Category Archives: Machshava/Jewish Thought

Ask the Rabbi, Part 5

Last year, I was invited to be part of a panel of rabbis to submit answers to questions posed by the editor of the Jewish Press. The column appears bi-weekly, and I take this opportunity to present my approach to the questions raised.  Each question is fascinating in its own right, as are the variety of answers proffered.  All the answers can be viewed at Jewishpress.com.

Here is the fifth selection with my take on these issues    – RSP

Is it proper to panic over the corona virus epidemic?

 It is hard not to panic since the response and countermeasures have been exactly what would have been prescribed had we also been told to panic, and to panic quickly! But, as the Beach Boys once sang, “cool heads and warm hearts” should govern our reaction.

This is because panic leads to irrational thinking and impetuous moves that tend to exacerbate the problem. Both the WHO and Johns Hopkins have reported that most people who are in the presence of the infected will not become infected themselves (as contagious as the virus is) and 80% of the infected will have “no or mild symptoms” of the virus, which will in any event pass after a few days. Those with underlying medical conditions that compromise their health are the most vulnerable and they should be extra-cautious in their public interactions. But they too need not panic.

Above all we are a nation that is grounded in its faith in G-d. We are only asked to do our hishtadlut – our very best and considered efforts to avoid contamination and transmission – and trust in G-d’s infinite compassion. We live in a world with ubiquitous dangers – from terror to sudden illness to accidents. We always rely on He who is “shomer peta’im” (Tehillim 116:6), who “preserves the simple” from unknown hazards in ways that we do not fully recognize or appreciate.

We should not minimize the crisis nor be cavalier in our response. We should not think that any of us are immune from illness and therefore exempt from any restrictions on our lives. But we should apply our reason and faith to this situation and all others, follow the guidelines of the officials and rabbis, and know that in a short time, gam zu yaavor – this too shall pass.

 Is it appropriate to look for, and publicize, gematrias and Torah codes related to the current Coronavirus pandemic?

Well, it certainly gives people with a lot of time on their hands something to do.

For sure, hafoch ba vahafoch ba d’chola ba. “Turn and turn in it [Torah] because everything is in it” (Avot 5:22). The Torah is the repository of G-d’s wisdom and thus it is unsurprising that it is a fount of information and insight on all matters. Searching for allusions in the Torah to all events – from dire crises to birthdays – has been a Jewish parlor game since ancient times.

Nevertheless, we should realize the limitations of the exercise and its propriety. Obviously, the data can easily be manipulated to produce the desired result; often, the deductions are strained and the sources of limited value. If the point is to show that G-d is Master of the Universe then undoubtedly that engenders the humility in mankind that is too often lacking today. However, if the subtext is that because we have deciphered these references we therefore have precise knowledge as to how G-d runs His world, then that conclusion is incorrect, troubling and spiritually self-defeating. It is the antithesis of what we should be learning from this calamity.

Ultimately, the pursuit of hints and codes reflects the quest for security in an insecure time, as if we should not feel vulnerable because it was all so predictable to “insiders.” That too is an unhelpful approach.

It would have been helpful – for this and predictions of other catastrophes and wonders – if the purveyors of this information had warned us of the coming catastrophe last December rather than last week or last month. Then we could have avoided much spiritual, physical, emotional and financial hardship. But somehow that never happens. It smacks too much, therefore, of the chacham l’achar ma’aseh – the “genius after the fact” – syndrome.

 

Should one dress up for a shiur on Zoom if no one can see anything more than your face and top of your shirt? 

 Do we dress to impress others or for ourselves? Probably both – although my sense is more of the former and less of the latter. Nonetheless, Rav Yochanan (Masechet Shabbat 113a) would refer to his clothing as “mechabduti,” that which brings me honor. Clothing reflects our inner dignity, and can serve, for better or worse, as a source of identification with a particular group or lifestyle.

