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Rabbi's Weekly Message

June 16 - Rabbi Rosenblatt's message is a podcast on this week's parsha, Korach.

 

June 2 - Rabbi Rosenblatt's message is a podcast on this week's parsha,  Beha'Alotcha.

 

Bamidbar-Nasso - May 25

Dear Chaverim,

 I am compelled to explain the length of this message. As I looked over my weekly readings of the past five years, I found that they were very often rooted in the news cycle and I wanted to approach the Torah attempting to provide a reading that was not rooted only in a particular moment. In this longer message, Terry Neiman and I attempt to understand both a peculiarity of Torah narrative and its profound implications.

In Vayikra, the book of the Torah that we recently completed in the weekly reading cycle, there was plenty of compelling storytelling and lawgiving. Now, in Bamidbar, the Torah seems to devote an inordinate amount of its text to genealogy and census. We, the generation of YouTube, have trouble coping with such a lack of action.

If one were to take a survey of rabbis' sermons on the Shabbat of Parshat Bamidbar, one would likely find very little about the census. They might speak about the Haftorah and its statement that Israel cannot be quantified. They might speak about the upcoming holiday of Shavuot, but you could count on them having little to say about the repeated presentation of a census.

There is a census presented in Shemot Chapter 38, and there are full lineages of the children of Israel presented in the Book of Chronicles and earlier in Shemot. Despite a lack of interest in sermonizing about censuses, the Tanach never seems to tire of presenting statistics on the Children of Israel. Why? What, I wonder, is the place of such tedium in the timelessness of the Torah.

I first looked to see if I could find some context. How were genealogies and censuses used in the ancient world? What would the Jews at the foot of Mount Sinai have expected had they read the lists of Bamidbar?   

The best I could discern was that some ancient texts use genealogies as the legitimation of authority. Often the king's lineage and period of reign would be presented at the beginning of a text. Such presentations happen often among the later prophets: "These are the words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiahu of the Kohanim of Anatot in the Land of Benjamin"; "The word of Gd came to me in the days of Yoshiahu son of Amon."

Here in Bamidbar are the first chapters of the life and history of this nation. However, there is no earthly king to use as reference. Israel will not have a king for another 350 years. The enumeration of the tribes is a way of establishing a nation of leaders, equality, and proto-democracy. This is announced by naming the clans where the name of the king and his ancestors is typically found. Yet, census in place of monarch still would not explain the repetition of nearly identical material in chapters 22 and 23 of the Book of Bamidbar.

Perhaps we need to approach the Book of Bamidbar like Dan Brown's book of the Da Vinci Code. Where Brown develops his tension in the need to decipher a code that results in the discovery of a bloodline, our information is not disguised at all. It hides in plain sight. Brown channels a fetish of human society's search for celebrity as if it were the ultimate search for meaning. All this unfolds through the discovery of a lineage that leads back to Gd. As drama, it is compelling storytelling. However, in the end, it is mostly about power and intrigue.

The most basic version of celebrity fetish is the Kim Kardashian effect, where one is famous for being famous. It is precisely because Kim Kardashian gets so much attention that people uncritically take her to be important. However, celebrity fetishism is an inversion of the notion of royalty. We are supposed to be skeptical of Kim's importance, even to mock it. On the other hand, the royals of England once claimed Divine status. That is now represented figuratively in the Queen's title of Supreme Governor of the Church of England.   

This past week's wedding of Prince Harry to a commoner is elevated by its royal status, but only because the Windsors' predecessors were once connected to Divine greatness. By comparison a total claim to be descended from Gd would render the royals of England untouchable in the caste hierarchy.

Connection to Gd is the ultimate in connection to something enduring as opposed to the waning importance of the royals. Those carrying Gd's DNA, as it were, are not connected merely to something that was once important, but to the source of meaning itself. Celebrity is a social construct, and our search for celebrity is simply a substitute for the need to find a meaningful, tangible connection to something eternal.

The search for tangible meaning is the Torah's enterprise in the first chapters of Bamidbar. Rashi establishes the motivation for these statistics beyond pure utility. He tells us that the census appears often for a simple reason, a family reason.

מתוך חיבתן לפניו מונה אתם כל שעה, כשיצאו ממצרים מנאן וכשנפלו בעגל מנאן לידע

מנין הנותרים כשבא להשרות שכינתו בתוכם מנאם (אצלנו) באחד בניסן הוקם המשכן ובאחד באייר מנאם. Because of His love [for the Children of Israel] Gd counted them at every hour. When they left Egypt He counted them. After the fallen of the Golden Calf He counted them to know the number of survivors. At the installation of the Divine Presence He counted them, and at the consecration of the Tabernacle He counted them, and again at the first of the month of Iyar He counted them.

Gd counts the Jewish people like Bubbe reviews the family photo album. It is a ritual visitation with those who are not only family but an extension of one's self.  

This idea of the Jews as Gd's family was best developed by Michael Wyschogrod - who is one the most profound Orthodox philosophers of the past 35 years. Wyschogrod takes on no less a giant than Maimonides. He claims that Maimonides has made Gd too abstract, unrelatable and "unbiblical and ultimately dangerous to the Jewish faith." I pause here to give him credit for trying to save the faithful, though dethroning Maimonides might stir controversy.

The argument goes that the Torah describes Gd in very human terms - i.e., with human emotions, a strong hand, and an outstretched arm, a face, etc. - only metaphorically. Maimonides took the position that it was wrong to speak of Gd as human. However, Maimonides was steeped in the classics - Aristotle - and in the predominant Islamic philosophers of Medieval Spain and Egypt. His ultra-rational Aristotelian descriptions leave Gd distant and emotionally remote. However, we humans are acutely social creatures. We are built to form relationships, and have emotions and attachments that are accessible to us and are concrete.

It has been instilled in us that Gd cannot be described in human terms. This is largely because of the great influence of Maimonides. However, this principle of faith has been understood more flexibly today. Marc Shapiro thoughtfully addresses Maimonides and his critics, to help us to concretely understand what Maimonides argues is entirely metaphor. This brings us closer to a less strained and still honest understanding of biblical language. Gd becomes more proximate, even tangible, more a part of our lives.

The ability to relate to a Gd in the flesh, the so-called incarnation of Gd, is what has made Christianity attractive. The Christian construction of Gd transformed into human flesh is a relationship that many faithful Christians will speak of in the same way they speak of a grandparent or a close confidant. As Jews, we shy away from such sentiments. The fear is that we spent many centuries avoiding such a theology, because we were busy differentiating ourselves from the Christians. It is true that sometimes we labor so hard not to be someone else that we forget to be ourselves. Wychogrod argues that Judaism strayed from the truth of its own theology because we were laboring to avoid Christian reasoning.

Wyschogrod's conception is that Gd entered the tangible world by means of the Jewish people. He categorically rejects the idea that God is in the body of Israel. He explains Gd is not in us like a book is in a briefcase; Gd is in us like the soul is in the body. Wyshogrod is engaging because he makes Gd more proximate and tangible. His interpretation of Gd is compelling for three reasons. (1) He provides an honest reading of the Chumash. (2) He gives a similar interpretation of the Kabbalah. (3) He breathes renewed purpose into our historical role as the chosen people.

The title of Wyschogrod's book, The Body of Faith: God in the People Israel,sums up his central argument. Gd manifests in this world through the Children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He describes this relationship as "Gd is with the people of Israel... Gd is in Israel... Israel is the holy family," and "Israel is the sanctification of natural family."   

The point is that, according to the masters of Kabbalah, Gd withdrew from this world in order to create it. However, a world without Gd is untenable. So, Gd had to re-introduce Gd into the world through revelation. The descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob came to embody Gd's (re)entrance to the world. According to Wyschogrod, "the existence of this people is the medium by means of which Gd enters the universe."

The implications for Jews in this conceptualization of Gd are profound. We are attached to Gd. We are married to Gd. We are Gd's children and family. We cannot abdicate those roles any more than children can disown the DNA that they got from their parents. By being in the world and being essentially connected to Gd, we are responsible for maintaining Gd's presence in the world.

If we are Gd's real-life holy family, like Brown's fictional society of the Da Vinci code, then our connection to Gd is both genealogical and tangible. Our cyclic return to census-taking through the Torah reading makes perfect sense. It is how we locate ourselves on the world's genealogical map. It is how we begin to trace the path of the Divine into our lives. The Torah's census figures are the baseline for a particular genealogy that begins with Abraham. Wyschogrod writes, "the essential belonging to the people of election is derived from descent from the Patriarchs. The election of Israel is therefore a corporeal election. One result of this is this is that a Jew cannot resign his election."

We are also forced to reconcile our discomfort with ourselves as a kind of celebrity nation known as the "Chosen People." This title is too often misunderstood. People who think it means that we are better than others, or are exempt from the laws of nations do not understand our chosenness. They confuse chosenness with the false privilege that the public confers on celebrities.

If the Jewish people are to be a holy family, we must be different. This is a status we must reckon with. Our reckoning is almost all responsibility and no authority. And certainly no privilege. Unlike the royals - who claimed authority over others because of their divine election - the Jew has a greater responsibility to respect and be deferential to others, and to strangers. Jews must be respectful to others because Jews represent Gd in this world. Others do not have to be respectful of Jews. Our chosenness requires us earn respect by living up to the concept of Divine election.  

When I was younger I had always hoped for a universal Judaism. I expected it to speak to all as it spoke to me. However, I have come to see universality as distant, sterile, and unmotivating. I am ever more aware of my own need for connections, for tangibility, for proximity. I know I am not alone in this need for connection because I notice that people show up to shul at bat mitzvahs because they have a personal connection to the family. They come for Yizkor because they have a personal connection to their parents. However they absent themselves from the Torah requirement to pray - which is in essence to appear before the Creator of the universe. Perhaps if we felt more connected to Gd, we might engage with Gd as family. In search of this connection, I am learning to reread the first chapters of Bamidbar as my own family album.

Good Shabbos.

Rabbi Andy Rosenblatt

 

Torah-nomics May 11

Several years ago, when my family visited Sweden, our tour guide mentioned that the income of every Swede is published annually in the tax registry. It seemed as if Sweden was populated by a different sort of human from any I have ever known. This is probably because I am mainly acquainted with two groups of people: Jews and North Americans. Both groups consider their personal income to be a private matter.

American attitudes are shaped by the Puritans - Protestants who emigrated from England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They believed that wealth is a sign of Gd's favour for those who are good. They also valued modesty and frugality. Since Gd loves those who work hard, industriousness and the sweat of one's brow became synonymous with virtue. This was the embrace of a work ethic that fostered the image of the self-made man. A value of thrift is woven into the American psyche. Benjamin Franklin wrote, "remember a patch on your coat and money in your pocket, is better and more creditable, than a writ on your back, and no money to take it off."

Then there is the Jewish discomfort. I wonder how much of Jewish discomfort with public disclosure of money is a by-product of the anti-Semitic stereotype of Shylock. In our own circles there may be a sense of distrust about how much each of us contributes to the welfare of the community. Shalom Aleichem once characterized this as a shlock market, wherein two Jews get together to decide how much a third Jew is worth and how much he or she should donate to charity.

There is some solid social science around our discomfort with money. Apparently, among the sensitive topics of money, death, religion, and politics, money is regarded as the most distasteful. On the other hand, the Torah speaks with consistent clarity about wealth and its use. There are over 100 different mitzvot that deal with wealth and its proper use, from tithing income, to interest-free loans, to periodic forgiveness of debt.

Even on a meta-level the Torah signals its comfort with wealth. Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov are all reported to have gained great wealth. Solomon's wealth is reported as legendary in his time. Forswearing material goods and the asceticism of poverty is clearly not the Torah's ideal.

The Torah also understands that wealth is a factor that shapes society. The mitzvot set out in this week's parsha are some of the most impactful. They include the rules of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. In the land of Israel, the Torah prescribes that every seventh year is a sabbatical year, during which the orchards have public access, and the grain and vegetable fields are left fallow. Furthermore, at the end of the Sabbatical year all debts are forgiven.

