Category Archives: Holidays

The Joy of Torah


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chag Sameach to all!

Honored Guests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Optimism of Rosh Hashana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy this selection from the “Jewish Shofar” project.

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


Name Changers

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

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

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

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

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

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

There are two approaches to these questions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saint Louis? Not from this vantage point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Defense of …Shamai

One of the greatest people in our long and illustrious history, and one of the greatest Talmudic Sages ever, is frequently and unfairly dismissed and even disparaged. Who? Shamai the Elder, the contemporary of the great Hillel. Shamai is always compared unfavorably to Hillel, who was known for his kind nature, infinite patience, and big heart. Hillel, in the famous stories recorded in Masechet Shabbat (31a) indulges a variety of nudniks who ask him pointless and even preposterous questions, and is open to converts of all types and with a variety of strings attached. All this while Shamai, conversely, tries to drive them all away with a stick. And even the converts themselves concede that say the sternness and impatience of Shamai almost drove them away from the world of truth. It was the humility of Hillel that brought them closer to G-d.

Yet, Shamai is also the one who taught (Avot I:15) “greet everyone with a pleasant countenance.”  But how is it possible to greet everyone pleasantly – and at the same time be considered a “kapdan” – irascible, pedantic, and short-tempered? The two do not really go together.

Furthermore, humility is such a prized trait in Jewish life, and Hillel’s humility is prototypical. Just look at the way Hillel treated the converts in the several vignettes noted in the Gemara – converts who insisted: “convert me on condition that I accept only the Written Torah…convert me on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while standing on one foot…convert me on condition that you make me the Kohen Gadol (High Priest),” each condition an impossibility in its own way. Yet, in each case, Hillel came and converted them after Shamai forcefully drove them away. Where was Shamai’s “pleasant countenance”? Indeed, where were his good midot (character traits)?

The sainted Rav Yisrael Salanter, who knew a thing or two about midot, wrote (Or Yisrael, 28) that it is a mistake to degrade or malign Shamai. Shamai was a great and righteous person, Hillel’s equal, and our Sages indicate, Hillel’s intellectual superior (Yevamot 14a). True, Shamai was meticulous in his observance of mitzvot, hated injustice and had a passion for truth – all of which would lead people to believe he was a kapdan.. But that wasn’t it at all.

Shamai was also humble, just like Hillel. One who is not humble cannot “greet every person with a pleasant countenance.” To greet someone – anyone – means that you have no airs, you don’t perceive yourself as better than them, you don’t wait for them to speak first because you hold yourself to be above them in the social hierarchy.

Shamai’s inflexibility was rooted in something else. Both Hillel and Shamai were unassuming servants of G-d but they differed on one point: is humility always preferable in divine service, or does humility have to defer to something else – strictness, even dogmatism – when it comes to the honor of Torah?

It wasn’t that one had a congenial personality and the other was disagreeable. Character traits are inborn, even if we are obligated to ameliorate and refine the unpleasant ones. Neither Hillel nor Shamai responded to the converts from an emotional or personal perspective but rather from an ideological one. According to Shamai, when it comes to the honor of Torah, there is no room for humility or compromise. It’s not our Torah; it’s G-d’s Torah. It’s not our Jewish people; it’s G-d’s Jewish people. For a potential convert to come along and insist “convert me on condition” of this or that, that is a breach of the honor of Torah.

Hillel disagreed; humility is always preferable and humility can often erode the objections and even the cynicism of detractors. Nevertheless, the dispute between them lives on. Who is correct – when it comes to the honor of Torah, should we be malleable like Hillel or rigid like Shamai? How we answer that question resolves an issue that has been front and center in Jewish life for the better part of two centuries – what concessions to “modernity,” if any, should we make to keep Jews Jewish, to attract the discontented or the unaffiliated, or to assuage the grievances of sundry groups against the Torah?

