Helping Your Brother

In this week’s reading, the Torah commands us to help each other, and to avoid pain even to animals: “You shall not see the donkey of your brother or his ox falling on the path, yet lift your eyes from them; you shall surely right it with him.” [22: 4] It’s not just a Mitzvah to help; the Torah prohibits us from not helping.

Like everything else in life, however, we must balance this Commandment with other considerations. For example, if a person is leading his donkey along a path through a cemetery, and the observer is a Kohein, who is prohibited from entering a cemetery — the Kohein may not enter. In that case, he must hold himself back from helping.

But the Talmud [Bava Metzia 32a] gives us another example which is perhaps more surprising. If the owner abandons the animal and goes and sits down under a tree, and says “go do your Mitzvah” — then you have no obligation. The verse says you have to “right it with him,” not that you have to do his work for him.

What about the animal? In this situation, shouldn’t we help the poor creature? It’s obviously not the animal’s fault that its owner is heartless and wants to take advantage of another’s kindness.

The Torah understands well the law of unintended consequences. It’s not true that “good guys finish last.” On the contrary, it’s only our choice to do the right thing that enables us to feel true satisfaction for a “job well done.” Clearly, the person who abandons his own animal and tells someone else to “go do a Mitzvah” has not learned this. He thinks that other people exist to do his bidding; he is finding ways to take advantage of their kindness and their desire to do G-d’s will.

In this case, enabling the other person to take advantage would be detrimental — not so much to the person who helps and does the work, but to the person who is learning to exploit the generosity of others. Making sure that this person does not learn to take advantage of others is so important that it overwhelms the obligation to help the animal. Helping another person to be productive is much better than simply giving him a handout, even of “free labor.”

The story is told of someone entering the subway, who was approached by a man he understood to be a beggar. He gave the man a quarter and rushed to meet his train — but the other man ran to catch up with him, and give him one of the pencils he was selling. “Oh, I’m sorry,” said the hurried traveler, “I didn’t realize you were a merchant.”

Months later, the man selling pencils saw the same traveler, and brought him into his store. He told him to take anything he wants, because the whole store existed thanks to him. “You were the first person to make me think of myself as a merchant!”

People think about the immediate situation — like the poor donkey struggling to get up — and not about the future consequences. Sometimes what is best for a person isn’t what will help him right now, but what will lead to a better future. And that is where we should “lend a hand.”

Draft: Let’s Not Cry Anti-Semitism

Let’s Not Cry Anti-Semitism
by Rabbi Yaakov Menken

The trail of anti-Semitism is long and bloody; irrational hatred towards the Jewish people permeated Europe, Asia and North Africa back through ancient times. Nonetheless, one should not be overly hasty to fall back upon ancient biases in the modern era.

It does not make sense to resort to charges of anti-Semitism in response to positions and activities against the Jewish state, when there are other reasonable explanations that justify the same positions. Supporters of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), and the recent Flotilla trying to break the naval blockade of Gaza, assert that they are motivated by humanitarian concerns for the residents of the Gaza Strip, rather than animus towards Jews or Israel. These motivations include:

  • The needs of the Gaza population. The lead ship of the flotilla, the Marianne of Gothenberg, carried solar panels and medical equipment as demonstrations of this concern.
  • The blockade’s violation of the human rights of Gaza residents, and violation of international law
  • The deprivation of “security of food supplies, medical care, education, drinkable water and cultural exchange” (from the website shiptogaza.se).
  • And more fundamentally, the rights of an indigenous population to a homeland – meaning that Israel must end its occupation.

The question we must ask is simple: are these neutral humanitarian concerns, or excuses with which to mask discrimination? The difference is found in how these arguments are employed in other situations: one who applies humanitarian principles across the board is genuine, but one who encourages global condemnation of a single group or country — while ignoring equal or greater violations by an opposing or third party — might more accurately be called a bigot. And there’s the problem.

It is true that the Gaza Strip’s sole power plant is producing limited power at this time – due to the Palestinian Authority’s refusal to provide more fuel until Hamas, the organization governing the Gaza Strip, pays its past due balance. Israel, by contrast, continued to provide electrical power to Gaza even during last year’s war, though Hamas owed Israel over $60 million for previously-supplied power at that time.

Israeli electrical service to Gaza was only interrupted when an errant Hamas rocket hit the power line. Employees of the Israel Electric Company then worked in bulletproof vests and helmets in order to restore power to 70,000 residents of Gaza just days later.

