Thursday, January 31, 2008

Mishpatim: Animals and Man

The complex dietary laws of the Torah have been interpreted in many ways. Hygiene, symbolism and isolationism all are plausible, and provide insight into the regulations. It bears repeating that the binding authority of the law is independent of the ratio legis; we keep the commandments ultimately in obedience to the Divine authority that commanded them. Only when placed in this context can the benefits of the search for טעמי המצוות, the legal rationale, be realized.

I would like to present a quote from Rabbi Kook in reference to the law of טרפה, a terminally ill animal. The Torah commands us not to eat this meat (Exod. 22:30).

Distinctive [among the traits of Israel] is the compassion that waits to blossom into manifestation from amidst the feelings of the pure-hearted, and spread from humanity to all living creatures. This compassion is nascent within the prohibition of eating neveilah (an animal that has died as a result of sickness) or a treifah (an animal that has died as a result of bodily injury).

Just as we naturally feel greater pity for sick or injured human beings than we feel for the healthy, the unfortunate injured animal deserves our additional sympathy. Having internalized the ethical implications of the Torah's prohibition of eating the flesh of a torn animal, our hearts can fully experience the spirit of enlightenment that relates the precept of visiting the sick, prompting us to relieve their distress.

The commonality that exists between our feelings of compassion [for both animals and human beings] also expresses itself in connection with the need to guard our health, both spiritually and physically, and in not putting ourselves on the same plane as the predatory beasts. Rather, [the Torah] imposes upon us the further obligation to bring about their good, to benefit and to enlighten them. How could we consume the treifah lying in the field, which would appear like "dividing the spoil" with [the wild beasts], and constitute a tacit approval of their predatory habits?

It is true that, among the various categories of treifah discussed by the Talmudic sages, we must distinguish between a mortally injured animal in the field and a terminally ill human being. However, the suffering of both creatures calls for our compassion, which initially should be awakened on behalf of the wretched and the outcast. The law of the animal that died as a result of sickness prepares the heart to feel even greater repugnance toward exploiting the misfortune of other creatures in the event of their deaths. This sensitivity signals a sense of comradeship, sharing another's pain, and our having entered the borders of their inner world. With this, the "motivation by virtue of enlightenment" will supercede the "motivation by virtue of the law," causing us to distance ourselves from committing any evil upon these, our comrades in the universe, since we all come forth from the hand of One Creator, the Master of All His Works.

Humanity has a tremendous capacity for empathy, but we also have the ability to de-sensitize ourselves to the plight of others. Naturally, the pain of an animal is legally on a lower plane than the pain of a human being. However, emotionally, the pitiful cry of an injured animal, or the look of pain in its eye, evokes strong emotions of concern and sympathy. We can almost see our own children in the eyes of a puppy.

The Torah aims to use the suffering of animals, and the well of emotions that awakens within us, to help us re-sensitize ourselves to the troubles of others. We do not treat the weak animal as an easy kill, as the buzzards do, but see them as unfit to eat. The compassion they evoke makes us better humans must be treasured. Otherwise, it will de-sensitize us to the suffering of other people, also.

A few years ago, I read a passage in Rabbi Hirsch's writings. Its effect was that we must walk a very fine line when dealing with our capacity for compassion and empathy. We must constantly develop our ability to feel another's pain, but must never allow it to disintegrate into a hysterical impotence. If we identify with the suffering of others too closely, we end up wallowing in sadness, and unable to help. Our empathy must stop short of this, so that it becomes a catalyst for us to help those in need.

Mishpatim is a portion that deals largely with social justice and the salvation of the weak from the abuse of the powerful. The Talmud (Megilah 30a) states that wherever God's glory is mentioned, his concern with the lowly is also mentioned. True power is just when it empathizes and concerns itself with the betterment of the weaker strata of society. Perhaps this is the lesson of the laws of טרפה.

Monday, January 21, 2008

An Open Letter to the World

Cross-posted at Chardal.

