Friday, June 22, 2018

Post-Sin Traumatic Stress Disorder

by Ben-Tzion Spitz

It's sin and not poverty that makes men miserable. -Scottish Proverb

The Jewish people demonstrate yet again why God calls them a stiff-necked people. Near the end of their forty years of wandering in the desert, they complain needlessly. They prove to be an ungrateful lot, crying that they have nothing to eat as they are tired of the miraculous sky-delivered Manna that nourished them daily. God’s wrath is immediate. He allows the desert snakes, that were previously kept away from the Israelites thanks to the divine cloud cover, to now enter and attack the Jewish camp.

The poisonous snakes attack and start biting people. People start dying. Belatedly, they realize the error of their ways and apologize to Moses. God commands Moses to construct a giant metallic snake. Whoever looks up at the metal snake is saved, whoever doesn’t, dies.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Numbers 21:9 (Chukat) says that God’s solution of the giant snake would seem to fly in the face of convention. He explains that after a person is attacked by some animal, he will be in deathly fear of that animal thereafter. His fear would be so great, that just seeing such an animal again can be enough to fatally threaten the health of the traumatized person. He gives an example of someone bitten by a dog who thereafter will have a mortal fear of dogs, and actually being confronted by a dog or even an image of a dog can threaten their mental, if not their physical health.

So too, the nation of Israel. They had just been bitten by venomous snakes. They are lying there on the desert floor, dying with the poison flowing through their veins. The last thing in the world the snake-victims would want to see is a giant metallic snake over their heads.

Rabbeinu Bechaye explains that God was trying to make a point. It’s not the snake that kills. It’s the sin that kills. The snake is just God’s agent. Just as the snake was God’s messenger for the punishment, it can just as easily be His agent to heal.

By getting the snake-victims to look up at the metallic likeness of the snake, it forced the Jewish people to acknowledge their faith and belief in God. They needed to realize that what placed them in their precarious life-or-death situation was not the snakes, but rather their obstinacy in refusing to listen to God and following His desires. Their stubborn refusal to see His hand in their lives and to be grateful for his daily sustenance put the people of Israeli in mortal jeopardy. Only confronting the very agent of their misery rekindled their faith in God and saved them.

May we realize that there is often a deeper, spiritual cause for many of our challenges and tribulations.

Shabbat Shalom.

The Fires

by Vic Rosenthal

It’s impossible to write about anything except the fires.

Foreign media are concerned with other things, but in Israel only the arrest of a former government minister charged with spying for Iran has come close to dislodging the fires from the forefront of our consciousness.

The Arabs of Gaza, with the encouragement of Hamas and the other terrorist factions, are burning our country. They are doing with impunity, launching kites and helium balloons carrying flaming payloads, from far enough back from the border that they are difficult to stop with nonlethal means. Naturally they are doing it from civilian areas in the company of children, so that the IDF believes that the casualties from attacking them from the air would be unacceptable. Various countermeasures using drones have been tried, but they have only been partially effective.

For Israel it is an economic, environmental, and even spiritual catastrophe. Thousands of acres of farmland and nature preserves, crops, plants, and animals have gone up in smoke. Dozens of new fires are set every day, faster than firefighters can put them out. The area is choked from the smoke of the fires and the burning tires that the Arabs ignite in order to hide the operatives who approach the border fence to plant explosives or try to cut through it. It will take decades for the land to return to its previous condition. Some of the wildlife may be gone forever.

Israelis love agriculture and they love nature. These loves are deeply embedded in our culture; look at Israeli music, art, and poetry if you doubt it. Perhaps the only thing we love more is our children. To burn the land is to thrust a dagger into our hearts (something that Palestinians also do regularly in a more literal sense). The damage done by the fires is greater than the cost of the crops that are being destroyed, and even more than the irreparable environmental damage. It is a prolonged assault on the soul of the Jewish state, its reason for being – the love of the land.

The enemy knows this. That’s why they do it. The burning of southern Israel has zero strategic significance, but it is a massive psychological blow. It’s a tribute to their understanding of us and also to their endless hatred that they chose this tactic. Frustrated by their minimal success in killing Jews with rockets and mortars, and unable to overrun the border fence, they have been wildly successful with this low-tech weapon.

The IDF fears the legal consequences of taking serious action against the “civilians” launching kites and balloons, and so far has retaliated by bombing military targets belonging to Hamas. I haven’t heard of any casualties from these attacks, so it’s reasonable to assume that they are being evacuated each night. This seems to be fine with the army, which thinks it can pressure Hamas into stopping the incendiary attacks this way, but does not want to be drawn into a wider confrontation. This tactic was met with a barrage of 45 rockets and mortar shells fired at us from Gaza last night, so it may need rethinking.

Israel’s decision-makers are considering the economic and strategic costs, not the spiritual damage and psychological cost. They know that a wider war would be expensive, and would take our attention away from the objectively greater danger from Hezbollah and Iran in Lebanon and Syria. They don’t want to be accused of fighting another war without intending to win, but they also don’t want to conquer Gaza and become responsible for it. So they do nothing and look for a technological answer.

But if you always ignore provocations, if you allow them to turn into attrition, if you time and time repress your natural desire to retaliate, if you allow the enemy to take greater and greater liberties, eventually you find that you have allowed your honor, and more practically, your deterrence, to dribble away. Sometimes restraint is not a viable option.

This is one of those times. We should not be afraid to admit that they have wounded us. But on the other hand, we must not – we can’t afford to – allow them to deepen the wound.

So here is what we do. We issue an ultimatum to Hamas that the arson attacks must stop within 24 hours, or we will destroy every Hamas installation, we will turn their tunnel city into an inferno with bunker busters, and we’ll personally target their leadership and as many officials as we have Hellfire missiles for. For good measure, we’ll do the same to Islamic Jihad and any other terrorist faction there.

At the same time, we send a copy to the UN and the European Union. We explain to them that we will not allow the Gaza Arabs to burn any more of our country. We explain that we recognize that the UN and EU have made major investments – directly and via UNRWA – in creating and nurturing an entity that will hate and oppose the Jewish state, and that therefore we expect that they will be able to influence it to change its behavior. But if not, and if we have to crush it, we expect that the UN and EU will pick up the pieces, because we certainly won’t.

We publicize our offer in multiple languages, throughout the world. We emphasize that the outcome is up to Hamas, and the responsibility for casualties if they don’t comply is entirely theirs.

Would they take our offer? I have no idea.

Rabbi Ari Kahn on Parashat Chukat: A Leader's Life and Death

The Yishai Fleisher Show: Incendiary Snakes & Kites



Moses is angry with rebellious Jews - what else is new! But this is a new generation and maybe they need a soft touch. Rabbi Yishai on Parshat Chukat, the Red Heifer, the firey snakes, and the nature of the eternal nation. Then, Malkah Fleisher on the Hamas fire-kites and on the US' leaving the Human Rights Council.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Children

by Rabbi Steven Pruzansky

The acclaimed American author F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” It should also be true that the mature mind is able to recognize that there can be two conflicting values at the same time that, nonetheless, still require resolution born of compromise. Both suggestions, apparently, will never apply to politicians.

