Archive for category Philosophy
Published at Aish.com
Will Rogers couldn’t have said it better: “No nation has ever had more, yet no nation has ever had less.” And it’s easy to understand why the two go together.
The Talmud describes a person obsessed by the dream of becoming rich. If only he had a million dollars, he would be happy. So he labors tirelessly, clawing and scratching to amass his fortune, until what happens? The moment he finally makes his million, he immediately sets his sights on two million.
Human nature dictates that the more we have, the more we want. And the more we believe that we are entitled to have whatever we want, the less inclined we are either to be grateful for what we have or to recognize our obligations to others.
It’s somewhat heartening, therefore, that Thanksgiving has retained so prominent a place in American culture, even if most of us rarely give a passing thought to the Puritan ideals that gave birth to the holiday.
Published in Mishpacha Magazine, 9 October 2013
Returning from a tour of Europe in the 1930s, the American humorist Will Rogers reported on the governments that had sprung up out of the chaos that followed World War I. Among his observations was this comment regarding the newly established Soviet Union: “In Russia, they got no income tax. But they also got no income.”
I was able to witness those effects for myself, up close and personal, in 1993. That was the year my wife and I taught high school in Budapest, Hungary.
We had been warned what to expect, and had been told anecdotally of a soap factory in which dozens of workers colluded with management to dilute the soap formula by adding 3% water. The result was the production of an extra 30 bars of soap per thousand, which were divvied up among the employees to be sold on the black market.
The proletariat living in the communist bloc “workers’ paradise” were thereby able to supplement an annual income that supported them for only a fraction of the year. And if an average bar of soap lasted only 33 days instead of 34, who was going to notice?
Arriving after nine years in Israel, my wife and I discovered that the Talmudic classification of tinok she’nishba – a kidnapped child raised in a society of thieves (Shavuos 5a) – is far more than a theoretical construct. The children we met, who had grown up behind the Iron Curtain with little exposure to basic moral values, were frightening examples of their environment. An alarming percentage of them had raised lying, stealing, and cheating to the level of high art.
Click here to read the whole article.
First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.
Martin Niemöller, the Germany clergyman who authored these words, was one of the few who did speak out against Adolph Hitler in the early days of the Nazi party. While the majority of Germans traded conscience for convenience by closing their eyes to the atrocities perpetrated upon their own countrymen, his solitary cry for reason still echoes amidst the silence.
For his troubles, Martin Niemöller was arrested in 1937 and eventually interred in Sachsenhausen and Dachau until his eventual liberation in 1945. He lived until 1984, a voice of penance among the German people.
Among lesser known heroes is Irena Sendler, who risked her life to save some 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto between 1942 and 1943. Working secretly as a member of Żegota, the Council for Jewish Aid, and using her position as an administrator for the Warsaw Social Welfare Department, Irena first tried to divert food, clothing, and medicine to Jews in the Ghetto, subsequently going door to door offering Jewish parents a chance to save their children’s lives.
“In my dreams,” she said, “I still hear the cries when they left their parents.”
One by one, Irena smuggled the children out in ambulances, gunnysacks, and body bags, finding families of Polish gentiles willing to take them in. She recorded the name of every child and hid her lists in jars she buried in a neighbor’s yard. After the war, she dug up the names and attempted to reunite the children with their families, most of whom had perished in the death camps.
On October 20, 1943, Irena was arrested by the Gestapo, who broke her legs and feet trying to force from her the names of the families who harbored the Jewish children. Refusing to divulge her secrets, Irena eventually escaped imprisonment and lived out the remainder of the war in hiding.
In 1965, Yad Vashem recognized Irena as one of the Polish Righteous Among the Nations. In 2007, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The prize was awarded that year to Al Gore for his movie on global warming.
Few people had heard of Irena Sendler until 1999, when a high school history teacher in Kansas came across a passing reference to her in U. S. News and World Report. Three students began a research project that culminated in their award-winning play, Life in a Jar, which has since been performed hundreds of times across North America and Europe.
Authentic heroism arises from intolerance for evil, from an unwillingness to stand idly by in the face of injustice no matter how improbable the odds and no matter how dire the consequences. Like Moses, who struck down the Egyptian he found beating an innocent Jew, a person of conscience may at any moment find himself facing a critical decision between common sense and common decency, where action appears pointless but where inaction amounts to an alliance with evil. A true hero is one who recognizes that such a choice is no choice at all.