Cross currents has a post written by R' Avi Shafran responding to the anti-Semitic piece written by Arun Gandhi for the "On Faith" blog. The response is ok but the article by Gandhi brought to my mind a letter written in 1988. In 1988 an open letter to the world was submitted anonymously to various Jewish press outlets. Most of them ran the piece. After the letter was already published, Rav Meir Kahane Zt"l Hy"d came out as the author of the letter at which point all these outlets apologized for running it. Funny how the content of the letter seemed fine to them before they found out who wrote it. In any case, here is the text of the open letter:

Dear World,

It Appears That You Are Hard To Please.

I understand that you are upset over us, here in Israel. Indeed, it appears that you are quite upset, even angry and outraged? Indeed, every few years you seem to become upset over us. Today, it is the brutal repression of the Palestinians; yesterday, it was Lebanon; before that it was the bombing of the nuclear reactor in Baghdad and the Yom Kippur War campaign. It appears that Jews who triumph and who, therefore, live, upset you most extraordinarily. Of course, dear world, long before there was an Israel, we, the Jewish people - upset you. We upset a German people who elected a Hitler and we upset an Austrian people who cheered his entry into Vienna and we upset a whole slew of Slavic nations - Poles, Slovaks, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Russians, Hungarians, Romanians. And we go back a long, long way in the history of world upset. We upset the Cossacks of Chmielnicki who massacred tens of thousands of us in 1648-49; we upset the Crusaders who, on their way to liberate the Holy Land, were so upset at Jews that they slaughtered untold numbers of us. We upset, for centuries, a Roman Catholic Church that did its best to define our relationship through Inquisitions. And we upset the arch-enemy of the Church, Martin Luther, who, in his call to burn the synagogues and the Jews within them, showed an admirable Christian ecumenical spirit.

It is because we became so upset over upsetting you, dear world, that we decided to leave you - in a manner of speaking - and establish a Jewish State.

The reasoning was that living in close contact with you, as resident-strangers in the various countries that comprise you, we upset you, irritate you, disturb you. What better notion, then, than to leave you and thus love you - and have you love us? And so we decided to come home - to the same homeland from which we were driven out 1,900 years earlier by a Roman world that, apparently, we also upset. Alas, dear world, it appears that you are hard to please. Having left you and your Pogroms and Inquisitions and Crusades and Holocausts, having taken our leave of the general world to live alone in our own little state - we continue to upset you.

You are upset that we repress the poor Palestinians. You are deeply angered over the fact that we do not give up the lands of 1967, which are clearly the obstacle to peace in the Middle East. Moscow is upset and Washington is upset.

The Arabs are upset and the gentle Egyptian moderates are upset. Well, dear world, consider the reaction of a normal Jew from Israel. In 1920, 1921 and 1929, there were no territories of 1967 to impede peace between Jews and Arabs. Indeed, there was no Jewish State to upset anybody. Nevertheless, the same oppressed and repressed Palestinians slaughtered hundreds of Jews in Jerusalem, Jaffa, Safed and Hebron. Indeed, 67 Jews were slaughtered one day in Hebron - in 1929. Dear world, why did the Arabs - the Palestinians - massacre 67 Jews in one day in 1929? Could it have been their anger over Israeli aggression in 1967?

And why were 510 Jewish men, women and children slaughtered in Arab riots in 1936-39? Was it because of Arab upset over 1967? And when you, World, proposed a U.N. Partition Plan in 1947 that would have created a Palestinian State alongside a tiny Israel and the Arabs cried and went to war and killed 6,000 Jews - was that upset stomach caused by the aggression of 1967? And, by the way, dear world, why did we not hear your cry of upset, then?

The poor Palestinians who today kill Jews with explosives and firebombs and stones are part of the same people who - when they had all the territories they now demand be given them for their state - attempted to drive the Jewish State into the sea. The same twisted faces, the same hate, the same cry of "idbah-al-yahud" - "Slaughter the Jews!" that we hear and see today, were seen and heard then. The same people, the same dream - destroy Israel. What they failed to do yesterday, they dream of today - but we should not "repress" them..............

