Jul 28 2017

An Active Response to Tragedy

The Ninth of Av, which this year begins on Monday evening, is a national day of mourning for the Jewish people. 3329 years ago, we mourned needlessly on this day, responding to the report of the spies that we would be unable to overcome the Canaanites and move into our Promised Land. And G-d Told us at that time that because we mourned on the Ninth of Av for no reason, this would be a day of mourning for generations.

And so it came to be. Both Holy Temples were destroyed on the Ninth of Av, 656 years apart. The expulsion of all Jews from England happened on the Ninth of Av in 1290 CE, and from Spain in 1492 CE. Again and again, those who hated the Jews unwittingly proved the power of prophecy.

On the surface, the mourning of the Ninth of Av may appear like the mourning for a close relative, like “sitting Shivah.” But it is much more than that. In Judaism, we learn that tragedies don’t merely happen, that we must try to draw inspiration from tragedy the same way that we draw inspiration from times of joy, from our holidays.

Why was the First Temple destroyed? An historian would tell you that it was because the Babylonian army invaded and took over the land. But the rabbis gave us a very different answer: because the Jews of that day were violating the key Jewish prohibitions against murder, idolatry and adultery. The Rabbis knew full well that the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, but taught nonetheless that this only occurred because of needless hatred between Jews. In all cases, our Sages taught us these messages in order that we not merely mourn past events, but be inspired to do better.

Some instinctively recoil when this concept is applied to more recent tragedies. People imagine that this means claiming that the victims of tragedy brought it upon themselves, that it was somehow their fault.

That is categorically untrue. Israel is considered not merely one nation, but one body, and thus a punishment upon the nation is a national tragedy, rather than a judgment about the individuals most directly affected. On the contrary, King David says in Tehillim (Psalms 116:15), “Precious in the eyes of G-d is the death of his pious ones.” The greatest and holiest among us may be taken from us because of the sins of the collective nation.

When the Satmar Rebbe was in declining health, one of his devoted students asked him, to whom will we go for a blessing when you have passed away? And the Rebbe replied, when you go to synagogue in the morning, watch the men putting on their Tefillin (phylacteries). Find one who has a number tattooed on his arm, and you can ask him for a blessing.

The Ninth of Av is not merely a day of mourning, but a call for self-improvement. Yes, we look at the past, but to learn from tragedy. Are we showing love for others? Are we caught up in today’s ideologies, rather than the teachings of Judaism? We must use the Ninth of Av as a time of introspection, to look at ourselves and address that which we could do better.

And may we soon see the fulfillment of the prophecy (Isaiah 60:20) that “your days of mourning will end.”

Jul 14 2017

Transfer of Leadership

In this week’s reading, Moshe begins the transfer of Jewish leadership to his closest disciple, Yehoshua (Joshua). He “stands him before Elazar the High Priest and the entire congregation” [27:22], in accordance with G-d’s Commandment that he do so, and “you shall give from your glory upon him, in order that all the congregation of the Children of Israel will listen [to him]” [27:20].

People often ask why it is that the initial observant congregations in America were in such disarray. There were several factors, of course. Besides the abandonment of Jewish practice on the boat to Ellis Island, there were many who fell away from Jewish observance when they learned that if you didn’t show up for work on Saturday, you didn’t have a job on Monday.

But Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Rabinowitz zt”l (1848-1910) of Kovno taught us a different reason, when he declined an invitation to become the Chief Rabbi of New York City in 1888. He said that the way things classically happened was that a group of Jews organized in a city, and then sought out a Rabbi to guide the community and preserve Jewish practice, that it not be disturbed. He said that to go organize a new community, to establish a new order with newly-arrived Jews in a new location — that, he said, required a Rabbi like Moshe!

As we see, what eventually grew Jewish communities was not the Rabbi of the synagogue, but those who built day schools to educate the next Jewish generation, as Moshe taught Yehoshua, and in the same way that Yehudah preceded his father Yaakov to Goshen, in Egypt, to (according to the Medrash) build a Beis Medrash, a House of Study (Breishis Rabbah to Gen. 46:28, see Rashi).

