The Eye of the Beholder

When Moshe sent the spies into the Land of Israel, he did not anticipate two wildly disparate reports regarding what they would find. An argument breaks out between the spies upon their return: only two of them, Kalev and Yehoshua (Joshua), say that Israel should enter the land. The other spies insist that it is a hopeless effort.

The spies concede that the Promised Land is a “land flowing with milk and honey,” [13:27] and bring back huge fruits to demonstrate the bounty they found there. But, they say, it is all worthless, because the occupants are strong giants. Although Kalev says that Israel can surely succeed, the others push back and insist it cannot be done. They repeat that the population are giants, so much so that they saw the Israelites as if they were locusts. For this reason, the spies insist that it would be better for Israel to turn around and return to Egypt.

At that point, Yehoshua and Kalev stand up and say, “the land through which we passed, to spy it out, is a very very good land!” [14:7] And then they go on to say that if Hashem desires to bring them to that land flowing with milk and honey, then none should rebel against Him, nor should they fear.

What was the point of starting off by telling the people that it is a “very very good land?” The other spies agreed that this was the case! They were the ones who first called it a land flowing with milk and honey, and came back carrying huge fruits. In an argument you focus upon the areas of disagreement, so why should Kalev and Yehoshua underscore how good a land it is?

The truth is that the rest of the spies had digressed from their mission in the first place. At the outset, Hashem told Moshe that he may send spies into the “Land of Canaan that I am giving to the Children of Israel.” [13:2] The spies were supposed to see the land, and decide tactically how to enter. Questioning whether it was possible wasn’t part of the mission statement, because G-d said this is the land “I am giving.” There is no question of whether it was possible. Given that they had digressed, Kalev and Yehoshua realized that they needed to first get the nation to focus back upon the value of their goal, and then tell them to rely upon Hashem’s promise.

They understood that having a “good eye” isn’t merely about how you judge what you see, but what you choose to focus upon. They knew that if the people paid attention to what giants the occupants were, they would be afraid to enter their land. But if Kalev and Yehoshua could convince the nation to pay attention instead to how wonderful a land it was, then the people would be receptive to the message of G-d’s promise that they would inherit it.

We are told to judge every person favorably, to see every person with a good eye. Sometimes, this is best accomplished not by trying to see a particular act in the best positive light, but by looking at the totality of the person. The same individual who got angry and acted out in a particular situation might also be the same person who is incredibly generous with both time and money when someone needs his help. A community cannot be judged by the behavior of a few bad actors, not because we can justify how those individuals behaved, but because those individuals do not represent the community.

Part of the harmful effect of Lashon Hora, gossip about others, is that it inevitably focuses our attention upon a single bad action, rather than the totality of the individual. Our obligation is to look at the bigger picture, seeing that the person cannot be judged by a single misdeed, even if true. When we look at others this way, we inevitably find that we live in a much better world!

More than a Bonfire

In Judaism, our holidays are never mere celebrations or commemorations — they are opportunities for spiritual growth. In the case of Lag B’Omer, there are two key lessons for all of us, found in the two stories behind this rabbinic holiday.

Lag B’Omer gets its name from being the 33rd day of the Omer count. All Hebrew letters express a numerical value — “ל‎”, “Lamed”, is 30, and “ג‎”, “Gimel”, is 3. Thus we get the acronym “Lag” (pronounced “lahg”).

The Talmud tells us that during the time of the great teacher Rebbe Akiva, a plague raged through his yeshiva, his rabbinical school, during the Omer. He lost 24,000 students during this time; even the great schools in Babylonia, and those of today, are not as large. Rebbe Akiva went on to teach five more students, and it is they who transmitted much of Jewish tradition on to future generations — so one can only imagine what was lost because those 24,000 other students passed away. This is why many observe customs of mourning during the Omer period, except on the 33rd day when the plague ceased.

One person who did pass away on Lag B’Omer was one of Rebbe Akiva’s five key students: Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai, author of the Zohar, the work of revealed Kabbalah. Defying Roman persecution, Rebbe Shimon and his son Elazar hid in a cave to learn Torah together — for twelve years! The custom of lighting bonfires on Lag B’Omer celebrates the incredible light of Torah which Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai gave the world.

Why were all of the 24,000 scholars lost to us? Our Sages say that considering their spiritual level, they showed insufficient respect and love for each other. So throughout the Omer period, it is not sufficient to mourn by not shaving or listening to music; we must think about our obligation to show love and respect for every other person. And on Lag B’Omer in particular, we should celebrate — and ponder — the incredible light that one person can share.