Dear world, you stood by the Holocaust and you stood by in 1948 as seven states launched a war that the Arab League proudly compared to the Mongol massacres. You stood by in 1967 as Nasser, wildly cheered by wild mobs in every Arab capital in the world, vowed to drive the Jews into the sea. And you would stand by tomorrow if Israel were facing extinction. And since we know that the Arabs-Palestinians daily dream of that extinction, we will do everything possible to remain alive in our own land. If that bothers you, dear world, well - think of how many times in the past you bothered us. In any event, dear world, if you are bothered by us, here is one Jew in Israel who could not care less.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Democracy? Hah!

Twenty years ago, Rabbi Kahane declared that Israel is a faux-democracy. His claims were bolstered by the harassment and intimidation he suffered at the hands of the police and Shabak.

In the wake of his death, the Zo Artzenu protests highlighted Rabbi Kahane's grim assessment. Moshe Feiglin and other demonstrators who blocked traffic in protest of the Oslo Accords were beaten mercilessly by the Israeli Police. I know this sounds like hyperbole, but it is not: pregnant women were beaten randomly, and old men were trampled by police on horseback. Fathers were beaten while their infants screamed in their arms. It is important to note that these protests were peaceful, and the use of force was unjustified. Further, the force was not used to arrest some wild protester, as it might be in the US. Rather, it was used randomly as a way to intimidate people. The police were saying, "don't protest. If you do, you cannot guarantee your own protection, or the protection of your children."

After Oslo ended, people liked to believe that this was an anomaly. Indeed, the police and Shabak feed into this, and allow people to believe that there is no threat to democracy.

However, history proves otherwise. Demonstrators against the Gaza Disengagement were mercilessly and pointlessly beaten, often when already in handcuffs. We all remember how a group of policemen pounced on one demonstrator and tore his nose off his face by means of fingers inserted in nostrils. Another demonstrator was handcuffed and restrained in a chair at a police station, and then beaten. Hundreds of incidents, meticulously reported to the authorities, and completely ignored. The offending policemen were not tried. On the contrary, some of them received promotions, proving that this policy is approved from the highest brass, down.

Things seem to have come to a head at Amona. In unprecedented brutality, border police and regular police beat and abused the mostly teenage protesters. The video is horrifying, and shows explicitly the passivity of the protesters, as well as the viciousness of the attack dogs called police.

And now, things take their natural path. Anti-government speech, which is a cornerstone of any democracy, is being silenced in Israel with brutal disregard for human and civil rights.

I want you all to remember: We were largely silent when they came to silence Rabbi Kahane. We were silent when Zo Artzenu protesters were beaten. We cannot remain silent any longer. As Pastor Martin Niemöller wrote regarding the greatest evil of human history:

"First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me."

Secular, religious, right, left, it makes no difference. If we care about our right to protest any injustice, we must be willing to fight for each person's right to protest. I believe it was Martin Luther King, Jr. who wrote to the effect that when innocents are in jail, the place of all men and women of conscience is in jail.

Remember, all it takes for evil to succeed is for good to do nothing. We must fight for our right to disagree publicly with the government. If we are willing to trade our principles for that anonymous safety that derives from not 'rocking the boat', we will find ourselves bereft of both principles and safety.

I see a time in which Israel is led, not by jaded bandits and corrupt officers, but by honest, idealistic heroes. I see a time when the marketplace of ideas is broadened, not narrowed. I see a time when the security of Israel and its national pride are second only to fear of Heaven, and not fear of the US or loss of our fighting spirit. I see these days for they are still in our future. We work diligently and faithfully towards that day, and that day is not far off. No pygmy police or menacing Shabak or corrupt Olmerts will stop that future from arriving.

ואשיבה שופטיך כבתחילה ויועציך כראשונה; ציון במשפט תפדה ושביה בצדקה!

We join Yeshayahu is, not only praying, but knowing, that God will indeed replace our judges to be paragons of virtue and justice, and our ministers as in days of yore; Zion shall be redeemed through justice, and those who return, with mercy!

