Posts Tagged Jewish Philosophy

True Gratitude

Parshas Pekudei

The contributions were enough … and there was extra (Shemos 36:7).

This week’s parsha continues the narrative of the mishkan, beginning with an accounting of all the materials donated by the Jewish people.  When Moshe had appealed for donations, the Jews had responded with such eagerness and enthusiasm that  Moshe had to ask them not to bring any more.

Curiously, the Torah seems to contradict itself in its description of how much the people contributed:  first we are told that they brought enough; then, in the same verse, we are told that there was extra.  Did the bring enough or more than enough?  It cannot have been both.

imagesExplains the Ohr HaChaim:  Yes, the people had brought more than enough.  But those who had donated so selflessly deserved to have their contributions accepted, not turned away.  Therefore, Hashem miraculously adjusted the needs of the Sanctuary to meet the amount contributed so that everything the people had given would be incorporated into the construction of the mishkan, the place where G-d and the Jewish nation were to meet.

Here we find a profound insight into ha-kores ha-tov, gratitude and appreciation.  It is human nature to be grateful when we are in need.  However, it is also human nature to lose our sense of appreciation once our needs have been fulfilled.  Out of sight, out of mind is one of the more unfortunate attitudes common to the human condition.

Really, it should be just the opposite.  We should be even more grateful for the past once we are no longer in need, since it was past acts of kindness and charity that enabled us to reach our present circumstance of independence and security.  To forget those who helped us in the past simply because we no longer need them is a crass disregard for Torah values.

After a long and successful career, Mr. Rosenberg closed his New York law practice and retired to Florida, where he lived on an annuity purchased with his savings.  And every year, he happily gave a donation of $5000 when the Ponevizher Rav came fundraising for his yeshiva.

One year, the Ponevizher Rav’s driver advised him not to visit Mr. Rosenberg, explaining that the elderly gentleman’s annuity had run out and that the rav would only embarrass him by asking for a donation that he could no longer give.

imgresBut the Ponevizher Rav insisted on making his visit nonetheless.  When Mr. Rosenberg began to apologize that he could not help, the rav cut him off.  “You don’t understand why I’m here,” he explained.  “After you supported us for so many years, it is now our turn to support you.”  For the next eight years, the Ponevizh yeshiva sent Mr. Rosenberg a check every month in the amount of his expired annuity.

It is easy to show appreciation for what others are doing for us now.  It is a sign of genuine gratitude to remember what others have done for us after we no longer need them.

Adapted from last week’s drasha by Rav Menachem Tendler of U. City Shul

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Double Down for Spiritual Success

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson

 

From last week’s Mishpacha Magazine

imgresIt’s been more than a few decades since grade school, and most of my teachers have long ago faded from memory. But not my first-grade teacher. Not Mrs. Campbell.

The reason is simple: I hated her. We all hated her.

My second-most poignant memory of Mrs. Campbell is the time I came to her during recess with a stomachache bad enough to make me cry. Mrs. Campbell said it was my conscience bothering me for talking during class.

But it is a different incident that replays most often in my memory. Mrs. Campbell had left the class alone for a few minutes while she went off to do who-knows-what, instructing us to wait without talking until she returned. How an experienced teacher could leave a room full of six-year-olds unattended and expect them to remain silent remains an unsolved mystery. Predictably, we began chattering the moment the door closed behind her and then, too late, buttoned our collective lips the instant she reappeared.

“I said that no one should talk while I was gone,” she scolded. “Now, when I dismiss you for lunch, everyone who was talking will remain seated and only those who followed directions will stand up to be excused.” She paused to let the instructions sink in, then said, “Stand up to go to lunch.”

Every single child in the room stood up. Everyone, except me.

Mrs. Campbell then broke character and did what any competent educator would do. “Now I know that Jonathan wasn’t the only one talking,” she said. “Since he told the truth, he is excused for lunch and the rest of you will have to wait.”

imagesI tried not to look smug as I walked out alone and headed for my locker, already imagining the day when I would tell my children about the time I was the only one who told the truth. (Eventually I did, although my kids were not nearly as impressed as they ought to have been.)

Full disclosure: I am not George Washington, and if I were ever caught chopping down a cherry tree it’s an even bet I would have lied about it, to go along with the assortment of fibs I told during my formative years. And although I now look back on Mrs. Campbell with a measure of affection, the question that continues to resurface is why – why was I the only one out of two dozen first-graders who refused to lie that afternoon?