The Jubilee year adds a profound detail. At the end of the Jubilee the fields revert to the ownership of the tribes as originally set out by Joshua. For example, the Azrieli family might have fallen on hard times and come to sell its fields to their neighbors the Yishee family. Over the next 40 years, the Yishee family continued to amass wealth by leasing out the same field in a sharecropping arrangement. As of Yom Kippur in the Sabbatical year a reset was declared and the Yishee family had to release the field back to the surviving relatives of the Azrieli family.

A recent book by Stanford professor Walter Scheidel helps to put this system into striking new light. Scheidel comes to the subject of wealth and wealth distribution as a scholar of ancient history. His deepest insight is that periods of great stability inevitably lead to greater inequality. He notes that there are four different types of events that will lead to a restoration of equality: war, revolution, state collapse, and plague. For those worried about some kind of Marxist agenda here, Scheidel ­- who is very data-driven - points out that inequality does not always lead to war. For example, the economic disparities in 18th century England, Norway, the Netherlands, Italy, and Spain were as pronounced as in France, but only the French had a revolution. The focus of his observation is not on class struggle, but on how markets behave. He concludes that a market left alone will perforce result in vast wealth differences.

Two valuable elements of modern civilization are highly correlated with driving inequality. One is technology. From farming to Facebook, technologies have a way of enhancing the wealth of the best developers and managers and leaving others far behind. The other is democracy. Democracies, even as they promote political equality, produce the greatest economic inequality. They tend to be more stable and peaceful than other societies. Peace and stability promote economic growth. Economic growth promotes income disparity.

Although Scheidel connects economic growth with disparity, his critique is not Marxist. I found it interesting that Scheidel argues that inequality is necessary in a healthy economy. It stimulates competition, rewards innovation, and promotes hard work. One of the best examples of why communism does not work is in the ultimate failure of the Maoist economic system of China. Post-Mao, a little healthy competition stimulated growth and prevented starvation. For example, in the contract of Xiaogang, farmers made a secret pact in 1978 to adopt a little capitalism into the communist economy. Since then, China's government has embraced this model to become the world's second largest economy.

The ancient middle east was filled with groups that had joint ownership of property. That included the Dead Sea Sect, according to some early Christian writings. However, the Torah never required relinquishing all property to a commune. Nor did the Torah forbid the accumulation of property.

Does the Torah endorse capitalism? Or, is its economic ideal a consequence of Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge? As it is written, "by the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread." Perhaps there is little difference between capitalism and Torah-nomics, as each allows one to enjoy the fruits of one's labor.

In that light, the resetting of land ownership in the Jubilee year is especially interesting. The system of controlling wealth is not socialist or communist. Rather, it is a capitalist system that restricts disparity through time limitations on the accumulation of capital.

There are two important and interrelated principles of the Torah that drive the massive restructure of the Jubilee year. The first is the Torah's aversion to slavery in all forms. The Torah is well aware of how quickly economic shortfalls could lead to debt, which can lead to slavery. Its verses poetically announce the reversal of capital acquisition as follows. "And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land for all her inhabitants. It is a Jubilee, and each shall return to his portion and to his family he shall return."

The idea of liberty is conjoined with the return of land to original divisions. This reveals that the Torah views the kind of economic disparities that accumulate as being akin to slavery. Furthermore, as the Rambam records at the end of the 10th chapter of the laws of the Sabbatical and Jubilee, all forms of indenture are released on Yom Kippur of the Jubilee year.

The second principle is the triangle of ownership. In Jewish thinking, all property belongs to Gd. Humans have a lease agreement that allows for their use of that property. The lease agreement mandates that we use the property appropriately. Wealth is not bad, it is not shameful, it is not even a failure of character. Wealth is both a benefit and a responsibility.

These concepts are expressed in the mitzvot themselves. Gd commands that land should not be sold in perpetuity in circumvention of the Jubilee because, "the land is Mine, and you are but strangers and residents thereon, with me" (Vayikra 25:23). The chapters that follow are even more strict about this. "If you do not listen and do not perform the mitzvot... I will scatter you among the nations... the land will be desolate... then the land will have its sabbatical." In today's tenancy language, this means we would be evicted for failure to meet the occupancy requirements.

Throughout the book of Devarim, the Torah reinforces the idea of the conditional relationship to the land of Israel. The idea that wealth really belongs to Gd is reinforced by the many mitzvot which require one to tithe or donate before personal consumption, such as terumah, the omer, and the taking of challah.

The role of individual liberty as the most important aspect of Gd's economic vision can be seen in Jeremiah chapter 34. Here, the wealthy release their slaves in an elaborate ceremony patterned after Gd's land pact with Abraham known as "the covenant of the parts." The owners restore freedom to the indentured so they can be conscripted into the ranks of Jerusalem's defenders. However, as the military threat to Jerusalem appears to abate, the wealthy renege and re-appropriate the slaves. This betrayal of the freedom as it is guaranteed by Gd and stipulated in the occupancy agreement on the land of Israel is the most direct and immediate cause of exile. The land will not abide slavery. Slavery is the stench of Egypt.

We are equipped to be comfortable with our material wealth, if we first recognize that we are but the temporary stewards of Gds possessions. It is ok to have a Rolex, as long as you regard it as a rental. It can enhance your wardrobe without having to stroke your ego.

More subtlety, wealth is not meant to divide, stratify, or enslave. It is a vehicle for progress and social cohesion. The laws of lending - laid out again in Parshat Behar - are presented as a way of allowing others to live with you וחי אחיך עמך. In other words, excess capital is a vehicle to bring another along with you economically. If you can afford two Rolexes, maybe owning one is enough. That second $10K might be better spent investing in a business that gives a struggling neighbour gainful employment.

Parshat Behar presents this lesson largely in the positive voice. It lists a set of laws that are meant to allow for healthy use of wealth, for competition, and that ensure the preservation of economic and political freedom. However, the Tanach and the rabbis present cautionary tales as well.

One such cautionary tale is the story of the tribes of Reuven, Gad, and half of Menashe. They came into great wealth after the defeat of Sichon, King of the Emori. They requested the right to settle east of the Jordan because they had too many flocks to be supported by land in Israel proper. The distance between Reuven and his fellow tribes is seen only a few generations later. Deborah, in the book of Judges decries, "why did you sit between the folds of the bleating sheep?" This implies that they also failed to come to the aid of their brethren in distress. The rabbis are no less harsh. In the Midrash Rabbah in Bamidbar, the rabbis tell us the following.

וכן אתה מוצא בבני גד ובני ראובן שהיו עשיריםוהיה להם מקנה גדול וחבבו את ממונם וישבו להם חוץ מארץ ישראל לפיכך גלו תחלה מכל השבטים - we find that the Gad and Reuven were wealthy and had much livestock and they loved their money, and they settled outside of the land of Israel, therefore they were the first to be exiled.

Economic distance builds physical distance, which leads to isolation and separation.

I believe that part of the guilt associated with the signs of wealth is a product of how we have set up so many ways to enjoy wealth privately. Modern technology facilitates this with fancier watches, more private screens, and more personal space in larger homes with fewer occupants. To those homes we have added gates and fences to secure our wealth. We have ended up isolating ourselves from others more than we have insulated ourselves from crime. I am not suggesting that private spaces are sinful. Rather, my point is that we should be cognizant that the Torah sees wealth as something lent by Gd for the purpose of creating community, unity, and destratification. We need to be aware of how living in the wealthiest society in history is reshaping our social habits, and doing so in a way entirely against the Torah's vision of wealth.


Emor - Part 1
May 4

Gregg Popovich is one of the most successful basketball coaches of all time. He is the only coach to win nearly 1,200 games with a single franchise. He has won five NBA championships with the same team. One of the secrets of Popovitch's success is simple. He eats dinner with the team on a regular basis. He is famous for his passion for using food and wine to create a team bond. On more than one occasion Popovitch left a $5,000 tip for an $800 meal. That seems more like a sacred offering than a gratuity.

The NBA is full of primadonna superstars. More than a few are indispensable, and they know it. Their teams have to conform to the individualism of those superstars. What makes Popovich's team stand out is their ability to coordinate teamwork among individuals and individualistic stars.

North America was conquered by settlers with a spirit of rugged individualism. After nearly 300 years of such independence, there is new discussion of the resurgence of groups. The group, the tribe, family, social network, and the village are finding renewed significance because of the recognition of the corrosive effects of loneliness in our cities (Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging).

Others have found that human groups have a profound advantage over the groups of other animals. We are weaker than gorillas, less agile than chimps, and slower than cougars and gazelles. However, we have the power to communicate to coordinate our efforts.

The negative side of our unique ability to cooperate in our against other species is our tendency to cooperate against one another. This is perhaps most entrenched in the 'us versus them' politics that has come to dominate the world of human affairs, from populism and nativism in Europe, to the almost tribal divide between Democrats and Republicans in the United States.  

The crucial, defining feature of group coordination is the transmission and sharing of information. In particular, all successful groups have an organizing story, a narrative that aligns the members in common purpose. Group narratives promote safety among the members and provide a template for critical feedback and the exchange of reliable information. A group narrative enforces a kind of information quality control in a world where fake news travels at the speed of light.

Chapter 23 of Vayikra, the heart of Parshat Emor, is the blueprint for Jewish group and community cooperation. This chapter, sometimes called the 'Chapter of the Holidays', follows the introduction of a number of laws about the special status and duties of the Kohanim or priests. Chapter 23 serves as an important balance to laws that distinguish one group from the rest. Fundamentally, it organizes the calendar holiday by holiday. It is a metronome, a drum beat that synchronizes the story of the Jewish people.

Rav Yoel Bin Nun points out that there are two simultaneous storylines in the delineation of the holiday calendar. To continue the metaphor, there are two rhythm sections playing complementary, but distinct, lines. One line provides harmony between various holidays and the natural-agricultural cycle. In the spring there is the reaping festival - חג הקציר. In late spring comes the festival of first fruits - חג ביכורים. Fall brings the harvest festival - חג האסיף. Then, the cycle repeats. In the other rhythm line, the holidays emphasize the arc of the Jewish people's proud and providential history.

As we sit 3500 years into the arc of our historical narrative, we hardly recognize the novelty of our cooperative national holiday institutions. Prof. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi in his seminal work Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, points out that the Torah introduced to the world the notion of national days when we relive defining moments in a collective story. The American 4th of July, Canada Day, Bastille Day, and Remembrance Day and Veterans Day owe this chapter of the Torah an immense debt of gratitude.

A profound concept of national or group identity as a product of shared history is born in this chapter's description of the calendar. Millenia after the Torah was delivered, European nationalists will struggle with the definition of nation even as nationalism emerges as a passionate idea in Europe. In 1882 the French historian Ernest Renan delivered a famous lecture at the Sorbonne in which he rejected borders as a defining feature of nations. He argued that borders move far too often. He rejected language as a defining feature, because of Belgium which speaks Flemish, French, and German. Renan determined that what defines a nation is a shared history and a shared sense of future.

Rav Yoel Bin Nun understands that the Torah is making exactly this point. The national organizing principles and events transpired outside the borders of Israel. The Nation of Israel is born in Egypt, a foreign land. It is not borders that form the nation, but rather history and a relationship with Gd that forms our national identity.  

Our holiday rituals - the matzah on Passover, the hut of Sukkot - not only remind us of our history, they attach our narrative to our identity. This identity has been strong enough to hold up through centuries of exile. It has united a nation scattered from Estonia to Ethiopia, from Poland to Persia. Who could doubt that part of the secret of our survival is our success as storytellers?

One of the key elements of that story is food and how we share it. The importance of sharing food can be seen in the management style of Gregg Popovich. Gregg Popovich is not only the best dinner host in the NBA, he is also the most unfiltered and blunt critic to his players. Daniel Coyle, the author of The Culture Code, the Secret of Highly Successful Groups, believes that Popovich is able to share tough criticism because he builds trust at the dinner table.

Coyle's central argument is that successful groups have three key ingredients. First, they provide safety and connection to their members. Second, they share accurate information. Third, they have a guiding principle. This guiding principle is a central narrative that all the members believe in and are committed to.