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Yael the Blessed

Since this week's portion contains the שירה, the poem that Moshe and Israel used to express their awe and appreciation of God after he saved them from Egypt, the הפטרה also includes one of the ten great pieces of sung poetry, the song of Devorah (שופטים ד-ה). (Rav Hirsch explains a thematic connection, in that the Jews in the times of the judges constantly vascillated, in peace-time forgetting that their success comes from God who took them from Egypt. The spirit of Devorah, who rescued the Jews, is that of Jewish women, who are the first to reconnect to God when the nation has strayed. Their spirit guides the nation back to Hashem, and brings them to re-accept the Torah, which was the goal of יציאת מצרים.)

One of the heroes of the battle between Sis'ra and Barak was Yael. She offered herself to the Yavinite general, and killed him in her tent. The Talmud (Nazir 23b) states that, "A sin done for the correct reason is as great as a good deed done for ulterior motives, as we learn that 'Yael was blessed more-so than women in the tent,' and that refers to Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah."

This saying always bothered me. How can a sin ever be 'good'? Some explain that, for example, a Kohen may not become impure to bury the dead. However, he must do so for the seven close family members, or a מת מצווה. So, they reason, this is an עבירה לשמה.

I do not find this satisfactory, because the Torah itself stipulates exceptions for the Kohen. Therefore, when he becomes impure, he is not doing an עבירה. On the contrary, he is following the law, which stipulates that he become impure in certain specific cases. This cannot be called an עבירה לשמה, a sin for good reason.

Rabbi Kook in Mishpat Kohen (Ch. 143-144) explains the philosophy behind the piece in Nazir more holistically. He explains that there are certain times that we do go against the Torah, in order to accomplish something, that in the long run, will be to protect it. In the same way, Rabbi Natan says at the end of B'rachot (9:5) that "'הפרו תורתיך, עת לעשות לה." The idea is that, at the behest of a prophet or the Sanhedrin, we are charged with breaking any law temporarily, except idolatry, in order to accomplish a greater good. Thus, Esther and Yael, by committing a sin, acheived the salvation of the nation when it was in dire danger. Rabbi Kook further says that, the salvation of Israel is something that is so clear, so obvious, that one need not receive explicit instructions from a court. One may, instead, act as a שליח, an agent, of the Sanhedrin, and act against the Torah temporarily, in order to save the nation. The concept is one of "שליחותייהו קעבד".

Even though the action becomes a great מצווה, it is still correct to call it a sin, because the action is not sanctioned by any stipulation written in the Torah. It is only permitted (indeed, required) when looking at the larger picture.

Rav Kook's formulation requires the sin to be able to produce immediate salvation to כלל ישראל. Although there is the danger of a slippery slope, we can appreciate the essential demand of a person to sacrifice their innocence on the altar of national protection.

The concept of a sin for good reason, עבירה לשמה, is not really applicable to our daily lives. However, as we read this week's הפטרה, we may come to a deeper appreciation of Yael and her heroic actions on behalf of our nation.

(Thank you to Rabbi Tzvi Haber for pointing out this source. Rabbi Haber's article on the subject is a must-read.)

My Call to Moshe Freidman

Read about the goings-on at Dovbear. Here is my email to him (DB posted it on his blog, as well):

Hi DB,

I called Rabbi Moshe Freidman (057-317-7844) at the number you posted. We spoke twice, and both conversations were in Hebrew. The first time, I told him that I am concerned, becuase I have heard about horrible things in Ramat Beit Shemesh.

He said, "what have you heard?"

I mentioned that I heard of a woman being beaten on a bus for not moving to her 'appropriate' seat. RMF replied at first that he knew nothing about this. I said, "oh, well I am glad, because from what I have heard, there is a big chillul hashem going on."

He then said, "who am I speaking with?" I answered that I am an Israeli presently in Los Angeles, and I am writing an article about what is going on. RMF then revealed that he knows far more than he first let on, by saying, "I will not speak with you from Los Angeles, but I will speak with you in Israel if you like."

I continued to ask questions about the details, and RMF hung up.

