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April 23, 2014 / 23 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘God’

There’s No Ban on Women’s Tefillin, Ban on Stupidity Still Holding

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2014

A couple nights ago, my friend Larry Yudelson posted a link to a Jewish school paper in LA reporting on a Jewish school in the Bronx, where, back in December, the principal permitted two girls to put on tefillin during the girls-only morning prayer. We ran it as a news brief (with the appropriate hat tip to Larry) and didn’t think much more about it. But then the competition, Forward and Times of Israel, avid Jewish Press readers that they are, picked up our lead (no hat tips, though) and regurgitated the student paper’s original report and then some.

So, first of all a big Yishar Koach to the writers and editors of the Boiling Point, the online student newspaper of Shalhevet High School in LA. First, for catching and reporting the story, and second for not going crazy about it, such as depicting these two girls’ teffilin thing as a victory for womankind over male rabbinic repression, which is what the grownup papers inevitably did. To date, they’ve called the story Orthodox girls fight for the right to don tefillin (TOI), and the somewhat less combative Modern Orthodox High School in New York Allows Girls to Wear Tefillin (Forwrd), that the Forward quickly followed with the heroic war poem My Fight To Lay Tefillin At an Orthodox School by strapped combatant Eliana Fishman.

JewishPress.com will be covering more of this story in the next few days, God willing. But meanwhile, I believe we should extract the entire issue from the area of controversy, where it just doesn’t belong.

Women have been a challenge to rabbinic Judaism since Rivka called her kid Yaakov over to pull a fast one on her husband, Yitzhak. And feminine rage has been with us for about the same length of time.

The Talmudic sage Ulla (latter part of the 3rd and beginning of the 4th centuries) once stayed at the house of R. Nahman in Babylon. They had a meal and Ulla said grace, and handed the cup of benediction to R. Nahman. R. Nahman said to him: Please send the cup of benediction to Yaltha (his wife).

So Ulla said to him: Thus said R. Johanan: The fruit of a woman’s body is blessed only from the fruit of a man’s body, since it says, “He will also bless the fruit of your body” (Deut. 7:13). It does not say the fruit of her body, but the fruit of your body.

From this we understand that Ms. Yalta, who normally received the kiddush cup from her husband, on this particular occasion did not. And so she got up in a rage and went to the wine cellar and broke four hundred jars of wine.

At which point R. Nahman said to Ulla: Let the Master send her another cup. He sent it to her with a humorous message: All that wine that you spilled can be counted as a benediction. She returned an answer: Gossip comes from peddlers and vermin comes from rags. Which means she was in no mood for humorous remarks from traveling rabbis. (TB Brachot 51b).

In my opinion, after a little over 100 years of suffragists and feminists, it’s high time rabbinic Judaism came to terms with its women, before we lose any more wine barrels. And, indeed, we’ve done a lot in that direction, especially in shuls associated with the National Religious movement in Israel and the Modern Orthodox shuls in the rest of the world.

The problem is that it’s impossible to unload two millennia of rabbinic scholarship and halachic decisions in 100 years. No matter how hard we try, there are always going to be competing and adversarial streams that undermine the ideally smooth process of integrating our women into the Orthodox milieu.

It would have been much easier if religious women all decided to become deeply versed with Jewish law, and started pushing for a more equal, or at least a more prestigious role in the life of their religious communities. Then we would have seen a similar, ever increasing process of women’s integration as we’ve seen in the professions since about WW2.

The God of Global Warming

Tuesday, November 19th, 2013

Originally published at Sultan Knish.

After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Mayor Ray Nagin said that the storm was divine punishment for “being in Iraq under false pretenses.”

Not only was a Liberal deity taking a position on WMDs and punishing George W. Bush by evicting a lot of black people from their homes; but the Democratic divinity was paradoxically also committed to progressive housing policies.”This city will be a majority-African American city. It’s the way God wants it to be,” Nagin promised.Bush is out of office. America is no longer in Iraq. And Democrats have been forced to search for new theological explanations for hurricanes, typhoons and volcanoes.

In response to the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan; the green prophets of the left are prophesying that their liberal deity is angry over capitalism and industrialization.

“Whenever Mother Nature wants to send an urgent message to humankind, it sends it via the Philippines. This year the messenger was Haiyan,” The Nation wrote.

The message was apparently that Mother Nature, not to be confused with the nice elderly lady who runs a blog about alternative medicines, really hates prefabricated housing.