And despite accusations that Israel “destroyed” the Gazan power plant during the war, that plant resumed operation within two months of the war’s end. So a neutral concern for Gazan residents would direct opprobrium primarily against the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, those responsible for cutting the power. BDS activists, however, protest against Israel.

As for medical equipment and care, we must wonder why the Flotilla bypassed Morocco, Algeria, and most notably Egypt, countries along its path where the life expectancy at birth is significantly lower than it is in the Gaza Strip. Yes, despite what you’ve heard about “genocide” in Gaza (a smear designed to stir up grotesque comparisons to the Nazi Holocaust) a baby born in Gaza can expect to live nearly three years longer than one born in Egypt — due in large part to access by Gazans to treatment in Israel (where the life expectancy of both Jewish and Arab citizens is still higher).

A neutral concern for human rights and international law would also have motivated the flotilla to dock in Algeria, where Freedom House upgraded the state of press freedom to “Partly Free” only last year, or Libya, where attempts at freedom of expression could be greeted with the death penalty — as could the announcement of an LGBT relationship (in Algeria, one would only get a few years’ imprisonment and a large fine for that). Yet the “freedom flotilla” sailed straight for Israel — and not because hundreds of homosexual Palestinians have fled to Israel to avoid discrimination, harassment or death.

A naval blockade during hostilities is a conventional defense tactic, and Israel claims the Gaza blockade will end as soon as Hamas ceases its efforts to import weapons with which to kill Israelis. This argument is buttressed by the interception of a shipment of advanced Syrian rockets, paid for by Iran and intended for Hamas use, just prior to the outbreak of last year’s war. But under European Union law, Spain has no similar justification for its summary deportations of refugees who jump the fence from Morocco to the Spanish enclave of Melilla. Yet the Flotilla did not stop there to protest this undisputed violation of international law, nor suggest that Hamas cease attempting to import weapons as a method with which to end the blockade.

Discussion of the “security of food supplies” is also a troubling subject for BDS supporters to raise, as Israel continues to facilitate entry of 800 truckloads of food and humanitarian supplies into Gaza every day. These imports halted only briefly during the 2014 Gaza War, when Hamas deliberately fired rockets at the border crossing. Egypt, on the other hand, has closed its border with Gaza completely, and has razed an entire city — the Egyptian side of Rafah — to prevent terror attacks against its soldiers. Yet again, the Flotilla accuses neither Hamas nor Egypt of indifference to Gaza — only Israel, the only one of the three that has acted reliably and consistently to ensure the security of food supplies.

As for cultural exchange, it’s interesting to note that neither the Palestinian Authority nor Hamas will tolerate the presence of an Israeli Jew in any territory under their control, whereas, by contrast, Arab citizens of Israel enjoy greater freedoms than Arab citizens of any Arab country — including mixed Jewish-Arab schools, Arab professors and students in Israel’s top universities, Arab Knesset members, and even a leading contestant on MasterChef Israel. A Palestinian in Lebanon is barred from at least 25 professions, including law, medicine and engineering, but BDS does nothing to protest open discrimination against Palestinians by other Arabs.

And when it comes to self-determination, the flotilla sailed past Morocco, which continues its occupation of the Western Sahara and control of the indigenous Sahrawi people. Palestinian Arabs comprise the majority of the citizenry of Jordan — itself eighty percent of the old British Mandate for Palestine. Yet, once again, the flotilla does nothing for the independence and self-determination of millions of ethnic Palestinians languishing under the Hashemite clan (originally of Saudi Arabia).

So yes, let’s not be so fast to say that BDS and the recent flotilla are nothing more than a recent manifestation of age-old anti-Semitism, reminiscent of the Nazi Boycott of the 1930s and false incitement against Jews throughout the Middle Ages. Let’s offer the proponents of BDS the opportunity to provide new and more reasonable justifications for their positions and actions that are neutral, humanitarian, and have nothing to do with bias against Jews.

Because the ones provided thus far have done precious little to prevent us from slipping inexorably towards that ugly conclusion.

A Triple Promise, Fulfilled

Our reading this week begins with an unusual juxtaposition: “HaShem spoke to Moshe at Mt. Sinai, saying: Speak to the children of Israel, and tell them that when they come to the land which I am giving them, they shall let the land rest, a Sabbatical for HaShem.” [Lev. 25:1-2]

Man in field facing mountainHere Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) asks a question, which has been repeated countless times as an expression meaning “what has one thing to do with the other?” “Ma Shmitta Etzel Har Sinai?” — What do the laws of Shmitta, the Sabbatical of the Land, have to do with Mt. Sinai more than any other Mitzvah? The entire (Oral) Torah was given to Moshe at Mt. Sinai — so why the emphasis on Shmitta?