Only one explanation has ever come to mind: it just wasn’t worth it.

In Robert Bolt’s masterful drama A Man for all Seasons, Sir Thomas More asks why his protégé, Richard Rich, has testified falsely to condemn Sir Thomas for treason against the King of England. The prosecutor, Oliver Cromwell, reports that Rich has been appointed attorney-general for Wales.

Sir Thomas looks into Rich’s face with pain and amusement and replies, “For Wales? Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world . . . But for Wales!”

(In terms of prestige, the office of attorney-general for pre-Elizabethan Wales might be comparable to lieutenant-governor of North Dakota today.)

In other words, the betrayal of a friend and mentor might be understandable – if not defensible – for a princely sum or extraordinary power, but never for a pittance. At least let the reward be commensurate with the crime when forsaking one’s portion in the World to Come.

I imagine the workings of my own mind so many years ago in much the same way. Certainly I was capable of lying. But why waste a perfectly good lie on such a trivial advantage as a few extra minutes on the playground? It simply wasn’t worth it.

And even though I have already confessed to the occasional untruth, I cannot deny that from that moment forward lying never came easy to me. Every impulse to prevaricate met a quiet but insistent voice – Mrs. Campbell’s? – warning me to distance myself from the nearest false word.

imagesIn hindsight, it seems obvious that Mrs. Campbell had reinforced some innate sensitivity to Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi’s lesson of s’char mitzvah k’neged hefseida: “Calculate the reward of a transgression against its cost” (Avos 2:1). If that lesson appears to have grown increasingly incomprehensible to our generation, quite possibly it is because we can no longer appreciate the preceding lesson, “Calculate the cost of a mitzvah against its reward.”

 

In his classic essay on the nekudas habechirah – the point of free will – Rav Dessler explains that the clash between yetzer hara and yetzer tov rages on the battlefront where there is an even balance between the ratzon ha’emes and the ratzon hadimyon, between our perception of truth as it is and our perception of truth as we want it to be. For those of us willing to take a cold, hard look at ourselves, Rav Dessler’s formulation offers a solid defense against the relentless erosion of priorities.

The unpleasant truth is that we give far too little thought to either the value of our mitzvos or the consequences of our transgressions. If we did, would we consistently scurry into davening even five minutes late, let alone stroll in halfway through Pesukei D’zimra? Would we find trivial small talk so compelling that we casually interrupt Chazaras Hashatz and Torah reading, indifferent to the warnings of Shulchan Aruch?

Too often, we are utterly disconnected from the lessons that are right before our eyes. Pictures of the Chofetz Chaim hang in every house without making a perceptible dent in the steady flow of lashon hara. Shammai tells us to greet every person pleasantly, yet we can’t manage a smile or even a passing glance for either our gentile neighbors or our fellow Jews.

Even when we prevail over the temptation, our victories can be hollow. We make time for learning, but we neglect the review necessary to retain what we learn. We pay for our children’s Torah education, but we begrudge the expense, even though we would willingly lay out the same money for luxuries of no intrinsic value. We sacrifice to give charity, but we bristle or sigh when a knock on the door interrupts our dinner or our recreation.

Clearly, our vision of the emes is anything but clear. What can we do to regain clarity?

 

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananyah offers this allegory:

A man went to the pond to cut a bundle of reeds. It was too heavy for him to lift, so he cut more and laid the new bundles atop the first until someone came along and helped him carry them all (Bechoros 8b).

imagesExplains the Vilna Gaon: Because the Jewish people neglected the Torah, they found themselves exiled from their land. Nevertheless, we – their descendants – persevere in keeping the mitzvos. Despite the added hardships of exile, we shoulder the additional burdens of rabbinic mitzvos – like the reed-cutter adding to his load even though he cannot carry what he already has – all the time waiting for Moshiach to redeem us so that we can resume our proper service before the Master of All.

We have to refocus so that we see things as they really are. And, simplistic as it may seem, the way to take things more seriously is to treat things more seriously. Can’t get to davening on time? Schedule your arrival 15 minutes early to say korbanos or the day’s Tehillim. Feel too strapped to give charity? Double your usual donation.

When approached by a simple Jew who claimed he had only half an hour a week to learn Torah, Rav Yisroel Salanter famously advised him to learn mussar (works of Torah ethics). The baal habayis questioned why Talmud or practical law was not a higher priority, to which Rav Yisroel replied: “Learn mussar, and you’ll find that you have more than half an hour available to learn.”

