Category Archives: Holidays

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).

 

 

 

The “-Ism” Prism

Chanuka is the festival of lights, so it is both natural and paradoxical that the mitzvah of lighting Chanuka candles must ideally take place in the darkness. The lights of Chanuka come to dispel the darkness. But consider the association of Chanuka with darkness; so much of Chanuka revolves around darkness. The Midrash expounds the second verse in the Torah as referring to the four exiles that Jews will endure in our history, the third being the Greek-Syrian exile that ended with the triumph of Chanuka. “And ‘darkness’ – that is the Greek exile that darkened the eyes of Israel with its harsh decrees” (Breisheet Raba 2:4).  And the very form of the mitzvah of Chanuka emphasizes the darkness. When do we light? The Talmud (Masechet Shabbat 21b) states “from the time the sun sets until pedestrian traffic ceases in the market,” further defined “until the Tarmodeans, wood sellers, are no longer walking in public.”

And where do light? Again, from the Talmud, “the mitzvah of the Chanuka candles is to place them out the entrance of one’s home, outside,” where it is dark, facing the public domain. The common custom of lighting inside is a compromise born of misfortune – “in times of danger it suffices to light inside on one’s table.”

Why then is Chanuka a commandment that is celebrated in the dark?

Five times in the last six weeks – and I wasn’t looking for it – I have come across similar statements made by five different individuals, I assume without coordination, all in the nature of: “if Orthodoxy and feminism are incompatible,” or “if Orthodoxy and egalitarianism are incompatible,” then I want nothing to do with Orthodoxy. Or, as one put it, “until I became a feminist, I had no idea that the Torah was so anti-woman.” Or, if the halacha is not changed, and the Mesorah is not flexible enough to accommodate my desires, then I am out. At a certain point I realized – again – how history and especially Jewish history repeats itself, and how time and again Jews lose their way and willfully self-destruct.

We have had many “–isms” threaten our faith over the centuries, beginning with Hellenism in the Chanuka story that swept away most Jews from observance of Torah. There have been other “–isms” even more recently – Socialism, Communism, Zionism, Objectivism, Feminism, Egalitarianism, etc. All have several things in common. They each presented singular overarching theories that to believers will solve all problems that they wish to see solved. And they all have been designated by their Jewish adherents as the “ikkar,” the essence, with the Torah relegated to something “tafel,” secondary. The “–isms” were so intellectually and psychologically dominant that they became (or become) the standard by which Torah is to be judged. And here is the basic rule of Jewish history: whenever the “–isms” became the lodestar, the touchstone, the benchmark by which all else – including the Torah – is measured, Jews were lost to Torah, by the thousands and tens of thousands. It is as if the believers concluded: If the Torah, a mitzvah, a minhag, a Jewish value, or a Jewish idea does not accord with one of the “-isms,” then they must be rejected, for G-d surely did not intend that, if there even is a G-d.

Even worse, the “-isms” became objects of worship, veneration and adoration, even more than the Torah. I once encountered a young person who had rejected the mitzvot and become an objectivist, a follower of the philosopher Ayn Rand who was Jewish herself but non-practicing. Nothing I said could persuade him; some of her ideas made sense, and some were preposterous, but this young person was unmoved, even when I asked if my interlocutor realized that a choice between the Torah of the living G-d and…. Ayn Rand is really no choice at all!  There is nothing to compare! No matter. Rand it was. Whatever becomes the measure of all things – and is not Torah – is a ticket on the slow train to one’s spiritual doom.

And of course, none of the “–isms” are completely negative, otherwise they would not attract thinking Jews. In fact, the opposite is true. Each “-ism” had or has many fine features. Our Sages (Masechet Megila 9b) spoke glowingly of Hellenism: “’Let G-d expand the boundaries of Yefet, and may it dwell in the tents of Shem’- may the beauty of Yefet reside in the tents of Shem,” son of Noach and ancestor of Abraham. There is beauty, harmony, and even nobility in Greek culture, properly indulged and characterized. It can find its place even in the tents of Shem. For a time, our Sages even permitted the Torah to be written in Greek and read in public – the only language afforded such a privilege.

Is there not the kernel of a good idea in Socialism – the democratic control over the means of production? It might not be my cup of tea, but it sounds fair. Only a Jew could have thought of Communism – an end to private ownership, the epitome of the egalitarian society. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” Sounds great in theory! Ayn Rand – self-help, self-sufficiency, individual rights, capitalism – wonderful. But it’s not Torah, so it’s flawed. All these doctrines were flawed in theory and practice, but it is not as if there is nothing attractive in them.