The Chasam Sofer offers the possibility that Shmitta has a unique relationship, for it tells us something about the authenticity of the Sinai experience. Why? Because Shmitta offers a guarantee that the land will produce in the sixth year to cover not merely the sixth and seventh, but the eighth year as well.

The Kli Yakar elaborates on this point. We all understand the basic ideas of crop rotation. After two or three years of use, the crops have drawn out the nutrients and left the field “weakened.” Prior to modern fertilization techniques, it was necessary to leave the field barren for a year so that it could recover those nutrients.

The Torah tells the Nation of Israel to “break the rules.” First of all, it tells people to plant the field continuously for six years, and that the field will continue producing. But even more, the Torah promises a triple crop in the sixth year, precisely when the field should be practically useless!

The Chasam Sofer asks a simple question: “Who could ever promise, ‘I have Commanded my blessing upon the land, and it will produce a crop to last three years?'”

If we were to sit down and write a Bible, would we make this promise? How long would we last if we did? At the very least, let’s promise the triple crop in the eighth year… then we can claim that people didn’t follow us, and thus didn’t get the blessing! The Torah insists that the triple crop will come in the sixth year. The Chasam Sofer says that the very audacity of this claim… is the best verification of Who made it.

To Shepherd the World

shepherdIn this week’s reading, we find the Commandment not to slaughter a mother animal and its own child on the same day. Why are we instructed to do this? What is the Torah trying to tell us? The Sefer HaChinuch, Rav Yosef Babad’s compendium of the 613 Commandments, identifies two possible reasons.

First of all, we are to be good stewards of G-d’s world. Even on this small scale, we should remember not to exhaust a natural resource — for G-d Created each type of creature for a reason. But second, the Chinuch explains, this Mitzvah instills the concept of mercy, as well. Although we need animals for food, we still need to think about the animal and its child.

Doesn’t this seem contradictory? The act of slaughter itself seems inherently cruel, even barbaric. It could even be argued that killing both on the same day is better, so as not to leave one without the other. So what is the point of refraining from doing so?

The Commandment, though, is not for the benefit of the animal, but for how it changes us. The world requires that we keep a balance, rather than going to extremes. We are not told to be vegetarians, but neither are we permitted to eat anything we want. There are certain types of animals which we are allowed to eat, and those need to be slaughtered in a particularly careful and merciful way — and even then, we must be mindful of which animals we are slaughtering.

The same is true in regards to eating itself: we can neither starve ourselves nor gorge ourselves, but must keep a balance. Drinking in moderation is encouraged (for Kiddush and at other times), but not getting drunk. And this attitude extends to many other areas of our lives — better than taking a vow of silence, for example, is to limit ourselves to saying only positive things.

There is also, in this Mitzvah, a lesson about our responsibility to others. The Rabbis taught that on the eve of the holidays, including Rosh Hashanah, a who person sold both a mother animal and its child needed to bring this to the attention of the buyers. This is because it was normal on those four days to slaughter a purchased animal immediately and consume it for the holiday — and the seller could not lead the buyers to inadvertently violate this Mitzvah.

Each and every Commandment has layers of lessons found within — all helping us to develop and better not only the world, but ourselves.

What the Forward Publishes

When I wrote a few tweets about what happened in Baltimore, I expected a few nasty responses — but drew one from a new source, a man calling himself @HeathenHassid. I recognized his name; he was the author of a particularly vitriolic piece in The Forward, one which basically said any Chassid exposed to the secular world will inevitably abandon Chassidism (never mind that he can’t identify even one of his own siblings, who presumably are numerous and were equally exposed, who abandoned it with him).

So I responded, both because I enjoy a good debate and wanted to learn more about him. And when I pointed out to him that by leaving Chassidism for “liberal Judaism,” he was in effect boarding a sinking ship, he had this reply:

So The Forward, which refused to publish the work of Orthodox Rabbis who want to help liberal Jews to stay Jewish, was happy to publish the work of an atheist who wants all Jews to abandon being Jewish.

Critics question delay in calling out the Guard

Interesting how this piece dovetails with my piece on Take-Aways earlier. It’s not that Rawlings-Blake deliberately let those “who wished to destroy” cause damage — it’s that by telling the police to lay off and let people roam, she inadvertently gave them the opportunity. She tied the hands of the police, forced “tolerance” upon them, and didn’t bring adequate forces to bear.

As the Maryland National Guard patrolled Baltimore streets for the first time in more than 45 years, some critics questioned why it took so long to deploy them.