“That it was climate change creating the super typhoons that were taking weird directions was a message from Nature not just to Filipinos but to the whole world,” The left-wing magazine claimed.

For those infidels questioning whether Nature (capital N) was really speaking through a struggling lefty publication begging readers for money to pay its postal bills, its expert on typhoon theology had an answer.

“Is it a coincidence, ask some people who are not exactly religious, that both Pablo and Yolanda arrived at the time of the global climate negotiations?”

It is of course the very definition of religious faith to assume that a bearded woman in the sky is sending storms to threaten global climate negotiators (while missing them by two hemispheres and 6,000 miles). A more cynical person might suspect that climate negotiations are arranged around storm season for maximum effect.

The Nation, which regularly condemns “Bible Thumping”, had switched over to “Whole-Earth-Catalog Thumping”; building a religion around a Mother Nature who communicated her wishes through hurricanes and bankrupt liberal magazines.

Pacific Islanders used to believe that volcanic eruptions were angry notes from their volcano gods. The Yaohnanen tribe in Vanuatu on contact with civilization modernized their beliefs, and after encountering a younger Prince Philip decided that he had come from the volcano and that they ought to worship him.

And so the Prince Philip Movement was born. The islanders are modest in their requests of their god. “If he can’t come perhaps he could send us something,” the Yaohnanen Chief suggested, “a Land Rover, bags of rice or a little money.”

The Philippians may seem absurd, but their religion actually took a step forward from worshiping a volcano, which did nothing constructive and just destroyed things leaving the tribesmen to wonder whether the volcano was angry at their unjustified presence in Iraq or the waste carbon emitted by their cooking fires, to worshiping the Duke of Edinburgh, who can do constructive things like send them autographed photos. And perhaps one day a Land Rover.

While the savage tribesmen were approaching the margins of civilization; Prince Philip’s son was reverting to savagery and blaming everything wrong with the world, from local weather to the Syrian Civil War, on the great volcano god of Global Warming.

After some winter storms, Prince Charles announced that, “severe weather conditions in our country are, I have no doubt, the consequences of man-kind’s arrogant disregard of the delicate balance of nature.” It was the sort of statement that would have been commonplace a century ago. The only thing missing was that “Nature” had replaced “God”.The Yaohnanen tribe had moved on from worshiping a volcano god only capable of destruction; but the son of the living god they worshiped seemed eager to find a volcano god to worship. The savages were trying to become civilized, while civilized men were trying to become savages.At the Washington Post, the Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, a former president of the Chicago Theological Seminary and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, gathered the tattered remains of her religion around herself and argued that Typhoon Haiyan was caused by human sin and needed to be atoned for by “confessing” that human beings cause typhoons.

But then Thistlethwaite, displaying less faith in whatever god she believed in than Ray Nagin had in his Chocolate City divinity and The Nation in its typhoon-hurling Mother Nature, added that “These “superstorms” aren’t an “act of God,” but an act of willful disregard for God’s creation.”

That is to say, God is dead. Instead Republicans must confess to the liberal theologians who speak for the superstorms, that they were the ones who made the winds blow. And if they don’t, then the speakers-to-superstorms will also hold them responsible for the next hurricane.

What miracle is the Rev. Dr. Thistlethwaite’s faith in superstorms founded on? Like the storms themselves, it’s a bit circular. “The fact that we are having to invent new language to describe such massively destructive storms, like “Super Typhoon Haiyan” or “Superstorm Sandy” suggests we need to take a different look at such violent storms today and theologically assess the human responsibility for them.”

Using the Rev. Dr. Thistlethwaite’s reasoning, the fact that we have a word for Superman suggests that we need to seriously investigate whether there are superhuman beings among us who can leap tall buildings in a single bound. But worshipers of the liberal God of Global Warming who hates the War in Iraq, white people living in New Orleans and carbon have a looser relationship with facts than Pacific Islander tribes.

The term Superstorm isn’t new. And neither are superstorms. In a listing of storms from 1932 onward, the first one shows up in 1940.

Back at the UN Climate Change summit, which apparently incites Mother Nature to spout off  typhoons like soda bubbles, the representative for the Philippines, Naderev “Yeb” Sano, threw a tantrum and demanded that Global Warming skeptics visit the islands to see the devastation.

Then he announced that he was going on a hunger strike until something meaningful was done.