Impossible to Know… But Known

In this week’s reading, the Torah clearly lays out for us the animals, fish and poultry permitted under Jewish Law. In the course of doing so, the Torah makes a statement that — were it made by a human being — would have been beyond foolhardy.

The Torah lays out two signs by which we can recognize kosher land animals (both wild and domesticated): they must have split hooves and chew their cud. [11:3]

This is unremarkable — but then the Torah goes on to specify which four animals have only one of these two signs. Lest one think that these are merely examples, the Ramban (Nachmanides) spells it out: “it would have been appropriate to say the general rule, but [the Torah] specifies the camel, shafan and arneves in chewing cud, and the swine in its cloven hoof, for there are no others in the world with one sign alone.

That fact was entirely unknown to humanity even 500 years ago.

Two of these, the shafan and arneves, are wild animals. To which species, genera or families they refer may once have been known with certainty, but today this is a matter of speculation.

Not so, however, the camel and swine [the pigs and peccaries], which are domesticated and thus well known to us. The Camelid family is found in two distinct regions: from North Africa across to Central Asia, and in South America, and the species found in one place are different from those in the other. The many different genera and species of the suborder Suina also live in distinct regions — yet for Suina as for Camelids, their commonality is as obvious to farmers as it is to taxonomists. The llama is called the “New World Camel” for good reason!

The Talmud takes this even a step further:

Rav Chisda said, if one is going through the desert and finds a domesticated animal whose hooves are cut, check its mouth. If it has no upper teeth, it is known to be pure, if not, it is known to be impure, as long as he can recognize a… juvenile camel [which does not yet have upper teeth].

Do not say, if there is a juvenile camel, there is also a similar type of animal to the young camel [in that it also has no upper teeth]. Do not consider this, for they taught in the School of Rebbe Yishmael, “and the camel, for it is a ruminant” — the Ruler of the World Knows that there is no other thing that ruminates and is impure [among the domesticated animals] except the camel, for which reason the verse specifies “it.”

And Rav Chisda said, if one is going on the way and finds a domesticated animal whose mouth is damaged [its teeth have fallen out], check its hooves. If its hooves are cloven, it is known to be pure, if not, it is known to be impure, as long as he can recognize a swine.

Do not say, if there is a swine, there is also a similar type of animal to the swine. Do not consider this, for they taught in the School of Rebbe Yishmael, “and the swine, for it has cloven hooves” — the Ruler of the World Knows that there is no other thing that has cloven hooves and is impure except swine, for which reason the verse specifies “it.”

These statements are every bit as true today as they were thousands of years ago, when it was inconceivable that human beings could claim to know these things by studying the natural world. The platypus was not discovered until the very end of the nineteenth century — the first specimen sent to the British Museum has scissor marks at the end of its bill, because the curator was so certain he was examining a hoax that he tried to hack it apart.

To me, there seems to be only one reasonable explanation for how the Torah and Talmud could say these things!

The Laban Brand of Hate

What is the connection of “Arami Oved Avi” — “An Aramean [Laban] destroyed my father” — to the Haggadah?

The Haggadah says that “Pharaoh decreed only against the males, but Laban tried to uproot everything.” Again, why connect the two? The goal of the Haggadah is to tell us about the Exodus from Egypt, so why go back in history to find another example of someone who didn’t like Jews?

Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, zt”l, known by his name’s acronym the Netziv, explains that Laban was the paradigm of anti-Semitism. He began with the false notion that our forefather Yaakov was stealing from him — something obviously false, both because Laban owed his wealth to Yaakov (as Laban himself recognized), and because Yaakov was impeccably honest.

Yet Laban, the dishonest swindler who kept changing Yaakov’s wages, projected his own evil upon Yaakov. Rather than Laban stealing from Yaakov, in his mind it was Yaakov stealing from Laban. And how could Yaakov, such an honest and G-d-fearing person, steal? Laban blamed Judaism. Yaakov was a Jew, father of the “Chosen People,” dedicated to a special kind of Divine Service. In Laban’s mind, this meant that Yaakov was a supremacist — that Judaism itself permitted Yaakov to steal from anyone who wasn’t Jewish. And Laban thus concluded that he needed to eliminate this evil: to destroy Yaakov and all those who shared his beliefs.