One can certainly argue that what we wear at home during our waking hours should engender as much self-respect and respect for Torah as if we were appearing in public. There are rabbis who would never remove their frocks even in their homes and even in front of their family. Indeed, one could cogently argue that a person should dress up even for a Zoom shiur – but I wouldn’t make that argument…or dress up in fancy clothing.

Clothes define a person but they can also distort and deceive. The costumes we wear – and we all wear costumes of some kind – often say little about our inner life or spiritual gravitas. They create impressions that are often misleading and sometimes are meant to mislead. We might even be placing too much emphasis on clothing in Jewish life by expecting or insisting – overtly or covertly – that everyone should wear the same color, style and material.

As long as one is not dressed immodestly, I see no problem with Zoom participants relaxing at home in informal garb. We should save our special clothing for shul, tefila and Shabbat, and at home zoom in on the Torah being learned and not the fashion choices of the participants.

 

How does a young woman determine what is or isn’t immodest when it comes to clothing that falls in the grey area of tznius (i.e., the article of clothing is long enough but its overall look is problematic in the eyes of some but not in the eyes of others)?  Does she consult her own conscience?  Ask her mother?  A teacher? 

Certainly there are both objective and subjective elements to tzniut. Often communities will maintain their own stringent standards that would and should not pertain elsewhere. But the common and overarching objective for every person who aspires to tzniut is the desire not to call attention to ancillary aspects of the human being, such as clothing, appearance and the body itself.

Breaches of tzniut are always rooted in a flawed self-definition – people who want to be known primarily for their physical attributes instead of some quality that reflects true human greatness such as one’s intellect, spirituality or moral excellence. Thus, the Torah mandates that a kohen with an obvious physical blemish cannot serve in the Bet Hamikdash, sensing that onlookers will focus on the blemish and the kohen as an individual and not just an agent thereby detracting from his divine mission.

If that is the barometer of tzniut – a conscious decision to be valued by others for the way we express our uniqueness as people and not the way we flaunt our animalistic side – then all three resources are most helpful. The teacher can impart what precisely are the community standards and expectations, just as the mother can flesh out her daughter’s values, thought processes and conclusions. Ultimately, though, children leave home and live on their own so it is critical that they develop the correct notions about body and self-image, about the particular way in which they wish to be identified and to make their mark in the world, and about our responsibilities as Bnai and Bnot Torah.

This is the only way they will learn to make healthy and proper decisions as adults.

Statue of Limitations

The mass destruction wrought to historical statues and venues across America by the privileged and protected modern Philistines engenders the following question: Is there a difference between the demolition of Buddhist shrines by the Taliban, the destruction of Terach’s idols by Avraham and the tearing down of statues bearing the likenesses of flawed human beings taking place now?

The question remains even if we adopt the reasonable approach that the Midrash was not necessarily depicting a literal act on Abraham’s part but rather conveying the idea that Abraham shattered his father’s intellectual idols. Nevertheless, we have to clarify why is it that most civilized people were horrified by the Taliban‘s wanton acts, why we Jews from a young age are taught to applaud Avraham’s zealotry, and why so many people are ambivalent or even supportive of the  brutal erasure of America’s history – including some of its secular saints, sinners and founding fathers.

How do we distinguish one from the other?

It is first worth noting that if Jews wanted to enter the grievance competition, we could be very fierce competitors. Any self-respecting Jew should take umbrage at a highway be named for Franklin Roosevelt, whose administration, after all, did a little or nothing to save Jews during the holocaust and even thwarted efforts at refugee relief or disabling crematoria. Forget the statues; the FDR drive is an affront. Stuyvesant town and high school would have to be renamed because Peter Stuyvesant was a known Jew hater who banned Jews from his new settlement in lower Manhattan. The statues of Hadrian and Titus in Rome, like the statue of Bogdan Chmielnicki in Kiev, should cause profound pain and offense to any Jew. All were tyrants and mass murderers of Jews. As unseemly as the grotesque victimhood sweepstakes is, whatever evil was performed by Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson doesn’t compare to what the Roman emperors and the Ukrainian desperate did to the Jews. But we don’t go around seeking the destruction of their images because, to me at least, they serve as a constant reminder that we survived and prevailed. We won. It’s Hadrian and Titus and Chmielnicki and a host of others who have essentially disappeared from history.