I called back and said that I want to get the opinion from the side of the 'pashkvellers' for my article. He again re-iterated that he knows all about the situation, and will only talk to me in Israel. I said, "I don't want to make anyone look bad, I just want the truth. Why can't you talk to me now over the phone, so I can write about it?"

He said he will only meet face to face, and he had a bad experience once with journalists, so he likes to meet face to face. I wonder why.

He also stated that "we don't care what you write about us." I thought the use of the plural first-person pronoun was quite revealing.

That was the end of the call. Who's next?


Wednesday, January 16, 2008

I will Fast Thursday

Read why here.

Also, I would like to applaud Avigdor Leiberman for leaving the government. I am sure I don't know why he joined in the first place, but an overdue resignation is better than none at all. Shas must now leave the government or prove that a unified Jerusalem is not of top importance on their list. In case anyone has any doubts, the battle for Jerusalem has begun. Remember Zechariah 14. May God grant us the strength and fortitude to win.

Also, congratulations are in order to Dr. Kadmon, head of Israel's Child Welfare Council, for recognizing that sleep deprivation, un-needed strip searches, and food deprivation are un-ethical tactics to use on any child, even a settler girl.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Letter to my Community

Dear Community,

It has come to my attention that a Rabbi gave a Sunday class in our Beit Midrash, talking about exile and redemption. I may not have the particulars correct, but the general idea was that the Jewish nation can be in Galut even while in the Land of Israel, and can find Geulah, redemption, even outside its borders. A support was brought from the story of Ya'akov, who found peace and tranquility for the last 17 years of his life, years that were spent in Egypt. Another point was that Galut Yavan was one in which the Jews remained in Israel, and yet it was still referred to as a Galut.

If you will permit, I would like to offer what I believe to be the Torah's views on this subject.

There are two paradigms of exile: spiritual and physical. A father may banish his son from his home physically, or he may allow him to continue to live in his home, but decline to participate in that normal intimacy between father and son -- ignoring him. This is spiritual exile. In a similar way, a Jew -- as an individual, or the nation of Israel -- can feel physical or spiritual estrangement from our Father in Heaven. We can be exiled physically from our beloved home, Eretz Yisrael. However, we can also be spiritually exiled, and, while remaining in the land, lose that intimacy of communion with our God.

Now, physical exile does not have to be simply a banishment from our land. It can also take place while we are in Israel, but are removed from sovereignty. This was the tragic state in the exile of Yavan, where the Jews, while still in Israel, lost their absolute control over Israel. They also found themselves in spiritual exile, with a severance of their special relationship to Hashem.

On the other hand, being outside of the land of Israel is, no matter how you view it, exile. It is God's decision to remove us from our beloved inheritance, to teach us to rethink our actions, national and individual. Although one can find spiritual relationship to God in the exile, it is a primitive kind of relationship, a skeleton of a once-healthy body. Prophecy as a rule does not take place outside of Israel (see Mechilta on Bo, and Talmud in Moed Katan 25a). The Talmud (Bava Batra 158b) states that "the very atmosphere of Israel makes one wise," and this is further evidence that a vibrant, full, Jewish individual or national experience can only be attained in Israel. In Ketubot 110b (and brought by the Rambam as halacha), the Talmud goes even further, to state that "one who lives in Israel lives as if he has a God, but one who dwells outside the land lives as one who has no God." This extreme statement must be taken in context, and understood correctly. I would love to explain it more deeply, but this is not the place. It suffices to realize the importance that is placed upon Jewish vibrancy and culture in the land of Israel.

God sends us away from His land to punish us. How haughty would it be, and how tragically it would miss the point, to claim that one can attain Geula, redemption, outside the mystical power and holiness of Israel!