And the “-isms” also have in common that each ideology snatched pious Jews away from their faith – beginning with Hellenism (as history records: most Jews became Hellenists – that’s why the Maccabees were a minority in their own land among their own people) to all the modern movements. Socialism, Zionism, and Communism made inroads in every yeshiva in Europe. There were frum Jews – ordained rabbis from the finest yeshivot in Europe – who became staunch Communists and by the time they realized what Communism had in store for Jews, it was too late. There were distinguished, pious Jews who became revolutionaries – for socialism, Communism, against the Czar and others – and relinquished the Torah life as well. All these ideologies, in vastly different ways, were immensely seductive. The temptation to change the world, join the avant garde, and be part of mass international movements was extremely appealing.

Zionism is different in that the core of Zionism always was a Torah concept – the Return to Zion as promised by the Torah and our prophets. But there were many people who threw away Torah for secular Zionism – saying, in effect, “the mitzvot are only necessary for the exile!” – itself an incorrect paraphrase of a point made by the Ramban (Devarim 11:8). Zionist leaders such as Weizmann, Eshkol and too many others all attended Yeshiva in their youth, and gave it up religious observance. They didn’t have to abandon the Torah life; Religious Zionism has demonstrated how one can be an observant Jew and a Zionist. But abandon Torah they did in order to create the “new Jew” who became remarkably like the old Jew who abandoned Torah for other “-isms.” Likewise, there are people who still grievously distort the Torah for anti-Zionism, which is also just another “–ism.”

I fear that the same thing is happening with feminism and egalitarianism. They are also just “-isms,” and each of them also contain some good – equality, fairness, sensitivity, an end to abuse, increased opportunities, etc. But each of them also contains ideas and practices that contradict the Torah as well, and therein lies the danger. The fundamental departure from Torah that characterizes these two “-isms” is the assertion that males and females are the same and therefore men and women are “equal.” Men and women are no more equal than an apple and a tomato can be said to be equal. They have some things in common, some things in which they are distinguished, and different roles (even different brachot). To build an ideology on that proposition is essentially to repeal parts of the Torah, nature and common sense.

Whenever something is designated as a counterforce to Torah, is deemed to be an idea or value that supersedes or transcends Torah, or is perceived as the barometer by which the Torah is to be measured – then you know you are on the wrong track. Whenever any “–ism” comes forward and says, “worship me, the Torah must obey me,” and induces one into thinking that if the Torah cannot be harmonized with the “-ism” then the Torah is flawed, know that you are on the wrong track. Then the person has to have the inner strength and fortitude to say “I may be a Hellenist, Socialist, Zionist, Feminist, Egalitarian, etc. but ‘ahd cahn.’ Only up to here. I can go no further without abandoning what is most precious to me, the Torah and its mitzvot.”

Shlomo, in his wisdom, summarized our obligations: “fear G-d and keep His commandments, for that is man in his entirety” (Kohelet 12:13).  Any ideology that takes us away from Mitzvot –  intentionally or unintentionally, permanently or temporarily – is flawed, invalid, and unworthy of a Jew. Those who believe in G-d and His Torah must internalize that our lives will not be measured based on how good Hellenists we were, or Socialists, or Communists, or Feminists or followers of Ayn Rand – but how good and faithful Jews we are. We delude ourselves at our peril into thinking we can have it all and embrace it all and harmonize it all. We can’t. The “-isms” of history swept away countless numbers of Jews; the modern ones still do.

The purpose of Chanuka is to illuminate the darkness outside, not to bring the darkness of the outside into our homes. The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe  said the Mitzva of Ner Chanuka was so formulated – light candles in the place of darkness at the time of darkness – “so that we should bring our light into a darkened world,”  until the Tarmodeans – i.e., the mordim, the rebels and revolutionaries, can no longer stand in the public domain.

In times of danger, when the outside world beckons with its temptations and heresies, entices us to look at the world through the prism of an “-ism” and not through the Torah and our Mesorah, and tries to cajole us into making additions, subtractions and amendments to the Torah, then we have to ensure that our homes, our places of holiness, remain pure, and the jug of oil in our hearts is unsullied by alien ideas. We may not be able then to enlighten the world but we can keep our homes and families spiritually safe and secure.