In other words, by putting in more effort we discover what we should have known all along:  it’s worth it.

And it really works. Taking my cue from Rabbi Benzion Twerski of Milwaukee, I began giving a weekly class in prayer, hoping that my own uninspired davening might benefit from the course of study. Five years and 35 printed outlines later (and still less than halfway through Shemoneh Esrei), my davening has been transformed into a wholly different experience.

And the rewards extend vastly beyond my own tefillos.

On one occasion, when my son was a high school senior, I chided him for the supersonic pace at which he davened. “You don’t understand,” he replied. Then, derisively: “You like to daven!

But the message got through. Imagine my delight when he informed me, a few short years later, that he had just switched to the local Agudah for morning minyan. “That other place davens way too fast,” he complained.

Now there’s a story I can tell his children.

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Tu B’Shevat: The Roots of Wisdom

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson

From Celestial Navigation, a publication of Block Yeshiva

images[Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah] used to say:  Anyone whose wisdom exceeds his good deeds – to what is he similar? To a tree whose branches are many and whose roots are few; then the wind will come and uproot it and turn it over. As it is said: “And he will be like a lonely tree in a wasteland that will not see when good comes. It will dwell on parched soil in the desert, on a salted land, uninhabited” (Yirmyahu 17:6). But one whose deeds exceed his wisdom — to what is he similar? To a tree whose branches are few and whose roots are many; even if all the winds in the world come and blow against it, they will not move it from its place. As it is said: “And he shall be like a tree planted by the water spreading its roots toward the stream, and it will not notice when heat comes. Its leaves will be fresh, in a year of drought it will not worry, and it shall not cease yielding fruit” (ibid., 17:8).

Pirkei Avos 3:22

On the surface, Rabbi Elazar’s allegory appears easy to understand.  Scholarship alone is not enough; only when wisdom influences action and produces virtue will it endure.

On closer examination, however, the image of a tree raises many questions.  If wisdom is the source of action, why does Rabbi Elazar not compare wisdom to the roots and good deeds to the branches?  Just as roots draw sustenance from the earth to nourish the tree, similarly the roots in the allegory should represent the wisdom that fosters action.

Moreover, granted that wisdom is not enough, and that without good deeds a person is like a tree without adequate support, why describe a tree with few branches in the second part of the allegory?  If a person has many good deeds, why do the “branches” of his wisdom still have to be “few”?

And what is the point of mentioning the wind at all?  Would it not have been simpler to describe a tree so unstable that it is in danger of toppling under its own weight, regardless of external forces?

Finally, why does Rabbi Elazar prove his lesson with verses describing land that is either parched or abundantly watered?  Since the tree has no control over its environment, how are these verses relevant to his illustration?

THE ROAD OF GOOD INTENTIONS

Rabbi Abraham Twersky writes that when he was a boy, a visiting rabbi asked him the following question:  Since the Torah equates thought with action, then thinking of a question should be the same as actually speaking it.  “If so,” concluded the rabbi, “you should be able to answer the question I am thinking at this moment.”

The young Abraham Twersky offered the only reply that seemed to make sense:  “I am thinking of the answer,” he said.

The Torah’s equation of thought and deed informs us that thoughts are the first step toward actions and that actions are imperfect without sincere intent.  Nevertheless, thoughts alone are not enough: although wisdom is indisputably the source of action, it is action that secures and preserves our wisdom.  In the famous words of the Sefer HaChinuch, “man is drawn according to his deeds; his heart and all his thoughts follow inevitably after his actions, whether for good or for bad.”[1]

Unless properly channeled, wisdom comes to nothing; even worse, it may become twisted and corrupted through rationalization.˜

imagesUnderstood this way, actions are indeed the roots that support wisdom and enable it to endure, whereas scholarship that is not proportional to the measure of good deeds creates moral and spiritual instability.  Esoteric scholarship that is not firmly grounded in practical wisdom and disciplined behavior becomes first a distraction and ultimately a danger.  One who dabbles excessively in theoretical studies with little relevance to everyday life can easily become so lost in his musings that he neglects the mundane but essential responsibilities of worldly existence.

