Posts Tagged Judaism
What does the bar-headed goose have to teach us about striking spiritual balance in our lives? Is the separation of church and state really as fundamental to the constitution as everyone thinks it is? When is stress really a good thing?
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A new sight posing questions and investigating answers relating to all manner of Jewish thought, law, and tradition.
Sorry, folks, I’ve been distracted by other projects and responsibilites, and my editor at JWR, Binyamin Jolkovsky, has been ill and not publishing.
Binyamin has done an extraordinary job, to the point that endless hours running a one-man show has left him very ill. If you haven’t visited his site, you should add it to your favorites. And if you’ve enjoyed the articles I’ve published there, please consider a donation, large or small, so that he can hire the assistants he will need to continue his fine work on behalf of Torah and the Jewish people.
Click on Jewish World Review and look for the link to make your tax deductable donation.
Please don’t lose touch. I hope to get back to publishing and posting before too long.
Primarily, today commemorates the beginning of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem, with culminated in the destruction of the First Temple. But there is another event we remember today, a more subtle reminder of the dangers of Greek ideology at the root of Chanukah and the root of contemporary culture. Read about it here.
In contemporary jargon, Lot had issues.
The nephew of our patriarch Abraham, Lot left his homeland for parts unknown; he played along with Avrohom’s ruse of claiming Sarah was his sister to protect her from the Egyptians. He risked his life to protect his guests from the mob that wanted to abuse them (although, perversely, sought to accomplish this by handing his daughters over to the same mob).
Lot is identified by scripture as a tzaddik, a righteous man — but he is a defective tzaddik, righteous only in comparison with the corrupt inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah. He is a conflicted personality, drawn to Avrohom’s spirituality but simultaneously overburdened by the demands of living a spiritual life.
Nowhere is this inner conflict more evident than in Lot’s separation from Avrohom in this week’s Torah portion. According to Rashi’s commentary, the quarrel between Lot’s and Avrohom’s herdsmen centered around the grazing of their animals. Lot’s herdsmen reasoned that they could graze their animals anywhere they wished: since G-d had promised the Land of Israel to Avrohom’s descendents, and since Avrohom was presumably too old to have children, clearly the land would be inherited by Lot. Avrohom’s herdsmen argued that, since the Land was not Avrohom’s yet, they had no right to graze except on lands that were ownerless.
Lot did nothing to put a stop to his herdsmen’s thievery. And so Avrohom dissolved their relationship. Certainly, he had known of Lot’s shortcomings for many years. Yet Avrohom seems to have concluded that, if he had not instilled in Lot a basic respect for the property of others after so many years, he would never succeed in changing him. And if Avrohom could not change Lot, then there was the very real possibility that Lot might eventually change him. He saw no choice other than a parting of the ways.
Avrohom allowed Lot to choose which direction he would go, and Lot chose the Jordan valley, because “he saw that it was well watered … and Lot journeyed from the east.” Here, Rashi makes two curious comments. First, he explains that “well watered” means that it was fed by streams. Why is this important? Second, he observes that Lot traveled away from “Kadmono Shel Olam — the Ancient One of the Universe.” In this, Rashi connects the word kedem, meaning east, with kadmon, meaning ancient. But why?
Back in the Torah’s narrative of Creation, Rashi explains that, although all the vegetation of the earth had be created on the third day, nothing had actually sprouted forth even midway through day six, since no rain had yet fallen on the earth. And why not? Because there was no man to pray for rain. G-d’s blessing depends upon the merit of human beings, for whom the earth and everything in it was brought into existence.
Conversely, it is the condition of man to experience his dependence upon the Almighty. When man believes himself to be independent and self-sufficient, he grows arrogant and becomes corrupt. Only when he recognizes that his livelihood comes from above in proportion to his merit will man remain conscious of his spiritual purpose and tread the straight path that G-d has laid out before him.