And this is the classic model of anti-Semitism. Pharaoh similarly concluded that Yaakov’s descendents were gaining too much power, and would use that power to steal Egypt from the Egyptians. By murdering the boys and marrying the girls, he as well hoped to eliminate Judaism.

Thus the story of Laban is especially relevant, appearing as it does after the paragraph “V’hee She’Amdah” — “It is this that has stood by our fathers and us. For not only one has risen against us to annihilate us, but in every generation the rise against us to annihilate us. But the Holy One, Blessed be He, rescues us from their hand.” Laban is the paradigm. He gives us the model through which to understand all those who follow this well-worn path of hatred.

The Haggadah also tells us the inevitable result of this anti-Semitism: in the end, the Jews are liberated from oppression and connected more closely to their G-d. The Egyptians were destroyed, while the Jews were brought out to receive the Torah. The Torah stands with us throughout history, enabling us to withstand oppression when it happens, and to prevent our destruction. From Laban until this day, Torah is our best protection!

No Angels on Earth

In this week’s reading, we begin the third of the 5 Books of Moses, Vayikra, or Leviticus. It was undoubtedly dubbed “Leviticus” because much of it concerns the Temple services, done by the Kohanim, the Priests, descendents of Aharon HaKohen, of the tribe of Levi.

Here, at the beginning of the book, some of the first offerings to be discussed are those when various individuals commit a serious transgression through negligence — by, for example, forgetting that the behavior was prohibited. And the Torah prescribes different offerings based upon who committed this sin: there is an offering for a High Priest who transgresses. Then there is one for “all of Israel,” by which the Torah means if the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court, were to rule incorrectly in a matter of law, only realizing its error later. Then there is one for the King, and finally for the common individual.

Long before the modern era, the Jews had a Balance of Powers. No one could claim absolute authority; rather, King David himself had to consult with both the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) and the Sanhedrin.

But furthermore, everyone had to second-guess his own conduct — even the King, even the Sanhedrin itself. There is no equivalent to “papal infallibility” in Judaism; on the contrary, no individual could avoid the possibility of transgression.

We could seek no better proof for the idea that no one is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. So no one should look back at the past, and lose hope for the future. Nothing can stand in the way of sincerely turning back to the correct path, because G-d will always accept a sincerely repentant person. And as we see in this week’s reading, everyone does indeed make mistakes — even the judges themselves!

There’s No (Real) Excuse

In this week’s reading, Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers. “And his brothers were unable to answer him, for they were disoriented in front of him” [Genesis 45:3]. Recognizing that not only had Joseph survived and even flourished in Egypt, but was even the Viceroy seated before them, was simply too much for them.

The Medrash says something more. Their disorientation was because all the various excuses that they had made and told themselves about why they had treated Yosef as they had — they all fell away. They knew they had no answer. They had nothing to say.

All of us have situations in our lives where we know we are not doing the best thing we could be doing. We often give ourselves reasons why we aren’t meeting our own standards. But we should also know that those reasons are merely excuses. They will melt away under the harsh light of truth.

Rabbi Yaakov Galinsky tells a story from the Tana D’vei Eliyahu, in which the prophet Elijah meets a person in his travels, and can tell that this person has not studied the Torah and Jewish ethics. He says to him, “my son, what are you going to tell your Father in Heaven at the end of your life?”

The man responds, “Rebbe, I have an answer to give Him, for understanding and knowledge were not given to me from Heaven in order that I should be able to read and study.”

“My son, what job do you have?”

“I am a fisherman.”

“My son, who taught you and told you that you should bring flax and weave it into nets, and toss the nets into the water, and bring up fish from the sea?”

“Rebbe,” he answered, “in this, understanding and knowledge was given to me from Heaven.”

And then Elijah said to him, “To bring flax and to weave it into a net, and toss it into the water and bring up fish, in all of that you were given understanding from Heaven, but in words of Torah, about which it is written: ‘for this thing is extremely close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it’ [Deut. 30:14], you were not given understanding from Heaven?”

Immediately, the fisherman began crying, for he knew that he had no answer.

We should learn from what happened to Joseph’s brothers when he identified himself. If we know that we could be doing better in a particular area, let’s dispense with the excuses. We should take the opportunity to do better, instead!

Ends and Means

trolley-dilemma-300x217There is an old joke of a mugger demanding of a Jew, “your money or your life!”

The Jew doesn’t move, and the mugger demands, “hurry up already!”

To which the Jew responds: “I’m thinking, I’m thinking!”