PRACTICE MAKES PERMANENT

Whether or not we like it, as human beings we are creatures of habit.  This can work against us:  we easily fall into routine, often fail to give our activities the full attention they require, and frequently resist thinking outside the box.  But routine can work in our favor as well.  Just as bad habits are broken only with difficulty, good habits propel us in the right direction even when our minds are elsewhere.

Why do star basketball players invest hours a day shooting free throws, and why do actors rehearse their lines again and again, long after they have learned them by heart?  Because they understand that the more a person practices the more he implants natural actions and reactions into his subconscious, until they become woven into the fiber of his being.  The routine of repetition leaves an imprint upon his behavior that will govern his actions for the rest of his life.

Similarly, the more good deeds we perform, the more we inculcate good behavior into our psyche, and the greater the likelihood that we will continue to conduct ourselves in the same manner.  When the winds of temptation, of impulsivity, of self-interest, and of self-indulgence blow against us, the scholar will easily buckle before them unless he has trained himself in the performance of good deeds proportional to his scholarship.

THE WATERS OF VIRTUE

Why does one tree develop a complex root system when another becomes overgrown with branches?  A tree that is planted near water easily stretches out its roots to absorb the ready supply of life-giving water that surrounds it.  In contrast, a tree planted in parched soil sends its branches in all direction as it attempts to absorb moisture from the atmosphere.  Its search for sustenance creates its instability.

Unlike trees, which have no control over where they take root, human beings can determine their own environment.  If one chooses to live among people unconcerned with the goodness of their deeds, then he will become like a “lonely tree in a wasteland that will not see good when it comes.”  Without support from a community committed to virtuous conduct, even if one studies Torah and increases his wisdom, his wisdom will not endure, for it will remain disconnected from the actions necessary to preserve and protect it.

However, if he “plants” himself in a community devoted to applying the wisdom of Torah to concrete actions, then he will flourish, without fear of depletion, and will always enjoy the spiritual fruits of his labors.

According to Maharal, this equation is implicit in the Torah’s comment that man is a tree of the field (Devarim 20:19).[2]  We are in this world to grow, to stretch forth our branches, to reach for the heavens but remain firmly planted on the earth, to sustain the world with the fruit of our efforts by striving to fulfill the unique potential that resides in every one of us.  When our intellect guides our actions according to the laws and the values of the Torah, then our branches become an extension of our roots, and we find ourselves securely fastened to both this world and the World to Come.

imagesThe insights of Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah offer a deeper understanding into the essence of Tu B’Shevat, when we celebrate the New Year of the trees.  Just as Rosh Hashanah reminds us that the whole world was created for man, Tu B’Shevat reminds us of man’s obligations to the world in which he lives.  The resources upon which we depend similarly depend on us, and the fruits of the natural world that sustain us will be sustained only when the fruits of our labors are so directed that they draw Hashem’s blessings back down from the heavens and replenish the bounty of the earth.

And so Hashem took Adam and showed him the trees of the Gan Eden, saying, “See My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are!  Now all that I created is for you.  Take care that you do not destroy My world, for it there is no one to repair it after you.”[3]


[1] Parshas Bo, mitzvah 16

[2] Derech HaChaim, ad loc.

[3] Koheles Rabbah 7:13

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The Death Watch

ARE YOU READY FOR THE END OF TIME?

Whether or not you’re a fan of science fiction, it’s always intriguing when our life in the present imitates the art of our past.

time_space_fabric_coverIn Robert A. Heinlein’s first published story, Life-line, Professor Pinero builds a machine that can predict any person’s day of death.  To verify Pinero’s claim, a committee of scientists submit to his examination, after which their names are sealed in separate envelopes, each with the date-of-death printed on the outside, and locked away for  future verification.  The first to die is Pinero himself, murdered by zealots who believe he is tampering with Fate.  Upon learning of Pinero’s death, the chairman of the science committee calls for the box of envelopes and, after determining that Pinero had accurately predicted his own demise, burns the whole batch of envelopes to ashes.

So… what would you do?  If it were possible to predict the day of your death, would you want to know?

Well, now you can.

More or less.

Fredrik Colting has already taken 3000 orders for his new digital watch, the Tikker.  Instead of a single row of numbers, the Tikker has three.  One row tells the time like any ordinary watch.  However, a second row displays years, months, and days, while a third row displays hours, minutes, and seconds, inexorably counting down toward — you guessed it — the day you will die.

Mr. Colting has nicknamed his invention the happiness watch.