And so it remains. Giving our children a strong Jewish education is the singular way that we preserve a Jewish future for generations to come!

Jul 07 2017

You Couldn’t Pay Me to Do the Impossible

Someone shared with me a fascinating story this morning (from the sefer “MiShulchan Gavohah”). The Brisker Rav, Rabbi Yitzchok Zev Halevi Soloveitchik, served as Rabbi and Rosh Yeshiva of Brisk (Brest, Belarus) prior to the Holocaust, under the hostile Communist regime.

The Communists wanted to “tamper” with Jewish education, with their Jewish comrades (of course) leading the effort. At a meeting, one of these communists stood up and declared that although it was in their power to close the Jewish schools, they would not do so due to their reverence for the rabbis.

Some of the listeners were impressed by this. Clearly, they thought, this secular Jew (who, like all Jews of that era, had had at least a basic Jewish education himself) understood the importance to the rabbis of their unique Jewish schools. He saw “where they were coming from” and would help them maintain Jewish education under the communists.

The Brisker Rav didn’t see it that way. He stood up and said back to the communist: you are like the evil Bila’am!

What did he mean?

Balak, King of Moav, sent emissaries to Bila’am in order that he come and curse the Jews. Bilaam told the king’s representatives, “if Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not transgress the word of G-d” [22:18].

At first glance, it seems Bila’am is simply explaining the reality to them. But Bila’am was entertaining the idea! The Brisker Rav compared him to an assassin being asked if he could murder the king, and the man responding, “I couldn’t do that for $1,000,000.” If he loved the king he would say, “why would I do such a ridiculous thing?” Instead, the assassin says that the financial incentive isn’t worth the threat to his life — but otherwise he’d be willing to do it.

Bila’am similarly says that going against the Divine Will isn’t worth the money. He is choosing not to do it, but otherwise might want to go against what G-d Wants. This is what eventually transpires: Bila’am goes with the king’s ambassadors, attempts to curse the Jews, and is forced to bless them instead.

“You imagine,” said the Brisker Rav to the Jewish communists, “that you have the power to stop Torah learning if you simply wish to do so. But you are making the same mistake as the evil Bila’am. If it is not Hashem’s Will that it be done, it cannot be done, and you will be no more successful than he was!

Jun 30 2017

The Limits of Human Comprehension

This week’s reading begins with the Commandment to prepare a red heifer for a special purification ritual. The calf was slaughtered and burned and its ashes mixed with water. Any person who came into contact with a dead person had to undergo a seven-day purification process, including having this water sprinkled upon him or her on the third and seventh day. Without this process, one could not enter the Tabernacle or Temple — this is why we may not go up onto the Temple Mount today, because we do not have the waters of the red heifer and thus cannot go through the purification process.

Here, though, we find what is considered the most perplexing rule in the entire Torah: the person who sprinkles the water must immerse himself and his clothing afterward, returning to a pure state only in the evening. In the course of purifying the impure person, he himself becomes impure; we know from our Sages that even King Solomon himself was unable to understand why this is true.

Yet this famous law offers a paradigm for the meaning of “faith” in Judaism. Our belief in G-d and the accuracy of the Torah is not simply something taken on faith; we have the eyewitness account of our own ancestors. The Torah itself asserts that no one else will make this claim, because the idea that our own ancestors, all of them, collectively, experienced a Divine Revelation is so outlandish that such a claim cannot be made unless it is true. As we know (and as Maimonides says), history has borne this out.

What, then, is the place of faith? To us, faith is trusting G-d. The Torah tells us that He is taking care of us — but sometimes this defies our attempts to understand how this could be true. How can it be good for people to undergo sadness and tragedy? Does He really care and watch over us? The answer is an emphatic yes, and we rely upon His guarantee that this is true, whether or not we understand why the situation is in any way good for us.

The perplexing law of the red heifer teaches us that despite our very best efforts, we are not always going to understand why everything makes sense, including how we can reconcile the idea that “everything is for the best” with circumstances around us. This conflict is itself part of the human condition, as surely as the rule of the red heifer is part of the Torah!

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