Category Archives: Chumash

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,

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.”


Esav’s Hatred

      To say we live in strange times is an understatement when we consider that, just a month ago, anyone who suggested that Israel’s leading allies in the struggle against Iran’s nuclear ambitions would be France and Saudi Arabia would have been a candidate for institutionalization. The French are not exactly renowned for their war-mongering, and the Saudi’s hatred of Israel and Jews is religiously-based and implacable (Jews are still not allowed to visit Saudi Arabia under normal circumstances.) But the French, the Saudis and the Israelis – each for different reasons – do not want to live in a world where mullahs can go nuclear.

     This odd twist confirms the statement attributed to John Foster Dulles, himself noted for his hostility to Israel, that “The United States of America does not have friends; it has interests.” Or, as others have said it: “Nations have no permanent friends, only permanent interests.” Part of the current situation arises from the recognition – despite the Obama administration rhetoric – that America has retreated from its dominant role in world leadership, and that vacuum has been filled by others – especially by Russia’s Putin, whom Israel’s PM Netanyahu visited this week.

But as the world changes, there is one remaining constant, itself mindboggling.

There is no more enigmatic or consequential story in the Torah than Yaakov’s encounter and struggle with the angel of Esav. Yaakov was left alone and a “man” wrestled with him until dawn. Yet, when the two brothers finally met, Esav was docile – embracing, kissing and crying on his brother Yaakov, as one would expect from long-separated siblings. Nonetheless, our Sages debated the extent of Esav’s sincerity. Rashi (Breisheet 33:4) cites all the opinions: that Esav was genuinely touched; that Esav was faking it and meant ill; and a third opinion, as well, that it was both: “Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai stated: it is a well known halacha (law) that Esav hates Yaakov, but at this moment he was overwhelmed with compassion and kissed him with all his heart.” But what kind of law is that? How can an emotion be based on a law? And, if it is indeed so, why should it be any different here? How are we to ever know when our brother Esav means well or not?

A halacha is an immutable law. It defines a reality that cannot be changed or undone – but needs analysis. If Esav is synonymous with the major powers in the world, then this “halacha is an historical verity, and should not at all be a surprise to us, even today. Less than seventy years after the Holocaust, the reservoir of world guilt has been completely depleted. It is still dangerous to be a Jew – in Israel, where a sleeping soldier can be stabbed to death on a public bus by a teenager who undoubtedly will be released from prison in a few short years; in Europe, in South America. Hardly a week goes by in which a Jew is not attacked in some part of the world for being or looking Jewish. A non-Jewish Swedish reporter recently donned a kipa to determine if these reports were true; he wrote that he spent that day in fear for his life.

The propriety of mila and shechita are being widely debated where they have not already been banned – and all under the cover of a higher morality. Iran boasts about developing the capability to eradicate Israel off the map – as King David wrote long ago (Tehillim 83:5) “Come, let us cut them off from being a nation and the name of Israel will be no more.” Too many others are indifferent or supportive, worried only about whether or not it will affect them.

The American President, convinced of his rhetorical abilities and showing none of the infirmity of his growing domestic unpopularity, is ready to have a signing ceremony that depends on the trustworthiness of the Iranians. Obama’s most recent offer to Iran was, essentially, “if you like your nuclear weapons program, you can keep your nuclear weapons program – as long as you say you won’t.” If and when it fails, and the Iranian bomb looms over Israel and the Middle East, he can always add: “I am sorry that they are finding themselves in this situation based on assurances they got from me.” After all, that line is already in the teleprompter.

Rav Moshe Bleicher, former Rosh Yeshiva in Shavei Hevroin, wrote that Esav’s power is the antithesis of that of Yaakov, and indeed more popular than Yaakov’s. Both Esav and Yaakov believe in tikkun olam, perfecting the world – something everybody loves. Esav, the “man of the field,” knows how to develop the world. He is extremely talented in that sphere. He forms governments – stable governments – develops economies, and cultivates resources. The Talmud (Masechet Avoda Zara 2b) says of Rome (Esav) that it builds the infrastructure that makes life better and promotes the common good – bridges, markets, bathhouses, civilization, science, entertainment, and health care. Over the centuries, Esav also fashioned values that now animate Western society, and that sound very good as well – equality, rights, free expression and others. Compared to what Esav the nation brings to the world, what does Yaakov the nation offer? A few good sermons? Conscience? Comedians? Nobel Prizes?