The answer is that we need both Hillel and Shamai. When it comes to the honor of Torah, Shamai was right. We cannot compromise on the honor of Torah, on the inviolability of mitzvot, or on basic Jewish values or doctrines. If we do, then the Torah will cease to have any meaning or effect. We cannot chip away at the Torah – change this or dilute that – because then it is no longer a Torah of truth. But when it comes to showing respect for human beings, then we require the humility of Hillel – to see each person as an individual, as a precious soul, to reach out, draw near, and show our love for every Jew.

Is it possible to show honor to Torah and respect for people? Of course, that was the gift and genius of Hillel. But note well that for all his humility and his desire to accommodate the converts, Hillel did not compromise even one iota of the Torah, weaken one standard, or renounce one principle. And that was a remarkable feat and a testament to his spiritual greatness. It is an error to believe that Hillel watered down the Torah to make it more palatable to his generation. Note as well that Hillel was able to succeed with his interlocutors only because they too were humble, deferential, sincere, and willing to learn from him and submit to his authority.

Without Shamai’s firmness, the temptation would be too great to adulterate the perfect Torah in order to accommodate the desires of man. And without Hillel’s sensitivity, Jews with an attenuated commitment could never be inspired and would be lost to our people. Both were indispensable to the furtherance of the Mesorah.

On Shavuot, as we celebrate the Divine Revelation that gave the Jewish people our Torah more than 33 centuries ago, we must contemplate our relationship with the Torah itself, adding a new layer of “acceptance” to our earlier ‘acceptance.” Much of what ails us in Jewish life can be healed if we embrace the ways of Hillel and Shamai, and combine a tenacious grip on the immutable Torah with a gentle embrace of the people of Torah, on all levels.

Then, we will bring the light of Torah everywhere, rejoice in the return of G-d’s sovereignty to His world, and merit true redemption, speedily and in our days.

Chag Sameach to all!

The Crucible and the Womb

The Torah refers to the Egyptian experience in a number of ways. Some are literal – exile and house of bondage – and depict our alienation from the land of Israel and the nature of our sojourn in Egypt – and one is figurative: “I removed you from the iron crucible of Egypt” (Devarim 4:20). How was Egypt an “iron crucible”?

The Maharal (Gevurot Hashem 3) quotes the Midrash (Shocher Tov on Tehillim 116) that Chazal added another simile as well. In addition to Egypt being a crucible (“just like the goldsmith reaches in and extracts the refined gold from the furnace, so too G-d reached down and extracted Israel from Egypt”), the Maharal adds that the Exodus from Egypt was similar to a fetus still in the womb of the cow, for which the shepherd reaches in and extracts it. So too G-d delivered us from Egypt “removing one nation from another nation” (Devarim 4:34). What is the difference between these descriptions – the gold emerging from the crucible and the fetus emerging from the womb – and how do they reflect on the Exodus?

The Maharal explains that in the crucible, the gold is simply the tool of the goldsmith. The smith has all the power, control and authority. In Egypt, the Jewish people were dominated, oppressed, and defenseless, with no hope of any independent existence. The Egyptians were simply too strong, and we were too weak – so the master goldsmith took us out from the fire and created a nation.

But the second simile – the calf emerging from the womb – has a different emphasis than the first. There it is not the fearsome might of the enemy that kept us enslaved but rather the mindset, the mentality, and the dependencies of the victim. Like the calf in the womb, as long as we saw ourselves “as attached to Egypt and inferior to the Egyptians,” then we were still unworthy of any independent existence.

We were enslaved not only because of the power of Egypt, but especially because of the inherent weakness of our national body – as we were just an extension of the Egyptians, one of many foreign tribes they had enslaved.

As an “exile” or a “house of bondage,” Egypt was a punishment; as an “iron crucible” or as a womb, the Egyptian exile was not only a punishment for sin but also a necessary step in nation building. That is why the redemption was so painful, so wrenching, and so difficult for many Jews – it was like being refined in fire or passing through the birth canal. Spiritually we were adrift, sunk in the immorality of Egypt; culturally, we were assimilated into Egyptian society, having long since moved beyond Goshen; and nationally, we saw ourselves as Egyptians, so attenuated was our Jewish identity.