There are two competing values at play in this week’s volcanic eruption of controversy. One value is that it is wrong for strangers to arbitrarily separate children from parents. There are tears, there is trauma, and shame on the parents who put children in that position unless compelled by unavoidable circumstances. The second value is that countries are defined by borders and nations by laws, and countries that cannot control their borders or otherwise regulate immigration see their sovereignty undermined and their way of life compromised. That is the ongoing story of Europe’s collapse.

Is it no longer possible in America to recognize that both are legitimate values? We are taught that “no alien shall draw near to bring the incense who is not the offspring of Aharon, that there never again be like Korach and his cohorts…” (Bamidbar 17:5). How can we guarantee that there will never again be a controversy like the one precipitated by Korach? The commentators explain that the verse means that there will never again be a controversy like that of Korach and Moshe, where one side (Korach) is 100% wrong and the other side (Moshe) is 100% right. Life’s arguments are usually nuanced. Modern politicians don’t do nuance. They seek votes, power and money.

Naturally, each of the values presented above is not absolute. Democracies are desirable destinations for the impoverished and the refugee, and the United States has always been a magnet for such individuals, even if immigration policy has changed over the last 140 years and not always been applied consistently or fairly. But only anarchists feel that nations should have no borders, no laws, no enforcement, and no control, and it can’t be emphasized enough that the policy of separating children from parents is not only not new but it also only applies to those who attempt to cross the border illegally. Why this is routinely ignored is baffling only to those who don’t recognize the incendiary hyperbole that is the stock in trade of the political left. Families that attempt to cross the borderlegally – at the authorized border crossings – are never separated. They are then deported, admitted, or, if a claim of asylum is not readily verifiable, detained together while their cases are adjudicated.

The anarchists do not wish to distinguish between legal and illegal immigration, and the disparate treatment of the two, and so their two tactics are appeals to raw emotion and a resort to hurling vulgarities at those with whom they disagree. Neither speaks well of them or their cause. Emotion is usually a poor way to make policy and inevitably leads to bad policy and exacerbates the problem. And cursing one’s opponents, obstructing their lives, or interfering with their meals is an admission that they are either bereft of ideas and the ability to persuade or presume that there is absolutely no justice, merit or logic on the other side. For that, see Korach, above. When mobs are allowed to rule, decent people suffer and civil society deteriorates.
A number of Jewish organizations abetted the anarchists in their public statements, and did not distinguish themselves in issuing anguished cries of protest, however heartfelt, without even a single policy prescription. That too is mere venting but contributes little to the public discourse. Simply saying what cannot be done to avoid one problem, and taking no position on what should be done to avoid a concomitant problem, is not especially wise or helpful. But it plays well in the liberal media who record these things.

Fair people should be able to admit that the forced separation of children from parents is unpleasant and the crying heartrending. This, too, exists on a scale of gradation ranging from the goodbyes on “going off to camp day” (that, too, is traumatic, and I’ve seen it; sometimes the children are bawling, and sometimes the parents are bawling) to the Holocaust (absolute evil). Since this is not the Holocaust – no child is being marched to gas chambers for immediate execution – references to the Holocaust are as appalling and repugnant as they are inaccurate, and another indication of the dearth of reasoning on the part of those who make them. They are used as conversation stoppers – so far removed they are from reality.

Indeed, there is a situation in America where parents and children are routinely and forcibly separated. Last year alone, roughly 4500 young children were forcibly separated from their single mothers who were arrested for committing a crime. If there is no proximate relative, the children are placed in foster care, which is, too often, a disaster. It is horrible, traumatic, and life-altering, but no one says that single mothers should therefore have immunity from prosecution for any crimes they commit in order to spare the children this grievous harm. Actually, I should not say that “no one” says that; I’m sure there are some anarchists who would say that.

The separation at the border is more akin to the single-mother arrest scenario than, certainly, to the summer camp severance, even though the child at the border is liable to be reunited with his/her parents within hours, days or weeks. The arrested mother, sadly, can wind up spending years in prison, disconnected from her children. Reasonable people can differ as to whether the current policy is meant primarily for the purpose of deterrence or only partly, but not on this: illegal immigrant parents should be on notice that capture and separation is a distinct possibility. So why not use a border crossing?

Obviously, as the talking heads and politicians put it, the “optics” of separation are not good. But policies should not be adopted or rejected because of “optics” or in response to visceral appeals to passions. What is being done is unkind – but it is also unkind to allow alien gang members, drug dealers, human smugglers and murderers to infiltrate the country to terrorize their former countrymen who are here legally as well as other American citizens. It should be possible for reasonable people to utilize both their hearts and their minds in formulating policy. But politicians are a different breed and everything –everything – is perceived through one prism: votes.

For all the wailing of the leftist politicians about the “children,” the news today is that two proposed Republican bills in Congress would require that family units (even those crossing illegally) be kept intact and that the President’s border wall be fully funded. This should be a win-win for both sides – children’s advocates should be ecstatic that the young will no longer be wrenched from their parents and that the trigger for those painful separations – the illegal entries – will be drastically reduced or eliminated by a border wall. And yet the current reports are that not one Democrat supports either bill, meaning that they would rather children suffer this pain than not suffer this pain, as long as there is no border wall. It is a cynical ploy for votes – and no mystery why the approval rating for Congress is below 20%. I’m surprised it’s that high.

In this week’s Torah reading, the Jewish people’s journey to the land of Israel was detoured because of the refusal of Edom to allow the tribes of Israel to traverse Edomite territory on their way to the land of Israel. Note that all we wanted was to cross through their land, not remain there permanently, and even offered to pay substantially per capitafor that right and for the water they would consume. This refusal had serious consequences, as the people had to retreat southward (away from Israel) and circumvent Edomite territory. This led to despair, frustration, complaints about the lack of water of food, and general discontent among the people.

It was uncharitable, to be sure, but Edom was not obligated to let us pass through, we respected their sovereignty, and moved on to another route. A nation without borders and without laws cannot long endure. Executive orders are temporary and constitutionally dubious actions. The most liberal American has to reckon with the fact that, by some estimates, more than five billion people on the planet live in poverty, distress or repression, and would love to come to the United States of America and benefit from its freedoms and kindnesses. Obviously, they all can’t, nor can their children.

If there remains a shred of decency in the political class, they will join together and craft a solution that respects both values, builds a border wall, controls legal immigration, protects those fleeing from violence (even aids those troubled countries to quell the violence that makes their citizens want to flee), keeps families together, upholds the rule of law, suppresses the anarchists, restores civil discourse among groups with competing values, and strengthens America and the American values of law, order, liberty and human dignity.

Is that too much to ask?

Maybe, but do it anyway, for the children.

Parents and Children

by Rabbi Pinchas Winston

The entire congregation of the Children of Israel arrived at the desert of Tzin in the first month, and the people settled in Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there. (Bamidbar 20:1)

IT IS AMAZING how much we “fight” our parents as children, and then respect them later as adults. For the longest time as teenagers, we think our parents can’t “hear” us, and don’t understand who we really are. Once grown up, and especially after raising children of your own, we usually realize that our parents were just trying to share their gained wisdom with us, as we now try to do with our own children, who claim that WE don’t hear or understand THEM. It’s a cycle of foolishness.