Despite its play on antisemitic tropes, even Jews find it funny. Yet we know from the Bible that something very much like this actually happened. In the story of the Tower of Babel, we learn that the people of the world did not merely rebel against G-d. They rebelled against humanity as well.

The Medrash teaches that if a person was carrying a brick up the tower and dropped it, people would cry. Dropping the brick slowed down the construction of the tower, their supreme goal.

But if a person fell off the ladder to his death on the way down, people would not cry. This, as much as the rebellious nature of the tower itself, represented the corruption of human values. They placed inanimate objects ahead of human lives.

Often, the questions are not so clear-cut. In modern ethics, there is something called the Trolley Problem, a question asked 50 years ago. Imagine a trolley running out of control down a hill, and there are five people tied to the tracks further down. You are standing next to a lever. Should you pull the lever, it will save those five people, yet the trolley will roll down a side track and kill someone else. Are you supposed to pull the lever?

As it turns out, this is not merely a theoretical question. In 1929, Arabs rioted in Hebron, bent upon massacre. Yet they gave the Chief Rabbi of the city a choice: if he turned over the Ashkenazi Jews (of European origin), they would spare the Sephardim (from the Arab world).

The Rabbi refused. The Torah teaches that we are in no position to judge whether five people are of greater worth than the one. We can sacrifice ourselves to save others, but not pass judgment on other people. We cannot pull the lever.

Why is this so? Because in our Torah, human life is of infinite value. Every person has within them a spark of Divinity, which is infinite. Five times infinity is infinity. Infinity divided by 20 is infinity. We cannot place one infinity ahead of another.

We must remain aware that every person around us is of infinite value, and deserving of respect. And, yes, we must also recognize that each of us is of infinite value. We are important. No person is unnecessary or “worthless.” So don’t take yourself for granted!

We’re All in This (World) Together

With an insight that my friend Rabbi Leonard Oberstein called prescient, the very first comment of Rashi on the Torah quotes a Medrash:

Rebbe Yitzchok says: He did not need to begin the Torah [here,] but from ‘this month will be for you the first of months’ [Exodus 12:2], for that is the first Mitzvah that Israel is Commanded to follow. What is the reason to begin with ‘The beginning?’… That if the nations of the world will say to Israel, ‘you are thieves, for conquering the land of the seven nations,’ they will say to them, ‘all the world is the property of the Holy One, Blessed be He. He Created it and Gave it in accordance with what is right in His eyes. By His Will He Gave it to them, and By His Will He Took it from them and Gave it to us. [Yal. Shim. Ex. 247]

globe-1674102_1920-300x255This Torah portion teaches many other lessons that are as relevant today as ever. The idea that we have a single Creator, Ruler of heaven and earth, is one example. Much as Kant and others attempted to prove otherwise, to truly live a moral life requires that we acknowledge a standard greater than our own, one that we must follow even when, frankly, we don’t want to. Monotheism enables and indeed requires that single, objective standard. Under polytheistic idolatry, the wishes of one “god” often contradict the desires of another; when we ourselves determine morality, our judgment is clouded by temptation and self-interest.

We also learn that we were created in the image of G-d. Every person has a spark of Divinity within him or her. Every life has infinite value, and thus the preservation of life becomes a critical responsibility of every person.

We learn the brotherhood of man. All of humanity are brothers, descended from a single father and mother. We cannot ignore “our brother’s blood.”

We even learn our responsibility as custodians of the earth, as Hashem gives to Adam and Chava rulership over all other creatures, bringing each one to Adam to name, and gives all growing things to them to eat.

It is no coincidence that anti-Semitism accuses Jews of opposing all of these values. Besides “stealing” the Jewish homeland, Jews are accused of killing non-Jews at will and destroying the earth, and considering non-Jews to be subhuman (there’s even a concocted quote from the Talmud to prove it)!

The lessons of Judaism serve as their own rebuke to these nonsensical canards. We are all one human race, like it or not, says the Torah. All that the Western world now calls “Judeo-Christian ethics” emerges from the Torah’s lessons, guiding us to perfect ourselves — to live as godly individuals. We await the day when “all who dwell on earth will recognize and know that to You every knee should bend… As it says, ‘And Hashem will be King over all the land, on that day Hashem will be One, and his name One.'” [Zechariah 14:9]

As we begin to read the Torah for another year, let us remain mindful of its ability to transform and elevate us like nothing else!