In 1991, Tropical Storm Thelma killed over 5,000 people in the Philippines.The President of the Philippines has estimated that the death toll from Super Typhoon Haiyan will be less than half that

Before Christianity and Islam, people in the Philippines believed that storms were brought by Saraganka Bagyo, the God of Storms, or Galurâ, a giant eagle who brings storms. Another story has it that they originated from a dispute between the descendants of the sea god and the sky god. Now Carbon has become the new Storm God, bringing bad weather because people won’t do anything meaningful, like cripple their economies and destroy their standards of living to appease him.

Sano, like Prince Charles and Ray Nagin, is reverting to a paganism buttressed by a science so bad that it is indistinguishable from superstition and magical thinking.

Despite the Rev. Dr. Thistlethwaite’s faith in a superstorm apocalypse derived from spending too
too much time watching the Weather Channel, there is no actual pattern of increased storm activity. Nor is Mother Nature targeting UN climate negotiations with typhoons. The only pattern here is the one that a liberal religion that believes in little except human evil assigns to storm patterns.

If the God of Global Warming worshiped by The Nation and the Rev. Dr. Thistlethwaite seems senselessly malicious, it is because it exists in their minds as a reflection of human evil. The left proclaimed the death of God only to find themselves in need of some entity to inflict ruthless punishment on those who did not believe in their left-handed path; which in the absence of the Gulags they were no longer able to do.

Liberalism in act of idolatry built the God of Global Warming in its own image. Like liberals, their deity can destroy, but not create.

The God of Global Warming is the embodiment of liberalism and holds all the politically correct beliefs while carrying out brutal atrocities in the name of the left’s favorite political causes. With a moral logic as flawed as that of its worshipers, it is a deity that kills people in the Philippines for the carbon crimes of Americans and kills people in New Orleans because Bush bombed Iraq.Science only truly began to take off when scientists stopped trying to base it around their preconceived worldviews of how things should be, but began to actually draw conclusions from the data, instead of fitting the data into their conclusions.The human race did not suddenly become much smarter in the last few centuries. Instead our greatest minds learned a little humility and began getting out of the way of the data. Instead of trying to force reality to conform to their philosophy, they experimented with building a philosophy around reality. The left has killed reality-based science, along with so many other human accomplishments.

Global Warming is the worship of the left. It elevates its petty biases against industry and the middle class to the status of a religion. It insists on their right to act as the mediators between individuals and the economy or else the God of Global Warming will unleash her superstorms on the bourgeois infidels.

Friday the Rabbi Read Isaiah 53

Friday, November 15th, 2013

In this morning’s video pick, a recording of the late Christopher Hitchens discussing the inherently immoral notion of someone dying for someone else’s sins, a kind of spiritual cannibalism, really, reader Alex Rivera entered the comment: “I take it the editor has never read Isaiah 53…”

Since Isaiah 53 is being used as one of the foundation strategies of missionary tricksters in seeking proof for their pagan ideas in our holy scriptures, I decided to respond immediately, lest this drivel have a chance to spread further.

Now, this article is directed at both Jewish and Christian readers, as an attempt to set the record straight. If you’re a Jew, I expect this should satisfy any doubt you may have had regarding the most remote possibility that the missionary claims bear any validity; if you’re Christian, I hope that this would serve as an opening to explore further the deep seated errors of your faith.

Isaiah 53 is an amazing piece of poetry, besides bearing a stirring prophetic message. I cannot understand how one would be able to get it without a thorough knowledge of Hebrew – even if he or she don’t have preconceived notions about the Christian message. This is precisely why the missionaries are able to fool our Jewish brothers and sisters who aren’t fluent in Hebrew – but now they can all come to the JewishPress.com and see the Jewish version of Isaiah 53.

To start, the original Hebrew texts had no chapters, and we read them based on their content, referring to each as a distinct episode, or a distinct poem, with their own cohesive content.

The segment in Isaiah 53 actually starts in Isaiah 52:13, flowing into Isaiah 53:1:

52:13 goes: “Behold, My slave has become wise, he has risen and become superior and very high.”

The nation of Israel, in the singular, is called God’s slave throughout the book of Isaiah. In one particular verse, Isaiah 41:8, the text refers to our nation using both names of our patriarch: “And you Israel, my slave Jacob whom I have chosen, seed of Abraham my lover.”

Both Isaiah and Jeremiah use the term “My slave Jacob” six times, four of them with the Divine’s call to “fear not.”

