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.

Anti-Semitism Remembrance Day

If we think about it, it should amaze us that there are people who insist we must always remember the Holocaust — even for generations to come, long after the last survivors are lost to us — who are nowhere to be found on the Ninth of Av, when we remember the long history of hatred directed against the Jewish nation. How can we remember the Holocaust, while forgetting the tragic losses of earlier days?

Perhaps we need to give it a modern name: “Anti-Semitism Remembrance Day.” Because, of course, hatred for Jews, as Jews, is the source of all the tragedies found in our history.

Rabbi Naftali Z.Y. Berlin (called the Netzi”v from the acronym of his name) was the Dean of the famed Yeshiva of Volozhin in the late 19th century, when “anti-Semitism” was a new German euphemism for an old hatred. He explains, using the story of Yaakov and his father-in-law, Lavan, that anti-Semitism is rooted in two basic ideas: jealousy of (perceived) wealth, with a suspicion of fraud and theft, together with antipathy towards Judaism itself. As we know, Lavan suspected Yaakov of stealing his idols. Although Yaakov was opposed to idolatry, Lavan believed that Yaakov stole them only in order to disgrace them, to tear down everything Lavan held holy. And why would Yaakov do such a thing, if not for his Judaism? [Our Sages teach that all our forefathers, being prophets, observed Judaism and Jewish ethics.] This is what angered Lavan.

When we look through Jewish history, these two themes play out repeatedly. The Jews are repeatedly (and falsely) accused of stealing land and property, which is why financial boycotts against Jews are among the most basic of anti-Semitic activities. And whether it is the accusation that “you killed our god” to Jews as killers of prophets, children, or people in general, the idea that Judaism encourages atrocities towards others is the other lie at the root of all the hatred.

In the end, we know that we are hated for the best of our values — today’s entire “Judeo-Christian” value system stems from our teachings. And that is what gives us courage. G-d told us that we would propagate His values in the world, that we would be hated for it, that we shall always survive, and that in the end we will dwell securely in our land and bring peace to earth. So as we move forward to mourn all the destruction in our history, we must remember the light at the end of the tunnel — brighter than any mankind has yet seen.

“You Stole Our Land!”

risk boardThis week’s Haftorah discusses Ammon coming to wage war with Israel. There was a man named Yiftach, who was the son of a concubine, rejected by his half-brothers. He had moved away, but was a natural leader — many gathered around him, though they were not exceptionally knowledgeable. The verse even calls his followers “empty people.”

Nonetheless, with Ammon coming to fight them, Israel needed a leader, and they turned to Yiftach to lead and defend them. He sent Ammon messengers, asking why they were about to fight. What was the problem?

The message came back: “You stole our land!”

The land in question was an area which, many hundreds of years earlier, had been the subject of a war between the Ammonites and the Emorites. The Emorites won that war, and had lived in that land for centuries.

Then, as Yiftach explained to the King of Ammon, the Nation of Israel came up from Egypt and crossed the desert, hoping to enter their Holy Land. They asked permission of both Edom and Mo’av to pass through, and both nations refused them permission. So they went further north, avoiding the land of Mo’av, and sent messengers to Sichon, leader of the Emori, king of Cheshbon.

Sichon was not content to simply refuse permission: he gathered his army to war with Israel. Given no choice, Israel fought back and defeated Sichon… at which point the land became theirs. This land was on the east side of the Jordan River, where the tribes of Gad, Reuven, and half of Menashe stayed and lived. It was part of their inheritance.

The King of Ammon demanded land which they had lost fighting a war with the Emori, which had belonged to the Jews for hundreds of years, and was part of their Divine Inheritance. So Yiftach said to Ammon, you keep what your idol Kemosh gave to you, and we’ll keep what the L-rd gave us, and we will have peace between us.

The king of Ammon refused, waged war against Israel, and lost.

It is interesting that the King of Ammon is never named. Apparently, his name is not relevant. The idea that the Jews are stealing something from the non-Jews is a classic anti-Semitic trope, which recurs in different times throughout history under different names. Of course, I suppose we’d be hard-pressed to find another example of people claiming that the Jews are stealing Judean land from migrants from another land… oh, wait…

Doing the Impossible

climberIn this week’s reading, we find the well-known account of the spies who went into the Land of Israel. The Jews knew that they were supposed to inherit the land; the job of the spies was to find the best way to enter. Are the people strong or weak? Are their cities fortified? All of these were important for tactical reasons. At the same time, the spies were told to investigate the natural resources as well, to see what sort of land would be theirs.

As far as the latter, they performed their task to perfection. They returned calling the land “flowing with milk and honey,” bringing clusters of grapes so large that two people were needed to carry one cluster on a pole. What a wonderful land it was!

But as far as how to enter and take that land was concerned, the spies veered from their mission. Instead of providing tactical advice, they abandoned all hope — they said it cannot be done. They decided that G-d would not keep his promise, and the Children of Israel would never inherit their land.