The redemption therefore had to account for two phenomena: the physical might of the Egyptians and the spiritual weakness of the Jews. Slowly, Moshe and Aharon, the 10 plagues, the mitzvot of Korban Pesach and the celebration of Pesach itself enervated the spirit of the Egyptians, and revitalized our national identity. The “strong hand” of G-d broke the Egyptians, and His “outstretched arm” inspired the Jews. That is why the redemption from Egypt was so momentous, and that is why it is the paradigm for the future redemption as well.

Spiritually and nationally, we are still a divided people, unable to agree even on basic issues – who is a Jew, what is a Jew, what do we represent, what do we want, and what is our destiny. Culturally, many Jews are Westernized and often unwittingly drawn to the most meretricious aspects of Western life. The enemy that surrounds us threatens the world as well, and the commitment to prevail against that enemy is tenuous at best.

Nevertheless, just like we did in ancient Egypt, we have to perceive the travails of our modern world – as painful as they are to endure – as refinement, as the crucible through which we pass in order to embrace our destiny. When a powerful and merciless enemy does not break us, we are emboldened and strengthened. And just like in Egypt, we have to perceive the troubles as the birth pangs of a nation and a new era – so we can distinguish between friends and allies, so we can detach ourselves and re-assert our own identity, and so we galvanize ourselves for the struggles ahead, so we can strengthen ourselves in Torah and Mitzvot, in love of Israel, and return in true faith to the traditions that have sustained us for millennia.

Just as in Egypt, where we looked not to others for our salvation but to G-d who revitalized us and gave us the tools and confidence to move forward, so too in the days ahead our mettle will be tested. We too will need the inner strength to follow G-d into an unsown land. We too will determine who can resist and who will succumb, who will despair and who will be resolute. We will yet see who emerges from the crucible of our era intact and emboldened.

To the faithful, Pesach is always “a night of protection” for all Jews who yearn for and anticipate redemption. And so may it be in our day as well.


To my brothers and sisters across the Jewish world, Chag Kasher v’sameach to all!




In G-d’s Name

After Amalek’s sneak attack on the Jewish people soon after the Exodus from Egypt, the Torah declared eternal war against this enemy in a dramatic way: “And he (Moshe) said: ‘G-d places His hand on His throne – as if to take an oath – G-d’s war against Amalek is from generation to generation” (Sh’mot 17:16). Rashi notes that the words for throne and G-d’s name itself are spelled deficiently – kes instead of  kisei and Y-ah instead of G-d’s ineffable name of four letters – in order to teach us that G-d has sworn that neither His name is complete nor His throne is complete until the name of Amalek is completely annihilated (“Ein sh’mo shalem v’ein kis’o shalem”). What does that mean?

We can understand that G-d’s throne is “incomplete” in the sense that His kingship is not recognized by all as long as evil is extant. A king whose authority is not heeded is less of a king. As long as there is a nation or people extant whose ideology is grounded in not fearing G-d, then G-d’s throne is deficient. But what does it mean “His name is incomplete”? G-d’s name is His essence; how could it be incomplete? Said another way, G-d’s throne reflects our perception of Him – as King. But His name is not dependent on our perception. So how could His name – Y-ah instead of YKVK – ever be deficient?

A second question worthy of analysis is this: why does G-d have to wage eternal war against Amalek? G-d is G-d; He can eliminate Amalek at any time, from the inception of their history and until today? Why must G-d’s war be an eternal one?