And so, Rashi explains, Lot chose the Jordan valley because it was well-watered, because it was fed by streams and not dependent upon rainfall. Lot did not want to pray for rain because he did not want to feel dependent upon the Almighty or upon his own merit. Although Lot was not a wicked person by any means, neither did he seek to achieve any great spiritual stature, but sought to live out his life in comfort, without either responsibility or significant accomplishment. In this, explains HaRav Dovid Feinstein, Lot traveled away from the Ancient One of the Universe, the Master of the World who conceived the design of creation before the existence of time itself, with the intention that mankind could earn the priceless reward of spiritual pleasure in the World to Come.
The sages themselves conceived a way for us to remember this lesson daily. They composed a blessing for us to recite after consuming even a minimal helping of food or the simplest drink: We express appreciation to G-d, borei nafashos v’chesronan — who created souls and their deficiencies.
Why should we thank the Almighty for fashioning us to be deficient? Because our deficiencies remind us constantly that we are all works-in-progress, never complete or completed until the last moment of our lives, and that life is only worth living when we strive for spiritual accomplishment in every way we can.
All right, I’ll say it — I have hope. And here’s why:
On March 31st, 1492, the Jews of Spain learned that they had three months before their lives would be turned unimaginably upside down. They had been ordered to choose between either leaving their country and their homes or conversion to Christianity. The Edict of Expulsion had set the date for July 31st.
However, when King Ferdnand learned that Tisha B’Av, the Jews’ national day of mourning, would arrive two days later, he extended the deadline to August 2nd, believing that this would break the heart and the spirit of the Jews.
In fact, his decree had the opposite effect, giving the Jews hope that the Almighty was indeed running the world, that their expulsion was not caused by the whim of yet another capricious ruler but part of the master plan designed and directed by the Master of the World.
With that in mind, the following post means something very different today from what it meant yesterday. Don’t miss it.
Here’s the punch line: Obama’s extraordinary rise from an unknown and undistinguished local politician to capture the White House in four short years defies natural explanation. Moreover, the single moment that marks his arrival on the national scene was his speech at the Democratic National Convention, on July 27, 2004. According to the Hebrew calendar, it was Tisha B’Av.
It’s difficult not to take note of obvious historical parallels, even at the risk of being accused of hyperbole or fear-mongering:
In retrospect, historians have come to view what we call World War I and World War II not as two separate wars but as a single global conflict with a twenty-year armistice in the middle. The political and economic causes of WWII grew directly out of WWI, and WWI began in the summer of 1914 — on Tisha B’Av.
Two decades later, under the leadership of a charismatic leader with no credentials who had never accomplished anything of significance, a crushed and humiliated German state grew in six short years into the most powerful military force in the world. The next half-decade would see the devastation of Europe, the deaths of tens of millions, and the extermination of a third of the Jewish population of the world.
This is not to suggest by any means that Barak Obama is likely to perpetrate atrocities or has an agenda of either injustice or persecution. He may indeed be a well-intentioned man who sincerely believes that he can bring peace and prosperity to a troubled country and a troubled world. But consider the lessons history has taught again and again: that the diplomacy of naivete will be perceived, correctly, as weakness, that those who seek peace are easily manipulated by those who have no desire for peace, that Utopian visions inevitably disintegrate into social and political chaos. Then consider Hegel’s observation that the great lesson of history is that no one ever learns from it.
No one on earth knows what this presidency will bring, or what might have happened had the election gone the other way. Palgei mayim lev melech b’yad HaShem, says King Solomon — Like streams of water is the heart of the king in the hands of the Almighty. Our ultimate consolation comes from our conviction that all human events are guided by the King who reigns over kings, and that rulers who appear to wield supreme power are nothing more than pawns moved from square to square by Divine decree.
The Talmud recounts how the sages could not contain their astonishment when Rabbi Akiva laughed upon seeing the ruins of the Temple and Jerusalem. But he explained that, since the prophecy of utter devastation has already come true, then we should rejoice at how much closer are we to the Ultimate Redemption.
You have comforted us, Akiva, they replied. You have comforted us.
The aftermath of the Great Flood and a changed reality for mankind and the world. Adapted from my forthcoming book (G-d willing), In a Single Glance: a Philosophic Overview of Jewish History from Creation Through the Talmud.
Here’s my latest on Pirkei Avos 3:22 — The Roots of Wisdom. Avoiding the famous road paved with good intentions.