Only then we will again be imbued with G-d’s spirit and worthy of having His presence dwell among us. Only then can we anticipate His protective hand that will shield us from the turmoil and struggles ahead, as He did to our forefathers (and foremothers) in those days in this season.

 

 

Omens

We are commanded this time of year to dwell in Succot (booths) “so all generations should know that G-d had us dwell in Succot when He took us out of Egypt: (Vayikra 23:43). We have been dwelling in Succot ever since –    a sign of G-d’s love and protection from hostile natural elements, and from hostile human forces as well. Our Sages famously disputed whether these Succot were real, actual booths or the divine clouds of glory. But how far does the protection extend?

Rav Rami Berechyahu (the fine Rav of Talmon in Samaria and founder of the organization “Maaminim Bamishtara,” an educational network for religious police officers in Israel) was once asked the following question: a fellow said that he was building his Succa and he injured himself, broke his finger when he smashed it with the hammer. He wanted to know how such a thing was possible when the Talmud (Sota 21a) states that when you are involved in the performance of a Mitzvah, you are protected from harm. So how was he hurt?

The Rabbi first answered that building the Succa is not the mitzvah but a hechsher mitzvah  (preparation for the mitzvah, which is dwelling in the Succa), so the aforementioned principle doesn’t apply) We might be tempted to dismiss such a question altogether but for the fact that many people live their lives according to such signs, omens, premonitions. This action brings good luck, and this brings bad luck. I’ll be successful if I wake up at a certain time, or the weather is a certain way, or this person calls me. As is well known, there are people who do this with mitzvot as well – if I observe this mitzvah, then that entitles me to this reward, or even this: if I do this mitzvah, then I can transfer my reward to someone else.

All of this is alluring but essentially baseless – we can daven for someone else (the primary way of helping another, aside from actually helping them) or even learn extra Torah for someone else. I’ve never seen an authoritative source suggest that I can assign my reward for wearing tefillin (or taking challah) to someone else, anymore than the Jets can assign extra points they have scored to the Giants (not that it would help). And if the transference of reward did work, would the converse also work – that someone else becomes responsible for my sins? (“I’m doing it for him, not for me.”)

Yet, interestingly, the notion that we can interpret events or signs is not unknown even in the world of Halacha. Two famous vignettes suffice: the Vilna Gaon long desired to implement the recitation of the Priestly Blessing every day in the exile, and not just on Yom Tov as we currently do. He tried several times but stayed his hand, until one time he decided that he would do it the next morning. That same night, he was arrested on slanderous charges (part of the Chasidic-Mitnaged wars of the 1700’s); when he was released he took it as a “sign from Heaven” (Aliyot Eliyahu, 44) that he should not make this change in the liturgy. Some years later, the Gaon’s disciple tried the same thing – and the night before it was to happen, the Bet Midrash in Volozhin burnt down.

So, too, the Chatam Sofer ruled that if a person ate meat late at night and arose early the next morning, it is permissible to have coffee with milk even before six hours have elapsed since he last consumed meat. One need not wait the customary six hours between consumption of meat and milk, as sleep speeds digestion. Most others disagreed, but having ruled, the Chatam Sofer decided to act in accordance with his ruling, ate a late night meat meal, rose early the next day, poured himself coffee, added milk, and… promptly knocked over the whole cup. From here he deduced that the halacha is not in accordance with his opinion.

What does this all mean? Are we mystics? Do omens matter? Rav Yisrael Salanter rejected all of these, arguing that the Torah is not in Heaven. Halachic questions must be decided based on halacha and not based on signs or wonders. The Bet Midrash in Volozhin was burnt down not by an act of G-d – but man, Rav Yisrael contended; it was arson by people who resented the change in minhag. (Some Jews will do anything to defend a custom – even violate several Torah prohibitions!) Perhaps on the level of the Vilna Gaon or the Chatam Sofer different rules apply. But who knows? Clearly such an approach is not normative. We can’t live that way.

Not everything has a deeper meaning. Rav Shlomo Aviner was once told by someone that he was trying to write a check for charity to a poor person when his pen ran out of ink. What message, he asked, was G-d sending him? Rav Aviner answered that G-d was telling him that he needs more ink in his pen. So too, Rav Berechyahu told his interlocutor that the signal the latter was sent from Heaven when he broke his finger while building the Succa was this: when you use a hammer, you have to be careful. That is also a divine message.

