Monday, January 17, 2022

The Reward for Honoring Parents and Eretz Yisrael

HaRav Mordechai Greenberg
Nasi HaYeshiva, Kerem B'Yavneh

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days will be lengthened upon the land that Hashem, your G-d, gives you. (Shemot 20:12)

One may ask: It is understandable that the reward for agricultural mitzvot will be in Eretz Yisrael. However, honoring parents is a rational, humanistic mitzvah, which other nations also observe due to its moral ethic, and which applies equally in Eretz Yisrael and outside of the Land. Why, then, is the reward specifically determined to be in Eretz Yisrael?

The answer to this question is rooted in a comment of the Ramban on Parshat Acharei Mot, where he asks a similar question, but in the opposite direction. It says there, in the section of the arayot, "Let not the Land disgorge you for having contaminated it, as it disgorged the nation that was before you." (Vayikra 18:28) The Ramban asks: Arayot are sins between man and G-d, which are incumbent upon the person's body, and are not linked specifically to Eretz Yisrael. Why, then, is the punishment for these sins greater in Eretz Yisrael than outside of the Land?

The Ramban explains there at great length the special quality of Eretz Yisrael, that is constantly guided by G-d in a direct manner, unlike other lands, where the Divine guidance is through officers and kings and G-d rules only in an indirect manner. Therefore, it is impossible to draw close to Him other than in Eretz Yisrael -- the Land that is "before Hashem," about which it says, "the eyes of Hashem are always upon it," and which is called, "the gate of Heaven" and "G-d's Sanctuary." Clearly, it is impossible to compare one who sins in G-d's Sanctuary to one who sins in the street. So, too, regarding the mitzvot -- which draw a person close to the Creator -- closeness to the King in His palace is far greater than closeness to Him outside.

Therefore, the Ramban writes, "The mitzvot are primarily for those who sit in the Land of Hashem," and there the mitzvot achieve their special value. Hence, the sin of arayot in Eretz Yisrael is entirely different than arayot outside of Israel.

In regards to honoring parents, the Torah introduces a novel concept. Even though it is a rational, humanistic mitzvah, still, it is connected -- like all other mitzvot -- specifically to Eretz Yisrael. Therefore, the Torah emphasizes that even mitzvot such as these apply especially to Eretz Yisrael -- "so that your days will be lengthened upon the land that Hashem, your G-d, gives you."

The GR"A's disciples add a collective dimension to this mitzvah. Besides honoring parents in the simple sense, there is a collective mitzvah on Am Yisrael to honor its parents, its elders from previous generations, and to guard above all the tradition of its ancestors, until the earliest patriarchs of Am Yisrael. When they observe the early tradition, they will be worthy of the rightful privilege of the early ones. What is their rightful privilege? -- That which was said to Avraham initially, "Go forth from your land ... to the land that I will show you ... To your offspring I will give this land (Bereishit 12:1-7); "For all the land that you see, to you I will give it, and to your descendents forever" (13:15). This commitment was repeated to all the patriarchs.

This is what is promised here. If Israel will honor the heritage of the patriarchs, the Divine promise regarding their connection to Eretz Yisrael will be fulfilled, and they will live long lives, "upon the land that Hashem, your G-d, gives you."

Towards Nationhood

by HaRav Zalman Baruch Melamed
Rosh HaYeshiva, Beit El

The sages have divided the history of the world into three eras: Two thousand years of "Chaos," two thousand years of "Torah," and two thousand years of "Redemption." The Torah portion of Yitro represents a transitional segment coming between the two thousand years of "Chaos" and the era of "Torah." Our sages teach that the Torah preceded the world by a thousand years. And yet, the Torah did not actually appear in the world until the two thousand years of "Chaos" had ended. This must mean that the world had to undergo a major period of development in order for it to be ready for the 2,000 years of Torah. It is may thus be instructive to examine the period of "chaos" - and to understand how it paved the way for the next era - the 2,000 years of Torah.