It is true that Ya'akov found a measure of happiness in Egypt. However, one must pay attention to the fear with which he goes down, and the fact that God appears to Ya'akov, calming him: "Fear not going down to Egypt; I will go down with you, and I will bring you up from there." (B'reshit 46:3-4) Ya'akov's happiness in Egypt for those 17 years does not point to any type of Geula-state; on the contrary, Ya'akov makes Yosef swear to bury him in Israel (partly because of the pain of traveling underground from exile to redemption in the days of the messiah)! Further, the Kabalistic source (Sefer Halikutim) that implies that these 17 years were so good says nothing of redemption in Egypt. It simply takes the gimatria of טוב and finds it to equal 17. Ya'akov's years in Egypt were טוב, good, because he found all his children servants of God, and enjoyed them all together. He was assured of his place in Olam Haba, because all his children were faithful to God (see Rashi on B'reshit 47:31).

It is clear that Israel should be central in all our lives. The Ya'avetz, in his siddur, writes that we Jews face Israel when we pray to show that we wish with all our passion to be there, even if we cannot at this moment. Our focus is Israel, and the building of a utopian society within the Jewish Nation that can function as a light to the rest of the world. If we feel this way, says the Ya'avetz, we have a portion in the mitzvah of living in Israel. However, if we do not truly make Eretz Yisrael a focus in our lives, we are just paying lip service when we say "וקבצנו יחד מהרה מארבע כנפות הארץ לארצנו", "Gather us up quickly from the four corners of the Earth, to our land" (Amida). If we have reasons that we cannot move there immediately, we at least must understand the centrality of Israel as the start and completion of our national redemption, in Jewish thought and practice.

I would like to invite anyone to discuss with me the sources I provide, and if they have any other sources, or ones that seem to disagree, by all means, let us continue the discussion of this and other fundamental tenets of Judaism. May our community, among the holy communities of God's nation, continue to grow in all aspects of Torah, mitzvot, and good deeds.

With honor and respect to all.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Israel's False Friends

The Los Angeles Times’ cartoon that accompanies the editorial, “Israel’s False Friends” is horrifying and reminiscent of Nazi propaganda. The points made in their article show the authors to be at best misguided, but more probably, nefarious.

First, a very brief history is necessary to place things in perspective. British Mandate Palestine included present-day Israel and Jordan. Jordan was originally supposed to be the "Palestinian" state (in quotes because no nation of Palestinians ever existed until after 1947, and the Arabs who claim such heritage never saw themselves as anything other than Muslim Arabs until then). However, when England reneged on their own Balfour Declaration, and turned the status of present-day Israel's fate (including Gaza and the West Bank) over to the UN, the world body decided that three blocs of land, connected by thin strands of territory, be a Jewish state, while the remainder be an Arab state. The Arabs emphatically rejected this "two-state" solution (the very solution being suggested today), and promptly declared their intention to throw the Holocaust surviving Jews into the Mediterranean. Egypt, Syria, Jordan and soldiers from other Arab countries invaded the newly declared State. Israel was able to defend its UN-drawn borders, and Gaza went to Egypt, while the West Bank went to Jordan.

Consider: Egypt and Jordan certainly exerted no effort to set up the "Palestinian State" in their conquered territory, nor did anyone ask them to. It was understood that any territory conquered by an Arab army in Palestine belonged to the conquering state – there was no "Palestine" as a separate national Arab entity.

The Arabs did not suffer defeat well, and in 1967, massed at Israel's borders, explicitly stating their intentions for war, and again, their hopes to throw the Jews into the sea. Not one Jew would be left alive. In the clearest open miracle of two millennia, Israel destroyed its attackers in six breath-taking days, and threw the Egyptians from Gaza, and the Jordanians from the West Bank, and from the beloved Jewish capitol of Jerusalem.

After a few more attempts at war, the Arabs realized that what could not be won by the sword just might be accomplished with an olive branch. Overtures to Israel, requesting "land for peace" were met with interest on Israel's side, a suicidal reminder of just how desperately Jews want to simply be allowed to live in peace. The obvious subterfuge of the Arabs has not been realized yet by Israel or the world.

And so, into this history, Walt and Mearsheimer publish their desire for Israel to cease being an "apartheid state".