The Succa is a demonstration of faith on our part and of love on G-d’s part. The Vilna Gaon explained that the 15th of Tishrei was the day on which the divine clouds of glory returned to shelter the Jewish people after the sin of the golden calf.  Those divine clouds of glory do not hermetically seal us. But without them, the actual Succot could also not protect us. They reflect the special Providence through which G-d preserves His people, and His love in giving us the Torah and Mitzvot, a land and a way of life, that doesn’t prevent harm but give us guidance in dealing with harm, especially the harm caused by G-d’s other creatures, human and otherwise. We don’t need a greater demonstration than Succa; we just need the Succa. It is our shelter of faith.

In so doing we find our deepest connection to G-d, our purpose in life, and our source of true happiness, and hastens the day of redemption, when G-d’s kingship will be recognized by all mankind.

G-d’s Hand in History

(The following was published as an Op-ed in the Jewish Press, on September 11, 2015 –  RSP)

Fourteen years ago today the clenched fist of Arab-Islamic terror smashed into the United States of America, murdering almost three thousand innocent souls, devastating lives, shaking America (at least temporarily) out of its complacency and nudging the American polity into several Middle Eastern wars. Those wars have not ended well; indeed, the situation on the ground has become more violent and deadly. The desultory and reluctant conduct of these wars by the Obama administration – snatching defeat from the jaws of potential victory – has left the region and the world on the verge of accommodating Iran’s nuclear ambitions and Iranian hegemony over much of the Middle East.

On an individual level, the brutal and unprovoked attacks on September 11, 2001 were a vivid reminder of the fragility of life. Thousands of people at work or on their way to work rose that morning in anticipation of a normal, uneventful day, just going about their daily routines until such time as they would return to their families and loved ones. Alas, their good-byes that morning were the last ones they would extend, their lives ended in sudden acts of unimaginable horror. When the Yamim Noraim begin, we remind ourselves repeatedly of our own vulnerabilities, the tenuousness of life itself, our gratitude for the gifts and opportunities

Hashem  has bestowed upon us – each according to His will – and of our rededication to utilizing those gifts and opportunities in His service. That is the judgment of the individual that consumes most of our attention.

But there is another judgment occurring on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippurim whose stakes are even greater than the judgment of individuals, and which this anniversary of the Arab terror of 9/11 renders so palpable: the judgment of nations.

As we say in the Musaf of Rosh Hashana, in the blessing of Zichronot (“Remembrances”): “And of the nations it shall be said: Which one will merit peace, and which one the sword? Which one will suffer famine and which will enjoy plenty? And all creatures will be remembered and recorded for life or for death.” It is true that the suffering of nations is felt most in the travails that befall the individual – but it is also true that even innocent individuals can be ensnared in the tribulations of nations and suffer accordingly. We live as individuals, but we also have our fates intertwined with those of the country in which we reside and that country’s enemies and adversaries.

If we have some (emphasis, some) control over our own fates – “Repentance, prayer and charity avert the harshness of the [divine] decree” – how do we understand our almost complete helplessness in avoiding the consequences of the national judgments that also take place? Are we just pawns in history, bounced by forces beyond our control? Is it possible to understand G-d’s plan in history beyond the rough outline provided to us in the Torah and the words of the Nevi’im ? Is there a divine message that we can discern amid the murkiness and gloom of today’s global scene – in which country after country, seemingly without any end in sight, is battered by terror and war, refugees and displacement, evil and its bitterest enemy, apathy?

G-d’s ways are inscrutable, and even if the last chapter is known to us – the coming of Moshiach – the prior chapters are still being written and read. But one thing should be clear to all Jews: world events are designed to shake us out of our lethargy and embrace our divinely-ordained role in history.

The Gemara (Yevamot 63b) states that “punishment does not befall the world except on account of the Jewish people.” It is not that we bring misfortune to the world, G-d forbid, as our and G-d’s enemies are fond of saying; the exact opposite is the case. The Jewish people have brought untold blessings to mankind from the very beginning of our existence and down to our very day. The world benefits from the technological, scientific and intellectual genius of the Jewish people and is continually challenged by the moral code of conduct to which we aspire. That has been reciprocated, often and in many places still today, with hatred, overt or subtle, with physical violence and rhetorical scorn, and with persistent, baseless and scurrilous attacks on Israel’s legitimacy and/or conduct, all thinly-disguised assaults on the Jewish people.