There is even a better reason why we can take a more tolerant approach to these statues, and perhaps it takes a Canadian safely ensconced north of the border to offer a way forward and provide us with helpful distinctions. Jeffrey Collins, a professor in Ontario, suggested in the WSJ the other day that the first question to ask in evaluating any statue is why? Why was it erected in the first place? Whom was it intended to honor and for what?

Asked that way it is clear that Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, TR and FDR and others were honored not for their flaws or misconduct but for their accomplishments. The question really is do their flaws and imperfections outweigh the accomplishments? By any reasonable standard, the answer is of course not. If people were to be judged only by their sins and misdeeds, then no one will be deserving of honor. Washington and Jefferson are not being honored because they were slaveholders but rather because of their roles in the founding of America. Any rational person should realize that if we choose to honor only those without sin then no one will be honored, and that includes Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and George Floyd.

Thus, we can distinguish between a Washington, a Roosevelt, or a Columbus, and, as Professor Collins noted, a Stalin, whose evil dwarfed any nationalistic achievement. (Visiting Russia once, I personally witnessed the reverence some Russian still have for him, notwithstanding the Holomodor, the Jew hatred, and the Gulag, and found it quite shocking.) But even in the case of a scoundrel, it could very well be that a given locality would seek to pay him tribute (for example, in Russia or Georgia) where such would be horrific in any other place. Indeed, there are more statues of Stalin in Russia or Georgia today then there are of Lincoln in the south or Lee in the north.

Context is important, as well as a true evaluation of a person’s life and his essential pursuits and just not his imperfections. It should be obvious to reasonable observers that homage is paid to people not because they are perfect but because of their greatness in a variety of spheres that made a difference in the world in spite of their flawed humanity.

Professor Collins noted that the “why” question is not asked today and so all context and perspective is lost. Instead, the question asked is “how does make me feel right now?” That question is most in line with the narcissism of the protesters and many others today, whose sole barometer of anything is its momentary impact on their feelings. If so, the world is aflame because, among the rioters, there is a dearth of moral instinct and an abundance of faux outrage.

The Confederate statues present a sticky problem. Robert E. Lee was an American hero, who fought in the Mexican War and was commandant at West Point. Lincoln offered him command of the Union Army, which he turned down so as not to show disloyalty to his home state of Virginia. He was a professional who was instrumental in the post-war reconciliation – but since he is most known for waging war in the unjust cause of the South, a new generation that has not known slavery but only opportunity, is outraged at his existence and the reverence paid to him. As the respect paid him is largely owed to his military leadership of the Confederacy, he is a ripe target for the wrath of the disgruntled, and such wrath is inescapable.

Of course, the modern Visigoths would have a point if their only complaint was with the Confederate statutes. It seems their real complaint is with the United States, and such grievances cannot be assuaged in any rational way. They are enraged that Columbus “discovered” America. Mix in politics, power, money and elections, and it is a most combustible time.

Along these lines, if a statue reflected perverse and depraved ideas, then that statue as well would be a fair target. Hence, the adoration of Avraham, even if, again, it is unknown whether that tale is literal or metaphorical. And the Taliban, and their destruction of the ancient Buddhas in the Bamiyan Valley?

Certainly, we have no tolerance for idolatry. Its attendant philosophies devastated and corrupted ancient man, and its consequences are still felt today. But these statues were more historical than ideological, and their obliteration in 2001 were expressions of raw power, sheer ruthlessness and cruel conquest. Their destroyer, Mullah Omar, is now dead. His sole point was to destroy the shrines of an ancient religion to prove the superiority of his own corrupt philosophy. That is not Avraham. That is evil.

