Not Day, Not Night

Towards the end of the hagada, in the piyut that catalogs the momentous events that have occurred in our history at midnight (“Vayehi bachatzi halailah”), we ask Hashem to “bring near the day that is neither day nor night.” It sounds like a contradiction in terms – how can there be a day that is not a day or a night? It might be twilight – but that is not a “day,” that is a very brief period of time.

And then that passage ends by contradicting even that: “Illuminate the darkness of night with the light of day.” So which is it? Do we want the darkness brightened – or do we want the day that is neither day nor night?

The piyut is discussing the Messianic era, and this phrase is based on a recurrent refrain in Tanach. Zechariah (14:7) prophesied of the time when “there will be a day known to Hashem – not day or night, but towards evening there will be light.” And right before (14:6) he said “on that day, there will not be a bright light or a dim light.”

And note something else as well. The critical verse that defines the night of the seder contains what seems like an error. The key mitzvah of the seder is “you will tell your child on that day, that this is why G-d took us out of Egypt” (Sh’mot 13:8). But, in fact, we don’t tell our child on that day but rather on that night. Indeed, it would seem then, that the night of the seder is referred to as that day. Why is that?

Night, as we know, is always symbolic of exile – darkness, murkiness, confusion, a lack of clarity. At night, man is inactive – and even alarmed because we are exposed to the elements, to nature, even to human marauders. Night reflects the mists of the moment, when our world is perplexing, uncertain, unclear and more than a little frightening. Day is clarity, optimism, knowledge and redemption. On that day, the Torah says, G-d redeemed us. The Red Sea split – “And G-d saved Israel on that day from the hands of Egypt” (Sh’mot 14:30).

What Zechariah taught us is far-reaching in its significance. The era before the redemption is a time of “not day or night.” There are so many different, confounding and contradictory events and circumstances. On one hand, there is affluence, technological development, great sophistication – and yet we are suddenly humbled by plagues and illnesses and by the insecurity that surrounds us. Is it “day” now for the world – or is it “night”?

Indeed, it is exactly what was prophesied: “It is neither day nor night.” The Baal HaMetzudot commented that in that era “Israel will be perplexed, not knowing whether events are the prelude to salvation or destruction.”

The night of the seder and Pesach itself, the Zohar writes (Parshat Bo) is a time when “the night is as bright as the longest days of summer.” It is the moment of clarity in the world, when Hashem’s mighty hand is revealed, and all becomes clear. The world can be in darkness, but “for the children of Israel there was light in their dwelling places. The sun can set, but still “And on that day you shall relate to your children” of the miraculous exodus from Egypt.

When Hashem is visible and His influence is palpable and undeniable – like in Egypt – that is the time when “towards evening it will be light.” We are waiting for the divine light to be as it was when the world was created. On Pesach we re-experience the Exodus when there were no doubts or uncertainty in the world – only the overpowering reality of Hashem’s presence.

As that day nears – the day that is neither day nor night – Pesach both tantalizes us with the range of possibilities, and challenges us to bring them closer, hasten their arrival, and actualize them in the real world. Our day is one in which, if we open our eyes even a little, the darkness can and will dissipate and we will see the light, and merit the grandeur of the coming redemption.

May Hashem extend His protective hand around His people, send healing to the ill and consolation to the bereaved, end this scourge, and usher in the future of light and brightness and joy, for our community and all of Israel.

On Balance

Well, the world has certainly changed, and in a hurry.

It wasn’t that long ago that we were overwhelmed with a variety of crises – the rise in violent attacks against Jews in America and Europe; the opioid epidemic that was sweeping the nation and devastating large swaths of the country; and our vaping teenagers,  a plague that necessitated government investigations, crackdowns and restrictions. These troubles dominated our thinking before we had ever heard the term “social distancing.” That doesn’t even mention the omnipresent threat of global warming that was to end the planet in a decade or so unless, among other things, single-use plastic bags was banned from all stores. All that seems not months but years ago, and all it took to drive them from the headlines was a once-in-a-century pandemic.

For all those who claim to have seen the corona virus coming, I wish they would have told me right before. Of course no one knew, even if there are always people predicting catastrophes. The problem is that there are always more people predicting catastrophes than there are catastrophes. When the one person is right, he is lauded for his genius and prescience. When the multitudes are wrong, no one pays attention to them (remember the looking disaster of Y2K?). It reminded me of the old economists’ joke, that economists have accurately predicted twelve out of the last five recessions. That’s about right.