Some wage open war on Jews across the globe. Others, especially the hostile elements in Europe and America, are still inhibited by the rancid Jew hatred of the Holocaust and so hide their contempt for all Jews behind the veneer of hatred for Israel – BDS and the like. All of this is contemptible and lamentable but little of it is new. It has accompanied us since Sinai, and the spasms of violence that erupt across the globe – so Chazal are teaching us – are on our “account.” When they fight against us, it is because they are waging war against the Jewish idea. But even when they fight each other, and bring enormous, unspeakable suffering upon themselves, at the root of their discontent is the distortion of the Jewish idea and a rejection of   G-d’s plan for mankind.

As Rabbi Berel Wein once explained, “it’s because of us but it’s not our fault.”

The Wall Street Journal (April 3, 2015) featured a graph that noted the current population of the world’s religions and their future growth. (By 2050, the global Muslim population will almost match the global Christian population, each near 2.8 billion people.) Today, there are 2.17 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims, 1.4 billion Hindus, even 1.3 billion unaffiliated. At the very bottom of the graph – the last line – are the Jews, hovering at or above (!) zero. We are not even a rounding error in the world’s population, less than that. We are not just statistically insignificant; we are statistically improbable.

“Hashem did not desire you or choose you because of your numbers, for you are the smallest among the nations” (Devarim 7:7). Yet, history revolves around the Jewish people. We are not afforded the luxury of being bystanders but rather of being in the forefront of every major world event and discovery. Our national homeland was not placed at the end of the world – say, New Zealand – where we could safely develop our spiritual aptitudes far from the madding crowd and high above the fray but rather at the crossroads of civilization and in the middle of every conflict.

No nation in the world tries harder to do good to all – even strangers – and no nation is as despised and reviled for those efforts. What does it all mean?

It means that G-d chose us as His vehicle to bring His morality to the world and effectuate His will in history. Rav Shlomo Aviner is fond of quoting Giambattista Vico (1668-1744), the famed Italian philosopher and historian who posited – three centuries ago – that whereas the histories of the nations of the world are profane (meaning secular, guided by natural and political forces), the history of the Jewish people is sacred, directed by G-d, and not at all bound by the general laws of history. What applies to other nations and what happens to other nations simply do not apply or happen to us.

It is astonishing that Vico should have recognized that; it is even more astonishing when we – the Jewish people – do not and instead go about our business as if our destiny is that of all nations.

Rav Zvi Yehuda Hakohen Kook zt”l regularly expounded what he called “Masechet Yisrael,” the “Tractate of the People of Israel,” both because it was worthy of study and because it underscored G-d’s plan for us in history. He highlighted three phenomenal dimensions – wonders – of the Jewish people: the wonders of our abilities, our survival and our influence. (See, for example, Rav Aviner’s annotated edition of Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook’s “Orot, Yisrael U’techiyato,” footnote 266.)

We are an extraordinarily talented people, whose contributions to mankind have transformed the lives of billions of people. We need not even mention the disproportionate share of Jewish Nobel Prize winners, a mindboggling statistic that defies rational analysis. As a nation, we have been endowed by the Creator with capabilities that are designed to facilitate mankind’s pursuit of moral perfection, the material good and the welfare of all. The former is the very purpose for which we were given the Torah and prophecy.

The wonder of our survival continues to defy comprehension. No people has ever suffered the devastation of invasion, defeat, destruction, and exile – and twice – and then remained an intact nation that reclaimed its ancient homeland after 19 centuries. It is so inexplicable in human terms that it is the source of relentless irritation to our enemies, who deny it formally but are awed by it privately.

And, despite our insignificant and paltry numbers, the influence of the people of Israel on world events is itself astounding. Scarcely a day goes by without a Jew or the Jewish people in the headlines. The preoccupation of the world – actually, the obsession of the world – with the tiny State of Israel is a constant reminder to us of the expectations that the world has for the Jewish people, our outsized impact on social trends and political movements, and the uneasiness of the world’s powers with this upstart nation that, as the boxing saying goes, punches far beyond its weight class. It has been repeatedly noted that Jews have been in the forefront of great social and intellectual movements of the last two centuries – some good, some not so good – Jews like Freud, Marx, Einstein and others. Many of the high-tech innovations that have revolutionized modern life have originated in Israel.

