May 19 2017

Suicide Pact

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Either the Author of the Torah knew what He was doing, or He wanted to starve the Jews.

The Torah Commands the Jews to observe a “Sabbatical of the Earth,” a full year in which farming is prohibited. No planting means no reaping, no crops to sell.

Now, you might think that this was simply a matter of understanding crop rotation, knowing that leaving the fields to lie fallow for a year is beneficial to them. Prior to modern fertilization, it was practically mandatory to do so.

But those who rotated their crops did so in stages, in order that there be food to put on the table each year. They also knew that the fields were at their best immediately after lying fallow, and then deteriorated each year until the next time they were left out.

What does the Torah tell people to do to prepare for the Sabbatical Year? Nothing!

Still worse, it makes a promise: in the sixth year, you’re going to see abundance. You’ll have such a blessing that you’ll have food for three years, not just two. Don’t worry, everything will be fine.

For how long do you imagine this went on before the Jews recognized that something was wrong?

“Hey, Abe, how are your fields?”

“Umm… lousy. I’m not seeing a triple crop, I’ve got half what I got five years ago! Yours?”

“Same. Do you think we’re doing it wrong?”

This is exactly when you would expect the Torah to use precisely this escape clause: it’s your fault. This is why you’re not seeing a blessing, you’ve been doing something wrong.

That’s also what the Torah doesn’t say. Instead, it says that if the Jews fail to do as they should, then they will be exiled off the land, and then the land will enjoy its rest.

Was the Torah a Suicide Pact? The Jews themselves provide the answer. On the contrary, we are the eternal nation: our civilization is still here, while others have come and gone. It seems we did not starve, after all!

May 11 2017

More than a Bonfire

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In Judaism, our holidays are never mere celebrations or commemorations — they are opportunities for spiritual growth. In the case of Lag B’Omer, there are two key lessons for all of us, found in the two stories behind this rabbinic holiday.

Lag B’Omer gets its name from being the 33rd day of the Omer count. All Hebrew letters express a numerical value — “ל‎”, “Lamed”, is 30, and “ג‎”, “Gimel”, is 3. Thus we get the acronym “Lag” (pronounced “lahg”).

The Talmud tells us that during the time of the great teacher Rebbe Akiva, a plague raged through his yeshiva, his rabbinical school, during the Omer. He lost 24,000 students during this time; even the great schools in Babylonia, and those of today, are not as large. Rebbe Akiva went on to teach five more students, and it is they who transmitted much of Jewish tradition on to future generations — so one can only imagine what was lost because those 24,000 other students passed away. This is why many observe customs of mourning during the Omer period, except on the 33rd day when the plague ceased.

One person who did pass away on Lag B’Omer was one of Rebbe Akiva’s five key students: Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai, author of the Zohar, the work of revealed Kabbalah. Defying Roman persecution, Rebbe Shimon and his son Elazar hid in a cave to learn Torah together — for twelve years! The custom of lighting bonfires on Lag B’Omer celebrates the incredible light of Torah which Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai gave the world.

Why were all of the 24,000 scholars lost to us? Our Sages say that considering their spiritual level, they showed insufficient respect and love for each other. So throughout the Omer period, it is not sufficient to mourn by not shaving or listening to music; we must think about our obligation to show love and respect for every other person. And on Lag B’Omer in particular, we should celebrate — and ponder — the incredible light that one person can share.

Apr 20 2017

Impossible to Know… But Known

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In this week’s reading, the Torah clearly lays out for us the animals, fish and poultry permitted under Jewish Law. In the course of doing so, the Torah makes a statement that — were it made by a human being — would have been beyond foolhardy.

The Torah lays out two signs by which we can recognize kosher land animals (both wild and domesticated): they must have split hooves and chew their cud. [11:3]

This is unremarkable — but then the Torah goes on to specify which four animals have only one of these two signs. Lest one think that these are merely examples, the Ramban (Nachmanides) spells it out: “it would have been appropriate to say the general rule, but [the Torah] specifies the camel, shafan and arneves in chewing cud, and the swine in its cloven hoof, for there are no others in the world with one sign alone.

That fact was entirely unknown to humanity even 500 years ago.

Two of these, the shafan and arneves, are wild animals. To which species, genera or families they refer may once have been known with certainty, but today this is a matter of speculation.

