Category Archives: Chumash

On Liberty (With Apologies to John Stuart Mill)

    One of the most famous phrases in American history was drawn from the laws of Yovel, the Jubilee year: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” (Vayikra 25:10). Those stirring words are inscribed on the Liberty Bell (not all that it’s cracked up to be, but still worth a visit) housed in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.  The Bell actually predated the War of Independence but has been associated with the drive for American independence since at least the 1830’s.

     The Liberty Bell notwithstanding, the Torah’s choice of the word dror to signify “liberty” or “freedom” is unique. It is the only time the word appears in the Torah in the instant context, although Yirmiyahu uses it several times. We are more familiar with the word cherut to denote the same idea, even though cherut is not found in the Torah at all but is frequently cited in the context of the rabbinic dictum in  Avot (6:2): “Read not ‘engraved’ [charut on the luchot, tablets] but ‘freedom’ – cherut – as the only free person is the one who is engaged in Torah study.”  That is cherut, not dror. What does dror mean and how does it differ from cherut?

The Talmud refers many times (see, e.g., Shabbat 106b) to a tzipor dror, a “free” bird, a bird that is untamed, difficult to trap, and does not accept the mastery of another. Dror means liberty, but it is a liberty that does not tolerate any restrictions or controls. Rav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch, great philologist that he was, understood this tzipor dror as a bird “which only follows its natural trend, without altering it or being affected by human proximity.” It does its own thing, and that should ring a bell for all Americans.

As such, it really is an apt description of the American concept of liberty, even if Isaac Norris, the Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly who selected it in 1751, had no such awareness of Hebrew nuance. From the “Don’t Tread on Me” symbol from the Revolutionary era to the public protests erupting across America these days because of the onerous restrictions necessitated (or not) by the Corona plague, Americans don’t like to be told what to do. The “pursuit of happiness” is individualized, subjective. One size does not fit all. The Founders, for the most part, extolled the virtues of individual liberty and small government – as big government (as we have seen) is usually hostile to individual liberty. Big government is founded upon and can only endure by encroaching on the right, freedoms and especially the money of its subjects.

The verse is most suitable for the Liberty Bell as it is for the Jubilee, in which all slaves were freed and ancestral property generally restored to the original owners. Each person returned to his or her natural state and landed property to its natural owner. Artificial barriers and human fetters were removed and life returned to a halcyon past.

Notice, though, how Jews speak not of dror, the undisciplined form of liberty that allows people to follow their consciences, muses and desires, but of cherut, a freedom that is “engraved,” carved on the tablets of the law, rooted in something external to us – the Divine Word. Freedom is the right to live with abandon or a reckless rejection of any inhibition but is rather embedded in our capacity to choose, to subdue our inclinations and harness our energies and resources to serve G-d. And the choices that are presented to us are not simply trivial flavors of life or varieties of experiences but have real world consequences. We choose the good or the opposite, life or the opposite, and so develop our souls for eternal life.

There are two concepts of freedom and each reflects the milieu most appropriate for it. The American concept reflects the ideal for a secular society; the heavy hand of the ruling class has historically been unkind to individual freedoms and the pursuit of happiness, and thus liberty remains the prevailing ethos and with good reason.

Conversely, the Torah view is the archetype for a religious nation. It promotes discipline and self-control, and mandates both behavior and values that bring a godly and sacred dimension to life. Such is only possible in a divinely-ordained system.

We must understand both systems and remember never transpose them. We must never let the American ethos pervade the Jewish moral standard – something that has been the bane of modern life and much of the last century. Only then can we remain faithful to our divine mandate and true to our mission.

Virtue-Signaling

Character is the composite of repeated actions, employed values and refined qualities, so it is somewhat absurd to judge people – usually to condemn them – based on one deed or misdeed. Should Moshe’s reputation be tarnished irrevocably because he failed to bring his generation or himself into the land of Israel? Should even the spies that he dispatched or Korach his cousin and nemesis be cast into eternal ignominy because of their sins? Should one wrong action outweigh a lifetime of accomplishment?

Part of the moral malaise of modern man reflects this very question. It is not only the absence of heroes that can inspire anyone to do good but also the penchant of many individuals, and even the delight some take, in destroying great people’s reputations, knocking them off their pedestals, exposing and publicizing even a single flaw, and even uncovering the misdeeds or sometimes just words that allow people to conclude, “You see? They were no good. We are all no good. There is no such thing as greatness, moral attainment, or holiness.” It is as if to say because there are no perfect people, there are no people worthy of emulation.

But is that true? Are there no heroes left anymore? Does the slightest blot on one’s escutcheon destroy whatever good anyone did? Well, it depends, but on what?

If I thought for a moment that any of these modern critics were sincere and trying to make the world a better place, I would hesitate, but I don’t believe that at all. It’s mostly virtue-signaling – the public display of one’s moral superiority on the cheap, without any sacrifice, consequences, or real accomplishment. It is as if one gains moral standing merely by pointing out the failings of others, lifting up themselves by lowering others. It is as pathetic as it is commonplace.