Governments’ response, both federal and state, will be the subject of much deliberation and recrimination, little of it objective or honest. There is a reason why there is no template for dealing with the unprecedented; that is because it is unprecedented. To have too few ventilators available in such a disaster is a criticism that would be warranted only if I told you that next year hundreds of thousands of dialysis machines will be needed, so spend the money now, and suffer the consequences. It is simply unpredictable, and that calls for emergency measures. Every politician would love to repair the bridge the day before it collapses. To do it too early seems like a waste of money, too late is too late. Sadly, it is usually difficult to time it so precisely. But the outsourcing of pharmaceutical production to China is a national travesty, one born of the multiple regulations and union requirements that render manufacturing in America less than cost effective. That has to be solved because it is unhealthy (both literally and figuratively) to be dependent for our vital medicines on the Chinese whose way of life, of doing business, of governance, and moral notions so differ from ours.

Of more interest is the religious response. The good news is that the Jewish community for the most part adapted quite well to the most Draconian restrictions imaginable. To me it is unthinkable to have spent a month outside of shul, davening alone. For American Jews, whose spiritual lives are often centered on the shul, to be robbed of that daily experience could be crushing, if not for the fact that we are historically a nation of adapters. The believing Jew sees G-d’s hand in everything. In a profound way, the destruction of the Bet Hamikdash deprived of the opportunity to fulfill many mitzvot. We therefore serve G-d not by building private altars but by abstaining from certain otherwise obligatory acts. It is the same in the current environment; our divine service is characterized by what we cannot do even if we want to do it. Fortunately, our Sages anticipated this predicament: “Rav Assi said: ‘Even if a person thought to perform a mitzvah but was unable to do so due to exigent circumstances, Scripture construes it as if he performed it’” (Kiddushin 40a). The sense of loss and feeling of dislocation is great but that is where we are. The mitzvah of saving lives and avoiding harm to oneself or others takes precedence over public prayer and learning.

Not every Jewish community was quick to get with the program with the resultant increase in illness, death and suffering in those communities both in Israel and in America. Some held out for a few days, some a few weeks, and I suppose there are still some recalcitrants even today. One rabbi claimed that only G-d would tell him when to close his shul (I assume he merited a divine communication, because he was closed the next day.) Another rabbi quoted that Talmudic statement (Shabbat 119b) that “the world only endures because of the breath of children studying Torah” – so the closing of yeshivot endangers us rather than protects us. Still another decried the loss of pubic prayer, since “the world exists due to the kedusha in U’va l’tzion and the response in Kaddish after public Torah learning” (Sotah 49a).

Those are all true statements, of course, but certainly homiletical, and neither will prevail in halachic discourse over the requisites of pikuach nefesh, the saving of lives. For sure, their emotions and desires were in a holy place, but why did they not comply and continue to endanger their communities?

I found it fascinating that a similar dynamic played out among Catholics. The Wall Street Journal reported on this last week (April 6) and the headline says it all: “As Coronavirus Halts Masses, Conservative Catholics Push Back.” These Catholics argued that “believers need the church now more than ever.” Cardinal Burke opined that just as people need food and medicine and take care not to spread the virus in the process, “so also we must be able to pray in our churches and chapels…and engage in acts of public prayer and devotion.” Rusty Reno, the noted Catholic writer, stated that “in a time of pandemic – a time when Satan whips up in us all fears of isolation, abandonment and death, churches must not join the stampede of fear.”

It is impossible to know whether here Catholics followed the Jews, Jews followed the Catholics or both came to their conclusions on their own. But it is an intriguing question: why is that (for lack of a better term) those religious groups who self-define as the most “conservative,” or “traditional,” or “fundamentalist,” or “ultra…” of one sort or another, insisted on maintaining spiritual business as usual despite the dangers extant – even as the rest of the society effectively shut down?

There are many possible answers (a commitment that exceeds that of others, not being one of them) but here I suggest two, one general and one specific.

The first is the sheer magnitude of the disruption to our lives that was not only unforeseen but also still is, in a literal sense, incredible. It is simply beyond belief, something that the entire planet is experiencing that no one had ever experienced before –a global pandemic that necessitates the shutdown of economies and social institutions. It is easy to dismiss such a calamity as real – even after its effects are upon us. There lurks in the mind the suspicion that “this can’t really be happening.” If so, finding comfort and refuge in our normal spiritual lives is reassuring and even more imperative notwithstanding the “dangers” that are not fully internalized.