Source: Critics question delay in calling out the Guard – Baltimore Sun

Freedom to Serve

rules_imageI have commented many times that “Let My People Go” must be the most famous half-quote in the Bible. Exodus 7:26 reads as follows: “And G-d said to Moses: Come to Pharoah, and say to him: So says G-d: let My people go, and they will serve Me.” The verse does not call for liberation from all controls and limitations — rather, it is about whose controls and limitations will apply.

Every government imposes rules — we recognize them as necessary for the preservation of civil society. We know that an entire section of the Commandments, called Mishpatim (Judgments), consists of laws which governments must create. But we also know that the laws created by governments go well beyond these basic requirements. Society would not collapse without laws regarding treatment of the American flag. Elsewhere in the world, speaking badly of Mohammed is a capital crime.

Because they represent nothing more than the will of the current government, the rules can change at any moment. This is true even of laws that represent a moral judgment, the claim that something is morally right or wrong. The Mormon Church was forced to abandon polygamy. Why? Because we said so. Today courts compel state governments to recognize what was considered morally wrong (and illegal) less than a century ago. Why? Because we said so.

The Torah tells us that G-d created an Eternal Covenant with the Jewish People — and an Eternal Guidebook for them to follow: “For I am HaShem, I do not change, and you, the Children of Yaakov, are not consumed” [Malachi 3:6]. G-d gave us a set of laws that will last until the end of time, and which will preserve us. No matter the era, no matter the human condition, the guidebook to life does not change.

In response to disturbing news about the decline of Jewish affiliation and involvement, we hear frequent calls for Judaism to change to meet the times. They are getting it exactly wrong. What ultimately appeals about Judaism, about Torah, is that it responds to the times without bending to the times — that it applies ancient principles to new situations that arise in every generation. Through the Torah, we connect ourselves to G-d, and to eternity.

On Passover, we relive this special opportunity to transcend the laws and feelings of the moment, and to respond to the eternal. May we grasp this opportunity and enjoy a happy, and spiritually elevating, Passover!

The Unpublished Paragraphs

In the weekly “Lifeline” message that we just published from Project Genesis, I decided (after consulting with Rabbi Mordechai Dixler, the program director) to remove two paragraphs. Project Genesis is about encouragement, helping people to explore Jewish spirituality. It wasn’t the place for me to be, perhaps, a little too honest. So here is what I left out, which was originally found right before the closing line:

As we all know, there has been a school of thought which flourished in the Jewish people within the past 200 years, that questioned whether the Torah indeed contained great, supernatural wisdom — rather than simply reflecting the human understanding of G-d in an ancient era. They supported permitting people to pick and choose, to “roll your own Judaism.”

Beginning over twenty years ago, when the Jewish federations in America began to recognize that Jewish affiliation seemed to be fading and our numbers decreasing, they began to commission studies of the Jewish community. Within the past five years, though, a dividing line previously ignored, in favor of multiple “Jewish denominations” and other artificial distinctions, became so clear as to be a focal point of all recent surveys. In terms of Jewish demographics and the Jewish future, there is little difference between any Jewish groups — with one exception: those where the Torah’s requirements are given priority over our own opinions and understanding, and those where the opposite is true.

Comments welcome!

The Right Way to Build

keepcalm-keepshabbat2In this week’s reading, Moshe gathers the entire nation to instruct them in the building of the Mishkan, the Sanctuary. He says, “these are the things which G-d has Commanded, for you to do them.” [Ex. 35:1] And then he immediately talks about not doing work, on the Sabbath, before talking about the gifts and the building of the Sanctuary. What’s going on here? Why the “detour” into the Sabbath before talking about the work?

The message is obvious: even building the Sanctuary doesn’t override the Sabbath. This same idea is encapsulated later on in the verse, “You shall keep My Sabbaths, and revere My Sanctuary; I am HaShem” [Lev. 19:30].

Imagine that we were there at the time. Imagine that we were being told to build a Sanctuary for G-d, a global center for the Divine Presence. What could possibly be more important? The Sanctuary welcomed the Divine Presence, encouraged the new Jewish nation, and spread the knowledge of G-d around the world. If it took two weeks to do the work, why stop in middle, when it was after all a holy endeavor? Isn’t it obvious that building this key institution should take priority over the Sabbath?

But it didn’t. Because whatever our opinions, the Divine calculation was different. And the Torah requires that we follow G-d’s Rules even when we, with our own limited capacities, feel differently.

First, keep the Sabbath. Then you can build a Sanctuary, and know it will stand the test of time.