some years to hundreds in others. (That was based largely on politics, trade, pressure, and other events on the world scene.)

Above all, the mesirat nefesh (the self-sacrifice) of the Jews is exhilarating to re-visit. The Holocaust loomed over everything. Even so, people with little connection to Jewish life knew that once they applied for emigration, their lives would never again be the same – loss of job, sometimes residence, sometimes imprisonment, family disruption, divorce, alienation from children, internal exile, Siberia, labor camp, eavesdropping, KGB harassment, etc. And yet they did it, by the tens of thousands, and later by the hundreds of thousands.

And the Jews did not know from one day to the next year what would happen to them – why some people were released quickly and others not for many years. There was no rhyme or reason to the decisions, part of the mind control fostered by the dictatorship. Even Natan Sharansky, before he was released, was moved from his labor camp to Moscow for two weeks, and not told anything about what is happening to him until the night before he was flown out of the Soviet Union when he had to sign documents renouncing his Soviet citizenship. People lived in the dark, and in constant fear.

The courage and dedication were inspiring – and legendary. Sylva Zalmanson telling her sentencing judge that she will live in Israel someday, regardless of her sentence, and saying in Hebrew – while being reprimanded by the judge for speaking a foreign language – “If I forget Jerusalem, may my right hand wither…” Unforgettable.

The road out of exile has twelve bridges, but always requires self-sacrifice like that of Nachshon who jumped first into the water – before the Red Sea had split. Someone had to start and great things then happen. Ironically, the greatest despair among the refuseniks occurred in 1985 – right before Gorbachev changed his mind. They felt there was no hope, no future, all avenues blocked, and no options left. And then, G-d’s salvation came in the blink of an eye – “the heart of the king is in G-d’s hand” (Mishlei 21:1).

When we think of miracles and astonishing events in Jewish history – we need not go back 3700 years; 37 years also works. When the history of the ingathering of the exiles as was prophesied in the Torah is written, we can say we lived through it. We saw it up close, even if we didn’t fully appreciate it at the time. The exodus of Soviet Jews was unlikely at the time – and impossible to fathom in retrospect. It is no exaggeration to say that the Soviet Jewry movement brought down a mighty empire. It also brought American Jewry out of its shell, partly atoning for its silence during the Holocaust.

As in the original exodus, it was only at the end of the process of redemption that the people acknowledged G-d’s great hand. And we do today as well, even in this transition stage from exile to redemption. When we want to teach our children of heroes and heroines, of self-sacrifice, we need not go back millennia and centuries – decades will suffice. It is good for them to know that Jews – our contemporaries, people who still walk among us – sacrificed for Torah, for the Jewish people and for the land of Israel. And they inspire Jews even today.

World War IV

(This was first published earlier today on Arutz-7, http://www.inn.co.il.)

It has been apparent for years, vividly clear in the last year, and certainly before our eyes this past week: the world is at war with Islam. Seven years ago Norman Podhoretz wrote the book entitled “World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism,” but the need for political correctness has receded. Sure, sure, sure, there are Muslims who are against terror, who are decent people, etc.; there were also members of the Nazi Party that did not subscribe to all of Hitler’s excesses. The time has long past to play semantic games. Let the good Muslims stand up and re-capture their religion from those who they claim have perverted it. To date, the perverts are winning, and they consider those “good Muslims” infidels who should lose their heads.

In the meantime, civilization is reeling from the horrific blows this past week. A three-month infant girl was murdered in Jerusalem, mowed down by a Hamas terrorist. That terrorist was then extolled by Mahmoud Abbas as a “heroic martyr,” which should earn the “President of the PA” (whose term lapsed in 2009) additional visits from John Kerry, more money from the US and Europe, and more accolades from Jewish liberals – for whom all Abbas must be smirking with contempt. Yes, and he is the “good Muslim,” the “partner for peace.” Insane.

Newly minted Muslims showed their bona-fides by murdering two Canadian soldiers and seeking to go on a rampage in the Canadian Parliament building. Strange. Jewish converts seek to integrate into a Jewish community, study Torah, do the Mitzvot, and grow in piety. Muslim converts immediately seek to kill innocent people. Something is very wrong.

That is not to mention the dozens killed in suicide bombings in Iraq earlier this week by these same jihadists. It is no comfort that most victims of Islamic terror today are Muslims. Every single day some Muslim kills some innocent person somewhere in the world. At a certain point, one is left to conclude that the problem doesn’t only rest with radical Muslims, jihadist Muslims, Islamofascists, or other euphemisms we adopt to avoid the obvious truth. The civilized world is now at war, again.