In both cases, the prophets are borrowing the names of our forefather Jacob-Israel, whom God addresses with that calming call on the eve of his journey down to Egypt, in the context of his becoming a great nation, the nation of Israel:

“He said, I am God, the God of your father, fear not going down to Egypt for I shall turn you into a great nation there.” (Gen. 46:3)

So that there’s no doubt in any Hebrew reader’s mind that the prophetic poem in Isaiah 52-53 is referring to us, the nation of Israel, children of Jacob. Nothing here about some guy telling folks he is the messiah.

The scene described by Isaiah is that of the nations of the world, kings and all, who are reviewing the progress of the nation of Israel—very much the way they do today, when 9 out of 9 UN resolutions are against Israel, when the president of the United States and his secretary of state cannot tear themselves away from discussing the extra bathroom the Berkowitzes wish to construct in their East Jerusalem apartment, when the faraway, impoverished nation of Iran is devoting $175 billion, at last count, to build a weapon that would finally annihilate all the Jews of Israel – this is precisely what the prophet describes, this obsession of the entire world with the children of God.

And so, God shares His own report with them:

52:13 “Behold, My slave has become wise, he has risen and become superior and very high.”

God proceeds to describe our history:

52:14-15 “Just as many were appalled by your appearance, saying: he is so disfigured, worse than any man, and his form worse than any human being, so he will humiliate many nations, kings will stand speechless over him, for that which had not been told them they’ll see and that which they had not heard they’ll ponder.”

The prophet continues:

53:1 “Who would believe what we have heard, and to whom has God’s arm been revealed?”

Understanding God through Self-Exploration

Thursday, October 24th, 2013

One of the most timeless and thought provoking questions regarding religion is whether spirituality and religious study is primarily about self-knowledge or other-knowledge?

An old Chassidic teaching demonstrates the position that religion is, generally, first and foremost a search for the self:

A chassid came to visit his rebbi.

The rebbi asked the chassid: “Why have you come here?”

The chassid replied: “I have come to find God.”

The rebbi, with a twinkle in his eye, responded: “For that you didn’t have to come here, since God, Whose glory fills the entire earth, can be found everywhere in the world!”

Surprised by the rebbi’s reaction to his statement, the chassid asked: “Then why indeed do people come here to the rebbi?”

To which the rebbi answered quietly: “People come here to find themselves.”

As the Chasidic teaching illustrates, we often seek the guidance of religious leaders and texts to find ourselves. There is, of course, nothing wrong with gaining self-knowledge and growth, in fact this is beautiful, but we cannot lose sight of another important goal of religion: Other knowledge. What can we learn about the world? About God? About humanity?

Society (religion of course included) has markedly turned toward individualism. Many of the effects of this have been positive as it has increased a sense of autonomy, empowerment, and responsibility. However, a significant, and often overlooked, cost has been the loss of engagement with the Other.

One Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 14:9) demonstrates the extent to which we should be engaged with God and ideally focused:

R. Levi b. R. Hanina said: ‘For every single breath that a human being takes, he should offer praise to the Creator.’ What is the reason? Scripture says, “Let every soul (neshamah) praise God’ (Psalm 150:6)—let every breath (neshimah) praise God.

Of course many of us fall far short of this ideal. We are often too caught up in the mundane tasks and stresses of everyday life, and find it hard, if not impractical, to stop and thank God for every breath we take. However, let us now stop, for just a second, and give thanks to God, as this Midrash commands, for the gift of life and the blessings we have been given. Let us renew our search for God and begin anew our engagement and focus.

A beautiful idea in Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (Likutei Maharan Essay 282) is that of judging others, finding the good in our brothers and sisters, and understanding the implications of our actions toward others:

Know! A person must judge everyone favorably. Even in the case of a complete sinner, one must search until one finds some point of good within that person. For the verse says: “With a little bit [of good], and the wicked will be no more” (Psalms 37:10). This verse refers to finding and exclusively focusing on the “little bit” of good which is found within everyone, including a complete sinner. By judging even a complete sinner favorably, one fulfills the end of this verse: “And the wicked will be no more.” Once you judge a sinner favorably you actually elevate the sinner to the side of holiness. This can help this person return to God. How is it possible that this sinner never once fulfilled a mitzvah or did something good throughout his entire life? Once a person does even one good deed, he becomes part of and attached to God, the source of all good.

Every person can sense how another person feels toward him. A person’s feelings toward another are broadcast loud and clear through verbal and non-verbal communication, intimations, body language, and gestures. Therefore, if one projects and transmits positive feelings toward another, the warmth and good attitude that one projects can be felt and can literally uplift the other person. Once a person feels uplifted and is imbued with a sense of self-worth and joy, this happy attitude could motivate a person to seek out God and return to Him. If one, however, projects negative feelings toward another, this could literally kill the other person and cause him to fall completely….