Well, here is my response, the response of a person with open eyes and a rational mind. How dare you compare Israel to apartheid South Africa? How dare you trivialize the racism, hate, and destruction that whites inflicted on the black population there by comparing it to the road blocks that are placed at strategic points in the West Bank in order to stop terrorists who are about to murder Jewish babies? The Israeli "occupation" amounts to little more than Israel's attempt to stop murderers before they blow themselves up at shopping malls. These restrictions are further reduced whenever Israeli intelligence detects a hint of a slowing of attacks. Would the United States (or any country) ever deal so gently with a population that proves its intent to destroy them? Certainly not.

The "two state" solution was offered to the Arabs in '47, and they rejected it. Thousands of Jews, the cream of Israel's crop, have died defending Israel from wars instigated by Arabs intent on destroying it. There is no evidence at all that this desire has changed, which would warrant a willingness to "take a chance for peace". On the contrary, the Arabs in Gaza and the West Bank continue to try to kill Jews, even as barriers are lifted and Israel removes itself from those areas. Walt and Mearsheimer claim that Israel still controls Gaza. This is a bold-faced lie. In 2005, Israel "disengaged" from Gaza. What did it get in return? Thousands of mortars, suicide bombers, and full-fledged rockets fired into Israel daily! Does any reader understand the enormity of this? Death, destruction, and fear instilled in citizens of Ashkelon, Sderot, only after Israel evacuates Gaza! Every few months, the range and precision of Arab missile attacks gets better. If this is the Arab response to complete control over Gaza, we shudder to think what will be in store if they ever control more.

Israel owes the Arabs and the world nothing in the way of "land for peace". It is a self-destructive move that has and will continue to cost Israeli lives, and advance nothing but Arab confidence in their ability to destroy Israel.

Finally, the "plight of the Palestinians". If the Arabs in Gaza (and the West Bank) were to put down their weapons tomorrow, their plight would cease to exist. On the other hand, if Israel were to halt its defensive roadblocks and incursions to capture known terrorists, it would cease to exist.

It is clear that what the Arabs want is the destruction of Israel – not the establishment of a 23rd Arab state.

Mazal Tov!

Join me in wishing a מזל טוב to Chardal and his wife, on the birth of a baby girl!

יהי רצון שתזכו לגדלה לתורה, לחופה, ולמעשים טובים!

May it be His will that you merit to raise her steeped in our Holy Torah, good deeds, and as the newest link in the chain of Jews in Eretz Yisrael.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Va'erah and Pride

A few weeks ago, I was re-reading William Blake's Songs of Innocence. It struck me immediately, as it did back in high school, what a tremendous change the age of the Enlightenment was from Blake's romantic work. For example, Alexander Pope's mock-epic Rape of the Lock is full of overt cynicism and sub-conscious hubris, whereas the Songs exude pastoral equanimity and acceptance of humanity's place in a deity-driven world.

It struck me that this contrast, that of humility set against human haughtiness, is also brought to the fore by the Torah in our portion. Whereas God testifies (Bamidbar 12:3) that Moshe was "more humble than any other," Pharaoh was clearly a haughty fellow: "Who is God that I must obey his commands? I do not know Him, nor shall I set his people free."(Sh'mot 5:2) In the Haftarah (Yechezkel 29:1), this is taken even further, as Pharaoh sees himself as a "great serpent", who claims that he created the very Nile in which he resides! The various midrashim teach that He viewed himself as a God, ruled by no one, ruling over all. Malbim sees haughtiness in Pharaoh's dream to Yosef in פרשת מקץ, when he dreams himself standing "over" the Nile.

This contrast is a gulf. R' Salanter has been quoted as saying that it is easier by far to master the Talmud and its commentaries, than to change one character trait. Pride and haughtiness are symptoms of a deeper inability to accept the mastery of another over oneself. Therefore, Pharaoh was unable and unwilling to entertain the possibility that there exists a God that is in complete control over all that Pharaoh believes himself to command.