The Torah mandates that our stories and meals be co-mingled. We tell the story of the exodus while eating matzah. We remember the journey through the desert while sitting in the sukkah. We don't just tell stories, we live them. We learn by doing. Telling the story and feeling Gd's redemption and protection are intimately connected. There is also a third element in the presentation of the holidays in Parshat Emor; the food sharing must extend beyond one's closest kin, with equality maintained throughout.

There is not a holiday in Chapter 23 that does not specify the suspension of all work. For us in the modern world this might feel like a nuisance. It prevents us from the use of automobiles, cell phones, and microwave ovens. That disrupts the rhythms or our everyday lives. However, in the more ancient context of the grand arc of our history, it means the end of servile labor, the end of us serving other masters as their slaves.

The overlay - the narrative theme - of every holiday is a remembrance of Egypt and a rejection of the servitude that was endemic to that stratified society. This is an affirmation that Torah is the gift of two kinds of freedom: freedom topursue liberty in the Divine plan, and freedom from constraints that might stand between us and fulfillment of that plan.   These freedoms become fully mature only in the context of a group identity that provides safety, care, and meaning.

My time on Sabbatical has offered me the opportunity to explore subjects more deeply. Look for more on Parshat Emor and the concluding chapters of Leviticus in the weeks to come.

Israel at 7o or 3500 - April 13

Dear Chaverim

This week we will celebrate 70 years since Israel officially declared itself to be the Jewish State. If at 65 people mark retirement, and 70 - 90 represents a lifetime, then one cannot deny that this milestone must push us to ask ourselves about Israel's place in our own lives.

For me, the existence of the State of Israel is a gift. It represents more than just a nation state, like our own France or Italy. It is the manifestation of a 3,500-year mission. We - the children of Israel - were gifted a new national identity with the Torah at Sinai.

Our law, character, mission, and survival have been both brilliant and miraculous. I daresay that our Jewishness and our Judaism is the most valuable thing that any of us possesses. We take personal responsibility to keep Torah alive so as not to be the last link in the chain from Sinai. Many are obsessed, even phobic about losing Jewish identity. Maybe phobic is the wrong term because phobia is an irrational fear. Maybe not. According to the Pew Portrait of Jewish Americans and subsequent analysis by demographer Steven Cohen , Judaism lives under a verifiable statistical threat in the diaspora.

The State of Israel has a role to play in the future and survival of the 3500-year enterprise of Judaism and Torah. Yet, modern Israel's birth and its maturity may serve different purposes. At birth, one could argue, Israel was a refuge for Jews everywhere. The urgency of such purpose was warranted by the Holocaust in Europe and by the riots, killings, and pogroms that affected Jews in Arab lands, including pre-1948 Palestine. As a mature state, Israel's mandate has expanded into an opportunity to shine a light unto all other nations. No nation, it seems, is held to as high a standard as Israel.

I found myself in emotional whiplash reading the words of Labor Zionist Yosef Haim Brenner, that the Jew is a panicky, fearful man with no resources and no clear orientation in life (Eliezer Schweid, "The Rejection of the Diaspora in Jewish Life"). Brenner's portrait of the Jew is far removed from the one depicted in the opening chapters of the celebrated book Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle. It tells the story of the chutzpah of the Israeli division of Intel browbeating senior management into embracing what would become the future of computing: parallel processing. The reputation of Israel's tech sector is anything but panicky, fearful, or disoriented. It is a light unto the nation of high-tech.

The same point is made by Rabbi Menachem Ben Tzion Sacks z"l, who understands "my father was a wandering Aramean..." in the confession of the landowners who bring first fruits to the temple as an act of thanking Gd for the land of Israel. The confession begins with the words וענית ואמרת לפני יהוה אלהיך­- which Rashi interprets as raising [one's] voice. Rabbi Sacks says that the Jew has been able to raise his/her voice in Israel in ways that were not possible in Europe. We are free to express critically and openly. We are free to speak out, not merely to speak.

In short, Israel has been the bulwark against persecution, anti-Semitism, and the suppression of Jewish voice and opportunity. Yet, I believe that anti-Semitism is not now our greatest problem. Reflecting on my 18 years as a rabbi in North America, I am convinced that the once-thriving Jewish life in North America is now challenged, outmatched, and overwhelmed by assimilation.

Historically, it is a fundamental sociological truth that majority cultures assimilate minority cultures.  Judaism miraculously survived as a minority in numerous diasporas in Babylon, Christendom, and the Caliphate. However, each of those worlds placed its own barriers to Jewish citizenship and full participation in society. In each case, the vast majority of Jews who would not assimilate migrated out.

North America has no barriers that compare with forced conversions, inquisitions, or restrictions on land ownership. Jews can and do serve on supreme courts, own major sports franchises and win Nobel Prizes in Physics, Medicine, Chemistry, Literature, and Economics. Adam Sandler's Hanukkah songs celebrate the holiday that fights assimilation by naming Jewish celebrities: David Lee Roth (Van Halen), Bowser (from Sha Na Na), and David Schwimmer (Ross) and Lisa Kudrow (Phoebe) from Friends. It is even acceptable for the daughter of the President of the United States to be a Jew.

In our world Jews are allowed to enter every facet of society. My observation is that many who engage in the mainstream culture leave their Judaism behind. At the very least, they leave their Judaism stuffed in a closet. Judaism might be working hard against assimilation, but to be honest, we must admit that it is being swallowed. We were once 3% of the population. We are now 2%.  

Not only are we assimilating, we are also shrinking. Jewish families are having fewer children and are seven years older than the average American family. The only religious group with a lower birthrate than the Jews of North America is liberal Protestants. This brings us to our next diaspora issue: the cost of maintaining Jewish identity in an assimilationist society.

In our good fight we have built an impressive infrastructure of Jewish schools, camps, and community organizations. However, these are very expensive organizations to run and even more expensive to participate in. In forum after forum, I have heard discussions about how much annual household income is needed to be an engaged Jew. The number varies slightly from city to city, but overall the number hovers around $300,000 for a family of five. That number places one squarely in the top 2% of earners for almost every geographic region. To thrive as a people we have to earn phenomenal incomes. That restricts professional choice and puts enormous emotional pressure on those choosing to stay in the fold.

I fear the moral pressure as well. How does the pressure to meet those costs affect families' willingness to be dishonest in business, in reported income, or on tuition assessment forms?

Israel represents a haven against both the threat of assimilation and the cost of living. It has the highest fertility rate of all developed countries. According to a report published in  November 2017, Israel has a fertility rate of 3.2 children per mother, compared to the OECD average of 2. The cost of education in Israel is a fraction of what it costs in North America.

In 1948, Israel was mainly the refuge to save us from the Nazis and anti-Semites. Today, only 70 years later, Israel may just be the vehicle that saves the Jews from themselves. To that end, Israel will be what Gd intended it to be. It will be the society in which the Torah and Gd's enterprise are cradled. Torah and Judaism will have to contend with a full society, all its challenges from the environment to legal justice, social justice, economic equality, government accountability, entertainment, and culture. The Torah and Judaism that had not governed a full sovereign state in over 2,000 years now has a new lease for growth and relevance.

Because there is a State of Israel, we as a people have a unique opportunity to live with purpose as Jews. We must invest our efforts in a Jewish State with the same level of commitment that we once used to shape our Jewish communities in exile. I once knew a cosmetic surgeon who made Aliyah. He went from fixing noses to healing burn victims. To me that move is symbolic of what a move to Israel might mean for any of us. It is a move from the luxuries of the West to the sacrifices needed to sustain ournot-yet-perfect Jewish state.

Things would have to get much worse in North America politically, economically, and socially to make life in Israel a more sustainable option for most of us. However, the main threat to Jewish survival is not going to come from populist politics, pogroms, or non-Jews who want to ban the Star of David from Pride Parades. It is going to come from our own failure to live as Jews and to support the infrastructure needed to raise future generations of Jews of will inhabit the Jewish State.

I think it is time to re-frame the challenge of Jewish identity from one of survival in a diaspora, to one of citizenship in the eternal Jewish nation. To begin, we must ask our local day schools about how well they transmit Torah and prepare this generation's children to enter the Israeli university system, for national service, or to take the psychometry exam (Israel's university placement exam), because Israel is more than our past, it is very much our best future.

 

Temporary as Permanent - March 9

Dear Chaverim,

Home ownership became a right of passage in North America starting with the baby boom generation. If many people are distressed about today's housing affordability issue, it is because we still seem to assume that everyone with a decent job wants to own their own home and should be able to afford one. With that in mind, I've noticed in the current real estate market that there is a big difference between the investor/speculator and the traditional homeowner. This is reflected in tax assessments and insurance rates - where a $5 million dollar "house" in Vancouver is actually a $500 thousand house on $4.5 million worth of land. The investors are mainly interested in the exchange value of the land. On the other hand, the end users are interested in a structure to call 'home'.

Something struck me about the Torah's account of the construction details of the Tabernacle. In this week's parsha we are told that the structure had pegs! Rashi says they were to prevent it from swaying in the wind. Alas, no one worried about the stone structures of Solomon's or Herod's temples swaying in the wind.

The Tabernacle was a tent, a moveable structure. There is much to learn from this feature of portability. All the ten plagues, the splitting of the sea, the revelation at Sinai, and the heavens cannot contain the Divine, yet Gd's "dwelling place" turns out to be a tent. It somehow seems unfitting, too small and flimsy for the task. Furthermore, having a tent-tabernacle seems to lack the permanence of homeownership. It will be another 400 years before Solomon builds a permanent Temple in Jerusalem to replace this Tabernacle. The Tabernacle will call many places home before we become attached to Jerusalem.

The most central feature of the Mishkan/Tabernacle is the ark of the covenant - which contained both the original broken tablets and the second pair. The ark also had a set of poles that were permanently fixed to its structure, "בְּטַבְּעֹת הָאָרֹן יִהְיוּ הַבַּדִּים לֹא יָסֻרוּ מִמֶּנּוּ - in the rings upon the Ark you shall place the poles, you shall not remove them." The Mishkan is forever portable.

As a people we had a religious centre, a home for Gd before we had a permanent parcel of land. The first stage of our evolution was to take Sinai with us as we traveled. I guess that skill stood us well, for the Jews were the only people of the ancient middle east to return from exile to rebuild their temple. We are also the only people to have maintained our faith to return to our homeland after a long sojourn in Muslim and Christian lands.

Our ability to wander, travel, and survive without a homeland has led our enemies to label Israel a colonialist entity established by a foreign power. The historical and archeological evidence prove that their claim is false. Every two years or so new evidence is unearthed connecting the land of Israel to the Jewish people. In 2015 it was the seal of King Hezekiah. Last month archaeologists found in Israel what might be the seal of the prophet Isaiah . This week Prime Minister Netanyahu opened an exhibit at the U.N. to highlight the Jewish connection to the land of Israel.  

We must continue to stress to each generation that our success in surviving after being forced to wander from refuge to refuge does not make us foreigners in Israel. Moshe rallied all the people around a centre that had tent pegs. It was not meant to stand permanently in the wilderness. Moshe even raised massive funds and precious resources for a structure more vulnerable than the stone buildings that would replace it.

There was embedded in the Jewish nation's first sacred space the vulnerability inherent to a tent. The tent pegs of the Mishkan remind us that even as one generation hammers the pegs into place, they must be concerned about teaching the next generation the process and the purpose of its assembly.

The permanent, solid construction of stone buildings has a way of making us think that it is our handiwork that gives our home permanence. This was the philosophy of the Pharaohs, who built for themselves massive stone monuments hoping that they could live forever. The stone structures for the Pharaohs might still stand, but their dynasties died long, long ago. Perhaps the establishment of a tent for Gd was a rejection of that philosophy. Our relationship to the Divine is defined not only by the land we were promised, but by its use and by the construction of its dwelling places.