Imagine if we viewed others and interacted with others in such a fashion and how that would affect our own souls and the souls of those around us!

Beginning The Journey

Thursday, October 24th, 2013

A while back, a British newspaper, The Times, interviewed a prominent member of the Jewish community (let’s call him Lord X) on his 92nd birthday. The interviewer said, “Most people, when they reach their 92nd birthday, start thinking about slowing down. You seem to be speeding up. Why is that?”

Lord X replied, “When you get to 92, you start seeing the door begin to close, and I have so much to do before the door closes that the older I get, the harder I have to work.”

Something like that is the impression we get of Abraham in this week’s parshah. Sarah, his constant companion throughout their journeys, has died. He is 137 years old. We see him mourn Sarah’s death, and then he moves into action.

He engages in an elaborate negotiation to buy a plot of land in which to bury her. As the narrative makes clear, this is not a simple task. He confesses to the locals, the Hittites, that he is “an immigrant and a resident among you,” meaning that he knows he has no right to buy land. It will take a special concession on their part for him to do so. The Hittites politely but firmly try to discourage him. He has no need to buy a burial plot. “No one among us will deny you his burial site to bury your dead.” He can bury Sarah in someone else’s graveyard. Equally politely but no less insistently, Abraham makes it clear that he is determined to buy land. In the event, he pays a highly inflated price (400 silver shekels) to do so.

The purchase of the Cave of Machpelah is evidently a highly significant event because it is recorded in great detail and highly legal terminology – not just here but three times subsequently in Genesis, each time with the same formality. For instance, here is Jacob on his deathbed, speaking to his sons:

“Bury me with my fathers in the cave in the field of Ephron the Hittite, the cave in the field of Machpelah, near Mamre in Canaan, which Abraham bought along with the field as a burial place from Ephron the Hittite. There Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried, there Isaac and his wife Rebecca were buried, and there I buried Leah. The field and the cave in it were bought from the Hittites” (Genesis 49:29-32).

Something significant is being hinted at here; otherwise why mention, each time, exactly where the field is and from whom Abraham bought it?

Immediately after the story of land purchase, we read, “Abraham was old, well advanced in years, and God had blessed Abraham with everything.” Again this sounds like the end of a life, not a preface to a new course of action, and again our expectation is confounded. Abraham launches into a new initiative, this time to find a suitable wife for his son Isaac, who by now is at least 37 years old. Abraham leaves nothing to chance. He does not speak to Isaac himself but to his most trusted servant, who he instructs to go “to my native land, to my birthplace” to find the appropriate woman. He wants Isaac to have a wife who will share his faith and way of life. Abraham does not specify that she should come from his own family, but this seems to be an assumption hovering in the background.

As with the purchase of the field, so here the course of events is described in more detail than almost anywhere else in the Torah. Every conversational exchange is recorded. The contrast with the story of the binding of Isaac could not be greater. There, almost everything – Abraham’s thoughts, Isaac’s feelings – is left unsaid. Here, everything is said. Again, the literary style calls our attention to the significance of what is happening, without telling us precisely what it is.

The explanation is simple and unexpected. Throughout the story of Abraham and Sarah, God had promised them two things: children and a land. The promise of the land (“Rise, walk in the land throughout its length and breadth, for I will give it to you”) is repeated no less than seven times. The promise of children occurs four times. Abraham’s descendants will be “a great nation,” as many as “the dust of the earth” and “the stars in the sky.” He will be the father not of one nation but of many.

The State of the Jew According to Pew

Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

Pew conducted a study of Jews in America and has released a comprehensive report based on its findings. Nearly 2800 religious Jewish people were interviewed and the results of those interviews make up the model for the results of the study. It’s difficult conduct a study like this and achieve meaningful results. I am not a statistician nor can I compare the sample sizes used in this study with others. To my untrained eye, it seems small.

There are many very interesting findings to discuss. I have three things I want to say about the study.

First, people will point to the staggering number of orthodox Jews who are no longer orthodox. That number is 52%. It seems impossible to believe. That means that over half of people raised orthodox are no longer orthodox. Think about the orthodox Jewish friends and family you know. Does it make sense to say that over half of them are no longer orthodox? I don’t think so.