We have seen something similar in the past: the generation of the flood. “And the earth became corrupt before G-d, and the earth was filled with violence” (Breisheet 6:11). Irony: the Hebrew word for violence is “Hamas.” Perhaps not an irony after all.

Rav Shlomo Ganzfried, the 19th century author of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, asks in his commentary on the Torah, “Aperion,” why does the Torah emphasize that the world became corrupt “before G-d”? The generation of the flood was depraved, but before whom else would it become corrupt but G-d?

His answer is prescient and frightening: that evil generation’s degeneracy was revealed only to G-d – because they did not see themselves as corrupt. The immorality and debauchery of that society was so deep that they did not sense at all that there was anything wrong with their conduct. This was their “normal,” their way of life. These were the values they had. They worshipped their idols by pillaging, plundering, robbing, raping and murdering their fellow man. Their iniquities, to them, were acts of piety.

The Islamic world today (yeah, yeah, the radical/jihadi/fascist/Nazi division, all 150-200 million of them, to undercount) finds virtue in beheading , piety in homicide, and godliness in genocide. Their version of paradise welcomes murderers of infants, children, men, women, scholars and saints. Killing innocent people and causing mayhem across the globe are sacred acts, extolled and encouraged by preachers in their sermons. Theirs is a bizarre world where evil is good and malevolence is celebrated.

Rav Ganzfried continued such evildoers do not respond to criticism, reproof, rebuke, or appeals to morality or conscience. They have lost the capacity to distinguish between right and wrong. They can only be destroyed; hence, the Great Flood with which G-d destroyed the world and then recreated it.

The first three world wars (the Cold War was the third) were characterized by two critical factors: the determination of civilization to vanquish its foes and obliterate their sadistic ideologies from the face of the earth, and the rise of leaders (Lloyd George, Clemenceau, Churchill, FDR, Truman, Reagan, Thatcher) with the resolve and courage to see the wars through to absolute victory.

Sadly, and dangerously, both are lacking today. The American President prefers speeches and golf to leading the free world to victory; he may lack the will, the temperament and the conviction to do so as well. For example, he favors a negotiated settlement with Iran – a piece of paper that will leave the world on the precipice of a nuclear Iran and the catastrophe that heralds, but might earn him a second Nobel Peace Prize that will be even more hollow than the first. Europe is divided despite its union, is usually feckless, fears its growing Muslim population, and reflexively blames Israel for the rise of Islamic terror. Both the US and Europe see Turkey as an ally in this struggle, a sign of intellectual and moral decadence. Asia is mostly silent, and Africa is devastated by a plague.

Israel, too, sends mixed signals. Still the first and favorite target of Muslim terror, it has not yet firmly squelched the incessant talk of appeasement, concessions, unilateral withdrawals and a (phantom) peace process as the way to security and stability. The rise this week of a “diplomatic caucus” in the Knesset that favors negotiations and concessions to the aforementioned Abbas, lionizer of baby killers, shows that much of the Israeli public still labors under the illusion that World War IV will simply go away, because we really wish it to go away.

The Jewish people are being called upon – across the globe – to articulate the problem clearly and to rally the resources of the entire civilized world against this most brutish enemy. Israel must stand firm, certainly against appeasement but even against demands that it ameliorate its war on terror. A population that can produce people who drive cars into crowds, that randomly and wantonly stab, shoot, or stone people, is an enemy population. It should be defined as an enemy population and treated accordingly, if necessary, restoring the military rule under which Israeli Arabs were governed until 1966. If the denizens of Shuafat continue to destroy their light rail station, Israel should stop rebuilding it. Despite the good feelings engendered in all of us, enemy populations (Haniyeh’s daughter?) should not be treated in Israeli hospitals. And there is much more. An enemy is an enemy is an enemy. It cannot be wished away, especially as it desires to destroy the Jewish state. Those who do not desire to live in the Jewish state should take their fight elsewhere, and if what they want is to fight and die, there are many Arab countries from which to choose.

To date, what defines World War IV is the reluctance of the Western world to characterize or fight it as such. The longer the political and ideological ostriches maintain that stance, the longer – and deadlier – this war will be. The Jewish people – despite our size but because of our destiny and divine mission – are called upon the light the nations out of the darkness that currently engulfs them.

Permanent Relief

The destruction of the army of Egypt at the Red Sea, whose 3326th anniversary will be marked this Monday, did not just provide the Jewish people with a momentary respite from conflict but was intended to be an eternal victory. The people cried out to G-d, and Moshe told them: “Do not be afraid. Stand, and see the salvation of G-d, for even as you see the Egyptians today, you will not see them ever again” (Shemot 14:13).