In today's real estate terms, the instructions for the Tabernacle teach us that Gd did not want us to conflate the building with the land. The land itself is solid, permanent, indestructible. It waited thousands of years for us to return to it. The home we were commanded to build for Gd was designed to remind us that Gd's relationship with the people is not in the stones. We keep the Torah to preserve that lesson for every generation. It is a lesson that attaches us as a people to Gd, and as a nation to the land that Gd showed us. It means that by profession we Jews were meant to be both teachers and builders. It means that in this week's parsha we find Gd's blueprints for what it takes to become both "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation."

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Andy Rosenblatt

 

 

 

Some Purim Context - March 2

Dear Chaverim,

For me the story of the Megillah - the Scroll of Esther - seems to mature and become more complex every year. As a child, I thought it was a story with a goofy king, a wise man, a beautiful girl-queen who must grow her courage, and the hand of Gd hidden between the lines. As I sat last week waiting for services to begin in an Israeli synagogue, I pulled a book off of the shelf that attempts to date the illusive Achashverosh, the Persian king in the story. While this may seem like an arcane detail, it actually turns the story on its head.

Rabbi Yonatan Grossman identifies Achashverosh as Persian King Xerxes I. The proof is in verses in the Book of Ezra that place Achashverosh after both Cyrus the Great and Darius the Great. Documents from the Babylonian city of Sifar identify the king's treasurer in Shushan as a minister named Marduka - which is the Akkadian equivalent of Mordechai. The Hebrew name of Xerxes is חשיארש - which is almost identical to the spelling of Achashverosh in the last chapter of the Megillah.

Though these seem to be merely more arcane facts, they force us to reinterpret the story based on a new understanding of the timeline. I had always assumed that the Scroll of Esther was a story of the exile, a story of our people when we were barred from returning to our homeland. However, if Achashverosh is in fact Xerxes, then the Jewish community in Shushan is living after Cyrus the Great had issued a decree allowing the Jews to return to Israel, and after Darius commenced the reconstruction of the temple. This means that the Jews of Shushan were diaspora Jews who had not made Aliyah.

It would have been possible for the Jews in the Megillah to have returned to Israel, but they stayed in Shushan. For me this provides an entirely different frame for the Purim story. It means that the story explores the question of assimilation and survival of Jews outside of the land and nation-state that then belonged to the Jews.

The Midrashic literature (Yalkut Shimoni Esther 5) identifies Mordechai as one of the great generals. Assembling all the parts, this means that one of the Xerxes's generals in the Second Peloponnesian War was Mordechai. The Midrash further explains that Mordechai and Haman were both generals, but Haman ran out of cash to pay his troops. He became indebted to his financier Marduka/Mordechai, and forever resented the power that his Jewish counterpart held over him.   

The story also speaks of Jews integrating into Persian society, and becoming spread out and diffuse among the nations. The names of the Jewish protagonists are Persian in origin. Mordechai and Esther are names rooted in Mesopotamian culture. Esther's Hebrew name is Hadas, and her mother's name is Avigayil. Mordechai's father is Yair. In terms of today's Hebrew and diaspora names, it would be like parents named Shlomo and Bracha, with children named Scott and Brittany. The Megillah is rife with signs of assimilated Persian Jews who re-coalesce into a Jewish community because of the anti-Semitic scheming of Haman. He is the villain of the story, but without him the community might have just disappeared without a story at all.

Mordechai knows that Gd ensures that the people will endure, but he cannot say from which branch the tree will continue to grow. Two and half millennia later, and after the decree that created the modern State of Israel, we are living in similar times. We also face a disappearing diaspora. According to the latest analysis of the data in the Pew study of American Jews by Steven Cohen and Sylvia Barack Fishman, "extraordinarily large numbers of them are non-married, intermarried, childless, and/or not raising children as Jewish-by-religion." Furthermore, Fishman and Cohen say, "their youth are distancing. 

They are less inspired by their own roots and often over simplify the challenges faced by Israel. Many are attracted to anti-Israel groups on campuses and elsewhere."

I just returned from a conference of the Modern Orthodox Rabbis of Israel and North America. The presenters shared with us the demographic vectors. Unless the trends change, the diaspora is likely to shrink to three million Jews over the next 100 years. The good news is that Israel is likely to grow over the same period of time, nearly doubling its Jewish population.

One other detail about the story of Purim is that the redemption is incomplete. At the end it is only physical harm that is averted. Return of the Persian Jews to Israel and to sovereignty is not achieved. The Talmud offers further proof of this partial redemption through the phrase אכתי עבדי אחשורוש אנן - we remain the servants of Achashverosh.

In the absence of a complete return to nationhood, Esther and Mordechai formulate a set of commandments or practices that are meant to sustain the community in exile: the sharing of food at a meal (Purim Seudah), or by messenger (Mishloach Manot), the support of the poor (Matanot L'Evyonim), and the embrace of the story (Megillah).  Together, these practices are a life raft for the diaspora. We should be inspired by knowing that out of all the peoples exiled by the Assyrians and the Babylonians, the Jews were the only ones to return to rebuild their temple. Similarly, Judaism is the only religion to survive alien status in both the Caliphate and Christendom.  

Mordechai and Esther fought to save their people, the Jews, from disappearing. That was a miracle. Harry Truman used to think of himself as the second coming of Cyrus the Great for his efforts to have the modern State of Israel recognized. That was a miracle, too. However, we must remember that our lot in life is to celebrate the miracles, not to rely upon them. Judaism is not meant to survive forever in the diaspora. Our survival against assimilation in the welcoming and comfortable nations of the West must be hard fought. It requires dedication, ritual, routine, and commitment. It requires the regular study of Torah and our unflinching commitment to Jewish practice and community. Most of all, as we paddle on, it requires us to steer our diasporic life raft in the right direction - as we will soon say to conclude the Seder: Next Year in Jerusalem לשנה הבא בירושלים.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Andy Rosenblatt

 

Noah, Lot and Other Jewish Drinkers (reposted from March 2015)

Dear Chaverim,

Social Media has brought many advances to our lives; drinking games are not among them. Two weeks ago a man named Stephen Brookes of the UK is thought to have died after a friend challenged him to a drinking game through the app Neknominate. In the UK, and possibly elsewhere, drinking alcohol up to your neck is referred to as "necking." The Facebook app allows participants to film themselves drinking and then nominate a friend to outdo them. According to police, Brookes died after drinking a pint of vodka.

We, as Jews, often operate under the illusion that we have no drinking problem. However, Israel's Health Ministry just released a report estimating that Israel has 80,000 alcoholics. The directors of Israel's treatment centers admit that the country is a decade or two behind in treatment of the issue.

Purim in particular is a holiday when drinking is given a licence for excess. In January, I wrote about the legalization of marijuana and I mentioned my understanding of drinking on Purim. I will repeat and elaborate on my understanding here. The Talmud introduces a statement that a person must drink on Purim to the point that he does not know the difference between, "cursed is Haman and blessed be Mordechai." Then, the Talmud tells us a story. It is the story of Rabbis Rava and Zeira. Rava invites Zeira over for Purim and the two drink beyond the responsible limits. Rava, while inebriated, performs ritual slaughter on Rabbi Zeira. The Talmud then records that when Rava realized his actions he prayed for the resurrection of Rabbi Zeira and his prayer was answered. Rabbi Zeira lived. The next year, Rava invited Zeira again. Rabbi Zeira refused, saying that one cannot rely upon miracles every year!

In essence the story is one of the risks of drinking to excess. According to the great Provencal Rabbi Yerucham, the story is a rejection of the idea that a person must drink on Purim. The Story of Rava and Zeira unfortunately has many iterations. For example, the Orthodox Union recently put out a statement about drinking on Purim that reacts to a string of tragedies resulting from irresponsible drinking and car accidents among teens and young adults.

I cannot think of a single incident in the Bible where excessive drinking is not associated with a tragic mistake. Noah drinks after the flood and wakes up castrated. Lot, Abraham's nephew, drinks himself beyond cognition and wakes up having sired two children via incest; his daughters thought the world had come to an end and they needed to repopulate it. According to Rabbinic tradition, Nadav and Avihu - the sons of Aaron - die after becoming inebriated on the first day of Temple service. Isaiah and Habakuk lament the drunken activities of their age. Last but not least, the Rabbis assume the reason the Jews get into trouble in the Purim story is because Achashverosh provided them drink without end, and they indulged

Yet, the Torah does not forswear wine, we use it every Friday night to sanctify the Shabbat. We use it under the Chuppah to sanctify the wedding. We have the Mitzvah to drink four cups at Pesach. However, all of those examples are drinking with real moderation. Even the four cups of the Seder was originally a wine that would be diluted with water (3.5 parts water to wine) and spread over a dinner discussion that lasted hours as the wine was tempered with food.

In Jewish ritual, wine is the grease of social interaction. It is the special drink that allows us to mark time and signal celebration.

I believe we must model moderation and insist upon it: at our homes, our dinner parties, our Purim parties. We must make sure that all of our Purim celebrations at shuls, community centers, and institutions supervise the distribution of alcohol.

Two months ago I sat with the Development Director of a Jewish addiction society called JACS. He told the story of his descent into drug addiction and his road to recovery. He told of ways in which the Jewish community tacitly sanctioned certain kinds of behaviors, not from the pulpit, not from the newsletters but subtly. One thing I learned from the OU's statement is the youth who drink excessively in their teens, predispose themselves to problems in adulthood.

It is time for us to model better behavior, and to ensure that our community communicates the healthiest moderation. As we plan and make purchases for Purim this year, remember the Shabbat and the Chuppah; it only takes a little wine to sanctify the occasion. Remember the Seder; balance the wine with food. Remember that the seudah is also a mitzvah on Purim; put something extra aside for the people who cannot afford a festive meal. The healthiest moderation is when we can celebrate with abandon and can still feel good the morning after.

 

Guns, Rights and Other Obigations - February 16

Dear Chaverim,

Yesterday, the news was dominated by the eighth US school shooting of 2018. The eyewitnesses' narratives - their text messages ­- were simply heartbreaking. Even those of us who are not epidemiologists or criminologists feel like it is unlikely that two months will pass without a mass shooting. In October it was the Las Vegas massacre. In November there was the mass shooting in a church in Sutherland, Texas. It seems like this glut of evidence on violence has inspired few, if any, epiphanies about how to manage the problem. Predictably, those on the political left are calling for stricter gun limits, and those on the right are calling for harsher justice for those who kill.

It would be easy enough here to condemn political inaction or blame the gun lobby and assault weapon industry. However, such a discussion would hardly advance the discourse. It would simply be another partisan chest thump on my part. Instead, I would like to look at this issue from a different perspective.

There are facts about the shooting this past week which make it seem particularly preventable. They highlight the challenges inherent to public safety in a gun-toting culture. There was this YouTube comment that was posted under the name Nikolas Cruz on September 24th: "I am going to become a professional school shooter." Mr. Cruz, had been expelled for bringing a knife to school. It would seem that those two facts would not only disqualify Cruz from buying a gun, but would prompt a visit from law enforcement.   

The problem in this case is about privacy and autonomy. The YouTube comment was reported to the FBI by a user in Mississippi with no connections at all to Mr. Cruz. I assume there was not enough probable cause for a warrant to compel YouTube to help police find a would-be shooter with a particular name. Legal privacy protections ensured the obscurity of 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz from among hundreds of others named Nikolas Cruz in Florida alone.

Some might argue that a person who demonstrated violent tendencies and other mental health concerns should have been committed to a mental health facility. His actions should have warranted medical intervention against his will. However, committing adults to mental health facilities is very difficult. Perhaps with good reason. Autonomy is a person's most fundamental right. Thus, the evidence and need to commit a person has to be overwhelming.  

In sum, we value privacy and autonomy. I know of few who are ready to hand law enforcement the keys to social media or ready access to their internet usage information. There are few who would hand over their autonomy to prying neighbors or overburdened police officers.

What about guns? Some would argue that gun rights are equal to free speech rights. Such a case is not without merit. I have heard rhetorically strong arguments that conflate the right to own an assault weapon with the right to protect oneself from criminals or armed authority run amok. They advocate that the right to carry a gun in public is the guarantor against ever being in a situation where they would be unable to defend the innocent and themselves.