If you drill down a bit you notice a couple of things. For starters, I know many people who say they were raised orthodox because they went to a yeshiva or modern orthodox school even if they weren’t frum at home. I went to school with several people like that. Those people certainly skew the numbers. After all, the study relied on self identification. There was no process to classify people into categories other than to ask them.

But the real key here what the numbers are for young people being raised in contemporary orthodoxy. Those numbers are impressive. 83% of people raised as orthodox Jews under the age of 30 stay. This is a huge success. It’s also a number that correlates with anecdotal evidence. So the people who were raised orthodox and no longer are orthodox are mostly older people. What does this mean?

It means one of two things or perhaps a hybrid of two. [It doesn't mean that orthodox Jews leave the fold in their 30's and 40's at alarmingly high rates.] It could either mean that orthodoxy is much stronger today than it was 20 and 30 years ago. People get a better Jewish education, there is more insularity, and the shift to ultra orthodoxy which outnumbers modern orthodoxy by nearly 10:1 in this demographic is working to keep more orthodox Jews orthodox. Alternatively, it signifies a shift in who attends orthodox schools. In other words, 20-30 years ago it was far more likely for a family to send a child to an orthodox school and identify as orthodox even if they were not totally observant of halacha. There was more cross-pollination and there were fewer non-orthodox options. So you wind up with more people from previous generations identifying as being raised orthodox even though they weren’t truly orthodox through and through. This is rarer today because we are more insular and non-orthodox or unaffiliated Jews feel less comfortable in orthodox institutions. The truth is likely a combination of the two but the latter does concern me.

Also, very few middle aged and older people consider themselves ultra-orthodox. It’s a youth movement. Sure, some mellow out and switch affiliation. But it’s also a recent phenomena that is sweeping orthodoxy. It’s pretty compelling evidence that what is happening now for the under 40 orthodox Jew is different from what their parents and grandparents experienced. It’s a different kind of Judaism. The numbers bear it out.

Next, the non-orthodox denominations are falling apart. The numbers support the rumblings and rumors regarding the demise of Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism is dwindling as well. Some orthodox Jews like to cheer while these two denominations begin to disappear. Others view it as a sign that those Jews must be saved and brought into orthodox Judaism.

I think that it is important for Judaism that non-orthodox denominations are strong and vibrant. I think that orthodox Jews should be concerned and make efforts to help revive non-orthodox Judaism. This sounds controversial and heretical but it’s really not. Orthodox Judaism is not going to magically become the Judaism for the 89% of non-orthodox Jews. We can either wish them well and watch them disappear or we can try to keep them connected to their Jewish heritage. I think the latter choice is preferable. Now we can either keep them connected by “making them orthodox” as if that is even possible, or we can rely on strong non-orthodox denominations to keep them in the fold. I think the latter choice is preferable here too. It’s certainly the more likely option to achieve widespread success. While resources are precious in the orthodox community, I think strengthening the non-orthodox denominations is a worthy endeavor. They are also our brothers and sisters. If we value what we have, we should do whatever we can to help them stay somewhat connected to their Judaism. A little bit of a good thing is a whole lot better than nothing.

For Better or for Worse

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013

It’s time to move out of our homes and into our holy humble sukkahs. Now is the time when we renew our relationship with God, who has chosen us to form an inseparable eternal union – a marriage between the children of Yisrael and the Master of the Universe.

The Torah portion of Nitzavim, which is read just before the New Year, reveals to us that Hashem is our personal “husband,” for better or for worse. Rashi explains (Devarim 29:12) that we were presented with a covenant and a curse: “Since we are forever bound together, let Me teach you how to make Me happy.”

Nitzavim goes on to prophesize everything that has transpired during these thousands of years. This is highlighted by non-Jews gasping and stating, “Why has God caused this land to become desolate? Because they have forsaken God’s covenant.” Thus, on Rosh Hashanah we think of our past year’s sins. The sound of the shofar awakens our emotions. Then ten days of introspection and repentance bring on the great and awesome day of Kippur, of Atonement.

Consider: our God is perfect, and we are anything but. We may have been envious or lustful, or worshipped money, status or a host of other vices. Now we humbly return home to our Love. If we repent out of fear, our sins are forgiven. But if we repent because we truly love our Maker, he gives us an amazing reward – our sins become mitzvahs!

Hashem simply goes beyond the letter of the law in His love for us.