Everything changed for me with MY father on a single day, and rather unexpectedly. I was at university at the time, but I had borrowed a book from a friend on the laws of honoring one’s father and mother. Needless to say, with each page that I turned, I also turned a new leaf. I could not believe how, in fighting for my personal childhood “rights,” I had violated so many Torah laws regarding the all-important mitzvah of “Kibud Av v’Eim.”

Before even finishing the book, I picked up the phone to call my father long-distance from school, and to apologize for years of inexcusable behavior. I told him about the book and what it said, and how I had completely come to realize and accept that even if I was right about the things I wanted, I had been wrong about the way I fought for them.

My father could tell, even long distance, that my apology was heartfelt. We had a decent relationship UNTIL that time, but a far closer one FROM that point. This week marks my father’s, a”h, sixth yahrzeit, and greatly miss his insights, love, and friendship. I dedicate this week’s PERCEPTIONS in his memory, to Yisroel Ya’akov ben Tzvi, z”l.

I didn’t just mention this in passing. This week’s parsha also has something to say about a parent-child relationship, though it is not obvious from the parsha itself. But the Talmud says that the well dried up in this week’s parsha following the death of Miriam to make it known that it followed the Jewish people in the desert for 40 years in her merit.

Which merit? The Talmud relates:

“There went a man of the house of Levi” (Shemos 2:1): Where did he go? Rav Yehudah bar Zevina said that he went in the counsel of his daughter. A Tanna taught: Amram was the greatest man of his generation, and when he saw that the wicked Pharaoh had decreed, “Every son that is born you shall cast into the river,” he said, “We labor in vain do.” Therefore, he divorced his wife, and all [the men] divorced their wives as well.

His daughter said to him, “Father, your decree is more severe than Pharaoh’s, because Pharaoh decreed only against the males but you hast decreed against the males and females. Pharaoh only decreed concerning this world, but you have decreed concerning this world and the World-to-Come. In the case of the wicked Pharaoh, there is a doubt whether his decree will be fulfilled or not, but in your case, because you are righteous, it is certain that your decree will be fulfilled . . .”

So he went and took his wife back, and all [the men] took their wives back as well. (Sotah 12a)

There are a few questions that should be asked on this little account, especially given that Amram was the Gadol HaDor at the time, and Miriam had been all of six years old, a very MATURE six years old. But why focus on how such a great man could overlook what his six year old daughter clearly saw when we can discuss their relationship that led to the birth of their future savior?

Granted that they were extraordinary people. Most fathers are not Biblical characters, or leaders of their generation. Most six year olds are not mature enough to grasp the gravity of a situation and advise their father about how to deal with it. But, what counts here is not the age, but the example created for other parent-children relationships henceforth.

It’s also important to take a step back and realize the Hashgochah Pratis of the situation. God runs the show, not a Gadol HaDor or his precocious six year old daughter. He wrote the script. He built into it a redemption through a six year old daughter. God is the One Who made the future redemption depend upon the wisdom and confidence of young girl. The question is, why?

Normally we say that a person is zocheh to accomplish great things because of previous great merits. But, this was before the era of Torah and mitzvos, and a six year old is not even obligated in mitzvos. It’s before the age of the yetzer tov, so what free will does such a young child have anyhow? What merit could she have had already by the age of six that would have put her in such a glorious historical position?

The answer to that question actually appeared at the beginning of Parashas Shemos, albeit with the explanation of the Talmud:

Pu’ah was Miriam. Why was she called “Puah”? Because she cried out—po’ah—to the child and brought it out. Another explanation of “Pu’ah” is that she used to cry out through Ruach HaKodesh and say: “My mother will bear a son who will be the savior of the Jewish people!” (Sotah 11b)

A name defines a person. A Hebrew name defines a person’s soul and spiritual drive in life. This is what Miriam was all about, the redemption of the Jewish people, even at the very tender age of six. She may have been advanced for her age, but whether she was delivering babies or predicting the birth of a future savior, her mind was always on the redemption of her people.

So much so, in fact, that people called her by a name that indicated this. And this is why Amram gave her his ear and followed her advice, even though HE was the leader of the generation. He saw a connection to their people and their redemption that he didn’t even see in himself. And, it impressed him enough that her age did not cause him to downplay the importance of her message.

In fact, BEING only six, Amram knew that such a special message through such a special daughter had to be a special message from Heaven. So, rather than stand on ceremony and overlook the one who was truly seeing clearly at the time, Amram heeded the words of Miriam which led to the redemption of the Jewish people, and as Rashi points out in this week’s parsha, the mystical life-sustaining well that followed them throughout their 40 years in the desert.

Moshe and Aharon's Sin

by HaRav Mordechai Greenberg
Nasi HaYeshiva, Kerem B'Yavneh


The story of Mei-Meriva is very unclear, and many explanations have been offered as to the exact nature of Moshe's sin. Rashi, for example, explains that Moshe was supposed to speak to the stone, but he hit it instead. There are a number of difficulties with this explanation.

1. Why was Moshe told to take the staff with him if he was not meant to use it?
2. G-d tells Moshe that he and Aharon are not being allowed to enter the Land of Israel, "because you have not had faith in Me ("lo he'emantem bi") to sanctify Me ... because you have trespassed against Me ("me`altem bi")." (Devarim 32:51) What sanctification was supposed to be brought about, and what trespassing was involved?
3. Is it possible to say that Moshe lacked faith?
4. Why was Aharon, who was completely passive, included in the sin and its punishment?
5. What is the connection between the sin and the resulting punishment not to enter the land of Israel?

The Netziv offers an alternate explanation which answers these questions. Sefer Bamidbar is the book which deals with the transition from the miraculous lifestyle of the wilderness to the natural lifestyle which was intended for the land of Israel. The event of Mei-Meriva takes place in the fortieth year, just as the people were about to enter the land, and through it G-d wanted to teach Israel how to lead their lives in the natural environment of Eretz Yisrael.

One of the fundamental aspects of G-d's dominion in Eretz Yisrael is His provision of sustenance and rain. The Torah emphasizes the importance of rain specifically in Eretz Yisrael, in contrast to the land of Egypt which was irrigated by the Nile:

The land that you are coming there to inherit it is not like the land of Egypt ... that you water with your feet ... But the land that you are crossing over to there to inherit it, ... you will drink water from the rain of the heavens ... If you listen to my commandments ... I will give the rain for your land in its time ... Be careful lest your hearts be tempted ... He will shut the heavens and there will not be rain. (Devarim 11:10-17)

The mishna (Ta`anit 15a) relates that when there would be a shortage of rain, the people would gather, and the leader of the community would say words of rebuke (or a halacha), and then they would begin their prayers and fasts. At Mei-Meriva, G-d wanted to teach Israel this method and to demonstrate to them the power of public prayer.

The midrash comments on the verse, "Speak to the stone" (Bamidbar 20:8), "Teach it one chapter [of laws], and it will give forth water from the stone." (Yalkut Shim`oni) In other words, Moshe was not told to speak to the stone and command it to give water, but rather to say words of Torah and prayer. This was in order to teach Israel that in Eretz Yisrael there is no need for the miraculous abilities of Moshe and his staff in order to make a living, but rather, in the merit of Torah and prayer one can earn a living through natural means. G-d did not instruct Moshe to use the staff and hit with it, but just to hold it in his hand while he talked and prayed. This was to emphasize that the era of the staff and daily supernatural miracles was over, and from now on the mode of Divine intervention would be through natural means.