Only two spies opposed the consensus: Yehoshua and Calev. Calev told the people, “we should certainly ascend and we shall possess it, for we certainly are able to do so” [Num. 13:30].

What was his message? Rashi quotes the Talmud (Sotah 35), which says that this was far more than mere encouragement regarding their capabilities. “‘We should certainly ascend’ – even to Heaven. If he [Moshe] says ‘make ladders and ascend them,’ we shall succeed in all his words.”

Rav Moshe Feinstein explains that Calev provides us a model for all growth in Torah and performing G-d’s Will. Calev teaches us that it doesn’t matter if it looks impossible! Since what you wish to do is a “D’var Mitzvah”, something HaShem wants done, then if you try, He will help, and you will be able to do it.

A Unique Encounter

The Torah teaches that at Sinai, G-d did not reveal Himself to a single individual. Rather, He spoke to the entire Jewish nation.

Rabbi Moshe Maimonides, the famed Jewish scholar of over 800 years ago, calls this event the foundation, the “pillar upon which our belief revolves.”

Why is this not circular reasoning? The answer is that this event is not something taken on faith, itself. Every Jew today knows that at least until recent generations, his or her forebears believed that this event actually happened — Maimonides says “the best of all witnesses testified” about it.

He points out, further, that there has been no similar event in history, and that the Bible itself tells us that this will never happen again. Moshe warns the Jewish nation to never forget “the things which your eyes saw,” and to teach this to the next and following generations [cf. Deut. 32].

Many have tried to explain that this was merely a story, that it never actually happened. But when they try to explain it in detail, an alternative story stops making sense.

Imagine a village in Brazil, along the Atlantic Ocean, that holds a festival every spring. The festival, they tell you, is a celebration of a miraculous event 400 years ago, when a flood swept through their community. The flood did massive damage, washing away entire buildings, yet afterwards not a single villager had perished. And they celebrate that miracle with an annual event. And they present you with records copied by hand from originals dating all the way back to that period.

Would anyone disbelieve the story? Would people argue that the village elders just made it up at some point? Everyone would agree that this almost certainly happened; there is no reason to discount it.

When we look around us today, we see billions of adherents of religions based upon Judaism. There are literally hundreds of religions and sects which claim that they and they alone have the correct theology. There are Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Catholics, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Mormons — and the list goes on — most of which differ on core theology.

Obviously, the best way to start such a religion would be to create the tale that G-d Returned, spoke to a new group of believers, and explained His new rules. But the Torah asserts that “when you shall look back at the days before you,” you will see that this story was never told prior or after Sinai. The Rambam elaborates: “that there was never anything like this prior, and there will be nothing like it afterwards, this being that an entire individual nation shall hear the words of the Holy One, Blessed be He, and that they shall see His Glory eye to eye.”

Maimonides teaches that this has not been done, because it cannot be done — because the Jewish Encounter with G-d is truly unique in human history.

It’s Not About Our Enemies

passing-stormThis week we read a very uncomfortable section of the Torah. G-d warns us that bad things will happen if we don’t keep His rules in His land. Keep the rules, He says, and things will be wonderful. But if you don’t, punishment will come to the Jewish Nation.

Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, known as the Netzi”v (the Hebrew acronym of his name), was the Dean of the famed Volozhin Yeshiva in Europe in the 19th Century CE. He says that we can tell where the punishment is coming from because it’s a punishment. It’s not an ordinary conquest of one nation over another.

When one army overcomes another, they don’t punish the population on the losing side. Even losing soldiers are released once they are known not to pose a further threat.

But if a group of people rebel against the King, that’s an entirely different story. After he puts down the rebellion, he will harshly punish those responsible — because he expected their loyalty.

So Kings would not exile populations or destroy their temples to their idols. What befell Israel, in accordance with the warnings of this Torah Portion (and similarly near the end of Deuteronomy), was extraordinary and even nonsensical in terms of warfare and geopolitical domination.

But it makes sense in the context of a punishment.

Since, the Netzi”v writes, G-d made a covenant with the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, in which they would be His unique nation and guard His rules, it is the breach of those rules which explains why the people of Israel were punished.

As we know, this was used throughout history to “prove” that G-d had abandoned his nation. But the Torah itself says otherwise: “And even with that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them, and I will not be disgusted with them to eliminate them, to nullify my Covenant with them” [26:44]. As Rashi explains, “and even though I will due to them this repayment [for their bad deeds] that I have described, ‘when they are in the land of their enemies,’ I will not reject them ‘to eliminate them,’ and to ‘nullify my Covenant’ which I have with them.”

The word “l’chalosam” is precise. It doesn’t mean simply to destroy, but to eliminate. Even in the punishment, we see G-d’s Promise to the Jewish People. Other nations can be eliminated, either physically or through a change to their ideology and beliefs such that they are no longer who they were. But the Jews have a promise from G-d — that no matter how bad things may be, we remain the Eternal Nation.

It is those who oppress us who disappear. The last group that tried to kill us is now society’s worst epithet, and we are here.

That promise stays with us always!