Click here to read the whole article.

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The Crossroads of Repentance

Parshas Bo

WHY IS THIS PLAGUE DIFFERENT FROM ALL OTHER PLAGUES?

imagesAt the outset of the Second Temple era some twenty-five hundred years ago, Ezra the Scribe oversaw the division of the Torah into parshios – portions, and set in place the practice of reading successive parshios publicly as part of the Sabbath morning prayer service.  In this way, the Jewish people would collectively review of the entire Torah from year to year.  The divisions of these parshios followed either historical, philosophical, or narrative patterns, so that each was, to some extent, self-contained with a particular thematic focus.

It is curious, therefore, that Ezra saw fit to place the first seven of the of the Egyptian Plagues into last week’s Torah portion, while leaving the final three for this week.

But that is not the only question.  The commentaries explain that the plagues can be arranged into three sets of three, with the final Plague upon the Firstborn in a class by itself.  Consequently, if it were necessary to divide the plagues at all, presumably it would be better to place the point of division after the sixth plague – which completes the second set of three – rather than after the seventh.

Nevertheless, a careful reading of the narrative reveals that the seventh plague does mark a watershed moment, not by virtue of the nature of the plague itself, but because of Pharaoh’s unprecedented reaction.

imgresAfter each of the previous plagues, Pharaoh had either stubbornly refused to yield or else promised to send the Jews out, only to revoke his permission once the plague was over.  But after the seventh plague of fiery hail, Pharaoh makes an astonishing admission:  This time I have sinned; G-d is righteous, and I and my people are wicked.

*****

In a discussion concerning the laws of marriage, the Talmud proposes an unlikely scenario, in which a man said to a woman, “You are betrothed to me on condition that I am atzaddik – a righteous man.”  The Talmud concludes that the betrothal is binding and the woman is married, even if the man is a person of dubious reputation.  Why?  Because it is possible, the sages explain, that at the moment he spoke he may indeed have repented the sins of a lifetime and became a truly righteous man (Kiddushin 49b).

If so, perhaps Pharaoh’s sincere confession when confronted by the irrefutable suspension of nature — as the incompatible forces of fire and ice were forced into partnership for the express purpose of punishing the Egyptians — opened a window of opportunity for him and his nation.

From the very beginning, the Almighty had made clear His plan that Pharaoh would not let the Jews go free, providing just cause “to multiply My miracles upon the land of Egypt.”  After each of the first five plagues, Pharaoh cooperated by hardening his own heart and refusing to let the people go.  In contrast, after each of the last plagues before Pharaoh’s capitulation, it was G-d who hardened Pharaoh’s heart:  once Pharaoh had discarded every opportunity to submit to the Divine Will, he forfeited the freedom to turn from the course he had chosen for himself through his earlier decisions.

After the seventh plague, however, we find both expressions:  first Pharaoh hardened his own heart; subsequently, G-d informs Moses that He has hardened Pharaoh’s heart.  How can both be true at the same time?

*****

imgresThe power of teshuva – repentance – is unimaginable.  In an instant, any individual can rewrite his past, erase a lifetime of misdeeds, and transform himself into the most righteous of men, if he sincerely desires to change and puts into effect a plan to embrace virtue.  Even Pharaoh, the paradigm of wanton evil, possessed the human potential to return to the path of justice and truth.  Having endowed every human being with the capacity for human renewal and redemption, G-d Himself cannot stand in the way of the truly repentant.

We might suggest, therefore, that when Pharaoh acknowledged both his own wickedness the justice of the Almighty, G-d had no power to further harden Pharaoh’s heart.  In that instant, Pharaoh had positioned himself at the threshold of true righteousness, and no force in the universe could stand in his way if he chose to take the final step forward.

No force, that is, except himself.  Pharaoh saw that the rain, the hail, and the thunder had ceased, and he continued to sin; and he made his heart stubborn…

The moment for change was lost and, having forfeited his chance, Pharaoh’s fate was assured.  Instead of seizing his opportunity and stepping forward into a new future, he stepped backward and toppled into the oblivion of his past.

And so last week’s parsha ends:  by flirting with repentance, Pharaoh held in his hand the opportunity to end the siege of plagues and halt the systematic destruction of his country.  But he failed to follow through, and so the plagues resume as this week’s parsha continues on.