Moshe did, indeed, speak and rebuke, but he did so in an angry manner, which caused him to forget the halacha that was supposed to lead and inspire them to prayer. This is what Hazal mean when they say about this event, "He became angry and made a mistake" (Sifrei Bamidbar 31:21) - that he was unable to properly express the halacha. He therefore hit with the staff, and once again acted through the means of a miracle. This is why the Torah calls this act one of "me`ila" (trespassing), since one who performs a miracle without G-d's desire for it trespasses and is punished. [The Gemara (Ta`anit 22) relates that Rava was rebuked by heaven for having caused a miraculous rain in the summer.] In this way, Aharon also sinned, since he too was included in the original command, "v'dibartem" (you (pl.) should speak), and he did not do so.

This explanation answers the other difficulties as well. Had Moshe and Aharon done as they were told, they would have strengthened the faith of the people, who would have seen that Israel is answered through Torah and prayer. This is why "lo he'emantem" is in the causative form; their sin was not that they themselves lacked belief, but rather that they had lost an opportunity to promote belief in Israel. The sanctification that was supposed to ensue, "to sanctify me," refers to prayer, which is done with sanctity in public, and they failed to do. Finally, the reason that they were not permitted to enter Eretz Yisrael is because it became evident that Moshe and Aharon were unable to lead the people in the natural mode necessary in Eretz Yisrael, only through the miraculous mode of the staff.

This idea of the Netziv is encapsulated in a fascinating expression in the Zohar:

It says about the Torah, "My words are like fire, says G-d, and like a hammer that shatters a stone." (Yirmiyahu 23:29) This refers to the stone about which it was said, "Speak to the stone in front of them and it should provide its waters." (Bamidbar 20:8)

In other words, the lesson of Mei-Meriva is that Torah itself has the power to shatter the stone, and to provide water and sustenance.

Yehoshua – the Advantage of the Student


by HaRav Shaul Yisraeli zt"l

based on Siach Shaul, p. 420-421
Moshe did not merit to enter and capture Eretz Yisrael on behalf of the nation. His disciple, Yehoshua, about whom it is said, "the lad did not abandon the tent" (Shemot 33:11) did so instead. While Moshe’s sin caused this outcome, certainly it was set from beforehand that it would be Yehoshua who would bring the people in. (We will not get into the solution to the paradox of bechira and yediah (human choice and divine foreknowledge)).

Moshe’s failing is explained as follows: "Since you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me" (Bamidbar 20:12). The stated reason, a lack of belief which caused a lack of sanctification of Hashem’s Name is hard to understand in its simple meaning. After all, Moshe spoke to Hashem "face to face" on a level never before or after matched. What does it mean that he did not believe?

The Sabba MiNovordok (Madreigat Ha’adam, Birur Hamidot 6) explains that Moshe made a calculation stemming from his desire to sanctify Hashem’s Name. [He did not want to speak to the stone that Hashem selected out of fear that the people would say that it was a stone that had the natural powers to give water.] The mistake was that one never obtains sanctification of His Name by violating His word. The mistake stems from a person’s willingness to base his actions on his own reasoning. The spies made a similar mistake. They were afraid that the fulfillment of the mitzvot in the Land could not be done in the way it was in the desert.

Yehoshua, on the other hand, had a different position. He accepted matters with a "simple belief" without bringing into consideration the prospect of the divine word contradicting his intellectual calculations. This approach uses the strengths of being student-like. By this we mean being like a student who does not ask or investigate what he is told but accepts it with simple belief so that no possible idea can prevent him from carrying out the instructions without question. Yehoshua reached this level by being the "lad who did not abandon the tent."

The gemara says that the word "emunat (the belief of)" (Yeshaya 33:6) refers to the Talmudic Order of Zeraim (dealing with agricultural halacha). Conquest of the Land is related to Zeraim. This is where one requires belief, specifically simple belief without questioning. Therefore, if someone has any lacking in the correct type of belief even in the most subtle of ways, it is still a lacking that disqualifies him from conquering the Land.

The Red Heifer and Logic


by Rabbi Dov Berl Wein

The mitzva of the red heifer interrupts, so to speak, its narrative of the events that befell the Jewish people in the desert with the description of a commandment that admittedly has no rational human understanding in logical terms. Even the great King Solomon, the wisest and most analytical of all humans, was forced to admit that understanding this parsha of the Torah was beyond his most gifted intellect and talents.

If the Torah is meant to instruct us in life and its values, to improve and influence our behavior and lifestyle and to help us achieve our goal of being a holy people then why insert this parsha in the Torah when it can seemingly have no practical impact on our daily life or broaden our understanding of God’s omnipresence in our lives?

Though there is a section of Mishna devoted to the laws and halachic technicalities of the sacrifice of the "red cow" it does not deal with the underlying motives for the existence of this commandment and it also does not address why this parsha is inserted in the midst of the description of the events that occurred in the desert to the generation of Jews who left Egypt and stood at Mount Sinai.

We have historical record and description in the Mishna and from non-rabbinic sources as to the actual performance of the commandment in Temple times. This comes as a reminder of our necessary obeisance to God’s commandments even if they are not always subject to actual human understanding. Yet, some glimmer of comprehension is demanded by us to make this parsha meaningful to us.

I think that perhaps the Torah comes to point out the very fact that human life is in fact always irrational and that human behavior many times defies any logic or good sense. How could the generation that left Egypt and witnessed the revelation at Sinai complain about food when there was adequate Heavenly food? How could they prefer Egypt or the desert itself over living in the Land of Israel? And how could Moshe’s and Aharon’s own tribe and relatives rise against them in defiant and open rebellion?

Are these not basically incoherent and irrational decisions with a terrible downside to them? And yet they occurred and continue to recur constantly in Jewish and general life throughout history. In spite of our best efforts and our constant delusion that we exist in a rational world, the Torah here comes to inform us that that is a false premise.

If everyday life defies logic and accurate prediction then it is most unfair and in fact illogical to demand of Torah and God to provide us with perfect understanding of commandments and laws. The Torah inserts this parsha into the middle of its narrative about the adventures of the Jewish people in the desert to point out that the mysteries of life abound in the spiritual world just as they do in the mundane and seemingly practical world.

One of the great lessons of Judaism is that we are to attempt to behave rationally even if at the very same time, we realize that much in our personal and national lives is simply beyond our understating.

The Spirit Always Prevails

by HaRav Zalman Baruch Melamed
Rosh HaYeshiva, Beit El


The Sages relate that Og king of the Bashan said: "What is the size of the Israelite Camp? Three square 'Parsaot' (Persian miles)." He then went and uprooted a mountain encompassing three square "Parsaot" with the intention of throwing it onto the Israelites. As he carried the stone above his head, the Almighty caused ants to come upon it, and they penetrated the mountain, until it fell on his head and became lodged on his neck. He wanted to pull it off, but its "teeth" (i.e., projecting sides) extended in each direction, as it is written: "You 'smash' the teeth of the wicked." Rather than reading it "smash" ("Shibarta"), read it "extended" ("Shirbavta"). Moses was ten cubits in height, yet, compared to Og, he was very short. What, then, did he do? He took a spear ten cubits in height, jumped ten cubits, struck Og in his ankle, and killed him.