The second speaks to us, as I cannot address the Catholic claims. Halacha is a very balanced and delicate ecosystem. For sure, there is a scale of hierarchies as there are gradations of holiness and importance in the mitzvot. The more “fundamentalist” a group is, the more likely they are to attach greater significance to facets of Torah that are less compelling (clothing and beards come to mind). But they can also lose their sense of balance and true priorities when they take one mitzvah and see it as the end-all and be-all. In so doing, they distort the ecosystem, as they also do, for example, by taking Agadic statements designed to teach us values and employing them to draw halachic conclusions, a profound methodological error.

Psak halacha (a conclusive determination of authorized practice) involves much more than just deciding that a particular mitzvah “to me or my group” is more important than any others. It involves reckoning with ancillary values (hefsed merubeh, kavod habriyot, etc.) that will play a significant role in the final analysis even if their applications involve some subjectivity. Failure to account for ancillary values – or exaggerating the importance of one particular mitzvah – will invariably lead to distortion in the final conclusion. Hence the reluctance to comply with the current societal mandates for a long time (in some places). Their yearning and intentions were as admirable as their conclusions were misguided and deadly. Thus it turns out that they were not more frum but less frum than they hoped to be. That is the price for a misconstruction of halacha but may Hashem help us all!

People often think that the greatest value in the Torah is pikuach nefesh, the preservation of life, and who is to argue with that? It is certainly a supreme value and dominates our thinking here. In truth, though, it is not the highest value, because even the saving of a life is superseded by the three cardinal sins each of which mandates martyrdom instead of violation.

That makes fidelity to G-d’s will, or better said, service of G-d in every situation we confront in life, the highest value. That divine service is ordinarily manifested in the performance of many mitzvot like Torah study, public prayer and the like. It requires the building and maintenance of communities dedicated to joint practices and shared values. If the times now demand a temporary retrenchment in that type of divine service, then we should grieve, realize what we are missing, and when the gates are reopened surge forward with renewed vigor and appreciation for the spiritual beauties of our lives.

Just like after the churban, sometimes G-d demands service through abstention in some spheres (public prayer) and intensification in other spheres (acts of kindness).

May He soon end this scourge, bring healing to the afflicted and comfort to the bereaved, and send His righteous Moshiach to redeem His world.

Ask The Rabbi, Part 2

A few months ago, 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 second selection with my take on these issues    – RSP

Should a person lend any significance to his dreams?

     Well, none of us are Yaakov Avinu or Yosef Hatzadik whose dreams were prophecies, messages from G-d that guided their (and our) futures. Dreams were the typical means of conveying prophecies for all prophets except for Moshe. But even if dreams are not prophecies, and not all are noteworthy, Chazal recognize with extraordinary prescience the importance of dreams.

The Gemara (Masechet Berachot 55b) states that a person only dreams at night of what he thinks about during the day. That is, dreams are a way of reconciling conflicts in one’s conscious life, or giving unconscious expressions to one’s fears or fantasies, or sometimes dealing with a painful reality in a way that is less provocative or distressing. Certainly, it bears mention that (ibid 54a) just like there is no wheat without chaff, so too there is no dream without some nonsense. The true nature of dreams is masked to make their deeper messages more palatable and most will be unremembered and unremarkable.

Occasionally, dreams will enable us to think more intensely about an issue or problem or person or event that is troubling us, and sometimes troubling us in a way that we refrain from thinking about openly. Certainly, the higher our spiritual level, the more elevated will be the substance of our dreams. But one who goes even seven days without a dream is called “evil,” i.e., unfortunate (ibid 14a). Dreams are divine gifts that clear our minds, ease our hearts and sometimes call attention to potential problems that are resolved without us being fully cognizant of it.

Should a person think highly of himself?

  No. And yes.

This calls to mind the two divergent schools of musar – of Novardok and Slabodka. The former, founded by Rav Yosef Yoizel Horowitz, taught that striving for perfection required the internalization of shiflut ha’adam, the lowliness of man – how man is driven by his desires and fantasies and routinely succumbs to sin. Thus, man can only improve by nullifying the ego, which would be accomplished, in theory, by performing acts of self-abasement. Famously, a student would enter a hardware store and request a dozen eggs; the subsequent mockery and humiliation presumably did wonders to rein in the pleasures of the ego.