These are all “wonders,” but none are inherently innate to the Jewish people. They are gifts from Heaven, all intended to provide us the tools with which we can carry out G-d’s will for mankind. Occasionally, perhaps more often than that, we have used these gifts inappropriately, for our own self-aggrandizement or for mere physical gratification, and forgotten or ignored the Giver and the purposes for which it was given. At those moments in history, we are sent reminders, sometimes gentle ones and sometimes less so, that we have strayed from the proper path. The road to return then opens before us, if our eyes wish to see and our hearts are receptive to the messages.

The Torah we were given, Rav Avraham Kook wrote (Orot, Yisrael U’techiyato, Chapter 5) is “not the imagining of the heart, not human ethics, not just worthy desires or appropriate fantasies, not the abandonment of the material world in any of its aspects, not the rejection of the body because of its ‘impurity,’ not the renunciation of life, society, government and authority because of their lowliness, and not the repudiation of the world and its natural forces that were corrupted by sinful man – but rather the exaltation of all of the above.”

This is the future towards which we are heading, notwithstanding all the challenges we face, the incessant Jew hatred that still afflicts too much of the world, the seemingly endless terror and war that is thrust upon us and other good people, and the rebuff of the Divine idea and moral code that is at the core of mankind’s discontent and moral perversions.

“Those who rise up against Israel rise up against G-d” (Tanchuma, Beshalach 16). It is a truism of history that wars against the Jewish people are a displacement for the real adversary that confounds our enemies – their war with the Creator (see Rambam’s Epistle to Yemen). We are simply convenient targets, but attacks on the Jewish people elicit a Divine response in history, and judgment of those nations ensues.

On the annual Day of Judgment, each person is judged both as an individual and as part of a nation. We live our lives not only to perfect our souls in this world but also to advance the goals of the Creator. If our personal judgments are enigmatic, then our judgment insofar as we are part of a nation is even more impenetrable. Those are the mysteries of life and are the exclusive domain of the Judge of all mankind. We can never comprehend why some lives were snuffed out by the godless forces of evil and other lives were spared. All we can do is thank Hashem for His blessings and commit our lives and resources to living in broad, historical terms and not just in the mundane matters of daily life.

The Gemara states (Sanhedrin 97b): “Rabi Eliezer said: ‘if the Jewish people repent they will be redeemed, and if not, they will not be redeemed.’ Rabi Yehoshua said to him: ‘if they don’t repent, they won’t be redeemed? Rather the Holy One, Blessed be He, will cause a king to rise over them whose decrees are as harsh as those of Haman, and they will repent and be restored to the good.”

The king whose decrees will spur our repentance is not someone like Nimrod, Pharaoh, Nevuchadnetzar or Titus; it is someone like Haman – a Persian descendant of Amalek who harbored genocidal ambitions against the people of Israel.

Some things never change.

And some things can change. When we realize our individual vulnerabilities, the opportunities we have been given and the great stakes before us, the moment for both individual and national teshuva beckons. May we all be worthy of inscription in the book of life, and may the current turmoil and our response to it prepare us for redemption and the coming of Moshiach.

The Sobbing Mother of Sisera

Is there a more peculiar intruder into our Rosh Hashana service than the mother of Sisera, the Canaanite general who fought against Devorah and Barak, and who is the reference point for so many of our shofar practices? The Gemara (Rosh Hashana 33b) was in doubt as to the precise nature of the teruah sound, because the Torah does not define it. But the Targum interprets that as a yevava, and the Gemara elaborates that it is written in the reference to the mother of Sisera that she “wailed,” Vateyabeiv. One opinion held that she groaned (like the shevarim) and the other held she wailed (like our teruah). So we do both. And all because Sisera’s mother wailed we know how to blow the shofar?

There is more. Tosafot there quote the Aruch, Rav Yechiel of Rome, a contemporary of Rashi, that we blow 100 sounds of the shofar to correspond to the 100 cries of Sisera’s mother. Again, Sisera’s mother. Who exactly are we talking about?

Sisera was the general of Canaan, who tormented the Jews and conquered others, who dedicated his life to killing and marauding, who, when he attacked Israel in this instance with overwhelming force – nine hundred iron chariots – was met by a smaller army led by Devorah and Barak, and was routed. He fled the battlefield into the arms of  Yael, who in short order fed him, bed him – and then killed him.

And Devorah sang about his mother (Shoftim 5:28-30) – even a killer has a mother: “The mother of Sisera sat by the window, gazing through the lattices, sobbing, ‘why does his chariot tarry in coming? Why are the wheels of his chariot late?’” And the princesses tried to comfort her:  “They must be dividing the spoils, seizing the maidens for themselves.” But Sisera’s mother knew better, and so “she wailed.”