It is no wonder that Yaakov feared their confrontation – and at the very moment when his life in exile was over (so he thought) and his existence as a nation in its own land was beginning anew. It is very hard to compete with Esav. We have lost more Jews to the words of Esav than to his sword. To many Jews, the fields of Esav are much more alluring than the tents of Yaakov, and always have been.

That is why “it is a well known halacha (law) that Esav hates Yaakov.” Esav is a counterforce to the children of Yaakov. When we stray and stumble, when we come too close to aping the world of Esav, then his hatred overflows for no discernible reason and forces us to look at ourselves. And his hatred is inexplicable, as is the world’s obsession with Israel, as is its focus on Israel’s imagined sins and its utter disregard for real massacres occurring elsewhere. In fact, there are places in the world today where Jews are hated and the haters do not even know why – places where Jews are hated and the haters have never even met a Jew.

When the brothers met after their long separation, Esav still hated Yaakov, but he had compassion when he realized that Yaakov was no threat to him. The world was his. While Esav was conquering surrounding tribes and building his empire, Yaakov was rearing children and raising sheep. Yaakov was limping, wounded, weak and submissive; there was no need for Esav’s enmity. It would take time for Yaakov’s family – his nation – to grow and develop, to internalize his ideals and to represent the G-d’s will in the world in a way that impresses people with our morality and goodness. That is when the battle will again be joined. That still hasn’t happened, and it won’t, if week after week, the world is shocked (or, by now, probably amused) by the sordid revelations in the tabloids about some sort of misconduct in the Jewish world.

That is not the reality of Jewish life, but that is a growing perception, and only we can change the perception.

Esav develops the earth – his “fields” –  but only Yaakov and his sons can unite the heavens and the earth – to exalt the world so that it can become the repository of G-d’s truth and His presence. That is the ongoing struggle of Yaakov – to transform ourselves, our families, our homes, and our lives in points of holiness for the betterment of all mankind.