The Holy Ben Ish Chai points out that if you go beyond the four letters of the Hebrew word hadin (the judgment), you get to the Hebrew word sukkah. (The four Hebrew letters that come after the letters in hadin are the letters in the word sukkah). The sukkah is where we arrive after Yom Kippur, free of sins, under the wings of God’s Holy Presence.

Note that the first time sukkah is mentioned in the Torah, it is referring to the stalls our forefather Yaakov built for his animals. Why? Because when Yaakov arrived in Shechem with his family, he built a beis medrash for himself for Torah learning, but for his animals, his “wealth,” he built simple huts.

Yaakov took his children to the window and said, “Look at how I treat my wealth, dear children. Wealth is temporary; like the sukkah, it doesn’t go with you to the next world. But here in this house of Torah, we accumulate the mitzvahs that stay with us – which are eternal.”

We have now received our “new heads” for the coming year, as implied by the words Rosh Hashanah, head for the year, and Yom Hazikaron, a day of resetting our memory apparatus. We are cleansed of our sins on Yom Kippur, after which we enter, with our entire body, into our sukkah. We enter this mitzvah where we achieve oneness with our Lover – Hashem, Blessed be He.

What is it about the Nation of Israel that attracts the love of the One God Who rules the universe?

I came upon an answer on Rosh Chodesh Elul as I prayed the silent benedictions. We bless the day in the following way: “Mikadesh Yisrael v’roshei chodoshim – He sanctifies Israel and the first day of all months.” But it can literally mean “He sanctifies Yisrael and “brand new heads.”

Our nation is forever ready to admit our mistakes and begin all over. With the coming of each new moon, we are aware that we may start afresh.

This is also evident in our morning declaration of Modeh Ani, the origin of which is in the book of Eichah (3:23) which states, “Hashems kindness is new every morning – great is Your belief [in us, to improve in the coming day]. One of the reasons Hashem loves His people is that they are always willing to start over.

Two small examples that are actually big were related to me by Rabbi Mordechai Goldstein, shlita, head of the Diaspora Yeshiva on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, where I am currently studying.

The first: A man survived hell in a concentration camp only to discover that his entire family had perished – parents, siblings, wife and children. Everyone.

Moses: the Heroic Model

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

“That very day the Lord spoke to Moses, ‘Go up this mountain of the Abarim, Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, opposite Jericho, and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel for a possession. And die on the mountain which you go up, and be gathered to your people …For you will see the land only from a distance; you will not enter the land I am giving to the people of Israel” (Deuteronomy 48-50, 52).

These words draw to a close the life of the greatest hero the Jewish people has ever known: Moses, the leader, the liberator, the lawgiver, the man who brought a group of slaves to freedom, turned a fractious collection of individuals into a nation, and so transformed them that they became the people of eternity.

It was Moses who mediated with God, performed signs and wonders, gave the people their laws, fought with them when they sinned, fought for them when praying for Divine forgiveness, gave his life to them and had his heart broken by them when they repeatedly failed to live up to his great expectations.

Each age has had its own image of Moses. For the more mystically inclined sages, Moses was the man who ascended to heaven at the time of the giving of the Torah, where he had to contend with the angels who opposed the idea that this precious gift be given to mere mortals. God told Moses to answer them, which he did decisively. “Do angels work that they need a day of rest? Do they have parents that they need to be commanded to honor them? Do they have an evil inclination that they need to be told, ‘Do not commit adultery?’ ” (Shabbat 88a). Moses the man out-argues the angels.

Other sages were more radical still. For them Moses was rabbeinu, “our rabbi” – not a king, a political or military leader, but a scholar and master of the law, a role that they invested with astonishing authority. They went so far as to say that when Moses prayed for God to forgive the people for the Golden Calf, God replied, “I cannot, for I have already vowed, ‘One who sacrifices to any God shall be destroyed’ (Exodus 22:19), and I cannot revoke My vow.” Moses replied, “Master of the universe, have You not taught me the laws of annulling vows? One may not annul his own vow, but a sage may do so.” Moses thereupon annulled God’s vow (Shemot Rabbah 43:4).

For Philo, the 1st century Jewish philosopher from Alexandria, Moses was a philosopher-king of the type depicted in Plato’s Republic. He governs the nation, organizes its laws, institutes its rites and conducts himself with dignity and honor; he is wise, stoical and self-controlled. This is, as it were, a Greek Moses, looking not unlike Michelangelo’s famous sculpture.