“I could have done more,” Irena said. “This regret will follow me to my death.”
For more information about other unsung heroes, visit the Lowell Milken Center.
The moment the rabbi walked through the door all the students jumped to their feet… and I looked about desperately for a way out of the room.
The rabbi wore a long coat, a wide, antiquated black hat, an untrimmed beard, Coke-bottle spectacles and, incredibly, sidelocks. I knew — I just knew — what was going to happen next: the rabbi would lecture us in a thick German accent and tell us we were all damned to hell. There was no way I could sit through such an ordeal.
Read the whole article here.
The Israelites have been showered with benefits — and now the complaints begin.
The Jewish people are in possession of a perfect and comprehensive system of laws which is destined to have a tremendous positive influence on their spiritual, intellectual, and cultural development. Livelihood is no problem; all their physical needs are provided, and their food descends miraculously from the heavens daily. And then “it came to pass that the people were like complainers, evil in the ears of G-d.”
The verse doesn’t specify what their complaint was; in fact it implies that they didn’t say anything specific. They were “like complainers,” murmuring discontentedly under their breath, showing vague feelings of dissatisfaction. They felt what they had was no good anymore; they wanted more, although they themselves had no clear idea of what “more” exactly they wanted. Whatever the case, this state of mind indicated a lack of gratitude, giving rise to a sense of deprivation. To put it bluntly, they were whining.
What caused them to whine? The Sages’s answer is incisive:
“They weren’t complaining; rather they were resentful. They were looking for an excuse to break away from G-d” (Yalkut Shimoni, Bamidbar 732).
Several verses later, we see another outbreak of grumbling:
“And the riffraff among them started having strong cravings.”
Again, we aren’t told what they craved. They were experiencing discomfort; they felt something was lacking, but didn’t know what. One thing was clear: they were not satisfied.
Only after this mood of discontent spread, encompassing a larger portion of the people, did their demands take on a definite form:
“And the Israelites, too, sat down and wept, and they said, ‘Who will give us meat to eat?’”
At that moment, the craving for meat became the central goal, the be-all and end-all for the people of Israel, those same people whom G-d lifted out of Egypt in order to bestow a unique, eternal legacy. But they talked themselves into a craving, and to fulfill that craving, they needed to agitate with all their might. This became their raison d’être, revealing their weak nature.
The craving for meat distorted their mental function; it clouded their memories, causing them to make claims that a person would be ashamed to voice under normal conditions. What were they saying?
“We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.”
What sort of mechanism was at work here? Is there a logical explanation for their behavior?
The secret of all this is found in the world chinam – “free.” It was a Freudian slip, pointing to what was really bothering them on a deeper level, the real complaint they were ashamed to talk about. The truth was that they were complaining about the yoke of Torah and mitzvos that had been placed on their shoulders, a yoke meant to restrain their wild human impulses, which had run riot in Egypt, even as they were being enslaved and oppressed. The transition from external subjugation to a state of freedom that required character training and self-restraint was too much for them. It made them feel rebellious and conjured up fanciful memories of the delights of Egypt and the fish they ate there for free.
Yes, it was absurd of them to be demanding meat when they had manna from the heavens, offering them the taste of every food in the world. But when the source of their rebellion, the subconscious rationale underlying it, is revealed, then their behavior becomes comprehensible — and considering where they came from, even understandable.
Perhaps we can see something of ourselves here, something of the permissive society that never stops demanding meat, and destroys all that is good in our world.
Read Rabbi Grylak’s full article here.
Rabbi Yechezkel Fox was the heir-apparent to his father’s expanding kosher empire. But that path remained forever the road not taken. Instead, his quiet fishing expeditions and leisurely walks through the British countryside left his mind free to ponder the meaning of life and the nature of the universe. One day he told his traditional parents he was going to Israel to study in yeshiva. Like so many others, they thought he had gone mad.
He would spend the rest of his life pursuing his passion for learning Torah, teaching others and inspiring them to return to the traditions of their people.
Read my tribute here.
Zebadiah Carter describes himself living in “an era when homicide kills more people than cancer and the favorite form of suicide is to take a rifle up some tower and keep shooting until the riot squad settles it.” In 1980, this remark by the main character in a Robert Heinlein novel sounded like the science fiction that it was. Now it echoes like a prophecy.