A few years ago, I visited the headquarters of the National Security Agency (NSA), the nation’s most secretive organization, about 20 minutes or so outside Washington, DC. Well, I didn’t actually visit it. I was right outside – my business was in the vicinity – but stumbled upon it. It is a massive complex surrounded by fences, barbed wire and guard posts. What struck me was that the parking lot contained, without exaggeration, thousands of cars crunched together, and I marveled that the NSA with so many thousands of workers could do its work without leaks or breaches of security.
Hello, Edward Snowden.
Snowden, who presents as such a weird duck that one wonders how he got a sensitive job at all (he didn’t work in that Maryland facility), has taken the liberty – as many leftists do – of harming US security and revealing secrets because of the undetermined and inscrutable cause for which he is fighting. For sure, the reality that private conversations can be monitored and private emails read and intercepted came as a shock to the American civil system that prides itself on personal space and the right to privacy. Granted, government officials claim that no calls/emails of private citizens were invaded, but, understandably, no one really believes them. Usually, it takes time for abuses to surface, if they do at all, and these allegations are simple to deny and difficult to prove. There is some poetic justice in the “most transparent administration of all time,” as the Obama-nation proclaimed it would be, looking to justify its spying when it lambasted prior administrations for doing the same and less. And the IRS scandal, which really pried into and interfered with American lives, is still awaiting its liberal John Dean to blow the lid off the cover-up. Is there anyone in the administration with a conscience, at long last?
Here’s the thing: I don’t really care about the NSA. My life is not that interesting that the government should want to unleash spies to target me and probe my phone calls (few and brief) and emails (even fewer and briefer). I have long felt that the passive but persistent encroachments on personal freedom affect only the criminals, not the law-abiding, in which group I cast myself. The streets of most American cities are loaded with cameras (only the red-light cameras threaten me). Wherever we walk – subway or stores – we are watched by cameras. None of that bothers me; I am not about to mug or shoplift.
The more aggressive and useless invasions of privacy still grate, especially the airport security personnel. It is senseless to search every 75 year-old named Agnes when the real targets are 25 year-olds named Ahmed. Much of it, in any event, is security theater that provides the illusion of security but mainly serves to protect higher-ups from accusations of negligence if, God forbid, something goes wrong. “We followed our standard procedure of strip-searching nonagenarians with hip replacements and we dutifully confiscated the water bottles from screaming children. We must have missed something in that group carrying their prayer rugs who were whining about racial profiling.”
In any event, the Israeli satirical web site Latma ( had it right when it “reported” a few weeks ago that “Americans are very upset to learn that the government has been spying on their private lives, even before they have a chance to post about it on Facebook.” There is something bizarre about a nation of emotional exhibitionists baring their every secret (and more) in the public domain, and then griping about a loss of privacy. Of course, the government has no right to intrude, and every American possesses a constitutional right to make an absolute fool of himself/herself by reporting on the inanities of their lives and sharing every stray, incomplete thought in incomplete and ungrammatical sentences. But a little self-awareness is also appropriate.
Privacy unappreciated and underutilized tends to dissipate, and in the US, fame and fortune are the rewards for those who can be the most public about what is usually most private. Let us not shed crocodile tears for those whose inner sanctum is breached by others before they have a chance to shatter the walls themselves. Privacy was always a cherished value, lauded by the Torah that grants everyone four ells to himself, and castigates those who reveal themselves or allow others access to their intimate lives. The beginning of Masechet Bava Batra discusses “hezek re’iyah,” the harm that accrues to a person when others can see him and his boundaries are invaded by the sight of others. But there can be no “hezek re’iyah” if we willfully put our lives on display.
Tzniut – modesty, humility – is not only about clothing, but most simply about privacy, about carving out areas in life in which only one’s closest and dearest are admitted. It is a lost value for several reasons, but primarily because the accessibility of our lives to others has led many to get less attention, not more, and immodesty in all its forms – verbal, physical, material – is often just a cry for attention. As every petulant child knows, even negative attention is attention.
A Snowden toils in obscurity until he realizes the acclaim and riches that will be garnered by public exposure of secrets and the betrayal of his country. At least Jonathan Pollard – who should have been released yesterday, ten or twenty years ago, or tomorrow – passed classified secrets to a US ally – Israel – but did not intend to harm America. Snowden did not reveal his secrets to benefit anyone but simply to sow mistrust, weaken the United States and curry favor with anti-American forces across the world. I wonder how he will be treated if he is ever caught.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 31a) states that it was reported that a disciple revealed a secret kept for 22 years in a certain study hall. Rav Ami kicked him out, saying “this one betrays secrets.” Today, he would go on the talk-show circuit. But secrecy, privacy and modesty are the virtues of refined people. Rashi (Bamidbar 24:5) notes that Bil’am perceived the majesty of the camp of Israel in that their doors did not face each other, so no one could peer into another’s tent.
How quaint. How modest. How beautiful. And how missed is that world.