The modern demolishers have little in common with Avraham and much in common with Mullah Omar and the Taliban. What is especially troubling is that rather than recoil from the comparison, they probably welcome it. Ideas and values have been overwhelmed by chaos and anarchy. The wanton and gratuitous devastation (Ulysses S. Grant? Really?) has taken on a life of its own. Nihilism reigns supreme. The destroyers are intellectually limited and ethically stunted. The political class either encourages it or can’t stop it.

What can?

Reading G-d’s Mind

The joy of Shavuot was slightly marred by the appearance on that sublime, holy and transformative day in world history of a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg entitled “The Coronavirus Isn’t G-d’s Will.” I am quite aware that the provocative headline was not the author’s choice. Having been down that road several times myself, and having thoughtful pieces somewhat misconstrued because of incendiary headlines, I recognize that headlines are chosen by editors and not by the writers.

In this case, though, the headline is entirely accurate, as this one sentence indicates: “Religious authorities should lead in proclaiming that Coronavirus isn’t willed or inflicted by G-d.”  Well, how does he know that? Rabbi Greenberg has long been an iconoclast, but I immediately recalled the medieval philosopher (cited by, among others, Rabbenu Nissim and Rav Yosef Albo) who said of G-d: “Eelu yedativ, heyitiv” – “If I knew Him, I would be Him.”

Rabbi Greenberg presumes to know Him. Iconoclasm aside, how does he know? And how would traditional Judaism view the divine role in the current crisis? If anything, the pandemic should instill in us more humility before the Almighty, as we have experienced the limits of human knowledge, the frantic search for answers, and the collapse of the economic and social order as we know them, and all seemingly overnight. There has been a natural increase in prayer in the last few months, as people of all faiths have realized how little we control our lives and our world; such piety is to be encouraged, not derided.

His general point is that man has to act using our wisdom and especially our capacity for kindness, and that is well taken. So too are the targets of his displeasure, including his polar opposites (those who also think they know G-d’s will and attribute the pandemic to their favorite agenda) or those who deny nature entirely and thus presume that their faith renders them immune from disease. That is also sensible, but his road to that conclusion is littered with half-truths, ill-formed assumptions, clichés, and not a few heretical comments.

G-d has self-limited, says the Talmud, giving humans greater freedom and responsibility. The biblical age of visible miracles defeating evil has ended. The Lord asks the faithful to serve not to beget miracles, but out of love and shared fate. G-d shares our pain and asks us to take action to end the suffering.”

I am not sure where G-d’s self-limitation is mentioned in the Talmud, although there is a concept of tzimtzum in the Zohar that relates to how G-d, an incorporeal Entity, created a physical universe. And of course mankind has great freedom and responsibility. But R. Greenberg’s divine “self-limitation” seems less a catalyst for human action than it is an utter denial of divine providence. It is as if G-d was a Creator who then abandoned His creation to its own devices leaving behind a string of platitudes to guide them but certainly disdaining any form of enforcement of His moral system.

Who says the “biblical age of visible miracles defeating evil has ended”? Chanuka was post-biblical; did not Chanuka involve a visible miracle? There have been innumerable instances of miraculous events that have transformed battles and altered the destiny of nations – bombs that didn’t go off, events that defied nature and the laws of war, and the like – not to make even more numerous instances of decisions made or actions taken or not taken that were attributed by participants to nothing but Providence.