Indeed, it was so. Pharaoh’s army was crushed, and his empire smashed. We would have new enemies, but Egypt would not surface again for centuries – and even then it was a different Egypt. The question is: why was this necessary? At the Red Sea, the Jews were in danger of being massacred, and all they wanted was to be saved, to live another day. “Let us live today, and we will worry about 100 years from now 100 years from now!” Was it necessary to guarantee eternal relief? Who can think centuries ahead when we are focused on living until tomorrow?

It is interesting that Ramban quotes the Mechilta that “you will not see [the Egyptians] ever again” is “an eternal prohibition, for all generations.” But what exactly is the mitzvah here?

Apparently, the splitting of the Red Sea was not only a miraculous rescue but was also intended to transform our thinking and national self-image. We could not function as a nation as long as the specter of the Egyptian monster loomed over our heads. Had the Egyptians been defeated but survived, we would have made it to the other side of the sea but still remained fearful slaves (in our own minds, fugitives) always expecting the omnipotent master to return and subjugate us. We needed finality, closure – to put our trepidation of Egypt behind us so we could move forward – and just serve and revere G-d.

How important is this? Extremely. It is what we lack now and it underlies all the anxiety that we feel during these days of waiting – Iran, Kerry, PLO, interminable negotiations. There has been an obvious decrease in terror and death in Israel over the last number of years, due primarily to the substantial and powerful presence of Israeli forces in Arab towns and villages, even notwithstanding this week’s brutal murder of a distinguished Israeli police commander en route with his wife and children to a seder in Kiryat Arba. Terror cannot be stopped entirely, as long as the will to perpetrate it remains among the evildoers. Crime still exists even though there are policemen, and disease still exists even though there are doctors and researchers.

But despite the successes of the last decade – due to the physical presence in the cities, the denial of work permits and free passage, cutting off the flow of money, and even the presence of a security wall – everything still seems temporary, ad hoc. It has worked so well that it is constantly suggested that Israel withdraw from the cities and towns, increase the number of work permits and allow free passage, transfer millions of dollars, free terrorists and relax the security apparatus. Those who ask for an easing of checkpoints are essentially acquiescing to Jewish deaths. Haven’t we heard this all before? And how long will it be until the cycle of terror, death and mayhem is restored?

It is all so predictable and pathetic, and all because there is no hope of closure – no matter which Abu rules the Arab roost. The Netziv wrote (Harchev Davar, Devarim 33:11) that there is much we can learn from the difference between the wars of Shaul and David. King Shaul conquered his enemies and plundered their lands – but just sowed the seeds for future conflict. King David, instead, conquered his enemies and occupied their lands – installing his own rulers and eventually subduing the indigenous population. Shaul’s victories were never conclusive – so he reigned during a period of endless war. David’s wars brought ultimate peace and tranquility – unlike Shaul’s wars or Israel’s wars today. Of course, the distinction is not just a matter of strategy, but also depends on the merit of the generation and its leaders.

“Stand, and see the salvation of G-d.” Victory is possible – if our goals are clear, if our commitment is unflinching, and if our faith is unwavering. The enemy today is less powerful than the Egyptians of old, but some of us are still fond of helplessness – “leave us alone and we will just serve Egypt” (Shemot 14:12), better Red than dead. The advocates of this approach – some of whom presently conduct Israel’s negotiations with the Arabs – have talked it into themselves that partitioning Israel again and creating another terrorist state is actually in Israel’s interests.

That attitude is seductive. But “you will not see [the Egyptians] ever again” is “an eternal prohibition, for all generations.” It is prohibited to despair, as it is prohibited to think that our history is all politics and diplomacy and nothing else. But it is not prohibited to believe that we can vanquish our enemies on our own; those are the lessons that G-d entrusted to us when we left Egypt under His protective hand. David’s kingdom endures, not Shaul’s – and it is David’s song of triumph over his enemies that is recorded for posterity.

“You will not see [the Egyptians] ever again” is the measure of victory and the barometer of peace – that our enemies will never again threaten us because their empire has been removed from history. If we can’t achieve that in the short term, then at least we benefit in defining that as the objective. As King David sang (II Shmuel 22:5-6, 31, 50) “When the pains of death encircled me and the torrents of godless men frightened me…then G-d is a shield to all who take refuge in Him… Therefore I will thank You G-d among the nations and sing to Your name”, as we await the days when “He does kindness to His anointed one, to David and his descendants, forever.”