For Maimonides, Moses was radically different from all other prophets in four ways. First, others received their prophecies in dreams or visions, while Moses received his awake. Second, to the others God spoke in parables obliquely, but to Moses directly and lucidly. Third, the other prophets were terrified when God appeared to them but of Moses it says, “Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face-to-face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Exodus 33:11). Fourth, other prophets needed to undergo lengthy preparations to hear the Divine word; Moses spoke to God whenever he wanted or needed to. He was “always prepared, like one of the ministering angels” (Laws of the Foundations of Torah 7:6).

Yet what is so moving about the portrayal of Moses in the Torah is that he appears before us as quintessentially human. No religion has more deeply and systemically insisted on the absolute otherness of God and man, heaven and earth, the infinite and the finite. Other cultures have blurred the boundary, making some human beings seem godlike, perfect, infallible. There is such a tendency – marginal to be sure, but never entirely absent – within Jewish life itself: to see sages as saints, great scholars as angels, to gloss over their doubts and shortcomings and turn them into superhuman emblems of perfection. Tanach, however, is greater than that. It tells us that God, who is never less than God, never asks us to be more than simply human.

Moses is a human being. We see him despair and want to die. We see him lose his temper. We see him on the brink of losing his faith in the people he has been called on to lead. We see him beg to be allowed to cross the Jordan and enter the land he has spent his life as a leader traveling toward. Moses is the hero of those who wrestle with the world as it is and with people as they are, knowing that “It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to stand aside from it.”

The Torah insists that “to this day no one knows where his grave is” (Deuteronomy 34:6), to avoid his grave being made a place of pilgrimage or worship. It is all too easy to turn human beings, after their death, into saints and demigods. That is precisely what the Torah opposes. “Every human being” writes Maimonides in his Laws of Repentance (5:2), “can be as righteous as Moses or as wicked as Jeroboam.”

Moses does not exist in Judaism as an object of worship but as a role model for each of us to aspire to. He is the eternal symbol of a human being made great by what he strove for, not by what he actually achieved. The titles conferred by him in the Torah, “the man Moses,” “God’s servant,” “a man of God,” are all the more impressive for their modesty. Moses continues to inspire.

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On April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King delivered a sermon in a church in Memphis, Tennessee. At the end of his address, he turned to the last day of Moses’s life, when the man who had led his people to freedom was taken by God to a mountaintop from which he could see in the distance the land he was not destined to enter. That, said King, was how he felt that night:

“I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

That night was the last of his life. The next day he was assassinated. At the end, the still young Christian preacher – he was not yet forty – who had led the civil rights movement in the United States, identified not with a Christian figure but with Moses.

In the end the power of Moses’s story is precisely that it affirms our mortality. There are many explanations of why Moses was not allowed to enter the Promised Land. I have argued that it was simply because “each generation has its leaders” (Avodah Zarah 5a) and the person who has the ability to lead a people out of slavery is not necessarily the one who has the requisite skills to lead the next generation into its own and very different challenges. There is no one ideal form of leadership that is right for all times and situations.

Franz Kafka gave voice to a different and no less compelling truth:

“He is on the track of Canaan all his life; it is incredible that he should see the land only when on the verge of death. This dying vision of it can only be intended to illustrate how incomplete a moment is human life; incomplete because a life like this could last forever and still be nothing but a moment. Moses fails to enter Canaan not because his life was too short but because it is a human life.”

What then does the story of Moses tell us? That it is right to fight for justice even against regimes that seem indestructible. That God is with us when we take our stand against oppression. That we must have faith in those we lead, and when we cease to have faith in them we can no longer lead them. That change, though slow, is real, and that people are transformed by high ideals even though it may take centuries.

In one of its most powerful statements about Moses, the Torah states that he was “a hundred and twenty years old when he died, yet his eyes were undimmed and his strength unabated” (Deuteronomy 34:8). I used to think that these were merely two sequential phrases, until I realized that the first was the explanation for the second. Why was Moses’s strength unabated? Because his eyes were undimmed, because he never lost the ideals of his youth. Though he sometimes lost faith in himself and his ability to lead, he never lost faith in the cause: in God, service, freedom, the right, the good and the holy. His words at the end of his life were as impassioned as they had been at the beginning.

That is Moses, the man who refused to “go gently into that dark night,” the eternal symbol of how a human being, without ever ceasing to be human, can become a giant of the moral life. That is the greatness and the humility of aspiring to be “a servant of God.”

 

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/jewish-columns/rabbi-lord-jonathan-sacks/moses-the-heroic-model/2013/09/04/

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