Slave or Servant?

butlerIn this week’s reading, we are reminded multiple times that we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. First the Torah warns judges to be impartial, especially in handling cases involving orphans and converts, and to be merciful when it comes to debts of widows. “And you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and Hashem your G-d redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this thing” [Deut. 24:19] Then the Torah tells us to leave behind forgotten sheaves, olives or grapes, to leave these for the poor — again, especially converts, orphans and widows. “And you shall remember that you were a slave in the Land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this thing” [24:22].

The Torah also gives us, this week, two Commandments regarding non-Jewish slaves themselves: if such a person runs away from somewhere else to go live in the Land of Israel, he must be allowed to remain there. His master cannot extradite him; “He shall live among you, in the place of his choice within one of your gates, which he likes, and you shall not oppress him” [23:17].

The Torah reminds us that we were slaves, in order that we not consider ourselves “upper-class.” We are to go out of our way to treat widows, orphans, converts, and any poor person with generosity. After all, they are our peers, and they need our help.

But what about a person’s own slave? Why is there a law not to send him back home?

In reality, this is far from the only limitation upon treatment of slaves. A person may not command his slave to violate a Torah Commandment, meaning that both enjoy the Sabbath as a day of rest. And if one blinds the eye of his slave, knocks out a tooth or severs a finger, the slave goes free.

I had the good fortune to speak with R’ Irving Roth lay”t about this; he is a Holocaust survivor and Director of the Holocaust Resource Center at Temple Judea of Manhasset. He knows very well what it means to be treated as a slave — and these Commandments, he explains, prove that what we call slavery is forbidden in the Torah. The Hebrew word Eved is translated as slave in this context, but it is inaccurate — it derives from the word la’avod, to work, and in other contexts is translated as servant. We are all told to be an “Eved Hashem,” a Servant of G-d!

A slave is a piece of property; he has no individual human rights, and can be treated literally like an animal. The Torah tells us that to the contrary, every human being was created in G-d’s Image — and must be respected for that reason alone.

There is nothing inherently wrong with having or being a servant — honestly, having a job for life would be a relief for many of us! Yet the Torah forbids denying the humanity of any other person. We must treat every person with dignity and respect — for after all, we ourselves are descended from slaves.

The Judge in his Locker

locker-820088_640In this week’s reading, we find two passages that do not seem to belong together. The Torah begins this week with a commandment to set up a justice system, with both courts and judges to make rulings, and police to enforce them. It speaks of the importance of true and fair judgment that shows favoritism to no one. “Justice, justice shall you pursue” [Deut. 16:20]. The Torah even follows this up by saying, “in order that you live and inherit the land which Hashem your G-d is giving you.”

Then the Torah goes off in what appears to be an entirely different direction: “you shall not plant an asheira tree” — which comprises prohibitions on planting a tree for idolatrous worship, as well as planting a tree in the Holy Temple. What is the connection between setting up a justice system, and prohibiting idolatry?

The Talmudic Sage Rabbi Shimon ben Lakeish explains the juxtaposition [Sanhedrin 7b]: appointing a judge who is unfit for the position is like planting an idolatrous tree! To which Rav Ashi adds: if the unfit judge is appointed in place of a true scholar, then it is like planting such a tree in the Temple itself, next to the Altar.

Judaism does not permit a distinction between obligations to G-d and our obligations to each other — after all, they both come from the same Source. The Torah is telling us that corrupt judges strike at the very foundation of Judaism, just like idolatry.

There was a teacher who came to a Jewish school for boys after years in the public school system, who quickly learned what it means when children treat their interpersonal relationships like key religious obligations.

A student had performed well in her class, and she awarded him a prize: his very own can of soda. She gave it to him as they were leaving class, and she saw him go over to his locker to put it away to drink later. Seeing that his locker did not have a lock on it, she asked him if he would like her to keep the soda for the time being, so that no one else would take the soda from his locker.

This young boy, in either fourth or fifth grade, looked at her like she had suggested something crazy. “No one would take my soda,” he said. “That would be stealing!”

Those of us who attended those schools, and who send our children to those schools, may not recognize this as anything extraordinary. But to her, after decades of experience with children trying to educate themselves in “what they can get away with without getting caught,” this was a profound moment.

Throughout our lives, that sense of obligation must constantly be with us. Any type of injustice is certainly no less significant than anything we regard as a core Jewish ritual. This, too (and perhaps even more so), is part of what it means to follow the Torah.