Back to Egypt

The shock waves in Israeli society due to the controversy of “equality of burden” – work and army service as it relates to Haredim – have generated much commotion, excitement, trepidation, anger, and some very, very strange statements. Topping the list is this refrain, allegedly uttered by some prominent Roshei Yeshiva, that essentially says: “if any such evil decrees pass that threaten to undermine, weaken or even change the Haredi program of Talmud Torah, then we will have no choice but to return to Russia and Poland.”
In fact, such an assertion was first made at least 15 years ago by a leading Rosh Yeshiva, when similar proposals for Haredi service, work, reduced child allowances and curriculum reform were made back then. The sentiment is certainly understandable. In a community that feels that it has achieved the apex of spirituality – duplicating the grandeurs of Eastern European Jewry – undoubtedly a retreat from the current ideal is perceived as a dire threat to its future. Better, then, to return to the glory days of the shtetl where the Czar and other rulers allowed the Jews to dwell in peace and tranquility, each man under his vine and fig tree. The statement is thus almost Biblical in its audacity.
Actually, it is Biblical.
Several times during our sojourn in the wilderness, when the going got tough and sin diverted us from our cherished objective of settling the land of Israel, a variety of leaders, in their discontent with Moshe’s stewardship of the nation, exclaimed (sometimes implicitly) “Nitna rosh v’nashuva Mitzroima!” – “Let us appoint a leader and we will return to Egypt!” (Bamidbar 14:4). Even on the banks of the Red Sea, days after being liberated from the Egyptian house of bondage, there were voices crying that it is “far better that we serve Egypt than die in the wilderness” (Shemot 14:12). At least for the latter, the threat of imminent death was real, even if their faith was somewhat tenuous. The lure of Egypt, contrived and fictitious as it was, was ubiquitous.
Yet, for all the nostalgia for Egypt from group of malcontents– its foods, ambience, family life, beaches and resorts, all of which caused the horrors of slavery and persecution, and the murder of their male infants, to fade – no one ever actually attempted to return to Egypt. Those disenchanted after the sin of the spies decided to conquer the land of Israel without authorization, and failed – but there was never an actual movement to return to Egypt. It was a rhetorical device that packed an emotional wallop in its criticism of present trends but was never taken seriously by anyone. If so, why was it said? Why would something so preposterous resonate with anyone to the extent that the Torah would record it?
Surely, no one takes seriously “threats” of returning to Poland, Russia, Germany and elsewhere. Besides the facts that those countries also have mandatory conscription (do Jews forget the Cantonist decrees?!) as well as little interest in subsidizing Torah study as does the State of Israel, the gruesome memories are still raw. Those are countries that are drenched in Jewish blood, in which six million Jews were murdered just seven decades ago, and from which several million Jews fled in the half-century before that – primarily to the United States but also to South Africa, South America, England, Australia, and yes, the land of Israel. Eastern Europe became a graveyard for Jews, certainly physically but also, it needs to be said, spiritually as well.
For all its glories, and the majesty of the Yeshiva movement in Lithuania that inspires us until today, it was relatively small in numbers. The largest of the yeshivot barely numbered in the low hundreds of students at the peak of their existence, and most were far smaller than that. Most Jews were unlearned, and many completely dropped out of the world of Torah observance (far more in percentage than what we witness today with our so-called “youth at risk”), as evidenced by the substantial numbers of Jews that abandoned even their nominal observance the moment they arrived on American shores. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were swept away from Torah by the Enlightenment, Communism, Socialism, and secular Zionism. The nostalgia has no basis in fact, like our memories in later years of the home runs that we never slugged as young men but thought we did.
Worse, one reason those movements took root in the 19th and early 20th centuries was the grinding poverty of the “Haredi” world of that time that attempted to glamorize privation and suffering but found that they weren’t quite as marketable as they hoped. Rather than provide a kosher means to escape ghetto life and poverty, many leaders closed the gates and erected even more interior walls, with the result that many Jews just upped and left – Torah, not just Europe. Are they making the same mistake again today? Embracing policies that consistently lead to poverty and the need for public support – from a public that is less and less willing to provide – is not a recipe for long-term success. Hence, the warning that if pushed, they will leave and take their indigence with them to other shores.
The idle threat intoned in the wilderness to return to Egypt was not serious – except for this: it reflected a desire to escape their destiny as Jews and to somehow carve out a different destiny for themselves. “Going back to Egypt” meant severing one’s spiritual and emotional ties to the rest of the people of Israel, as if to say: “the rest of you are on your own. We want nothing to do with you, neither your honey nor your sting. We are a nation unto ourselves. Good luck.”
Is that the message that is being sent today as well? I would hope not, both because it won’t succeed and especially because it is such a poor reflection on Torah Jewry.
Count me among those who believe that threats of incarceration for Haredi resisters are wrong, misplaced, counterproductive and will not succeed. But those who in their anguish about the need to change certain aspects of Haredi life in order to be a part of the nation in all respects do a disservice to their constituents and the Torah itself when they make idle threats that sound – and are – bizarre and outlandish, and not to be taken seriously.
Thus, we are taught: “Wise men: be careful with your words, lest you become liable for exile and you are exiled to the place of evil waters, and your disciples who follow you will drink those waters and die, and the name of Heaven will be desecrated” (Avot 1:11).