Random acts of mass violence in the United States still horrify us but no longer shock us. We’ve heard too many stories, seen too many pictures. And too many of them are depressingly the same.
Read the whole article here.
What would you ask of a time traveler from a hundred years ago? And if you traveled a hundred years into the future, what would you want to tell the people you found there? Perhaps it would sound something like this:
What did you do to handle the overpopulations we predicted? How did you protect the seashores? What did you do to keep the ozone layer intact, the energy supplies, the trees? Have you eliminated ignorance, brutality, greed?
There might be no better way to discover unexamined truths about ourselves then by composing a letter to our grandchildren’s grandchildren. This was certainly on the mind of award-winning essayist Roger Rosenblatt a quarter century ago when he penned his deeply thoughtful Letter to 2086.
Read the whole article here.
Hat tip: David Rich
An elaboration of remarks made this week at the l’chaim for my son Yaakov and his kallah, Amanda:
It’s especially fitting to celebrate an engagement this week, when we will observe Shabbos Shira. It’s difficult for us to imagine what it was like for the Jews of Egypt when, after watching the systematic and miraculous obliteration of the empire that had oppressed them for generations, after witnessing the death of four-fifths of their brethren who refused to trust in the hand of heaven, after setting forth into the forbidding desert with great wealth and fanfare, after finding themselves trapped between Pharaoh’s advancing chariots and the unyielding sea – after all that, to launch themselves forward between towering walls of water may have been the only option available to them but was by no means a simple act of self-preservation.
Panic, desperation, terror, relief, and disbelief – all these emotions caromed back and forth through their collective consciousness as they raced forward into uncertainty. And, as they came out soundly on the other side, the cacophony of thoughts and feelings coalesced into a divinely inspired harmony we call the Shir Shel Yam – the Song of the Sea.
For all that, the commentaries all question the syntax of the opening phrase, Oz yoshir Moshe u’vnei Yisroel – contextually translated as, “Then, Moshe and the Children of Israel sang,” but curiously rendered in the future tense rather than the past. Explains the Sfas Emes: although the people were inspired to sing as they passed through the sea, their preoccupation with the practical business of fleeing for their lives demanded that their lyrical expression of elation would have to wait until their salvation was completed.
And so we learn that Hashem is closest to us not during those times when we have already connected with Him, but rather when we are seeking Him with the sense that revelation is nearly within reach. Naturally, we express our deepest gratitude after we have been saved. But our most intimate connection with the Almighty comes during those moments when salvation is imminent but not yet complete. Only then can we experience the spiritual intensity of absolute dependence upon divine intervention even as we see our redemption unfolding before our eyes.
Indeed, the Zohar tells us that Moshe Rabbeinu felt humbled when he beheld prophetically the generation before the coming of Moshiach. For Moshe, who lived in an era of open miracles and divine revelation, it seemed a simple matter to trust in Hashem and His providence. But to live in a generation of such spiritual darkness that even the faintest glimmer of divine light seemed to have vanished, and to retain nevertheless even the smallest shred of faithfulness to Hashem and His Torah – that was something the Moshe himself could not fathom; that was the source of his profound humility.
We find ourselves in such a generation, so much so that it’s easy for us to reckon ourselves like King Louis XV of France who said, “Things may last my time, but after me – le deluge.”
It’s terrifying to contemplate the world in which our grandchildren will grow up and the storms our children will have to navigate. But on the occasion of this l’chaim, I’m filled with hope.
After two decades of trying, by constant teaching and imperfect modeling, to instill in my children the primacy of middos tovos, after laboring to impress upon them by any means that qualities such as honesty, integrity, loyalty, modesty, and respect are the foundations of Torah life and Torah society, I thank the Ribono Shel Olam that my son has chosen a young woman whose impeccably fine character testifies to the quality of her parents and her upbringing. I look with nachas at my own son, whose maturation into a ben Torah and a ba’al middos testifies to the inscrutable power of tefillah.
And looking at them, I feel as the Jews must have felt when they were passing through the Yam Suf – I want to sing shira. For as frightened as I am for them and all the challenges they will have to face, they give me hope for the future and inspire me with confidence that very soon we will all merit the final redemption and the coming of Moshiach.
Originally posted at Beyondbt.com.