The right to own an assault weapon is not for freedom to take down militarized moose and elk. It is simply part of one's right to self-defence. Advocates of gun ownership believe that curtailing such a right makes the people vulnerable both to the tyranny of government and of malicious elements, criminals, and thugs. Gun advocates protect that right just like the ACLU protects the right for free speech.

So, what might the Torah have to say about all of this? The first and perhaps most important point in this analysis is that Torah does not advocate for rights. In place of a system of rights the Torah has a system of obligations.

For example, where Western legal systems have a right to privacy, the Talmud has a tort called Hezek Rei'ah - which would translate literally to damage by sight. In practice, this tort is expressed by the court's ability to compel a would-be voyeur to build a wall to ensure their neighbour's privacy. Ultimately, the Torah's law sees privacy as an active responsibility, not a as passive entitlement. The well-known verse "מַה טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל - how great are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!" celebrates how the Jewish people in the desert observed the halachic imperative of privacy in the way they arranged their tents.

The United States Constitution guarantees the right to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment. In Canada, there is no constitutional right to own guns. However, laws and legislation uphold a kind of common-sense notion that guns are private property, and gun ownership is essentially legal.

Jewish law has no such right to own a weapon. It does, however, have a very strong obligation to save lives. The obligation to save a life is paramount in Jewish law. It supersedes every other obligation under the law, except in cases of betrayal of faith, sexual abuse, and the taking of a life in self-defence. Thus, one may violate the Sabbath or Yom Kippur, or suspend property rights in order to save a life. However, one may not jeopardize even one life in practice to potentially, theoretically save many lives.

How does Torah law translate to the question of guns? On the one hand we might be advocates for gun ownership. In Israel, many rabbis and devout individuals carry handguns. The synagogues in areas historically targeted by terrorists might be some of the safest places in the country because of the high number of gun owners. In Israel, then, the Torah injunction to protect innocent lives, and the practice of 'open carry' is a deterrent to mass murder.

On the other hand, in the US the many school shootings in the first seven weeks of 2018 would suggest that pervasive gun ownership is not an effective deterrent. Halachically then, this may be a question of facts more than principles. Or, as my editor is fond of reminding me, "in theory, practice always works all of the time, but in practice theory never works all of the time." If the facts on the ground do not support the principles of the constitution, then we must err to the side of caution based on the facts.

To de-escalate the conflict between rights and restrictions, we might suggest that we approach this epidemiologically. We could consider the case of automobile cruise control. If that technology reduces motor vehicle accidents, we should install more cruise controls and do more to make sure that they are employed. On the other hand,if cruise controls increase accidents, then we should stop using the technology, or improve it.

Such an analysis leads to a startling finding. Nearly two thirds of all gun deaths in the United States have nothing to do with gang violence, inner-city crime, mass-shootings, accidental firings,  or terrorism. Two thirds of gun deaths are suicides. Yes, suicides. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, states with more liberal gun laws have higher suicide rates.

It also turns out that it is faulty logic to argue that those attempting suicide will find another method if they cannot get a gun. Guns are efficient at killing quickly. In suicide, time is the ally of saving lives. The longer suicide takes, the greater the chances of survival. Guns are, sadly, the most effective method of suicide. Limiting the sale of guns would reduce deaths by suicide over current levels.

The gun rights policy question is highly charged. I am not going to pursue some false dichotomy between the moral imperatives of the Torah and the legislative imperatives of constitutional government and law enforcement. Therefore, I will refrain from making conclusions about policy. However, to postpone the question of community safety and guns out of respect to victims and families of the latest tragedies would be misplaced. Is the question of school shootings - which garners high coverage in the media - more worthy of our respect than the constant - unreported - stream of suicides?  

Mass shootings invite ideological posturing. The Torah obligates us to save lives. We have to ask what the best way is to do that. To know, we have to consider where the evidence leads us. We might also have to ask if we are risking lives to save lives. We might also need to ask if the self defense argument outweighs the inherent dangers of guns, especially when most gun deaths are self-inflicted.

To me, the evidence about suicide reveals that most people have formed opinions based on the observations skewed by media coverage. News media ratings are driven by the public's appetites for stories about carnage, or for their desire for stories of heroism - like the recent one of a rifle instructor who disabled the Texas church shooter. Yet, most were completely disconnected from the relevant, related issue of suicide. Our obligation is to save lives, how best to do that should be driven by the facts and the science.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Andy Rosenblatt

 

Dear Poland...February 9

Dear Chaverim,
 
This week's installment is a joint message from Rabbi Rosenblatt and Dr. Neiman about an emerging issue that has troubled many in our community.
 
Many in the Jewish community are utterly shocked by the passage of a Polish law that makes it illegal to associate the government or state of Poland with the Holocaust. For example, those who refer to places like Auschwitz as Polishdeath camps can go to prison for up three years. The rationale for this law is that the death camps in Poland were created by Nazi Germany, not by the Polish government or Polish people.
 
The government of Poland is not the first to try to distance itself from an association with the atrocities of the 20th Century. Japan's government has yet to explicitly accept responsibility for its colonial occupation of much of Asia. Turkey's government denies that there was an Armenian Genocide. We should be shocked that Poland would take a similar tack by denying the overwhelming evidence of its role in the largest, most murderous act of anti-Semitism in modern times. However, we believe people should be shocked for the right reasons. We should be shocked that the Poles think that this law is going to fool anyone.  
 
As  Edna Friedberg of the U.S. Holocaust Museum argues, the Poles were no more the mere victims of the Nazis, than they were exclusively villains to the Jews. The Polish role in the Holocaust is complicated. Poland was occupied by a brutal Nazi regime that made Poland the geographic centre of Nazi dirty work. On the other hand, as Polish historian Barbara Engelking describes, many Poles were willing accomplices in the murder of Jews. Some did so for sport, and others for profit. They would engage in 'Jew hunts' to break the monotony of life. Poles often hid Jews who gave Polish 'hosts' their valuables. When there were no more valuables to surrender, the Poles would turn in their so-called 'guests' and collect a reward from the Nazis.
 
Friedberg explains the difficulty in characterizing the Polish response to the Holocaust in a single stroke. "It is not uniformly one of complicity or innocence." There are more Poles recognized by Israel as Righteous Among the Nations than from any other nationality. The Nazis tried to decapitate the Polish leadership, removing tens of thousands of intellectuals, priests, politicians and other authority figures. 1.5 Million Poles were deported to Germany as slave laborers and 2 million non-Jewish Poles and soldiers died in the course of the war. The Zegota was a Polish committee organized to provide false papers to Jews and secure their rescue. Some estimate that the Zegota had a hand in saving almost half of the Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust.
 
The Polish government wants to make it illegal "to publicly and untruthfully assign responsibility or co-responsibility to the Polish Nation or the Polish State for Nazi crimes [emphasis added]." They may be technically correct about the Polish government, but are they certain about the veracity of a claim of innocence with regard to the Polish Nation? Furthermore, it is facile to refer to these crimes as Nazi crimes, as if anything originated by Nazis is solely the responsibility of Hitler.
 
No matter what the intention of the law, we believe it fundamentally misses the point of what might be in the best interest of the current Polish government. The law looks like an attempt to whitewash the past, to engage in a form - however benignly motivated ­- of denial of an essential part of the Holocaust. Historically, limiting free speech like this makes a government look regressive and afraid of the truth. Will tour guides to Polish sites be prosecuted for telling the history of the Blue Police - those 20,000 Polish officers who were responsible for the liquidation of the ghettos in Poland? Will Jewish historical tourism to Poland become a crime? If anything, this law will be the dog whistle to white nationalists around the world.
 
Author and bullying expert Barbara Coloroso argues that evil cannot be enacted on a large scale without the active and passive consent of both ordinary people and those who are in charge. In Extraordinary Evil: A Brief History of Genocide, she makes essential distinctions between different actors in the Polish chapter of the Holocaust. The Nazis were in her terms, instigators and perpetrators. The Polish government and police played various official roles as perpetrators and active supporters. Ordinary citizens acted in various roles as perpetrators, active supporters, passive supporters, henchmen, and witnesses [who did nothing to stop the violence]. Coloroso traces how the same dynamics existed in the Armenian Genocide, the Rwandan Genocide, and Darfur.
 
Timothy Snyder is a Professor of History at Yale University. In Black Earth: the Holocaust as History and Warning, Snyder argues that stripping groups of their citizenship is a key enabler of governments that perpetrate genocide. During World War 2, he notes, Poles were keen to set up governments that collaborated with their occupiers to persecute Jews. This happened under both Soviet occupation and Nazi occupation. It was possible to kill Jews and take their property, precisely because there was a duly constituted national government, and Jews were not considered to be subject to their laws. An exception that proves the rule of European collaboration with the Nazi genocide was Denmark. There, the government under occupation resisted turning over Jews. The Nazis allowed the Danes to let Jews escape en masse.
 
We believe our reaction to Poland needs to maintain a strong tether to the truth and complexity of the Polish story. The Torah says, "לא תתעב מצרי כי גר היית בארצו - do not be cross with the Egyptian for you were a sojourner in his land." To this Rashi adds, "the Egyptians gave us refuge in time of need." The Torah is teaching an important lesson about characterizations: appreciate the complexity of even the oppressive relationships. In particular, while one generation of Egyptians was welcoming, another was cruel. In other words, it's complex. We must remain cognizant of both Hitler's willing partners and of the many righteous Polish gentiles. We remember the Nazi subjugation of Poland, and the fertile anti-Semitic soil in which the Germans sowed their hatred.
 
Furthemore, the Torah in this week's reading teaches, "לא תהיה אחרי רבים לרעת ולא תענה על רב לנטת אחרי רבים להטת­ ­- do not be a follower of the majority to do evil, and do not answer the majority by bending to their mistake." Sometimes it is important to reject groupthink, to reject the simple, binary characterization of good versus evil when there is an unvoiced exonerating argument or evidence. Our political and ideological discourse has too often devolved to a false dichotomy of good guys and bad guys, of sanitized and dishonest political correctness, and cruel sensationalized examples that should not be extrapolated to a whole group. We don't accept Jewish stereotypes, nor will we condone Polish stereotypes.
 
This is captured in the words of Holocaust survivor Aaron Elster, who was sheltered by sympathetic Polish farmers.
 
I was grateful for them, but I was afraid of them because they were constantly demeaning me, and threatening me, and telling me what a terrible thing I did to come there to cause them that kind of problem ... That's what she constantly said to us, my sister and I. 'If the Germans catch you, you're gonna say who helped you and they're gonna kill us.' So it was a dichotomy of things: She wanted to help but she wanted to get rid of us, she couldn't get rid of us, you know.
 
The historical Polish relationship to our people is painful and complex. It has Polish heroes and villains. It is a story of many governments and average people who behaved in self-serving ways and altruistic ways to do both good and extraordinary evil. Your history is complex, Poland, and your choice is simple. If you maintain this law, you will become in 2018 the very government that you deny you were in 1939. Instead, we call on the Polish government to understand that the only way to keep their good reputation is to be honest about the truth and complexity of the story, to learn from it, and to prevent it from happening again.
 
 
Good Shabbos,
 
Rabbi Andy Rosenblatt and Dr. Terry Neiman
 
 

Why Gd Does Not Talk to Us - February 2

Dear Chaverim,

One day, waiting outside of the Vancouver Talmud Torah, a child who was about five years old asked me, "rabbi, why doesn't Hashem talk to us anymore?" The question caught me off guard. I had no solid answer, certainly not one that would work for a five-year-old.

Last week, I found a portion of the answer in Pashsat B'Shalach. B'Shalach has 116 verses. It divides neatly two 58 verse parts. The first contains the splitting of the sea and the Song of Moses. It is the basis for the name of this special Shabbat: Shabbat Shira - the Shabbat of the Song. However, the other half, the second 58 verses, is full of complaints about the lack of water and food. Variations on the Hebrew root י-ל-ן appear at least ten times in the second half of the parsha. Furthermore, the root י-ר-ב, to quarrel with, or even to fight with appears four times. Had the halves of the Parsha been split into two separate weeks, we might have called the second shabbat, the Sabbath of Kvetching.  