Sacred Violence

The Torah is filled with violence, although it doesn’t always seem real to us. Imagine if there would be today a “splitting of the Red Sea,” and Egyptian soldiers would be killed by the thousands, even myriads. Wouldn’t it be unseemly to sing and dance over their destruction –“the horse and its rider were tossed in the sea… the mighty sank in the water like lead”? I am not referring to the Talmudic comment that G-d admonished the angels for singing; that is a different point – in the ideal world, every human being would be engaged in Divine service and to that extent the death of every human being is a loss. But we recite Az Yashir ¬– Moshe’s song celebrating the miracle at the Red Sea and the destruction of the Pharaoh’s forces – every day. Every day we recount the downfall of our enemy. But how do we react to the violence? How do we not become desensitized to it?
It is not the first or last time this matter is confronted in the Torah. In Sh’mot, Moshe saw an Egyptian beating a Jew – and he killed him, buried him in the sand, and the next day had to flee Egypt. Moshe killed him. Who kills people? The Torah doesn’t even say that the Egyptian was trying to kill the Jew, only that he was hitting him. For that you kill someone?
And all the accounts of the plagues visited upon Egypt – one after another and culminating with the Red Sea – begs the question: does anyone feel sorry for them, at any point? Should we? Does the Torah ever command us to feel sympathy for our enemies? (Mishlei 24:17 deals with personal enemies, not national ones; besides, numerous other verses contradict it – e.g., Mishlei 11:10). There’s even a children’s song I remember that makes the divine plagues visited upon the Egyptians seem entertaining – about the frogs that afflicted the Egyptians. Or do we simply rely on G-d’s justice and exult in that “G-d is my might and my song, and He is a salvation for me… G-d is the Master of war, G-d is His name.”
Master of war? Rashi comments that G-d is the Master of War – and even when He takes vengeance on His enemies, still “G-d is His name,” He remains a merciful G-d who can wage war and provide for the domestic needs of His servants. But how do we even feel about G-d being “Master of war?” We are accustomed to depicting G-d as compassionate and gracious. But the “Master of war?” Why are we never commanded to have sympathy for these victims of sacred violence, of which there are legions in the Bible?
Sympathy is usually an unreliable tool to measure either people’s character or their moral aspirations. I’ve noticed over the years that, like many things in life, there is a Bell Curve that accurately charts the people’s parameters of sympathy for others. There are some who feel bad for everyone – or almost everyone; they are “extreme sympathizers.” Even if the predicament is of the person’s own making, they will still feel bad for them. They’ll even feel bad for bad people, although maybe not real evil people.
Others are at the opposite extreme – they are “sympathy-challenged.” They believe in self-help and initiative, that people naturally suffer for their own mistakes, and that most bad situations are avoidable – most, not all, and they reserve their sympathy for the absolutely unavoidable. And the majority of people are found somewhat in the middle of the Bell Curve – they’ll sympathize with most but not all victims, but with one remarkable dimension: very often reasonable people will differ as to whether some victims deserve sympathy or not.
Take this case: Do Pharaoh’s armies that drowned in the Red Sea deserve our sympathy? Each of them was certainly a child of someone, and probably a father and a husband as well. Their deaths were undoubtedly tragic for their families and communities. But they don’t seem real to us, and are ancient in any event. Nonetheless, more modern cases present: Gazan children killed inadvertently by Israeli rockets targeting terrorists who build their infrastructure in residential neighborhoods seem to provoke much more international sympathy (contrived and hypocritical, to be sure) than did the children of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, or Dresden. Those killed – almost all civilians – did not seem to provoke as much hand-wringing then (less than seventy years ago) as they unquestionably would today. So, are we more moral – or less moral – than we were seventy or 3300 years ago? Are we more sensitive to human suffering or perhaps just less judgmental about absolute evil?