Not so, however, the camel and swine [the pigs and peccaries], which are domesticated and thus well known to us. The Camelid family is found in two distinct regions: from North Africa across to Central Asia, and in South America, and the species found in one place are different from those in the other. The many different genera and species of the suborder Suina also live in distinct regions — yet for Suina as for Camelids, their commonality is as obvious to farmers as it is to taxonomists. The llama is called the “New World Camel” for good reason!

The Talmud takes this even a step further:

Rav Chisda said, if one is going through the desert and finds a domesticated animal whose hooves are cut, check its mouth. If it has no upper teeth, it is known to be pure, if not, it is known to be impure, as long as he can recognize a… juvenile camel [which does not yet have upper teeth].

Do not say, if there is a juvenile camel, there is also a similar type of animal to the young camel [in that it also has no upper teeth]. Do not consider this, for they taught in the School of Rebbe Yishmael, “and the camel, for it is a ruminant” — the Ruler of the World Knows that there is no other thing that ruminates and is impure [among the domesticated animals] except the camel, for which reason the verse specifies “it.”

And Rav Chisda said, if one is going on the way and finds a domesticated animal whose mouth is damaged [its teeth have fallen out], check its hooves. If its hooves are cloven, it is known to be pure, if not, it is known to be impure, as long as he can recognize a swine.

Do not say, if there is a swine, there is also a similar type of animal to the swine. Do not consider this, for they taught in the School of Rebbe Yishmael, “and the swine, for it has cloven hooves” — the Ruler of the World Knows that there is no other thing that has cloven hooves and is impure except swine, for which reason the verse specifies “it.”

These statements are every bit as true today as they were thousands of years ago, when it was inconceivable that human beings could claim to know these things by studying the natural world. The platypus was not discovered until the very end of the nineteenth century — the first specimen sent to the British Museum has scissor marks at the end of its bill, because the curator was so certain he was examining a hoax that he tried to hack it apart.

To me, there seems to be only one reasonable explanation for how the Torah and Talmud could say these things!

Apr 07 2017

The Laban Brand of Hate

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What is the connection of “Arami Oved Avi” — “An Aramean destroyed my father” — to the Haggadah?

The Haggadah says that “Pharaoh decreed only against the males, but Laban tried to uproot everything.” Again, why connect the two? The goal of the Haggadah is to tell us about the Exodus from Egypt, so why go back in history to find another example of someone who didn’t like Jews?

Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, zt”l, known by his name’s acronym the Netziv, explains that Laban was the paradigm of anti-Semitism. He began with the false notion that our forefather Yaakov was stealing from him — something obviously false, both because Laban owed his wealth to Yaakov (as Laban himself recognized), and because Yaakov was impeccably honest.

Yet Laban, the dishonest swindler who kept changing Yaakov’s wages, projected his own evil upon Yaakov. Rather than Laban stealing from Yaakov, in his mind it was Yaakov stealing from Laban. And how could Yaakov, such an honest and G-d-fearing person, steal? Laban blamed Judaism. Yaakov was a Jew, father of the “Chosen People,” dedicated to a special kind of Divine Service. In Laban’s mind, this meant that Yaakov was a supremacist — that Judaism itself permitted Yaakov to steal from anyone who wasn’t Jewish. And Laban thus concluded that he needed to eliminate this evil: to destroy Yaakov and all those who shared his beliefs.

And this is the classic model of anti-Semitism. Pharaoh similarly concluded that Yaakov’s descendents were gaining too much power, and would use that power to steal Egypt from the Egyptians. By murdering the boys and marrying the girls, he as well hoped to eliminate Judaism.

Thus the story of Laban is especially relevant, appearing as it does after the paragraph “V’hee She’Amdah” — “It is this that has stood by our fathers and us. For not only one has risen against us to annihilate us, but in every generation the rise against us to annihilate us. But the Holy One, Blessed be He, rescues us from their hand.” Laban is the paradigm. He gives us the model through which to understand all those who follow this well-worn path of hatred.

The Haggadah also tells us the inevitable result of this anti-Semitism: in the end, the Jews are liberated from oppression and connected more closely to their G-d. The Egyptians were destroyed, while the Jews were brought out to receive the Torah. The Torah stands with us throughout history, enabling us to withstand oppression when it happens, and to prevent our destruction. From Laban until this day, Torah is our best protection!

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