We are living in an age in which virtue-signaling matters much more than actual virtue, and thus one can proclaim that there is no such thing as virtue because there really are no virtuous people. It is very cynical – and wrong.

For example, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson are today routinely derided as slave-owners and racists, whose names and pictures in public places cause offense, especially to the easily offended. References to them are being systematically excised in places in America where virtue-signaling is rampant and tolerance is in short supply. Abraham Lincoln, who freed the slaves and preserved the Union, sometimes expressed racist views and is similarly excoriated as unenlightened. Add to this list the flaws of FDR, for whom thinking Jews bear ill will because of his studied indifference to the Holocaust, or JFK and his moral indiscretions, and a host of others.

Poor Joe Biden keeps falling into the clutches of the virtue-signalers almost on a weekly basis. I don’t carry his water, but he got a raw deal when he declared it an asset rather than an iniquity to work together with segregationist Senators with whom he disagreed vehemently. Of course, he erred only in implying that they were Republicans; they weren’t – the two Senators he named, Jim Eastland and Herman Talmadge, were Democrats. So he didn’t exactly reach across the aisle but rather to the people sitting right next to him. Perhaps some courageous reporter will ask Biden why he joined the party of segregationists in the 1970’s and what measures he took to weed them out of his party.

And now it’s Martin Luther King’s turn. His Pulitzer-Prize winning biographer, David Garrow, an unabashed admirer of King, could not get an essay published in America (it was  published in a British periodical; there is some protection left for secular saints, sometimes) that detailed repeated salacious, scandalous and criminal behavior on King’s part, all recorded by the FBI on audiotape to be released within a decade So is there no one beyond reproach? What do we really gain from all these takedowns?

Nothing at all. But here is where we got off track and how we can get back on track. The critics are not approaching these individuals from a religious or objectively moral perspective, and do not generally take Christianity seriously, but they have embraced Christian doctrine that has skewed their outlook: that of the “perfect person.” There can be perfect people, and only the perfect person should be admired or worshipped. Everyone else is fallen, disgraced, abominable and nothing special. But the Torah never proposed such an idea and definitively opposed it. There are no perfect people. The greatest among us – Avraham, Moshe, David, etc. – all stumbled, all sinned, and all repented. That is what defines human character at its best – especially the capacity to do wrong, admit it, repent, and regain one’s moral standing.

To be sure, certain crimes are so heinous that they tarnish the person forever (homicide leaps to mind, among a number of other sociopathic acts), but aside from that, the criterion we should utilize in measuring the heroes of the past and even present is this: were their moral weaknesses or flaws part of their life’s purpose or major accomplishment or distinct from it? The lives of Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Kennedy, King – and most of the other targets of today’s virtue-signaling hypocrites – were not defined by their flaws but by the good that they did, and the good they did was completely unrelated to their sins and moral failings. Obviously the same pertains to Moshe – but not to Moshe’s spies whose mission in life (“all noblemen, leaders of Israel”) was undermined and vitiated by their sins, and not to Korach whose rebellion overwhelmed and destroyed any accomplishments  he had.

We should realize that even worse than living in a world where people search for flaws in others as if they are looking for chametz on the night before Pesach – with a microscope, a magnifying glass and then a megaphone – is living in a world where we think there are neither heroes nor people of accomplishment, and we conclude that there is no goodness worthy of emulation in this world because no one is perfect. That is a world of despair and emptiness, a sad world that needs real uplifting.

Rather than indulge the virtue-signaling dwarfs who are nibbling at the ankles of giants, all to further a political agenda, we should recognize human complexity and admire the struggles and achievements of great people not despite their imperfections but precisely because they were imperfect, and still achieved so much. Erasing their names and pictures is insensitive – to truth, reality and to a true understanding the nuances of human nature.

Judaism always advocates dealing with people with “chesed ve-emet,” kindness and truth. Kindness alone and truth alone can very often distort reality and impair our perception of what is good, moral and just. Kindness and truth must work in tandem, as we need both to survive and appreciate the good in each other.

The Ark of History

The two great individuals of ancient times – Noach and Avraham – had different personalities, were treated differently by G-d and their contemporaries suffered wholly different fates. Noach’s world was destroyed – the generation of the flood – while Avraham’s – the generation of the dispersion – was saved but scattered. Some explain the difference by highlighting one particular facet: Noach’s contemporaries were evil towards G-d but absolutely hideous towards each other, whereas the generation of the dispersion got along well with each other even though they rebelled against G-d. A society that is corrupt, immoral, depraved, angry, bitter, acrimonious and hostile towards anyone who is slightly different cannot long endure and cannot be saved.

Traditionally, we understand the difference between Noach and Avraham, and the implicit criticism of Noach, in that Noach made no effort to reach out to his generation. He was content to save himself, and did, while Avraham lived among his contemporaries, interacted with them, gained their respect over time, and influenced multitudes – he was the “father of a multitude of nations.”  But there is more to it than that

Rav Eliezer Melamed, Rav of Har Bracha, dealt recently with the following question: there are many moral and halachic challenges in the Israeli army today, some of them quite intentional as the remnants of the secular, progressive Israeli world attempt to impose Western culture and values on young draftees, especially religious ones. Given that, the questioner asked, aren’t the Haredim justified in trying to avoid those problems that carry with them a real risk of diluting one’s level of religious commitment if not eradicating it entirely?