Not only is the shift from singing to quarreling a form of literary whiplash, it raises an important question. The very people who saw the splitting of the sea, who walked between walls of water, who saw Egypt laid low through ten impressive plagues, and who watched the most powerful military in the world drown in the seabed they had just crossed, were the voices of complaint. What happened to all of their inspiration?

The Midrash intensifies this question. It says that Moshe had to forcibly move the Children of Israel from the seaside. It says that the Egyptian army was adorned with precious stones that were washing up on the shore and the Children of Israel were picking over the spoils. I imagine this Midrash may be expressing a behavior that is still told about grandparents and great grandparents who survived the scarcity of the Pale of Settlement or the early days of the State of Israel. Within my own family is the story of a relative who would wash paper towels and roll up aluminum foil into a ball to be reused. The Children of Israel, who had been scavenging scraps from Egyptian tables for nearly 200 years, had trouble unlearning the habits of picking up scraps discarded by their masters.

One insight may help us to better understand this behavior. In 1982 two professors from Yale University, Richard Nelson and Sidney Winter, published An Evolutionary Theory of Economic Change. Their central premise is that a company's behavior is not so much governed by the org chart and the decisions of the CEO and middle managers, as it is by the culture and habits that it had formed. The habits of the past determine behavior more than the cerebral decisions of management.   

The underlying psychology of the power of habit is detailed in a book by Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow.Kahneman describes two systems: one which works quickly, and one which works slowly. The fast thinking process completes phrases like "bread and ...."  It adds 2+3 without pausing to consider what it is doing. It can detect anger in a voice and aggression in a face. It can localize sound.   

On the other hand, the slow system is engaged to calculate 17 x 24. It can figure out the number of occurrences of the word the in this email, or compose a grammatically correct sentence in a new language. The slow system is also engaged in learning to play an instrument.

Activities handled by the slow system can become fast. People learn to play an instrument as if it is automatic. Immersion in a language makes the speaker fluent. Most of our decisions and behaviors become coded into the fast system. It is the repository of our reactions and routines.   Daily life requires a fast system. We need to adapt with speed to the challenge of the moment, whether it is the wolf in the grass or the rapid calculation for a stock trade. Who we become over the course of a lifetime is in large measure the sum of the behaviors we consciously     train into our fast system.

The Torah is not like much of the other works of the ancient world. Many were written only to celebrate and cheerlead the enormity of some victory. However, the Torah is also interested in human frailties and how to overcome them. The Book of Jonah is a case in point. Rabbi Benny Lau has said that in all of Tanach, the one prophet whose words were heeded by his audience was Jonah. And Jonah's prophecy was delivered to non-Jews! In other words, when Gd spoke, the people simply did not listen.

The same is true with wondrous miracles like those in this week's parsha - they just don't seem to change the people. The Children of Israel, fresh from a miraculous experience, seem unmoved. However, the rabbis in the Mechilta say ראתה שפחה על הים מה שלא ראה יחזקאל בן בוזי  - the lowly maidservant who crossed the sea had prophecy greater than the prophet Ezekiel. Gd spoke to a whole generation - at what was then the greatest moment of Divine revelation in our history, and we did not fully listen. How could we be expected to do any better today, if Hashem were to talk to us?

Perhaps we can understand this in terms of the idea of habit. Personality is shaped by the sum of repeated action, no so much by cerebral revelations. One might speculate that the reason Gd does not speak to us any more is because prophecy does not work. It takes more than a miracle to attain Gd's signs and wonders; it takes regular, repeated effort.

The Torah knows that to effectively shape character, one needs the routine of Mitzvot that build character. The ideas put forth prominently in the Shema, "and you shall repeat them to your children, and speak of them when you lay down and rise up" are a testimony to the idea that the formation of good habit is the modality of shaping character. The regularity of Shabbat, and the consistency of Torah study are the real catalysts of change. Furthermore, Gd puts the change process in our hands, asking us to take responsibility by being disciplined with our behaviors rather than waiting for inspiration, orders, or deliverance from without.

So, to my young friend, I guess Gd does not speak to us anymore because Gd believes we can do more by using the Torah to train ourselves. This is a powerful lesson because it says if you wish to be a kind person, you must make kindness a regular part of your own behavior. If you wish to be charitable, you must build charitable habits. If you want to be wise, you must ensure that study is fixed in your schedule. Maybe the focus is not so much on how much Gd talks, but on how much we listen. That is why we say the Shema - the listen - over and over again.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Andy Rosenblatt

 

Bitcoins, Bullets, Bylaws and Blessings - January 26

Dear Chaverim,

Long before writing was used to convey language, it was invented to record quantities of commodities. The earliest financial pages were clay tablets. Their numbers represented real things that people traded and exchanged, like wheat and livestock. Today's financial pages post exchange rates for virtual holdings represented by money and shares in businesses. Here you will find Bitcoin listed alongside the Dow, the TSX, oil, and the dollar.

Bitcoin may have many advantages. Since it does not exist in a tradable form like cash, you don't have to worry about losing it in the washing machine or from having a hole in your pocket. You also don't have to worry about the government peeking into your private pocketbook because it regulates the banks. However,Greg Leffler the Senior Software Editor of LinkedIn suggests that this virtual currency is popular for one reason: stealth. It is good for moving money out of currency-controlled regions, hiding earnings, buying cocaine, and for malware ransoms. Bitcoin helps individuals evade law enforcement more efficiently than hiding money in suitcase linings, or burying gold in the garden. Bitcoin is thus the technology of choice for criminals who wish to keep the meddling eyes of government far away from their finances.

Bitcoin is not the only technology that serves such a purpose. Cody Wilson is a young law student at the University of Texas who has started a revolution using nothing more than a computer printer. He published the plans to manufacture a pistol called the Liberator using a 3D printer. When one buys a gun from a gun shop or gun show, or from Glock or Smith and Wesson, the gun comes with a serial number. One must obtain a licence, and go through a background check. Cody has made it possible for anyone with a 3D printer, regardless of their persuasion or state of mental fitness, to evade such scrutiny and produce an untraceable gun on their kitchen table.

Cody sees himself as a warrior for free speech and privacy in the spirit of open-source code and internet neutrality. He argues, "I'm not making guns for you, I'm shipping the possibility to make it for yourself." In America, many citizens believe that they can only be free from an oppressive government if they can have guns that are beyond the control of government.

Bitcoin and 3D printing are two examples of technologies that are boosting the possibilities of freedom in our world. But are they also bringing us closer to a version of anarchy?

Some would argue that the Ten Commandments form the basic substance of Jewish law. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai would disagree. Consider the following verse from Exodus 15:25.

ויצעק אל יהוה ויורהו יהוה עץ וישלך אל המים וימתקו המים שם שם לו חק ומשפט ושם נסהו And he [Moshe] cried unto the LORD; and the LORD showed him a tree, and he cast it into the waters, and the waters were made sweet. There He gave them statute and ordinance, and they tested Hashem;

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai understands that Hashem gave them civil law, or the rules of interpersonal conduct. However, before they could receive the Torah at Sinai, they had to learn to interact appropriately with one another.  

I think about what it must have been like to leave Egypt and its heavy veil of authoritarianism. The other side of the sea was a land without police. It must have also looked like a land without consequences. It might have felt like Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Imagine three million people all suggesting different routes home. That comes at the end of a three-day journey in which the newly freed people could not find clean water. The verse describing it begins with Moshe making the water that they did find potable. Imagine the crowd, the elbows, the pushing as people clamored for water. As the old joke goes, ask two Jews - get three opinions. Imagine three million Jews.

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai's interpretation teaches us that without the basic laws of civil cooperation, there can be no successful absorption of Torah. The Ten Commandments would be lost in the chaos that comes with autonomy. The people first needed the laws of interpersonal relationships. It was through such laws that people came to peaceful coexistence.

Perhaps another analogy is instructive. We all curse traffic lights from time to time. They seem to curtail our freedom to drive as we please. It seems ridiculous to me to have to wait at a red light in the middle of the night when there is no other car in sight. However, traffic lights make street traffic efficient around the clock. Anyone who has used the four-way stop procedure during a power outage will soon come to bless traffic lights and how efficient they are at moving the traffic along.

I think this is a powerful lesson. It teaches that forfeiting total personal freedom preserves freedom for all. It teaches that the civil code of the Torah had to come before the direct utterances of Gd in the Ten Commandments. It is similarly taught in (Vayikrah Rabbah 9:3)  דרך ארץ קדמה לתורה that civility had to predate the Torah.  

For a moment, think about what money really is. It is the chief instrument of cooperation. We each trade our goods or services for money. Its value is ensured by our consensus to use it. There are many laws about money: taxes, government disclosures, banking rules, to name a few. Bitcoin may be less scrutinized by the prying eyes of government, but it is less safe for society. It is harder to protect one's assets in a lightly governed environment. Those who have lost their electronic keys, or their computers, have lost all of their bitcoins. At the Bitcoin ATM there is no customer service department, no deposit insurance.

We live in a time of more choices and freedoms than any other time in history. Even so, there are those such as Cody Wilson pushing to bring us new and potentially dangerous freedoms. In such a world Torah and Judaism offer a set of figurative traffic lights that give us the structure to enjoy our freedoms. The Torah offers a steady heading with which to navigate an ever-dizzying world. We are given the disciplines to make to make the most of the freedom rather than to become corrupted by it.   

Jews can feel fortunate to be among those for whom there is a day of rest and refrain from work. Jews can feel fortunate to be among those for whom freedom of speech is limited by a prohibition against gossip (i.e., loshon hara, which is the use of true speech for a wrongful purpose). Jews can feel fortunate to be among those who believe that not all income is for personal consumption, because Gd has laid claim to a portion designated for charity. Think about the common form for blessings over commandments: "Blessed are you Hashem who has sanctified us in the commandments, and commanded us to..." It is constant a reminder that it is truly a blessing to have direction. 

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Andy Rosenblatt

 

Smart As A Billionaire - January 19

Dear Chaverim,

Two of the most admired names in the world, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, have something in common with legendary figures like Benjamin Franklin and Barak Obama, when he was in the midst of a frenzied presidency. They all set aside an hour a day or more for reading. Charlie Munger, the Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, has said " in my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn't read all the time, none -- zero."

When Elon Musk was asked how he intends to build rockets, he said, "I read books." Business insider.com has listed the 14 books that inspired Musk.

When Warren Buffet was asked about the secret to his success, he pointed to a stack of books. Buffet said that he spends about 80% of his day reading - which translates to 600-1000 pages per day.

I have had occasion to visit one of Vancouver's greatest zero-to-billionaire successes. Every night he reads five or six newspapers cover to cover. He is not reading Facebook or Instagram. He reads the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

If you want to get ahead, if you want to succeed, if you want an asset that will be impervious to market swings and political inversions, then you need the learning that is found in print. It wasn't always like this. Over 2,300 years ago, Plato argued that memory - which is essential to wisdom - would be ruined by writing things down. In the 15th century Catholic leaders opposed Gutenberg's invention of the printing press, fearing that print would be the death of their safeguarding of the transmission and interpretation of their bible. Mark Twain is widely quoted in print as having said four centuries later, "the whole world admits unhesitatingly; and there can be no doubt about this, that Gutenberg's invention is the incomparably greatest event in the history of the world."

Twain also marvelled at the timeless success of the Jews.

The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away. The Greek and Roman followed, made a vast noise and they are gone. Other peoples have sprung up, and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out and they sit in twilight now or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal, but the Jew. All other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality? (Harper's Magazine, 1899)

Perhaps the answer can be found in the success secrets of Buffet and Gates. One thousand years before Plato argued against writing things down, Moshe and Joshua were given the final commandment - to commit the Torah to writing. From the very moment that the Jewish people crossed the Jordan to enter the land of Israel they have been charged with the task of constant Torah study. Joshua would later say the following.