The Alter of Slabodka disagreed sharply and focused his musar on the recognition of gadlut ha’adam, the inherent greatness of man, created in G-d’s image and with a soul that could apprehend G-d’s wisdom and morality. The descendants of the Avot and the heirs to the illustrious traditions of Israel must have a healthy self-worth. The people that stood at Sinai and received G-d’s Torah must always act in a dignified and refined way befitting their royal status.

In a sense, these are but reverberations of the aphorism of Rebbe Simcha Bunim of Pshischa: “a person should always carry two pieces of paper, one in each pocket. On one is written ‘the world was created for me’ (Sanhedrin 37a) and on the other ‘I am but dust and ashes’ (Breisheet 18:27). The test of life is to know when to reach into which pocket.”

The modern self-esteem movement is misguided, to the extent that it cherishes everyone, even those devoid of real accomplishment. Life doesn’t award participation trophies, but as Jews, we must know our place – and adorn that place with spiritual achievements.

 

May one use data derived from unethical research (an extreme example of which would be data from Nazi research that used human test subjects instead of lab rats and caused unimaginable suffering)?

It is tempting to think that use of data from the research of evildoers might serve some productive purpose, notwithstanding they are the fruits of the poisonous tree of diabolical sadists. It purports to make the torture and death of the victims slightly less gruesome and gratuitous and perhaps even adds an element of purpose. We should utterly resist that notion.

Even assuming that the science derived is legitimate and not distorted by the twisted minds that produced it, use of that data is grossly immoral and would tend to legitimize what is perverse and insufferable conduct. If the question is asked this way – Should Dr. Mengele be construed as a genuine scientist and researcher? – the answer becomes much clearer.

Judaism has a concept of an object that is otherwise neutral or indistinguishable from other objects but is nonetheless assur b’hana’ah, proscribed from providing any benefit or pleasure to another. In terms of foodstuffs, the issur hana’ah supplements the prohibition of consumption. It is not just that it cannot be eaten or drunk – yayin nesech, for example – it cannot even be given away to someone as a gift. Any type of benefit is precluded. That is how this data should be treated: total ostracism.

To think otherwise is to sanction the worst atrocities under the guise of serving a greater purpose, which invariably cheapens human life and incentivizes mass murderers. Nazis should not be glorified as scientists nor their dastardly deeds rationalized as even a partial good. That is the only way to perceive evil as evil, identify it and then eradicate it from the face of the earth.

 

 

 

 

A Jewish President

In the year 2000, Senator Joe Lieberman became the first Jew to appear on the national ballot for one of the two top offices in the land. As Al Gore’s nominee for Vice President, many Jews voted for the ticket out of ethnic pride, notwithstanding that most Jews vote for the Democrat in any event. In 2000, four out of every five Jews vote for the Gore-Lieberman slate, among the highest percentages ever recorded. As I recall, there was palpable pride that Lieberman was on the ticket even among Jews who did not vote for him.

Fast forward to 2020. Two Jews – Bernie Sanders and Mike Bloomberg – for the very first time are credible candidates for the Democrat nomination for President, and there seems to be little Jewish pride in the whole enterprise. Few people care about their pedigree, and no one is questioning their loyalty to America (well, at least not because of their Jewishness). Their Jewish heritage seems to be background noise, a part – and not a very important part – of their personal histories and completely irrelevant to the task at hand. If either man is the nominee, a majority of Jews will vote for him, mostly unthinkingly, because he is a Democrat and not because he is a Jew. The pride in Joe Lieberman is dissipated.

What has changed? Is it because Jews have made it in America and so prominent Jews are no longer a novelty? Or is it because Jews have lost it? I sense the latter.

Consider the obvious: the involvement of each man in Jewish communal life. Sanders is a renegade Jew, whose brief stint on a kibbutz more than a half century ago qualifies as his deepest connection to the Jewish people. Bloomberg has been more involved in Jewish life through his philanthropy – he has supported Jewish charities – and because he has lived in New York City for so many decades. Neither man identifies in the least with the biblical vision of the Jewish people as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, a people chosen by G-d to bear His name, observe His law, and bring His morality to the rest of mankind. Neither man evinces the slightest interest in, or observance of, the 613 commandments that define the life of the Torah Jew.