Indeed, this is a recurrent conceptual error in his musings here. “…the Creator’s presence and love are evidenced precisely in the miraculous functioning of the natural order… It is time for everyone to understand that G-d operates within the laws of nature, which are themselves miraculous.”  The world has always functioned pursuant to natural order, but nature and miracles are not at all identical. Greenberg disregards the concept of Providence, whereby God intervenes in human affairs according to His will that is inscrutable to man. Similarly, Providence and miracles are also not identical. Nature is nature; miracles are deviations from nature. Divine providence can employ overt miracles but can also manipulate human beings to serve G-d’s greater purposes. But R. Greenberg further erases from Jewish thought the concept of reward and punishment, for individuals and nations. The Creator of all is just a “good news G-d,” who just wants man to be good (as each person defines it) but otherwise is uninterested in those who perpetrate evil as He sees it. The author’s God does nothing except to ratify human conduct, to the extent that He cares at all. It is a bleak and materialistic picture.

The author further reduces God to being man’s partner without specifying a particular divine role. Clichés aside, what really does it mean that “G-d shares our pain… that we work with him to fight Covid-19 and develop cures and vaccines…to work in partnership with the Lord…”? How does G-d “share our pain”? We know what we have to do to fight this scourge and others – but what does He actually do? What is His role in the partnership, especially since He  has purportedly withdrawn from judging man for doing evil, relies on man to sustain the world by doing good, and mocks as “magical thinking” any person of faith who prays for miracles or salvation?

It is nothing less than cloaking G-d in human garb. He is what we say He is, we believe in Him and serve Him at our pleasure, and write Him out of the story when convenient or His bromides – especially on His moral order – are unwelcome to progressive thinkers.

One will look in vain in classical Jewish literature for even a hint that G-d is uninvolved in his world, sends no messages or punishments, and lets man alone to fend for himself and enjoy whatever immorality, venality or decadence suits him. One who believes that spends a lot of time on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur mouthing words that he simply does not believe:  “Who will live and who will die?…Who by plague, who by strangulation?…Repentance, prayer and charity remove the evil of the decree…You wish…that man repent and live…Have compassion on Your handiwork…Instill Your awe upon all Your work…Everything is known and revealed before You…Regarding countries it is said, which is destined for the sword and which for peace, which for hunger, which for abundance…” This is a fundamental principle of Jewish thought that his premise disregards, even disparages.

Greenberg intones: “The Lord calls us to join with him to fight suffering and to choose life over death.” And if we don’t? Well, there is really not much He can do about it, since nature rules and G-d’s active interest in mankind ended with the Bible. Belief in R. Greenberg’s powerless, figurehead deity, and rejection of God’s existence altogether, seems to be a distinction without a difference.

What lessons can we draw from the crises that are wracking our world these days? Certainly we should feel humbled, limited, and diminished. For all our sophistication and progress, medical science is always one disease behind perfect cures for everything. We solve one problem and another, unprecedented, presents. We can only evaluate at first based on precedents, however apposite or inapposite they might be.

In looking at our present tribulations, we can exclude one approach: the one articulated here, that “Coronavirus isn’t G-d’s will.” It is acceptable to say that “of course it is,” but the humble, human answer is that we just don’t know. But we are certainly allowed, even obligated, to assume that G-d is sending us a message. We are supposed to introspect, self-evaluate, and ponder a deeper meaning beyond the nuts and bolts of medically solving this problem and its consequences. It suffices to say that it might be    G-d’s will, which demands a prescribed response from us. And who among can dare presume that it isn’t G-d’s will?

The Rambam (Laws of Fasts 1:1-3) codifies that we are commanded to cry out to G-d over any communal affliction, including “pestilence.” “And this is one of the ways of repentance. When the community is tormented and cries out, it should know that this tragedy has befallen them because of their evil deeds…But if they don’t cry out or sound the trumpets but rather say that ‘this is the way of the world’ (i.e., nature!) and it is all coincidental [and without ultimate meaning] this is the way of cruelty and causes them to cling to their evil ways.” It is “cruelty” in the essential meaning of the Hebrew word – ach-zar – it is all foreign to me, it has nothing to do with me, and nothing to do with G-d.

That conclusion is cruel – cruel to the individual who believes it and to the community and world he is trying to heal.