This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth, but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein; for then thou shalt make thy ways prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success.

Are these words from the Book of Joshua not a recipe for success? It would seem that our strength has always been in our being known as "the people of the Book" through our dedication to learning. Musk, Gates, Buffet, and Franklin were dedicated to reading books on history, nature, business, art, and philosophy. There is much to be gained from that kind of secular wisdom.   

The charge of Joshua is to study divine wisdom by reading and learning Torah. The idea of Torah is multifaceted. It penetrates the heart. This is expressed in the story of Rabbi Akiva - who noted that drops of water will eventually carve out a stone. Akiva understood that daily Torah learning works slowly, gradually like drops of water on a stone. In other words, study is a formative act, a sculpting enterprise through which the individual is refined. This dimension of Torah is similar to the lifelong educational idea of Buffet or Musk, but with the added advantage that the Torah also refines character traits. That, in turn, enriches one's spiritual investment portfolio.

The study of Torah has an additional advantage; it makes Gd present in our world. In the words of Rabbi Meir Solovietchik,

How does finite, physical, fallible man relate to an infinite, immaterial, and almighty God? For Christians, that gap is bridged through the Incarnation-through God becoming man. [This concept is clearly at odds with everything Judaics believes in, an infinite Gd and a non-corporeal Gd. So how then do we bridge the gap with the infinite?] The Jewish rejection of incarnation, though, does not leave Gd at a distance, remote and inaccessible. Judaism approaches Gd through the observance of his commandments, the most important of which, equal to all the others combined, is Torah learning: the intellectual engagement with the divine author of the commandments. . . Torah learning elicits a divine-human partnership, a continuing relationship of teacher and taught, of lover and beloved. It is not submission but communion, in which the engagement of the intellect is essential to approaching Gd.

Torah makes Gd real and tangible in our world. Soloveitchik sees this as the Jewish version of Incarnation of Gd in our lives.   

I think we as a community need to be studying more, reading more, learning more. We need to do so for all the reasons I've given. We want to succeed like Buffet and Gates. We want to shape our character like Akiva. We want to connect to Gd like Soloveitchik. We also strive to achieve the virtue articulated by the Shema - to "teach them thoroughly to (y)our children." We want to have answers when those children ask the questions.

 We, at Schara Tzedeck, are committed to providing better and more engaging access to Torah. We have classes almost every day of the week.  We have also partnered with Vancouver Torah Learning Centre for expanded access. And now, from the comfort of your own home, you can now receive our Torah Primer.

For those of you not interested in tapping into the wisdom of Franklin, the success of Buffet, the character development of Rabbi Akiva, or the spirituality of Soloveitchik, I leave you with the fact that Gd sets aside time for the study of Torah. The Midrashic work Tanna D'Be Eliyahu says that Gd spends a third of each day in the study of Torah. The other two thirds are spent in judgement and acts of charity. Are you better than Gd? If not, then go and learn.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Andy Rosenblatt

 

Obverse of Adverse - January 12

Dear Chaverim,

The Golden Globe Awards this week dealt very directly with the issue of sexual harassment and showcased even to the point of caricature how celebrity has been conflated with wisdom, insight, and moral leadership. It could easily be argued that the three institutions most rife with sexual misconduct today are politics, the media, and entertainment. Hollywood is the home of what has been called the culture industry. Culture industry is a term coined by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheim in the 1940s to describe how popular culture is mass-produced to lull the public into a state of complacency. The chief danger of this is that people become distracted by movies, TV, and related merchandising instead of caring about the erosion of artistic culture, social justice, and democracy. In light of what we know in 2018, Hollywood's orchestrating itself as the agent of change may be both hugely ironic and a big case of too little, too late.

I am generally of the opinion that those who specialize in body image, acting (an art of deception), and self-promotion should not be looked to for wisdom and leadership. However, Perkei Avot teaches, "איזהוחכםהלומדמכלאדם - Who is wise? One who learns from all." Thus, I must put aside my cynicism every once in awhile, and ask myself what can be learned from even the creators of such cultural touchstones as Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), and Women Behind Bars (1975).

CBC Radio shared a story about Jewish comedian Sarah Silverman in which a troll (one who uses insulting and abusive language anonymously online when it would be untenable to use such language in the open) says something abusive to her on Twitter. Typically, the response to trolling is to block the abuser, or to react with abuse or indignation. Silverman took a different approach. She responded, "I believe in you. I read ur timeline & I see what ur doing & your rage is thinly veiled pain. But u know that. I know this feeling. Ps My back [really hurts too]. see what happens when u choose love. I see it in you."

What followed was a Twitter exchange in which the troll let down his guard, disclosed that he was in emotional pain and was also abusing painkillers. Silverman helped him get help with his abuse of pain medication.

The moral of the story is that often anger is about something different from what it appears to be about. The best response may be what psychologists call non-complementary behaviour. In other words, don't fight fire with fire. Meet anger with a different emotion. Sometimes it is best to ask what is behind the fire, address the fuel source, ask where the pain is.  

Not every adversary needs to be adversarial. They can be helpful. There is a very subtle way in which this message is announced in Parshat Vaera. Moshe has come to introduce Pharaoh to the notion of Gd's dominion over nature. He begins with the sign of the staff turning into a serpent and then returning to a staff. Pharaoh is unconvinced. He shows that his magicians can fool people into thinking that they can turn staffs into snakes. Moshe's staff then devours the staff of Pharaoh's magicians. Pharaoh is stubborn. In failing to heed Moshe, he willingly incurs the burden of the plague of blood.

     

הדגה אשר ביאר מתה ויבאש היאר ולא יכלו מצרים לשתות מים מן היאר ויהי הדם בכל ארץ מצרים . ויעשו כן חרטמי מצרים בלטיהם ויחזק לב פרעה ולא שמע אלהם כאשר דבר יהוה. ויפן פרעה ויבא אל ביתו ולא שת לבו גם לזאת. ויחפרו כל מצרים סביבת 

היאר מים לשתות כי לא יכלו לשתת ממימי היאר 

 

And the fish in the river died, the river became putrid and the Egyptians could not drink of the water of the river and there was blood in all Egypt. The Egyptian magicians did similarly with their magic and the heart of Pharaoh was strengthened and he did not heed them as Gd had warned. And Pharaoh turned into his house and paid no heed to this. And all of Egypt dug [wells] around the river for drinking water, for they could not drink from the river.

The great 19th century commentator Rabbi Meir Leibush says that this passage should be understood in terms of a binary choice. Pharaoh and Egypt could have recognized that Moshe was not the enemy. Moshe represented Gd and offered the keys to the water problem. Pharaoh knew his options, and knew Moshe could solve his problems. He also knew Moshe wanted to solve them. Pharaoh chose instead to pay no heed to Moshe and to literally dig everywhere else for a remedy. I believe that the Torah is mocking the 'strength' of Pharaoh at this moment as a sort of silly puffery that prefers the appearance of strength to progress and what is really best for the people of Egypt.  Moshe remains at the ready to assist Pharaoh. It is Pharaoh who chooses to play the adversary.

I think these two stories are concrete examples of how to reframe negative encounters. If we can take a moment and see past the anger that might be coming out, then we may be able to find the obverse of the adverse. We can channel expressions of anger into indications of a problem, and thus work to a solution.  

I have witnessed many angry exchanges between spouses, siblings, parents and children, even colleagues. I count myself among the offenders. Channelling our anger into curiosity may provide remarkable gifts to us.

For over a year now, the culture industry has been waging its version of a culture war. However, this is about more than Hollywood, sexual assault, or politics. The spirit of our time is rife with ad hominem political attacks, blaming, shaming, and vilification. Liberals and conservatives both are guilty of doing what the trolls do. They shout to please their own base, to win likes and points with those who are already converted. The problem with mass media warfare is that it is exactly the opposite of what Sarah Silverman did on a personal level.

Remember, Pharaoh refused to see Moshe as his advocate. He took the easy road framing Moshe as the enemy. The current culture is in danger of failing the same way Pharaoh did by escalating the blame game. Instead, we all need to listen to what is behind the anger, discover where the disconnect exists, and work to a solution.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Andy Rosenblatt

 

Personality and Leadership - January 6

Dear Chaverim,
Contrary to the sabre-rattling rhetoric of certain national leaders, the size of the nuclear missile launch button is the least relevant thing about a potential nuclear engagement. Kim Jung Un is widely believed to promote the North Korean nuclear program as a pathway to legitimacy in the international community. I am genuinely puzzled by the idea that his tough talk would be a strategy to gain respect. To me it rings of narcissism and drips with insecurity. I would be more swayed by the philosophy of Theodore Roosevelt: speak softly and carry a big stick. 

On the other hand, contrary to my own distaste for it, narcissists seem to be a popular leadership choice in Russia, the Philippines, Turkey, and North Korea to name a few. Even open democracies have freely chosen overpoweringly narcissistic leaders.

While the research is highly critical of narcissistic leadership in both business and political contexts, narcissism does seem to have an occasional advantage. Dr. Jerrold M Post, a professor of Psychiatry at George Washington University argues, "at moments of societal crisis, otherwise mature and psychologically healthy individuals may temporarily come to feel overwhelmed and in need of a strong and self-assured leader. But when the historical moment passes, so too does the need." (see Post, Jerrold M. "Narcissism and the Charismatic Leader-Follower Relationship." Political Psychology, vol. 7 1986).   

Post's prime example of the benefits of narcissistic leadership was Turkey in crisis at the beginning of the 20th century. Post considers Ataturk the ideal leader for his time because he was able to use his dominant personality to be "a force for healing." The founder of modern Turkey imparted on a fractured society a sense of wholeness by forging a "special relationship with his 'ideal-hungry' followers."


Could we say the same of the today's elected [or quasi-elected] narcissists? Is Putin the answer to a Russia struggling for progress and legitimacy after the fall of communism? Is Duterte the tonic for a Philippines beset by poverty and corruption? I think Post is onto something arguing that when people perceive themselves to be in crisis, anyone who seems ultra-sure of himself provides comfort and security regardless of how ill-informed or badly conceived his plan. However, the confidence that such men [always men] broadcast to the masses is merely 'fake news'.

Things were no better in ancient times. Pharaoh was a narcissist, projecting himself as a god. The Book of Ezekiel says that he described himself as the Great Crocodile that patrolled the river Nile. Like today's despots, he had to create a crisis from which to save his subjects. He created paranoia of extreme proportions by forecasting a future alliance between the growing Jewish population and a fictitious enemy. Worst of all, Pharaoh clung to his 'divine' authority and rejected the ever-clearer pattern of the "signs and wonders" of the Gd of Heaven and Earth. In the face of such evidence, people then were no more fooled than we are today by the bluster of our own dictators and autocrats. The Egyptians said to Pharaoh, "we will soon know that Egypt is lost."

Moshe represents the diametric opposite of Pharaoh. Moshe is the humble and self-critical leader. He refuses to believe in himself as the source of his power. He refuses to take all the credit. Moshe's selection as leader is based on his ability to feel the pain of others and to intervene on their behalf to his detriment. He gives up his palace career and status to save the oppressed. Moshe does not own the treasure taken out of Egypt. He must solicit gifts from the tribes, for he is beholden to them. Moshe will wear a tunic with no pockets, because he wishes to demonstrate that he has not taken for himself even a shekel. Pharaoh owned it all. Moshe owned nothing.  

Throughout the narratives of the Bible, Moshe is humble. He will reveal to the daughters of Tzelafchad that he does not know the answer to the question of their inheritance. He will reveal in the case of the wood-chopper who gathered wood on the Sabbath that he does not know how to proceed. He will also confess his ignorance to those prevented from taking part in the Passover offering because of impurity. In each case, he must ask Gd for an answer. He could have faked it - who would have known? The Torah tells us that the single most important leader in Jewish history is thus defined by humility not by arrogance.