This, then, is how the Talmud describes the confrontation between Moses and Og king of the Bashan. What we have here, of course, is an idea hidden in symbolism. Og believes that brute physical might is the determining factor in war, and that one who possesses such might is bound to triumph. Og was not perturbed by Israel's spiritual strength. Yet, he was defeated. Without values, it is impossible to succeed. The "teeth" of the mountain that extended in each direction symbolize inner division and defilement - power-struggles within the ranks of Og's army.

As a matter of fact, Og's placing the mountain on his head is what eventually brought about his death via the blow in his ankle. He fell, and the stone smashed his head. The spirit always triumphs. This is what our sages wished to tell us in this Midrash. Sometimes it takes time and is not visible to the eye, yet, in the end, spirit always prevails over matter. Matter deteriorates and passes. It is large and impressive but possesses no permanency. Spirit itself possesses degrees of potency. The highest degree is faith in the Almighty and His Law; the stronger this faith is, the more assured, speedy, and complete is victory.

Israel's first war after entering the Land of Israel was with Sichon, the King of Cheshbon. It is said of Rabbi Kook, zt"l, that when he traveled in the Diaspora and spoke about the importance of coming to live in the Land of Israel. People would respond by making calculations as to whether or not such a move would actually be feasible. The Rabbi explained that a Jew must immigrate to Israel with trustfulness and confidence. This is the reason, explained the Rabbi, that the King of "Cheshbon" - which means "calculation" in Hebrew - had to be defeated first.

In our Torah portion ("Chukat") the Jewish people have come a long way. The earlier battles, in which there had been great sanctification of God's name, have passed. The Children of Israel now find themselves opposite the Jordan, in a land that will become sanctified only after Israel has crossed over onto the Western side of the river. We find ourselves in a similar situation today. We already have a number of victories under our belt, but the battle is not yet over. The Torah lights our way, and we advance with complete confidence that all opposition will be crushed in the face of Israel's mighty faith - a faith that is growing ever stronger.

HaRav Nachman Kahana: What Do Your Hands Say About You?

BS”D

Parashat Chukat 5778
by HaRav Nachman Kahana

What Do Your Hands Say About You?


Our parsha begins with the unfathomable ritual of para aduma, the red heifer. The completely red-haired animal is burned on Har Ha’zaytim to the east of the Temple Mount, in direct line with the Holy of Holies, which enabled the officiating kohen to see into the Holy of Holies.

The Torah informs us that all the people involved in the preparation of the para aduma become tamei (a state of ritual impurity), even though the result of their efforts is the purification of people or objects which became tamei through contact with a corpse.

How strange that the people who are engaged in the purification of others become themselves impure!

But here the Torah is teaching us a huge lesson in Yiddishkeit; that, in the fulfillment of Hashem’s will, a Jew at times is called on to dirty his hands – literally and figuratively.

The Gemara in Pesachim 57a tells of a kohen gadol (high priest), Yissachar of Barkai, who would protect his hands with a silken cloth when performing the sacrificial rituals: shechita (ritual slaughtering), collecting the blood, cleaning the innards, taking down the charcoal, etc. In his opinion these were not for a Kohanic aristocrat brought up on the west side of the suburb of Barkai (or any other west side)!

He was eventually punished, when he came into conflict with the king who ordered his two hands to be amputated. Hashem was saying in effect to this kohen, “Why did I give you hands if not to serve me. If it is unbecoming of you to dirty those hands in my service, why do you need hands?

I have a friend who is now retired from work as a dustman (sanitation worker) in Yerushalayim. I would always stop to talk with him; and while leaning on his broom, he would quote pasuk after pasuk from the Tanach. This special Temani (Yemenite) man would always remark how much pleasure he got when seeing the beauty of Yerushalayim and knowing that he had contributed in some small way to it.

There was a man from Bnei Brak whom I knew many years ago. He told me what was happening at that time in his family. His usually happy, energetic teenage daughter suddenly became extremely despondent, but refused to reveal what was troubling her. After his wife and he made it very clear to their daughter that the situation could not continue and that they were preparing to call in professional help, she divulged to her mother what the problem was. Her father had never discussed his work with his children, so they never really knew what he did. One day, while riding the bus, she saw her father together with other men paving the road between Bnei Brak and Petach Tikva. She was so shocked to learn that he was a manual laborer that she closed herself off.

The man told me how he then sat down and explained to the young girl that to pave the roads in Eretz Yisrael is more honorable than the prestigious job he had filled in Hungary before the war. The road he was building would bring untold people to do mitzvot; and in Hashem’s painstakingly exact calculation, a part of every mitzva would be accredited to him and the entire family.

In the process of bringing purity and kedusha to the world, one must be prepared to dirty one’s hands and soil one’s clothing if necessary.

This is the diagnosis of the ailment from which we religious people suffer. How much more pleasant to escape the responsibilities of being an active partner in bringing about the redemption of our nation. It was more pleasant to go on with one’s life in Europe in the early 20th century than going to the Galil to drain — the Chula swamp, or to clear the fields of the Jezreel Valley of the stones to prepare the land for planting after 2000 years of dormancy.

We who believe in the Torah and the sanctity of Eretz Yisrael didn’t do it; the Chalutzim (pioneers), whom we mock for their alienation from Torah, did. They fell from malaria, fought off the Arab gangs with no more than sticks in their hands, went into the ocean to bring in our brothers from the refugee ships under the noses of the brutish-British, and they established the State. And the nearly one million religious Jews in chutz la’aretz led by certain people continue to mock, degrade, despise, scorn, and disdain, the “Tzionim”; but to this day continue to sit on the sidelines, spectators of the renaissance of our nation.

I can hear the response of some people reading this. Why am I “picking” on the benei Torah in chutz la’aretz when the same is going on in Eretz Yisrael in certain circles? You are correct! True, it’s not very pleasant to have to crawl on your belly in a thorn field or to have to learn how to throw a hand-grenade for 5 hours under the beating sun in basic training; not to mention being shot at. Why dirty my hands when someone else or his son can do it?

The Kohen Gadol Yissachar from Barkai learned the lesson of dirtying one’s hands in the service of Hashem; but we, unfortunately, have not learned the lesson of the Shoah that what we don’t do ourselves that which no goy will do for us.

The hills of Yehuda and Shomron begged for the Children of Israel to come and claim their God-given heritage. The beautiful seaside plains of the Gaza area stood waiting for the tens of thousands of Jews to come. The rolling hills and mountains of the Galilee waited for the fulfillment of the prophecy of the words of Yirmiyahu to our mother, Rachel, that the “sons” will return to their land. But, no, for tens of thousands of our brothers, it is a bigger mitzva to fill Madison Square Garden and pat each other’s back for the great sacrifice of learning a page of Gemorah a day.

So we paid and are still paying the price. Two organs were amputated from the body of Eretz Yisrael, one in Gush Katif and the other in the northern Shomron.

Yehuda Ha’Levy laments his inability to come to Eretz Yisrael, if only to embrace the soil on the ground.

But thank God there is a generation of kippot serugot in the land – “produced in Israel for domestic use, not for export” – who will be the backbone of the next generation. I stood with the young people in defiance of the undemocratic and immoral decree of our government to evacuate Jews from parts of Eretz Yisrael. This never could have come about if there were another one hundred or two hundred thousand G-d fearing people in the land.