Lacking prophecy, we cannot know with any specificity what sins generated this particular malady that is afflicting us. That is not the same as saying there is no sin, no sinner, and no repentance. Perhaps a good place to start our contemplation would not be in the newfangled progressive pantheon of sins but instead in the Bible itself, to see where we have strayed and to find our way back.

That, too, is G-d’s will.

 

The Pretext

The United States is experiencing paroxysms of violence that seem to erupt every now and then, oddly enough (perhaps not?) in years that feature contested elections. Think about the riots of 1968, 1992, 2016 and the current explosions and it is hard not to conclude that there is some connection – even though it has generally led to Republican victories that could not have cheered the rioters.

Nonetheless, it should be possible to denounce the despicable murder of George Floyd and its use as a pretext for the contemptible violence that resulted. Unfortunately, I tend to take a more lawyerly view of these proceedings after the visceral horror of the crime itself recedes. There is much that remains to be clarified: the look on the officer’s face while murdering another human being in cold blood was itself shocking. He was too calm, too detached, a sign of a sadistic psychopath – or what? Did he have a history of violence in his dealings with his arrestees, black or white? Surely this wasn’t the first black he arrested, and some for more serious crimes than in the instant case, but he didn’t murder any of them. I haven’t seen or heard a shred of evidence that the man was indeed a racist (he probably is, but nothing has surfaced to date – no internet posts, no attendance at KKK rallies, etc.). The modern narrative, though, is that any crime or even untoward act by a white to a black must have a racist origin. That is obviously the result of the identity politics game so popular today – you are not an individual but part of a group – but the narrative goes unquestioned. It could be that some racist motivation will emerge (or some other vicious rationale unrelated to racism) but worse than a white killing a black is just that a human being killed another human being.

That basic truth never seems to enter the equation. Thus, this past weekend saw 18 blacks murdered in Chicago by other blacks, and 16 more murdered the week before. That strangely evokes no outrage. Three years ago in Minneapolis a black police officer shot and killed a white woman. Race played no role in the evaluation of the case, which, of course, had it been the reverse,  would have resulted in swift and relentless rage. That, annually, whites in America are shot and killed by police twice as often as are blacks is also ignored, so more is afoot than this one brutal, inexplicable and evil act.

As strange as it sounds given the crime, the system actually works. No one has attempted to defend or rationalize the former police officer’s heinous crime. There has been no blue wall of silence; instead, there has been wall-to-wall and coast-to-coast condemnation on every side of the political spectrum.  He was charged with homicide, is being held in prison in lieu of bail, will be tried, likely convicted, sentenced to the maximum, probably not executed but effectively receive a life sentence because he will never be paroled. And that is how it should be.

So how do we get from there to this – in (Democrat-controlled) city after city in America, protests, demonstrations, rioting, looting, violence, mayhem and anarchy? Note that just last week, a synagogue in Cote-St.-Luc was vandalized, with the premises ravaged and Torah scrolls strewn about.  Canadian Jews in response did not torch downtown Montreal. So too, in the wake of the dreadful attacks on Jews in the metropolitan area in the last year, we didn’t go and raid Nordstrom. In the last month, there have been numerous demonstrations against the draconian lockdown rules that have destroyed the livelihoods of millions of people. The protesters were very angry – but there was not one instance in which they burglarized and looted the stores in which they wanted to shop.

These spasms of carnage always explode because of perceived racism, and they are more frequent in America because of the dearth of pushback, the fecklessness of the political class, and most importantly, the absence of values education. To condemn the murder and not condemn the rioting, as some moral poseurs have done, is virtue-signaling of the most hypocritical kind. To date, more people have been killed as a result of the rioting than the one unfortunate victim of police brutality in Minneapolis; that should be receiving more attention.