How often do we find ourselves looking through a window of opportunity, offered the divine gift of sudden clarity into the condition of our souls and direction of our travels upon this earth?  How often are our eyes granted the vision to look upon our lives with true objectivity, to recognize in sharp relief the contrast between what we could achieve and how far we have fallen short of our potential?

And what do we do with these opportunities?  Do we rise to the challenge and resolutely chart a new course into the future, or do we take notice only for an instant and then, like Pharaoh, reflexively follow the promptings of pride and stubbornness by returning to the habits of the past?  Every such moment is ours for the taking or ours to discard.  The way we choose will determine our future, in this world and in the World to Come.

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Fathers and Sons

Parshas Vo’eira

imagesStudents of Torah literature know that serious scholarship begins (and often ends) with the commentaries of Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, familiar to the Jewish world as Rashi. His synthesis of Talmudic law, allegory, and mysticism, together with the multifaceted brilliance of his insights and his economy of language, places Rashi in a class by himself. With deceptive simplicity, he draws our attention to the most profound nuances and gently forces us to consider scriptural anomalies, weaving the breadth and depth of Torah wisdom into his pithy explication of Biblical and Talmudic passages.

Consequently, few things make scholars more nervous than Rashi appearing to point out the obvious. And nowhere does Rashi offer a comment more seemingly pointless than at the outset of this week’s Torah portion.

Read the whole article here.

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The Staff of Leadership

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson
Published in Jewish World Review

Parshas Shemos

And Moses responded, saying, “But [the people] will not believe me and they will not heed my voice, for they will say, ‘G-d did not appear to you.’”  And G-d said to him, “What is that in your hand?”  And he said, “A staff.”  (Exodus 4:1-2)

imgresIt’s easy to understand why Moses was anything but eager to accept the onus of leadership.  After 210 years of Egyptian bondage, what possible reason would the Jewish people have to believe Moses when he claimed that the Almighty had sent him to redeem them?  How would he convince a broken nation that he had either the authority or the ability to lead them out of slavery?

G-d’s answer, however, is even more difficult to comprehend.  Seemingly, G-d wanted Moses to cast his staff upon the ground to show him its miraculous transformation into a snake – the sign by which Moses would prove himself to the people.  If so, why did G-d not simply say, “Cast your staff upon the ground.”  Why did the Almighty first ask Moses to identify the object he was holding?

In his classic commentary, Rabbi Meir Libush Malbim explains that Moses could have answered in one of three possible ways.  As a shepherd, he could have identified his staff as a makeil, a shepherd’s crook.  As an eighty year old man, he could have referred to it as a mashenes, a cane or walking stick.  Finally, he could have called it as he did — a matteh, which means staff, but which also can mean scepter, a symbol of sovereignty and leadership.

Moses had directed his objection not solely at the people’s unwillingness to follow, but at his own lack of distinction as a leader.  Who am I, he questioned, that the people should put their trust in me?  And so, G-d presented Moses with a test.

Click here to read the whole article.

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Latkes with Cranberry Sauce?

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.

imgresThe 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.

Read the whole article here.

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Handle with care

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.”        

ImageGiven more time, Mr. Rogers might have had a chance to observe how government-imposed poverty affects the moral fabric of a country and its people.

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.

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Gaining entry to the Glorious Kingdom

Aharon shall place lots upon the two goats: one lot “for God” and one lot “for Azazel.”  Aharon shall bring close the goat designated by lot for God and make it a sin-offering. And the goat designated by lot for Azazel shall be stood alive before God, to provide atonement though it, to send it to Azazel into the wilderness.

Vayikra 16:8-10

imagesOne of the most puzzling and disturbing rituals in Jewish practice is the goat “for Azazel.” During the afternoon of Yom Kippur, two goats are brought before the Kohein Gadol, the High Priest.  By lot, one is chosen to be placed upon the altar as a sin-offering, while the other is taken out into the desert and thrown alive over the edge of a sheer cliff. What purpose could such a practice possibly serve? In truth, the symbolism of this ritual is astonishingly simple and frighteningly relevant.  The two goats, identical in every way, symbolize the two possible futures that stretch out before every single human being.  Like these goats – which appear indistinguishable from one another – many of the paths open to us in our youth seem equally attractive and filled with opportunity.  Every child demonstrates both qualities of virtue and qualities of selfishness.  Whether our higher or lower nature will win out in the end can never be reliably predicted.

To read the whole essay, click here.

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