So, take a good look in the mirror, and then look at your hands and try to find the calluses.

Para Aduma brings Tahara and Life

When studying the matter of para aduma, the following thought came to my mind, which may make the matter just a little less obscure.

The atomic table contains (to my last knowledge) 115 natural and artificial elements. However, in the “chemical table” of the Zohar, there are only four elements which – due to their qualitative and quantitative mixtures – produce every physical object in the universe:
afar – dust or soil
mayim – water
aish – fire
ru’ach – wind

The Torah relates that at the dawn of mankind there were four major holocausts:

  1. One third of mankind was killed when Kayin murdered his brother, Hevel. Tradition states that Kayin argued over ownership of the Temple Mount. Kayin then murdered his brother with a rock and buried him in the ground – this is all on the background of the first element “afar”, dust or soil.
  2. The deluge (flood) in the time of Noach. Humanity was destroyed in the time of Noach through the second element “mayim”, water.
  3. When the five centers of culture, Sdom and Amora and their three sister cities, were destroyed. Sdom and Amora were decimated by the third element “aish”, fire.
  4. When the army of the then superpower of Egypt was destroyed in the Red Sea. The waters of the Red Sea (parashat Beshalach) were split by the fourth element “ruach,” when a great wind raged all night and blew again to restore the waters to their natural state.
Para aduma utilizes all of these elements: 1) Fire “aish” burns the para creating 2) “afar” or ashes called “ayfer”; 3) the kohen then mixes the ayfer with water. He does not pour the liquid on the person coming to be tahor. Instead, the kohen flings the mixture on the person by using the 4) wind which he creates by the force of his arm.

We see that when each element is taken alone, it brings death and tuma. However, when taken together through the para aduma, the joint forces of all the elements bring tahara and life.

I don’t know if this is the right track to the true understanding of the para aduma, but the lessons to be learned are certainly applicable. Unity among the Jewish nation creates an atmosphere of tahara, whereas disunity produces strife and tuma.

As an example of this, I would like to relate a most unfortunate incident which occurred several years ago in New York City. The major orthodox organizations decided to declare a prayer event near Wall Street in view of the difficult situation here in Eretz Yisrael. However, the heads of Agudat Yisrael made their participation conditional on not reciting “mi sha’bay’rach” (blessing for healing and safety) for Medinat Yisrael or Tzahal (IDF soldiers).

After the event, I learned of the condition imposed by Agudat Yisrael and wrote a letter to one of their leading administrators, ostensibly seeking advice in a delicate matter. I have a son who is a senior officer in Tzahal. Our army does not award campaign ribbons to its soldiers; but if it would, his uniform would not be big enough to hold the awards he would have received. Thousands of Jews owe their lives to the daily and nightly efforts of him and his soldiers.

I asked the rabbi what I should tell my son when he finds out what happened in New York and asks me: “Abba, why didn’t they pray that I should come home safely to my wife and children?”

And when his wife, who is a talmida chachama (being a teacher in an ulpana, she knows more about korbanot than most rabbis living abroad), asks me: “Abba, why didn’t they pray that my husband should return safely to me and our children?”

And when their children ask: “Saba, why didn’t they pray that Abba come home safely to us?”

Rabbi, please tell me what I should I tell them.

Shabbat Shalom,
Nachman Kahana
Copyright © 5778/2018 Nachman Kahana

The Shamrak Report: Silent Transfer of Enemies from Area-C and more....

(Where is Consistency? Those who are against Jewish 'illegal' settlements, should include Arab ones – the occupation of Jewish land!)
About three weeks ago, Supreme Court Justices Noam Sohlberg, Anat Baron and Yael Willner allowed the state to destroy the Palestinian community of Khan al-Ahmar and expel its citizens to a site near a dumpster in Abu Dis. 
A total of 32 families - 173 persons, including 92 children - will be expelled. All structures, including a school serving more than 150 children from Khan al-Ahmar and from neighbouring Palestinian communities, will be demolished.
Khan al-Ahmar is but one of dozens of Palestinian communities under threat of expulsion. It will be the first such community in many years to be forcibly expelled in its entirety and relocated deep into the enclaves the state created for its Palestinian subjects in the West Bank, though such mass forcible transfers are rare in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria)...
The vast majority of Palestinians in Area C cannot build legally without master plans. These do not fall from the sky, but have to be approved by the Civil Administration (it never approves them – the same as Jewish construction is not approved in Area-A, controlled by the PA)...
No infrastructure, no running water, no electricity, and no educational framework for your children. You live under the constant whir of projectiles fired by training military forces, and all the while, the state destroys the few buildings and basic infrastructure you managed to lay out. Would you stay? (They will never leave on their own accord! After all, so many billions of dollars, given by international Jew-haters must be used!Jewish 'settlers' are living under the same conditions, trying to reclaim Jewish land from Arab occupation, but self-hating Jews and international anti-Semites have been helping enemies to destroy Zionist dream of Jewish people – return to and re-unify Jewish land!)