Therefore, when Moshe, at God's word, comes before Pharaoh, his first sign is to throw down his staff. It becomes a serpent, threatening the lives of those around it. Rav Hirsch explains a profound symbolism at work here: A staff is an object which a man will rely upon, making himself more steady. A snake, on the other hand, is mankind's first enemy. After enticing Chava to sin, God placed strong revulsion between Man and Snake: "הוא ישופך ראש, ואתה תשופנו עקב." The message of Moshe's sign is clear: that tool which Man trusts can, at God's behest, become his mortal enemy. This was a clear message to the king of Egypt: everything upon which you rely, I can not only destroy, but turn into something that you fear. Yet, Pharaoh did not learn the lesson. His pride dismissed the wondrous sign as inconsequential, and set the stage for the ten plagues.

A person who maintains his natural humility at the sight of the world around him is able to accept God's kingdom upon himself. In fact, his understanding that his actions are simply hishtadlut which God allows to succeed leads to inner-peace; ultimately, he is not responsible for the results of his attempts. He only does his best, and delivers the situation into the domain of the all-powerful God.

In contrast, haughtiness is a trait that demands a person feel in control at all times. The idea that a greater power exists that laughs at a prideful person's plans is an anathema to that person. Pharaoh was such a person. He had to be seen as a God to his subjects, and he went so far as to convince himself of this. And so, Pharaoh could not learn the lesson of the snake-stick, and he held on until his very life was at stake, during the death of the first-born.

In the Moreh, the Rambam makes it clear that miracles are not a suspension of the laws of nature. On the contrary, miracles are woven into the very fabric of creation (think of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle or, on a larger scale, Chaos Theory). The essence of a miracle is not its occurrence so much as its timing. Science can explain how the Reed Sea split. However, the נס was that it split at the right time to rescue the Jews.

The Ramban, on the other hand, likes to view nature itself as a constant miracle that God validates at every moment. He says (at the end of בא), "from famous wonders, a person admits of the hidden miracles which are the foundation of the entire Torah ... we believe that all occurrences are miracles, nothing is [simply] nature and the way of the world." Rambam, of course, would agree that the purpose of the Egypt-type miracle is to call Man's attention to God. Just as we see God explicitly in His wonders, so can we experience God in the seeming mundanities of everyday life.

Back to Pope and Blake. With the advent of the scientific method, the Enlightenment went through a stage of intense Pharaoh-hubris, and it was evident in their literature. People saw Science as the source of all knowledge, and the epic glory of God was scorned as an ancient cult of the know-nothings. It took time for the rationalist to realize that science may tell us 'how,' but it gives us nothing of 'why'. That is the realm of the spirit, of God.

In modern times, we do not have to be romantics to believe in God and submit our actions to His will. A scientist may explain the sea splitting, or the river turning to blood, but it does not have to take away from the glory of the נס -- its timing or its occurrence. However, we can choose to be obstinate, and see everything as natural occurrences with no divine hand in our lives. It is up to us, much as it was up to Pharaoh.

I cannot close without pointing out an interesting connection between the parasha and the haftarah. God tells Moshe, using the famous four concepts of redemption (Sh'mot 6:6): "I am the Lord. I will bring you out from under the burdens of Egypt, and will deliver you from their slavery. I will redeem you with an out-stretched arm, and great punishing judgements. I will take you to me as a nation..." However, the next verse adds another language of גאולה: "And I will bring you to the land," which I swore to give to your forefathers. This speaks of the ultimate goal of the redemption and giving of the Torah, which is to live a life of Torah in Israel, becoming a light unto the nations.

The haftarah begins with the same sentiment. To the broken Jews, suffering in their exile, God commands Yechezkel to say (28:25): "Thus saith the Lord God: When I gather the house of Israel from the people amongst whom they have been scattered, and shown Myself through them [to the world] in my Holiness before the eyes of the nations, they shall dwell in their land which I have given my servant Jacob. They will dwell in it without worry. They will build houses and plant vineyards and live in security; while I execute judgement uppon all those around them who threaten to raid them. They will recognize that I am the Lord, their God."

Only in the context of Jews being willing to uproot their lives (and character traits) and rise up, fulfilling God's will for our destiny, can the redemption from Egypt as well as the deliverance from our present exile culminate in everlasting success and peace.