The virtue-signaling is particularly odious because the remedy proffered is an impossibility. To say that racism should not exist is like saying Jew hatred should not exist or nay other hatred, for that matter; it is true but not particularly helpful. Hatred is part of the human condition and has existed since the dawn of creation and will endure until the Messianic era. Calling for utopia is an empty gesture. We could all live quite well with what lurks in man’s heart as long as it is not acted upon. Actions matter.

The real question is not whether hatred exists but how we deal with it. Some ways are admirable: self-defense in the face of violence or understanding the root causes of the anger that resides in people, even in small groups of people, because dialogue does allow a healthy form of venting and can even lead to reconciliation and harmony.

What is especially perverse and loathsome is responding to unjustified violence with more unjustified violence. It is also pathetic and wins rioters no sympathy.  The violent lawless act of a rogue cop should not inspire violent lawlessness on the part of others. To give a pass to any individual or group  for committing mayhem is not the soft bigotry of low expectations; it is the hard core bigotry of no expectations. Marauding mobs do not inspire understanding or good will and make no one more kindly disposed to their “cause.” In fact, the opposite is true. The riots tend to reinforce the negative and harmful stereotypes that we are all trying to eradicate. Those who think their lives matter should act like their lives matter, and then they will matter. Jews have a long and lugubrious history of being murdered in cold blood but never have we sought to avenge those murders by killing or injuring or looting the property of innocent third parties. That injustice too cries out to the heavens.

How do seemingly normal people allow themselves to descend into such depravity? The Torah is instructive here as on all matters. The Sages taught us (Sotah 2a) that the portions describing the treatment of the Sotah (the straying wife) and the Nazir (who embraces additional restrictions) are juxtaposed to remind us that “whoever sees the Sotah in her degradation should abstain from wine.”

What is the connection? It is that a person who is so drawn to the spectacle of the Sotah that he goes to the Temple to watch it is already in a weakened spiritual state. His moral safeguards begin to fray as the crime of the Sotah, to him, seems less horrific and within the realm of the possible. And others join him too – and then all moral restraints are abandoned. Such a person has to regain his equilibrium by abstaining from wine that furthers clouds his conscience.

A normal individual will rarely do things while alone that he would do acting in concert with a supportive, protective group. The group – the mob – affords rationalizations and psychological safety that one does not have unaccompanied by others. That is why a German scientist, teacher, bureaucrat, lawyer or musician one day could become a murderous, malicious, ferocious Nazi the next. The group dynamic tends to dull our inhibitions. Hence the rioters, breaking into and ransacking Macy’s, Gucci, Microsoft and other fine stores. They weren’t seeking milk and bread. Their animalistic passions – what the Sages called the “nefesh habehami” that inheres in all of us – were unleashed. They are quelled in the short term when their energies dissipate (or the merchandise is gone) and in the long term only by teaching values, preaching to people that there is a divine moral code that constrains all of us, and that there is justice in the world – justice that is achievable but never through  torrents of injustice.

Apropos of the one who views the Sotah ordeal, all those who watched the cruel and evil murder of George Floyd cannot help but be diminished by it as human beings. It impairs our basic humanity. Those painful images will be difficult to uproot. But we respond to it by trying to become more human and more civilized, not less so.

The silver lining in this catastrophe is that the riots have driven the grim Corona virus from the news. Social distancing is a concern for fifteen people who want to daven together, not for several thousand people who want to protest and riot. Last week you could get arrested for opening a store; now you can’t get arrested for looting one.

This is how crazy the race wars have become. In California a “peaceful” young white protester smashed the windows of a vehicle that, unbeknownst to him, belonged to J.R. Smith, the black basketball player and former Knick. Smith chased down the perpetrator and beat the living daylights out of him. So: a white man protesting the death of a black man by demolishing the vehicle of a black man is then assaulted by the black man who is rightfully cheered for his efforts. Only in America.

This will end, until it starts again, but it will never really end. The nefesh habehami, once unleashed, is difficult to control.

It is going to be a long hot summer if cooler heads don’t prevail. The questions are: can America’s decline be reversed? And how?