This is not a joke: after the kite terrorism has burned 6,200 acres of agricultural land and nature preserves in Israel’s territory, the army is examining whether kites and helium balloons can be defined legally as weapons. The reason is that such a definition would allow the air force to directly attack terrorist squads who launch firebomb kites and balloons and not be forced to suffice with warning shots. (In its futile attempt, Israel is trying to comply with “international law” that only applies to Israel and even created, to prevent Israel from defending itself!)
Food for Thought. by Steven Shamrak
Qatar has only 260,000 citizens, but 2.6 million residents - the UN and human right organizations are silent, nobody protests or cares! It means, Israel is able to keep its Jewish status by removing, and withholding citizenship from non-Jewish residents, and removing the anti-Israel and terrorist-minded population from Jewish land!
The United States could quit the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) soon. Diplomatic sources said it was not a question of if but of when. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has blasted the UNHRC for its obsession with criticizing Israel. She publicly told the Council a year ago that Washington might leave the body unless a “chronic anti-Israel bias” is removed. (On its part, Israel must disallow any UNHRC activities in the country!)
The Jerusalem Islamic Waqf took advantage of the final days of the holy month of Ramadan, when Jews were barred from visiting the Temple Mount, to eliminate from the compound piles of earth that were rich with archaeological treasures dating back to the Temple period. At this point, those tall piles of soil are gone from the Temple Mount, replaced by terraced stones. The crime paid. All evidence of a Jewish Temple have been permanently eliminated. (Why is Israel still allowing Islamic Waqf to operate after so many acts of hate and destruction of Jewish history?)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s office released a statement welcoming the United States’ support at the UN. He said: “The UN’s incessant focus on Israel not only brings shame to the organization. It also draws attention away from so many other pressing issues that demand the attention of the international community.” “The people of Gaza are not our enemy. Hamas is.” he added. (They are enemies of Israel - Without their support there would be no Hamas!)
A Bedouin mother walking in Arad on Thursday laughed at a Jewish mother who asked her to intervene after the Bedouin's son spat on a Jewish baby. (Some Jews are mistaken thinking that they are different from other Arabs and Muslims in their attitude toward Israel.)
A US administration official involved in formulating President Trump's peace plan between Israel and the PA said that there is no deadline for presenting the plan, as long as the PA refuses to talk to the US. "The peace plan will not be presented unilaterally. We are still far from the moment we will bring it to the sides, because at the moment there is only one side that is dealing with us in intensive dialogue." (What is the point for another fake plan which will not work anyway?)
The Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) have thwarted some 250 “significant” terror attacks since the beginning of 2018, including suicide bombings, abductions, and live fire. To combat both institutional and lone wolf terrorism, Shin Bet relies on ”critical human capital,” as well as a range of tactics and technologies encompassing the realms of artificial intelligence and Big Data. (These attacks were inspired and facilitated by Hamas and the PA. They have not been condemned by the UN - 'Ugly Nazi'!)
After US vetoes Kuwait resolution at Security Council calling to condemn Israel for use of 'excessive force' but failing to mention Hamas, Turkey and Algeria submit similar resolution to General Assembly; US submits amendment condemning Hamas as well. The UN General Assembly approved a Palestinian-backed resolution blaming Israel for violence in Gaza and deploring its "excessive use of force," after narrowly rejecting a US demand to add a condemnation of attacks on Israel by Gaza's Hamas rulers. (It did not work! The 'Ugly Nazi' spends so much time and funds attacking Israel. It is time to leave it - and move leftovers to Iran!)
The Palestinian Authority in Ramallah sent a defiant message to the United States and Israel. Yusuf al-Mahmoud, spokesman for the PA government: "there is no force in the world that can cause us to renounce our prisoners and the martyrs." The PA budget for payments to terrorists in Israeli prisons skyrocketed to $158 million in 2017. (The policy is encouraging more terror against Israel! Friends of Israel must stop subsidizing terrorist enemies of Jews! Why do delusional Jews support the enemy?)
Israeli Military Industries Systems (IMI) and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) on Monday unveiled the Rampage, a long-range assault rocket. The Rampage boasts a warhead, rocket engine and advanced navigation suit which allow execution of high quality assault missions against well-protected targets with utmost precision.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has undertaken a three-day visit to Israel, signing bilateral agreements on education, science, and research. Kurz also paid a visit to the Western Wall, in Jerusalem’s Old City. (He did not care to visit Ramallah, unlike some of the other 'friends' of Israel!)
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei fired Iranian air force commander Brigadier General Farzad Ismaili, after the IAF F-35 “Adir” planes penetrated Iran’s airspace, circled high above Tehran, Karajrak, Isfahan, Shiraz and Bandar Abbas – and photographed Iran’s air defense system.
Anything for Another Stupid Photo-op?
Britain's Prince William will meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and also Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas when he will visit the region later this month. (Where is self-respect? Must Netanyahu always give a publicity opportunity to international celebrities, politicians, and idiots, and feed his own vanity?)
Israel’s Arab citizens, who make up a fifth of the population, are involved in 95.2 percent of all shootings in the country. There are organized crime gangs all over the Arab sector, whether in the Galilee or Lod-Ramle or Jaffa. Many of the crimes, it should be noted, take place within their own communities, meaning Arab-on-Arab violence. (There is a disproportionally high level of criminality among Moslem citizens in the Western countries!)
QUOTE of the WEEK:
“What makes Gaza different is that attacking Israel is their favorite political sport. The resolution is one sided, makes not one mention of Hamas which routinely initiates violence... It is Hamas and its allies who have fired more than 100 rockets into Israel in the last month. Hamas calls for the destruction of Israel in any borders... will you support this resolution and side with the terrorists of Hamas. The choice is yours.” Nikki Haley, US Ambassador to the UN – 120 members of the UN General Assembly have chosen, to no surprise, anti-Semitic Israel-bashing! About 80 years ago, they, as part of the League of Nations, deliberately blocked escape of Jewish people from looming Holocaust in Europe - perfectly aware of Hitler’s intention. They have not changed at all!
Why Left or Right?
by Steven Shamrak.
One of the major distinctions between humans and animals is that we have analytical intellect. At the same time, we base most of our ideas and form opinions on our emotions, beliefs, and assumptions, not on facts. Blinded by personal psycho-emotional history, people dismiss logic of the facts and create assumptions to fit and support their own belief structure.
Completely opposing each other ideologies and religions - Socialists, Communists, Fascists, some Christians, and many Muslims (Shi’a and Sunni) - find themselves united on one issue only – Hatred toward Jews!
Sometimes, I receive emails from some them. These messages are mainly just rhetoric, based on preconceived non-factual ideas and psycho-emotional confusion. They have never been able to refute the historical facts about the right of Jewish people to their homeland – “Palestina”, as Romans called it after crushing the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135 CE; the history of Muslim aggression and terror, instigated by Arabs against Jews; and the UN systematic bias against Israel!
But, I have been accused of being:
Anti-Arab or Muslim. - As a member of the Jewish tribe, with history of thousands of years of being a victim of persecution and discrimination, I can assure you, that my views are not anti-something but pro-Jewish rights! I am just expressing my pro-Jewish points of view based on facts, not fake claims. At the same time, I do respect the freedom of speech and rights of expression of any religious and political point of view, as long as they do not infringe on the rights of others, especially my people.
Too emotional. - What is wrong with it? Arab/Muslim leaders, clerics and mob have been fumigating when they talk about destruction of Israel in front of TV cameras, demonstration on streets or delivering a sermon. When Jew-haters, and even some self-hating Jewish groups, are screaming passionately anti-Israel and anti-Semitic slogans, apparently, this is the acceptable norm! However, when a Jew presents facts in support for the Jewish state, it is wrong – another example of anti-Semitic duplicity!
Too Right wing. - I do not consider myself a Right- or Left-winger Jews. I base my ideas and views on facts and the 2,000 years old inspirations of Jewish people to return and reunite our ancestral land! There are already too many Jews who are very eager to promote self-destructive views.
Too many Jews and some Jewish organizations have been making similar points and view, as I am, delivering them gently and appeasingly, trying not to upset our enemies, for too long - all in vain! Unfortunately, many modern Zionist organizations have forsaken true Zionist ideals and reduced their functioning to a Jewish social club.
Why are, in relation to Israel right to exist as the only Jewish state, the political views of Jewish Right or Left different? Isn't Zionism - the Jewish independence movement - supposed to be the common ideology for all Jews?
Jewish people have the rights to live in peace on the land of their ancestors! Many years ago, when Jews were fighting for establishment of their own homeland, both sides of politics were united on this issue, singing “Eretz-Israel on both side of river Jordan.” Two millennia of Zionist aspiration of the Jewish people has nothing to do with the political system or economic model of Israel! Appeasement of our enemies, not just Arab/Muslim neighbours but also traditional anti-Semites, does not work. They will only respect strong and assertive Israel, and self-respecting Jews!

Jewish Identity

by Rabbi Steven Pruzansky

It has occurred to me that most, if not all, of the perennial arguments roiling Jewish life for several decades are the product on one, solitary, substantial and irreconcilable difference in the perception of Jewishness. And it all stems from one verse in the Torah, at the very founding of our nation.

G-d said to us, through Moshe (Sh’mot 6:7): “And I will take you to be My people and I will be a G-d to you.” There are two fundamental aspects to the nation of Israel that is often obscured or ignored. We are both a nation and a religion; as Rav Shamshon Hirsch put it, “a religio-nation.” We have both an ethnic identity as well as a religious identity. This conflation of religion and ethnicity is by and large unknown in the world.