Koheles (Ecclesiastes) tells us what is evident from the narrative of Creation: that G-d created man yashar — upright. But man corrupted himself, thereby corrupting the world that was created for him. Since then, it has been a long, tortuous struggle toward reclaiming the perfection of Eden.
After the first sin of the Tree of Knowledge, mankind began a rapid downward spiral toward destruction. Kayin (Cain) murdered his brother, Hevel (Abel), introducing a more profound element of corruption into the human race. For a time, the descendants of Adam’s third and most righteous son, Sheis (Seth), kept themselves apart from the descendants of Kayin and thereby preserved their purity. But over time, the generations intermingled, until the spark of G-dliness within man became all but extinguished.
Within ten generations, HaShem saw that the wickedness of Man was great upon the earth, and that every product of the thoughts of his heart was eternally evil. And HaShem reconsidered having made Man on earth, and He felt profound anguish. And HaShem said, “I will blot out Man whom I created from the face of the earth…”
But Noach (Noah) found grace in HaShem’s eyes.
What was accomplished by Noach finding grace in G-d’s eyes? He did not stop the inexorable decline of the human race. He did not convince a single person to repent. He did not delay the destruction of the world by a single instant.
But Noach achieved true greatness by not allowing himself to become corrupted by the corruption all around him. By retaining his own inner purity and righteousness in a world of moral chaos, by resisting the influence of a human society that had lost its own sense of humanity, Noach succeeded in a uniquely heroic accomplishment. By not becoming a murderer in a society of murderers or a thief in a society of thieves, by not allowing the distorted values and mores of his time to erode the values and ethics that had been handed down to him from the Highest Authority, Noach saved himself and, by doing so, he saved mankind as well.
We often feel that we don’t have much impact on the world around us. Sometimes, as in the times of Noach, it is enough that we do not allow the world to have an impact on us. As we depart the holiday season and enter the darkening days of winter, it’s a lesson we should all take to heart.
More insights into Parshas Bereishis can be found here.
The Talmud records a now-famous episode in which a prospective proselyte comes to Hillel the Elder and says he will convert on condition that the sage teach him “the whole Torah on one foot (al regel achas).”
Hillel responds by saying: “What is hateful in your eyes, do not do to your neighbor. The rest is commentary; go learn it.”
Reb Yisroel of Ruzhin offers this tantalizing, novel interpretation. He explains that the proselyte was really posing a question of much greater sophistication. He understood the cycle of the Shalosh Regalim— the three Pilgrim Festivals of Pesach, Shavuos, and Sukkos — and how they fit together so that the Jewish people could reexperience annually the physical and spiritual redemption of their ancestors.
What he did not understand was the regel echad— the One Festival of Shimini Atzeres, which is attached to Sukkos but not really part of it. His play on words, asking for an understanding “on one foot (regel),” was really an inquiry into the nature of the one Festival (regel) that remains apart from the other three.
Hillel answered him this way. Each of the Festivals celebrates a specific event and is defined by specific practices. Pesach commemorates the exodus from Egypt through the commandment to eat matzah; Shavuos commemorates the giving of the Torah at Sinai through the custom of staying up through the night learning; Sukkos commemorates the miracles through which the Almighty sustained the Jews in the desert by commanding us to move out of our homes into little huts.
Once all that is done, once we have reawakened and, we hope, revitalized our relationship with our Creator, one essential step remains: to revitalize our relationship with our fellow Jews. And so the Torah added an extra regel — festival — not commemorative of any event nor defined by any specific practice. By extending the festival season for an extra day, we have the opportunity to remind ourselves that, no matter how much we may strive to perfect our relationship with the Master of the Universe, we accomplish nothing unless we strive equally to perfect our relationship with our neighbors and fellows.
If we aren’t cautious, religious fervor and passion can become a source of dissension and division in the Jewish community. We are allowed our differences in how we adhere to Torah law; we are required to make distinctions between authentic Torah practice and those interpretations that have strayed from legitimate tradition. But in our conduct toward our fellow Jews, and in our passion for promoting unity within the Jewish community, there is not justification for not fighting against divisiveness with the same zeal we may have for attaching ourselves to the One G-d who charged us all, together, in His service.