To be sure, the Haredi world has changed substantially, and several thousand young Haredim now enlist every year, but the question focused not on numbers but on attitude. How should we deal with the spiritual dangers implicit in exposing impressionable young Jews to potentially heretical ideas and decadent environment?

Rav Melamed answered that the primary goal of haredim, and of exile Jews in general, was always hisardut, survival. Survival was everything – both physical survival and spiritual survival. To survive in the exile requires walls, and even occasionally, an ark, some secure, impregnable facility (or lifestyle) that removes us from the mainstream of society that is always beckoning, always enticing, and too often successful in luring us away from the world of Torah.

But such an attitude has no place in Israel. There the goal is not mere survival but rather living the complete Torah life, and that requires Torah study, observance of mitzvot, a state, an army, a government, industry and commerce and agriculture and much else. It requires living a complete life according to the Torah, and through that, the model Torah society is built.

I think Rav Melamed is both wise and correct – but what about Jews in the exile today? What ensures, or facilitates, our survival, with G-d’s grace? There are two possible models that we can follow, one follows Noach’s lead and the other the path of Avraham.

The first is to build an ark, to segregate ourselves, interact with others as minimally as possible, and wall ourselves off in the hopes of surviving the onslaught of spiritual allures and dangers that lurk around us. That was Noach’s approach.

The other model is Avraham, who lived in Elon Moreh, and Egypt, and Hevron, and had to go to war, and befriended Aner, Eshkol and Mamre, and tried to understand and help the evildoers of Sodom, and who had to deal with Pharaoh and Avimelech and the other debauched creatures of his day. Avraham shepherded his flock with them, made treaties with them, tried to educate them about the true G-d, and saw himself as part of his society, not aloof or estranged or above it all. And they recognized that as well, as the children of Het later said to him, “you are a prince of G-d among us.”

We could certainly stop here and say that the lesson is to be an Avraham rather than a Noach, and it is probably true and good advice, but even that is not dispositive. There is a danger in being an Avraham as there is in being a Noach. Neither was completely successful – Noach was certainly unsuccessful as his whole world was destroyed, he became a hermit and recluse after the flood and his descendants did not always adhere to his values. But even Avraham, our forefather and hero, he too had his share of frustrations and setbacks. There is a price to be paid in mingling with Sodom and the Philistines and the other degenerates who were his neighbors. His own son Yishmael was a casualty, as was Esav his grandson.

In truth, we live in a more open world today, and the Haredim live in a more closed world, but we each have our share of successes and failures. We all walk a fine line, even dangling on a precipice. It seems that the Haredi world loses some of its youth because of failed segregation; sometimes the highest wall is not enough, especially in a world in which there are incessant intrusions on our lives every minute and wherever we are. But we lose some of our youth because of failed integration: when we do not convey well enough the need for a wall of some height, for some barriers and moral limits; when we fail to teach our youth that we are not all the same and that we need to carve out for ourselves a special, spiritual place; when we fail to inculcate the notions of obligations and responsibility rather than privileges and feel-good spirituality.

Too much segregation doesn’t work, like too much integration doesn’t work. What is too much integration? One secular Jewish paper recently headlined that “Jewish” groups are upset about Justice Kavanaugh’s stance on Jewish issues and fear for the future. So what are their “Jewish” issues? Not Jewish education and tuition tax credits, and certainly not assimilation or intermarriage, of course not Israel, and not even his position on religious liberty matters. No – these left-wing Jewish groups are worried that Justice Kavanaugh is “wrong” on these four “Jewish” issues: abortion, immigration, sanctuary cities and affirmative action.

But I cannot quite determine what makes those Jewish interests; they are secular, political controversies that are roiling American society. We can certainly have opinions on them, and not just the one opinion mandated by the left-wing elites. They are not Jewish interests per se – but I do understand why those who think that way are rapidly disappearing from the Jewish world with a tenuous connection maintained only by a fluid definition of what it is to be a Jew.

So if neither segregation nor integration fully works, then what are we to do? And the answer is: both! We have to know when to segregate and when to integrate, when to get involved and when to step back. And above all, we must follow the sagacious guidance of Isaiah the prophet who said long ago (54:2): “Broaden the place of your tent and stretch out the curtains of your dwelling place; do not hesitate.”  We have to reach and not completely wall ourselves off. But also: “lengthen your cords and strengthen your pegs.” We have to make sure that our tent is in order, firmly attached to the ground, before expanding outwardly. A tent that is not rooted is blown away by the first stormy wind that drifts over us.

The more rooted we are and the deeper our commitment, the more we can expand. First we plant roots, and then we spread out, and we will thus merit the realization of the eternal covenant and the promise of complete redemption, speedily and in our days.

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.

 

 

 

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!