For example, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims each have a unique religious affiliation but by no means would anyone aver that there is an ethnic identity that binds adherents together. Christians from Africa, Asia or South America bear little in common with each other beyond shared beliefs, just like Arab Muslims are different in many ways from non-Arab Muslims. There is no ethnic identity that links them all together.

Not so with the Jewish people, where religion and ethnicity are intertwined, and always has been. It is one reason why Jews have always taken a keen interest in the welfare of Jews wherever they might be, and why Jews are bound by the Torah to see the land of Israel as our homeland even when we hold citizenship elsewhere. National identity is grafted on to our Jewish identity (historically, that has usually been a graft that was eventually rejected) but the Jewish identity remains paramount. We are part of the Jewish nation, which nonetheless should not be construed as inimical to maintaining kinship with our host nation.

It is that phenomenon of the “religio-nation” that has been under assault for most of the last century and to which many Jews no longer subscribe. Too many Jews have bifurcated the Jewish character into separate ethnic and religious identities, and one attendant consequence has been the controversies that never seem to end.

The clearest example relates to the hoary and by now hackneyed question of “who is a Jew?” Jewish law is clear that a Jew is a person born of a Jewish mother or converted according to Jewish law. But those who perceive Jewishness as defined simply by ethnic identity (i.e., the presence of some Jewish blood in one’s ancestry) did not hesitate in embracing patrilineal descent or purely formulaic conversions requiring little more than a declaration of attachment, however tepid, to the Jewish people. Usually, it is for the purpose of marriage rather than the fulfillment of a genuine religious quest. The religious component of Jewish identity – the Torah, the Mitzvot, the obligations that bind us to the G-d who designated us as His people – is non-factor.

Thus a Jewish sportswriter breathlessly reported the news that June 8, 2018, was a banner day in our history: “Five Jewish baseball players hit home runs in one day,” a truly remarkable feat. Except for this: all seem to be the product of intermarriages, three are not Jews according to Jewish law, and, of the two sons of Jewish mothers, neither was raised Jewish. Jewish? Yes, if traces of blood are the only indicia of Jewish identity. There is no sense at all of our founding doctrine: “And I will take you to be My people and I will be a G-d to you.” All that matters is an ethnic attachment, and that they had a good day at the plate.

In weightier matters, the ruckus over the recognition of a non-Orthodox presence at the Kotel underscores this dichotomy. Even ignoring the obvious point that Reform Judaism does not grieve over the destruction of the Bet Hamikdash nor prays for its rebuilding, what is most telling is that those who are clamoring for access do not perceive the Kotel as a religious site but as an ethnic, cultural or historical one. It is a relic of Jewish history, a solemn reminder of a bygone era, and even a glorious testimonial to our survival. But a religious site, requiring faithfulness to the tenets of that religion? Hardly. Permanent access is sought in order to facilitate ethnic rites of passage – like Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremonies, often devoid of any real religious substance or commitment– rather than as a place to which Jews go to bask in the divine countenance or to sense His presence where it is most felt, in proximity to the Temple Mount and the ruins of the Bet Hamikdash.

It is a mystery why Israelis feel bound to respond to these entreaties, even threats, when they are coming from a place of antagonism to the foundations of the Jewish state. The decline of American Jewish political support for Israel among ethnic Jews is just a symptom of the problem that cannot be rectified by concessions in the religious sphere – Kotel, conversions, institutional support, etc.

Indeed, it is quite telling that divorcing the ethnicity from the religion certainly eradicates the faithfulness to Torah but it also causes the Jewish ethnic identity to attenuate over time. Hence the bizarre but growing phenomenon of Jews who pride themselves as universalists, not particularists, and whose commitment to Jewish life often entails supporting policies that would destroy Israel or obliterate Judaism. That is to say, the ethnic Jew does not need “Judaism” to remain “Jewish,” and will therefore embrace (happily or half-heartedly) cultural aspects of Jewish life stripped of any real Jewish content – e.g., attending Temple on Yom Kippur followed in midday by a treif lunch to “break the fast,” or observing both Jewish and Christian holidays in December and April, something that is seen as very ecumenical, open and tolerant. And it is. It’s just not really Jewish. From this perspective, the average ethnic American Jew’s support for Israel is understandably waning, as Israel is embarrassing him by defending itself and not further surrendering its land to its enemies.

The Jewish world in both Israel and America has to reckon with this divergence in Jewish identity but in different ways. In Israel there must be recognition that those who assert a purely ethnic Jewish identity weaken the claim of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, which, after all, is based on the Torah and G-d’s will. It is exacerbated by the presence in Israel of hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens who are not halachic Jews – in other words, classic examples of people with an ethnic but not a religious connection to the Jewish people. The conflation of Jewish and Israeli identity is admirable but misleading; there are many Jews who (sadly) are not Israelis but there are also many Israelis who are not Jews. We blur the difference at our peril.

In America the crisis is even worse. The glorification of ethnic Jewish identity is a Jewish hobby – basking in the achievements of “Jews” of even tenuous association with the Jewish people (athletes, celebrities, public officials) and trying to hide from the ignominious deeds of other such “Jews” of ethnic origin only (such as the miscreants accused of sexual harassment in the last year or so, who have been disproportionately, though of course not all, Jewish).

The greater problem is intermarriage, and the biggest problem with intermarriage is that most American Jews today do not consider it a problem. And that makes sense – if all Jewishness requires is a biological affiliation with other Jews. By this reasoning, any child of one Jewish parent or grandparent will always have Jewish blood and therefore it shouldn’t matter who one marries. And so it doesn’t, and so most American Jews intermarry and assimilate.

The attempt to reach out to these individuals by broadening the Jewish cultural offerings available to them will inevitably fail, as such programs do not conflict with their ethnic Jewish identity; in fact, they reinforce it. The ethnic Jew can also enjoy a bagel, klezmer and even reading the Bible in a totally secular way. But none of that will strengthen the other pillar – the religious component of Jewish identity. Rav Saadia Gaon wrote almost eleven centuries ago the verity of Jewish identity: “Our nation is a nation only by virtue of the Torah.” It is true that there are Jews who embrace the religion but not the national or ethnic attachments that bind us together, but those are really fringe elements. The greater problem today: those Jews who welcome Jewishness but disassociate from Judaism. They might even support the State of Israel but that tribal sentiment is infinitely more difficult to transmit to children when it is detached from Torah; hence the declining support for Israel among the young, many of whom have been educated in multi-cultural, “progressive” environments where such tribalism is anathema and anachronistic.

Hoping people will love Israel when they don’t love Torah and mitzvot is a tried and true recipe for failure. So many Jews just don’t know what they are missing or what they have abandoned. They have been raised in a heterogeneous environment in which religion is a private matter and ethnicity is the spice of life but not life itself.

The only hope for this remnant of Israel, denizens of free countries, is to expand the teaching of Torah in a positive, loving way but without making it trendy, a slave to newfangled values, a tool of social justice agendas or anything else that detracts from its divine origin. Only then will its voice reach its intended audience, and all of us will strengthen the identity that G-d bestowed upon us at our founding, as not only a nation among nations but as His nation.