I think the latter, and the answer to all these questions comes down to values. American society is adrift in sporadic violence and seeming dysfunction, and not because there is more violence today than ever. It only seems that way, but in fact violent crime has dropped precipitously in the last two decades. What has changed is the type of violence – from violence directed at victims of crimes from which the perpetrator hoped to derive some material benefit to random shootings of strangers for no discernible reason. That dysfunction suggests that large sectors of a nation that has lost touch with the G-d of the Bible, and no longer perceives people as created in the image of G-d. That detachment nurtures an avalanche of violence in the culture – books, television, movies, video games – that has a greater impact on people, especially those with defective souls or defective minds, more than anything else. The killing doesn’t seem real to them, and just like the violence in the Bible, it doesn’t really register. The disconnect with G-d added to the cultural celebration of violence and combined with one other volatile ingredient – that fame is more important than accomplishment, regardless how the fame is achieved – engender these sporadic eruptions of violence. If self-debasement is the ticket to fame, so be it; violence is just another form of self-abasement.
But the Bible contains epic scenes of violence; how is it then that Jewish society is less violent than others – still – and even with our children being reared on the stories in the Torah? It is not that there is no violence in Jewish life, but it is exceedingly rare and always lamentable. I think it is because we are also taught the value of every human being created in the image of
G-d, and especially because we internalize “G-d as the Master of war.” We have been given a system of absolute good and absolute evil and the capacity to distinguish them – and therefore we also recognize that reckless compassion and wanton sympathy are inherently dangerous: “He who is compassionate to the cruel will eventually be cruel to the compassionate” (Midrash Kohelet Rabba 7:16; Tanchuma Metzora 1) – and that distorts our entire value system.
And one more reason – we have been given the gift of optimism, of looking forward to a brighter and more peaceful era.
In one of the cryptic questions posed by the Wise Men of Athens in the Talmud to R. Yehoshua, trying to test his wisdom and to concede the superiority of Roman culture and values over those of the Torah – they asked (Bechorot 8b): “How do you cut a field of knives or swords? He answered: “with the horn of a donkey.” They retorted, “does a donkey have horns?” to which R. Yehoshua replied, in classic Jewish fashion, “Is there a field that grows knives?”
The dialogue is enigmatic but brilliant. Of course, our world today is a field of knives and swords and guns and weapons. Mankind has always struggled with a disregard for human life; we are just more aware of its failings today because they are broadcast into our homes. What keeps us striving, and what gives us confidence that goodness will ultimately prevail, is the horn of the donkey – the donkey that brings Messiah, who “rides on a donkey,” and whose “horn” (pride) will be uplifted and symbolize our salvation and that of the world. The Messiah re-introduces to the world the notion of an objective morality – absolute good and absolute evil. It is the task of good people even today to enunciate those values. Civilization is undermined when such people are timid, reticent and withdraw from the fray.
That is why our spiritual giants were always warriors – despite rumors we hear today from some quarters – Avraham, Moshe, Yehoshua, David and others. They did not hesitate to take up arms and to act forcefully when necessary. The Jewish spiritual heroes were always warriors – but always reluctant warriors. They embodied a code that has a great respect for all life but also great contempt for injustice and evil. That is why we sing daily of the death of the wicked at the Red Sea, and the wicked everywhere, not because they died but because we saw evil perish and justice triumph – and why, even today, with each such triumph over evil, we move the world ever closer to the day of when “G-d will reign forever.”