For sure, Amalek has always existed, lurking in the shadows of history, and emerging at various points to attempt to weaken or destroy us. And Amalek exists today as well, certainly as an ideology of an implacable and baseless hatred of the Jewish people

This will not change, and there is nothing we can do to change it. We do not provoke their hatred, as much we enjoy castigating ourselves. Even if our Sages perceived the occasional sin or flaw that prompts an Amalekite attack, nothing justifies it from Amalek’s perspective. Amalek’s initial offensive against the Jewish people was a suicide mission; after all, G-d had just saved us miraculously at the Red Sea and in the process destroyed the army of the most powerful empire in the world, Egypt. It made no sense, not any more than the plethora of Muslim suicide bombers today – first against Jews and now against Jews, Christians, Europeans, Americans and other Muslims – makes any sense.

It makes no sense, just like the hatred of Jews in Europe (where so few Jews live) makes no sense, like the hatred of Israel and Jews on many college campuses makes no sense. The BDS movement that targets Israel as the only human rights offender in the world, and not just the worst, because there is no movement to boycott, divest and sanction any other nation on the globe, that cause is as inexplicable as it is evil. One would think that presumably intelligent people would occasionally ponder the hypocrisy in their own actions, their moral corruption, and the ethical decay that should be eating away at them. But they don’t.

None of it is rational; it makes no sense. It is not supposed to make sense. Consider Sartre’s classic definition of Jew hatred as a passion – not even an idea but a “criminal passion.” It’s not at all rational. Jews are often quick to find something within us to blame because that, at least affords a measure of psychological security.  Oh, that’s why they want to kill us. So if I don’t do that, then all will be good. It’s a common but horribly wrong approach.

Rav Shlomo Aviner once wrote that we should never delude ourselves into thinking that if we satisfied our enemies’ desires, if we surrendered our land to the Arabs, if we gave them whatever they wanted, they would be transformed into lovers of peace and pursuers of peace. The Maharal (Gevurot Hashem, Page 236) wrote that Lavan wanted to murder everyone associated with Yaakov, even Lavan’s own daughters and grandchildren; Pharaoh of Egypt wanted to murder every Jew at the Red Sea; and so it goes. We are not like other nations who have enemies for a reason – there is territory or resources that others covet, there is an ideology that others want to uproot. “Israel has haters and enemies for no cause,” no reason, no justification, and no explanation. That is the ideology of Amalek. They hate the Jewish people because we are the Jewish people.

G-d’s war with Amalek is eternal because He has given all man free choice. Just like we are given free choice in deeds, so too we are given free choice in thought. And ever since G-d created man, or at least soon after in the generation of Enosh, man has free choice to deny G-d, to distort His name, and even worse, to perpetrate the greatest evils in His name.

What does it mean that “His name is incomplete until Amalek is destroyed”? G-d’s name is “incomplete” when it is distorted, when it is misused, when it is taken in vain, and when it is defiled by those who claim to be His followers but in fact are His enemies. The three deadliest words in the English language are “in G-d’s name,” because in G-d’s name the worst atrocities have been justified. The two deadliest words today in Arabic are “Allahu Akhbar,” i.e., “God is great.” What should be a sublime and exalted praise of G-d is too often the prelude to the torture and murder of innocents, from Yerushalayim to New York, from San Bernardino to Bali, from Paris to Brussels. G-d’s name is incomplete when evildoers can decapitate or detonate the innocent and invoke “god” at the same time. That is an incomplete name.

G-d’s name can only be complete when all creatures honor it with life not death, with integrity not corruption, with mutual respect not hatred. His name is complete only when every nation and every individual can be described as “G-d –fearing.”

In the final stage of the process of redemption, the false ideas about G-d will crumble, along with the nations that embody them. The hypocrisy, dishonesty and venality of those who oppose the G-d of Israel and therefore the people of Israel will all reach epic and unfathomable levels. This too shall pass, and the joyous holiday of Purim that reminds us of both the struggle and the triumph in the past will be a harbinger of the day when G-d’s name will again be complete, when “G-d will be One and His name will be One” (Zecharia 14:9).