"Olam Chesed Yibaneh" - "Acts of kindness are the building blocks of the World." The world is built upon every individual correcting and perfecting his or her personality traits - in keeping with the principle of "Derech Eretz Kadma L'Torah." - that is: ethical behavior precedes the learning of Torah. The foundation of all ethical development involves nurturing the attribute of showing kindness to others. In fact, the Torah records how the world was indeed built by figures who held a deep appreciation of this value. The world, on its continuous path towards perfection, produced an Avraham Avinu; his whole essence consisted of kindness, a desire to indiscriminately help others. It was an approach that stemmed from his recognition of the Creator of the Universe and his zeal to convey this message to others...

After much effort, Avraham and Sarah give birth to their son, Yitzchak. During his lifetime, Yitzchak manages to perfect his own "Avodat Hashem" - personal service of God; the pinnacle of this dedication comes with his willingness at the "Akeida" to literally sacrifice himself and to negate his own personal interests in favor of God's will. Yitzchak, too, fathers a son, Ya'akov, who channels all of his energies into self-perfection, and in turn, "Tikkun Olam" - the rectification of the world.

Ya’akov's accomplishments go beyond what his father and grandfather achieved; whereas Yitzchak also fathered the wicked Esav, and Avraham -Yishmael, all of Ya'akov's children are Tzaddikim, righteous individuals. The twelve tribes of Israel maintained and cultivated the spiritual treasure bequeathed them by their father...

The family of Ya'akov Avinu was destined from the outset to be the seeds of a nation. To that end, at the conclusion of the Book of Bereishit, the family arrives in Egypt, and eventually settles into Egyptian society. This is the framework in which the people will eventually be "purified" in the "blast furnace" known as Egypt. Just as metal exposed to intense heat ultimately becomes more solid as a result, so too, the nation of Israel was subsequently able to resist the various pressures that sought to weaken and even destroy it: "As they [the Egyptians] oppressed [the nation of Israel] [the nation] grew in numbers and expanded".

Israel was bidden by God to recognize its connection to the Creator of the World, and to understand the extent of Hashem's absolute providence over the world. To foster this awareness, Hashem strikes Egypt with the ten plagues. This was a process that revealed to the Children of Israel and to the entire world that reality is governed by "Hashgacha Pratit" - Divine Providence. It was this very force that was instrumental in freeing the Jews from Egyptian bondage.

At the opening of this week's portion, the Torah tells us: "And Yitro heard..." As a result of the report that reaches Yitro - father-in-law of Moshe Rabeinu and former Midianite High Priest - Yitro decides to convert,to link his fate to that of the redeemed Jewish nation.

"What specific details of the redemption did Yitro hear that prompted him to come?" ask our sages. Their answer: "He heard of the splitting of the Red Sea and the war against Amalek." With the splitting of the sea, Hashem's oneness in the world becomes obvious to all; the entirety of reality, it was learned, is geared towards the sanctification of God's name and the revelation of His dominion over the world. The splitting of the sea had a huge impact on Yitro, filling him with the joy of the redemption, trepidation of the manifestation of God's majesty over the world, and with a complete recognition of His unity. All of these emotions are, say our sages, hinted at in the words, "And Yitro rejoiced..." The Hebrew term used in the verse has a double meaning, indicating that he both rejoiced and that he experienced a severe case of "goosebumps" upon hearing the story of the exodus.

In order for Israel to fully grasp that their God will, even in the future, rescue them from any misfortune - and they must therefore place their complete trust in Him at all times, the nation had to undergo various and sundry hardships: a lengthy enslavement in Egypt, a war with Amalek, lack of water and food, moments of nearly complete resignation, etc. In the desert, as a final step before the giving of the Torah, God feeds the nation a new food called manna, a divine, spiritual food, that purifies the body and feeds all 248 of the body's limbs, without producing human waste. Its color is a compound of many different colors, and its taste - comprised of many different tastes. Manna was given to purify the souls of the people, to lay the groundwork for the crucial moment of "Matan Torah".

Our sages explain that in a place called "Refidim" the Children of Israel's hands "slipped away from Torah." (Refidim is understood as containing a compound word - "Rafu Yedehem" - literally: "their hands slipped away.") In order to receive the Torah, they had to extricate themselves from this weakened spiritual state of "Refidim"... Thus, before they reach Mt. Sinai, the Jews must "depart from Refidim.