Thus, it is unfortunate but typical of American Jewry during this era, that Sanders has been intermarried for more than 30 years and has no Jewish children. Bloomberg is divorced from a Jewish woman (her father was a non-Jew) but his paramour since 2000 is also non-Jewish.  With intermarriage devastating American Jewish life to the extent that accommodation with it is making inroads even in the Orthodox world, it is hard to imagine the consequences to American Jewry if intermarriage (or inter-religious relationships) finds its way into the White House, with all the attention that is naturally focused on the First Family. Intermarriage will be so normalized, even celebrated, that the fragmentation and disintegration of American Jewry will be hastened.

One positive byproduct of the Trump administration has been the prominence of religious Jews – in the President’s family, of course, but even among his staff, advisors and appointees. (I hope they somehow compensate for the plethora of Jewish Democrats who have relentlessly waged war against President Trump since before he took office.) But the visibility of a yarmulka and mezuzot in the White House, the respect for Shabbat and the appreciation for the rhythms of traditional Jewish life have been rewarding, and, one can pray, even inspirational to Jews whose faith and commitment can only be strengthened by the presence of faithful and committed Jews in positions of distinction.

It is a sign of how accepted Jews have become in American civic life that the President demonstrates such a comfort level with religious Jews. But that display of Jewish pride would be dramatically reversed in a Sanders or Bloomberg administration, whose connection to Jewish life is, respectively, non-existent and tenuous. How is that connection defined?

Recall as well that Joe Lieberman was an observant Jew, who wore his Jewishness on his sleeve. For sure, his political views were not all Torah based and very much in the mainstream of his party. But he was known in America, and perhaps even most appreciated by Jews, for his forthright and persistent advocacy of the moral notions that are reflective of the biblical Jewish ethic. And he was never ashamed to declare that his morality stemmed from his religious heritage.

For Sanders and Bloomberg, it is clear that their world views are uninformed by their Jewish backgrounds.  Indeed, like many (if not most) American Jews today, their Jewish ties are strictly ethnic. As President Trump is of German-Scottish heritage, Joe Biden’s is Irish, and Elizabeth Warren’s background is still indeterminate, Sanders and Bloomberg are Jews by blood but not ideology. If Rav Hirsch labeled the people of Israel a “religio-nation,” both a nation and a religion, these two candidates lamely embrace the former but completely eschew the latter. Their Judaism is cultural, and thereby misses the essence of our uniqueness.

No wonder there is little excitement in the Jewish world for these two aspirants, no sense of having one of our “own” make it big. Far from embracing their rich and eternal heritage, they perceive it as an accident of birth. While they are wholly different in temperament, policies and even acceptability as presidents, they share in common this constricted approach to Judaism. Judaism as a religion and a national identity are the two legs on which we stand. Remove one, and our distinctiveness withers and disappears and, these days, fairly quickly.

It bears mention that the two do not share the same views on Israel (or on the United States, for that matter). Sanders is overtly hostile and his self-definition as  “pro-Israel” is reasonable only if you characterize as pro-Israel a desire to see Israel divided, weakened and stripped of its Jewish identity. Bloomberg is certainly not hostile; he fits comfortably into the modern Democrat party’s support for an Israel that no longer exists, and for good reason. He opposes settling the heart of the land of Israel and remains wedded to the “two-state delusion.” But that is where the Democrat party is. Sanders’ Israel has the right of self-defense in theory but never in actuality. Bloomberg is more practical on that score, but again, his policies are unrelated to his Jewishness.

Have Jews so made it in America that the prospect of a Jewish president has left people blasé? Or does this feeling emerge because of the nature of these candidates and the realization that, in terms of both domestic and foreign policy, the incumbent’s policies are far superior even for Jews? Or is it because their Jewish identity is so tepid that it is hard to connect with them or summon any pride at all?

In truth, ethnic voting is always a distressing phenomenon. Votes should be based on shared values and objectives – not superficial considerations like blood, race, religion or ethnicity. Undoubtedly, if a faithful Jew ever runs for President – a most unlikely proposition – the reaction of Jews will be far different. It is entirely plausible, even probable, that a non-Jewish President can represent the true interests of the Jewish people, and even extend unflinching support to the State of Israel, far better than can any Jewish candidate. The two Jews currently in the running remind us not of the success of the American Jewish community but rather of its decline. That neither will be elected President should come as a relief for multiple reasons.