It’s a poignant story until we stop and realizing that she is crying over his lack of success – this time – in murdering Jews and in conquering the land of Israel. Her son was exceedingly wicked, and we should curse the day on which she gave birth to him. So why is she the source of our shofar practices? What is it that happened to her that we want to recall?

Over the last few months, a number of people have asked me: is the world falling apart? Is this the worst it’s ever been – wars, plagues, terror, insecurity, uncertainty? The answer is – not by a long shot. But there is one thing to ponder, especially as on Rosh Hashana, when all nations are judged: “who will be afflicted by the sword, who will live in peace, who will suffer from famine, and who will have plenty.”

The Midrash (Midrash Tannaim Devarim 32) states: “Contemplate the years of every generation. There is no generation in which there are not some people like the generation of the flood, some like the generation of the dispersion, some like the people of Sodom, some like Korach and his cohorts.” Every generation contains these people. They are not unique.

If you think that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it – you are wrong. Those who remember the past are also doomed to repeat it! “Contemplate the years of every generation.” Look around: every generation has vestiges of the generation of the flood, morally depraved and outspoken about it, not at all reticent and sometimes even boastful; every generation contains remnants of the generation of the dispersion, who deny G-d and set themselves over mankind as rulers and dictators; every generation has echoes of Sodom, its greed, selfishness and violence; every generation has its Korach, who denies the Mesorah and think they know better than G-d what the Torah should say. They challenge the Torah leadership with their populism and sophistry.

If so, what is new? To what is there to look forward? Is the whole script laid out for us? No. The Midrash continues: “each person is judged according to his deeds.” No one is compelled to be a Korach, or like Sodom, or like the generations of the dispersion or flood. It’s not all bleak – both Adam and Moshe were shown “the book of the genealogies of man” – “every generation has its seekers, its wise people, its scholars, and its leaders (Breisheet Raba 24:2). Every person has the ability to write his own page in that book, the Sefer Toldot Adam, the book that was originally published on Rosh Hashana, “this day was the beginning of Your work.”

Too often we think that we are set, we are who we are, and it is what it is. And nothing can change. Just another day, another month, another year, another Rosh Hashana. Sometimes it’s because we have given up, and other times because we are secure in who we are, certain about our course in life and our future. Everything is laid out for us, all going according to plan. We become very comfortable with our course in life, sometimes even with our sins – not even knowing or admitting they are sins.

We sit by the window, looking out at the world, and everything is familiar and recurring – until it is not. Rav Soloveitchik explained that Sisera’s mother had a routine. She knew he would win, even knew when to expect him back from the battlefield. She knew that he would return triumphant, with the spoils of war, with the laurels of his admirers, with the dread of the vanquished. She was certain – that was her life.

“The mother of Sisera sat by the window, gazing through the lattices…” As she sat there, she started to sob, then to wail, then to mourn. Her certainty – about herself, about her son, about his and her destiny – was an illusion. It wasn’t real. As she uttered the words – “Why does his chariot tarry in coming? Why is he late today?” – she already knew the bitter truth: her world had suddenly changed. There is nothing in life set in stone. Not my life, not my choices, not my fate.

If our generation contains Nimrod, Pharaoh, and Korach in some form, if it has its share of hedonists, sadists and terrorists of all kinds, that is an unfortunate reality. But realize that our generation also has its true seekers of G-d, Torah scholars, righteous people and purveyors of kindness. So be in the latter group – nothing is fixed – even in the most troubled era, “each person is judged according to his deeds.”

The shofar draws its inspiration not from the anguish of Sisera’s mother, and not because we feel sorry for her, but because we want the shofar to awaken us, to shake us, like it did Sisera’s mother, to grab hold of us and say “life is precious, life is short, there is much to do.” Take nothing for granted, not the least of which one’s religious level in life and one’s aspirations. Everyone can grow and everyone can improve.

The wails of Sisera’s mother are the quality of the sounds of the shofar that penetrate our souls, and her one hundred sobs are the quantity that we require to soften our hearts. We can’t change the world, only our small place in it, beginning with ourselves. Thus we pray that the sounds of the shofar will break through and signal our acceptance of G-d’s sovereignty so we may merit G-d’s mercies on us and our families, on our people, our land and our holy city of Yerushalayim, for a year of life of good health, prosperity and peace.