In light of the stark differences between Pharaoh and Moshe, I stand by my gut instinct that humility trumps self-confidence in leadership. Moshe inherited a crisis that could match that of any leader. As Jerrold Post says about the virtue of narcissism in leaders "when the historical moment passes, so too does the need." Moshe's leadership needed to be enduring. Thus, there was no place for leadership based on "it's all about me" because that is just plain narcissism. Moshe is the opposite of the poor players of history who strut and fret their hour upon the stage and then are heard no more. Those are the leaders full of sound and fury - full of themselves ­- who will ultimately signify nothing. That the leadership style exemplified by Moshe has preserved the Jewish people since the Exodus is proof that humility is Gd's archetype for enduring leadership.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Andy Rosenblatt

 

Please note: The new Weekly Torah Primer will be sent on Mondays, going forward.

 

Vacation Primer #2 - December 29

Dear Chaverim,

Last week we published our first Vacation Torah Primer and we set a new record for Schara Tzedeck, the highest click through rate in our history!!  We learned a little about what people enjoyed and what they passed over.  We have tried to include a slightly more refined list for Parshat Shemot.  

We encourage you to take the opportunity to do some individual learning. To further this effort I have compiled some sources on the Torah reading of the following week, Shemot, Shabbat of January 6, 2018.

The Mitzvah of Torah study is a daily one, you might choose to pick one of these sources for each day of the week to build a steady diet of Torah study.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Andy Rosenblatt

Print

Rav Shimon Klein

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Dr. Yael Shemesh


For Kids Torah Tots--a page for younger children

Parsha Pages for Youth (a multi page packet, with English, Hebrew, Sudoku and Cartoons on the Parsha)

Audio Torah From Yeshiva University

Parshat Shemot: From Elastigirl to Excalibur - Moshe's Origin Story

Canadian

Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner: Mental Health in Jewish Law - Canadian

Dr. Yael Ziegler

Vancouver Torah Learning Centre

Rabbi Ari Federgrun's classes:

Why Bury? Different Perspectives on the Body After Death

Life After Death: Perspectives on the Soul


 

 

 

Vacation Torah Study Primer - December 23

Dear Chaverim,

The next couple weeks often offer some extra time off work and school with both statutory holidays, school holidays and a general slowdown in the pace of business in most professions.  We encourage you to take the opportunity to do some individual learning. To further this effort I have compiled some sources on the Torah reading of the following week, The Shabbat of December 30th, Parshat Vayechi.   This is really just a sample of the vast world of electronic Torah.  In this sampling you will find, video, audio and print sources, local, Israeli and North American content.  We have also included a special site for kids, Torah Tots.

The Mitzvah of Torah study is a daily one, you might choose to pick one of these sources for each day of the week to build a steady diet of Torah study.

Print

Rav Yoel Bin Nun

http://etzion.org.il/en/yaakov%E2%80%99s-blessings-menashe-and-efraim

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

http://rabbisacks.org/parsha/vayechi/

For Kids

Torah Tots--a page for younger children

http://www.torahtots.com/parsha.htm

Parsha Pages for Youth (a multi page packet, with English, Hebrew, Sudoku and Cartoons on the Parsha)

https://docs.wixstatic.com/ugd/87a86f_27996fa5757d4d278b88ffbbb9a5fbde.pdf

Audio Torah From Yeshiva University

Did Joseph Forgive His Brothers?

http://www.yutorah.org/sidebar/lecture.cfm/891493/rabbi-yehuda-turetsky/machshava-on-the-parsha-did-yosef-ever-forgive-his-brothers-rabbeinu-bechayeh-ohr-hachaim-and-rav-shteinman/

On Wills and Estates

http://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/870733/rabbi-daniel-stein/wills-and-estate-planning/

Shani Taragin--Yosef and Yehuda the first Religious Zionists.

http://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/870855/mrs-shani-taragin/yosef-and-yehudah-the-first-religious-zionist-leaders/

Canadian

Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner  

http://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/801766/rabbi-mordechai-torczyner-yu-torah-mitzion-toronto-kollel

 

Vancouver Torah Learning Centre


 

iBelieve?: The Age of the Universe by Rabbi Federgrun of the Vancouver Torah Learning Centre

http://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/891567/rabbi-ari-federgrun/ibelieve-the-age-of-the-universe/

The Housing Crisis and the Ethics of Rent Control by Rabbi Federgrun (VTLC)

http://www.yutorah.org/lectures/lecture.cfm/891568/rabbi-ari-federgrun/the-housing-crisis-and-the-ethics-of-rent-control/

Video

Rav Shlomo Riskin

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g4DDEEbKy6o  

Rav Yitzchak Breitowitz

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o4xziGHkpaM  

Rav Benny Lau (Hebrew)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E_PkWaYSyLY

Print (Hebrew / English toggle is available) Torah From the Bar Ilan Faculty

https://www.biu.ac.il/JH/Parasha/eng/vayechi/vayechi.shtml

 

 

 

Chanukah Stories - December 15
 

Dear Chaverim,

The following is a modified version of the Yizkor Sermon of Yom Kippur 5778 - reproduced here for its connection to Chanukah.

There is a story told of many generations of the Hasidic masters:

When the Baal Shem Tov had a difficult task before him, he would go to a certain place in the woods, light a fire and meditate in prayer - and what he had set out to perform was done. A generation later, when the Maggid of Mezeritch was faced with the same task he would go to the same place in the words and say, "we can no longer light the fire, but we can still speak the prayers - and what he wanted done became reality. Again, a generation later, Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov had to perform this task. He too went into the woods and said, "we can no longer light a fire, no more do we know the secret meditations belonging to the prayer, but we do know the place in the woods to which it all belongs and that must be sufficient." And sufficient it was. But when another generation had passed and Rabbi Israel of Ruzhin was called upon to perform the task, he sat down on his golden chair in his castle and said, "we cannot light the fire, we cannot speak the prayers, we do not know the place, but we can tell the story of how it was done."  And the storyteller adds, the story which he told had the same effect as the actions of the other three.  

I have told this before, but I need to tell it again. I find it sums up so much of what animates my own Judaism, my own life. There is something about the act of telling our stories that is powerfully animating.

There is some research that reflects the power of narrative as a tool for attaining resilience. Psychologist Dan McAdams of Northwestern University found that people who feel they live meaningful lives and contribute to society share a narrative pattern. They tell stories that focus on redemption. The act of telling stories of redemption is itself redemptive. These stories are transformative because they teach us how to move from trouble to rescue, from adversity to strength, and from bad to good. Redemptive stories turn suffering into a positive emotional state. In our Canadian lexicon of heroes the best-known versions of these stories are of Terry Fox and Rick Hanson ­- both of whom turned a life-changing diagnosis into meaningful action.   

The Torah teaches the lesson of meaningful narrative in the negative example of the prophet Jonah. Jonah ends up in the belly of the great fish because he refuses to believe in transformation and change. He is disgusted by the idea that Gd would forgive the people of Nineveh, because in his estimation their transformation is only a veneer. Jonah paraphrases the covenant of forgiveness in which Gd is described as patient, slow to anger, merciful and truthful. However, Jonah cannot utter the word truthful in the context of Gd's judgement of Nineveh and swaps in the words, forgiving of evil in place of truthful.

As a Jewish community, we have been bequeathed millions of stories of redemption. They are the stories of immigrants from Nazi-occupied lands, Russia, the Soviet Union, Iraq, Morocco, and Egypt. They are the stories of people who fought Hitler and communism and who built the State of Israel and the institutions of our community.

The stories of our grandparents are redemptive. They are about bravery, perseverance, and faith. We are sometimes made jealous by their stories, because we know that we are not as tough as they were. We know that we live pampered and coddled lives compared to the adversity they overcame.  

When we begin our narratives with, "my bubbe used to, or my zeyde used to..."  we become bound to them through their stories. They connect us to something important. They help us understand our place of belonging in the broader world. They help us to make their story our own. They help us to be the continuation of their acts of redemption.

The declaration of this is how my grandparents did this is a transformative moment. It is when their action becomes mine. It is when the signature of a ritual, recipe, or act of charity becomes more than an instant. It becomes a signature of identity.

As we connect with a particular story from bubbe and zeyde, they connect us to the larger transformative narrative of the Jewish people. Passover, Chanukah, Shavuot, and the catalogue of Jewish holidays articulate our resonance with a transformative history.

A limitation of Jewish education in the classroom is that it does not completely connect the student to the transformative narrative of the Jewish people. When the stories are told only in the classroom they run the risk of just being academic exercises.

This is an unfortunate truth of Jewish supplementary schooling in North America. One of the prevailing themes of religious education in the baby boom era was that parents wanted to drop their children off to soak up Jewish content in their education. The most satisfied parents were those who felt that by sending their children to a Jewish school, they were free to do as they pleased at home, work, and in the community at large. This sentiment was summed up by a participant of a landmark study of the Chicago suburbs - the Lakeville Study - reported anonymously to shield the Chicago community from embarrassment. "I like [it]. It gives my boy a good Hebrew education. And they've left me alone - I've never been inside." Another acknowledged: "We joined for the kids. The kids like it. We are satisfied. We feel no need for religion." (Wertheimer, Jack. "Jewish Education in the United States: Recent Trends and Issues." The American Jewish Year Book, 1999,3-115).

The authors of the study said the following.

Parents who hold to a pattern of minimal ritualism appear to rely primarily, and in some cases, almost exclusively, on the religious school for the Jewish socialization of their children. This dependence on the Jewish school constitutes a radical departure from the traditional approach to the rearing of the Jewish child. In past eras, the effort of the school to transmit the culture to their children represented merely a continuation of efforts already initiated by the parents. In North America that changed and the function of socialization into Jewish life, knowledge and culture has been separated from its traditional moorings in the family.

Our job is to connect the future generations to an ongoing story to ensure that they know we are all connected to the great story of Jewish transformation.  

One more story that captures the idea.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz recounted that the first year after his zeyde died, he went to his bubbe to light Chanukah candles. He lit them and saw that his bubbe was sad. "Bubbe, I know why you are sad. You miss zeyde. I also miss zeyde." "No," said bubbe, "that's not why I'm sad." "Did I make a mistake in the lighting? Did I do anything wrong?" "No. What you did was fine." "So, bubbe, why are you sad?" "Because," said Rabbi Steinsaltz's bubbie, "zeyde would dance after he lit the candles. You lit the candles but you didn't dance."

I think what has been lost is best told by a story. Yeshivot and day schools are indispensable. They are a cornerstone of Jewish life. They are part of the future of the Jewish diaspora. We would be entirely hopeless without them. However, we must remember they are a supplement to - not a substitute for - the transmission of our Messorah, tradition, Torah, Jewish identity, and our story.

It is hard to imagine schools being able to deliver that kind of memory and transcendence of the moment when zeyde dances. Connection of that magnitude is nearly irreproducible in the school context.

We must make our Jewish education vertical and integrated. Jewish education cannot be the alternative to the family. Jewish education must be an extension of Jewish family and community.  

We feel a little sheepish. Who dances after lighting Chanukah candles? Do we even feel worthy or authentic dancing at the Chanukah candles? I am not sure we have a choice. We need to recapture those stories, those moments. We have to ensure that we sing the kiddush and dance at Friday night services. We have to get our hands messy together making challah. We have to cry together at Yom Hashoah and Tisha B'av. We have to sing together when we make the charoset and dine at the seder table. We have to tell the story of how our grandparents built the schools and saved Israel in '48 and '67. We have to tell the story of how they survived Lodz and Warsaw, how they sang Selichot on the chain gangs, and how they resettled refugees and gave immigrants jobs. We have to know we are all vehicles of Jewish education. We are all links in the chain and, yes, we do need to dance after lighting the Chanukah candles.

I have written many eulogies for bubbes and the zeydes - enough to know that we have the stories and the moments to keep the narrative going.  

We cannot light the fire - that generation has faded. We cannot speak the prayers - that generation has gone silent. We do not know the place - that generation has passed through. However, we can tell the story of how it all was done. Each generation's storytellers add to the story to the same effect as those who went before. In the telling, across the thread of time and place, we all dance around the light of the Menorah.

Good Shabbos,

Rabbi Andy Rosenblatt 

Fri, 19 October 2018 10 Cheshvan 5779