The Torah was given in the desert. As a place not subject much to human intervention and manipulation, the desert is the most fitting place for man to humble himself before the greatness of Hashem - a mindset essential for the full acceptance of the Torah. With this worldview guiding them, the Jews reach the ideal state referred to by the verse: "And Israel encamped next to the mountain" - "As one man with one heart. (Rashi)

As mentioned above, the splitting of the sea and the war with Amalek are the events that inspire Yitro to accept the God of Israel as his God, too. What aspects of these events contributed to Yitro's decision?

The Zohar teaches that what makes the splitting of the sea so extraordinary relative to the other plagues is that, when the sea split, two opposite goals were achieved: the redemption of the Jewish people, and the destruction of Pharaoh and his army. Aside from the mighty vision of Hashem’s Hand overtaking nature and subjegating it - Yitro understands that, at the very same moment, God can accomplish two opposite results: the destruction of the wicked and the salvation of the righteous. The event also serves as a model for God's interaction with the world as a whole, in which both good and evil are crucial elements in the Divine plan. Yitro's rejoicing and trepidation are a product of his appreciation of the Divine unity revealed by the splitting of the sea.

Regarding the verse: "And Amalek came and warred with Israel at Refidim," the rabbis explain: (as mentioned above) that the hands of the Jewish people slipped away from the Torah at Refidim. This opened the door for the Amalek-initiated attack. One may ask: How could it be that Israel, a nation that had merited such a high level of prophecy a short time before (The sages said that a maidservant saw more at the splitting of the sea that Ezekiel saw in his vision of the chariot) could plummet from this peak so quickly?

One approach to this question lies in the fact that, even within the "fall" represented by the crisis represented by their battle with Amalek, the Children of Israel were in fact progressing! Amalek is the source of evil in the world. There is no doubt that Hashem would have not permitted this war to develop had He not been certain that the nation could overcome Amalek. If so, the war itself, and the eventual victory over Amalek represents Israel's ability to now truly battle. to eradicate the source of evil in the world.

Thus, Yitro comes to a belief in the God of Israel in response to two events: The splitting of the sea, and the war with Amalek. From the latter, Yitro learns that there is not, and never will be any force that can block the path on which the nation of Israel is headed. With the defeat of Amalek - the nation that most represents forces antagonistic to the redemption of Israel - Yitro comes to the desert, and converts, filled with a renewed confidence in Israel's mission and destiny...

The Power of Unity

by HaRav Shaul Yisraeli, zt"l
Rosh HaYeshiva, Mercaz HaRav
Rosh Kollel, Eretz Hemdah
Chaver, Beit Din HaGadol Yerushalayim

The midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 15:18) connects the pasuk "Assemble for me seventy men" (Bamidbar 11:16) to the pasuk in Amos (9:6): "He builds upper chambers in the heavens, and His aguda (binding together) He founded on the earth." The midrash takes this to mean that, kav’yachol, Hashem’s throne in the heavens is only firm if Israel is bound together in unity. Another powerful midrash along this line says that even when the Northern Kingdom of Israel was guilty of idol worship, Hashem left them intact because they were connected to each other (Bereishit Rabba 38:6). What is so positive about the unity between sinners?

On the pasuk describing Bnei Yisrael’s preparations to receive the Torah, "They stood at the bottom of the mountain" (Shemot 19:17), Chazal say that Hashem held the mountain over them to make sure they accept it (Shabbat 88a). A midrash (Shemot Rabba 42:8) says that Bnei Yisrael’s statement "We shall do and hear" lacked full conviction. How could that be considering that Bnei Yisrael were so praised and rewarded for these words (see gemara ibid.).

Bnei Yisrael made it to the point of accepting the Torah by jumping through a great number of levels from the bottom spiritual rung (49th level of impurity) to the highest levels. How did this happen? They were aided by miracles and revelations, in line with Chazal’s comment that maidservants saw more divinity at the splitting of the sea than Yechezkel saw in his prophecies (Mechilta, Beshalach 3). These revelations left no room for doubt about Hashem, and when there is no doubt, what choice does one have but to accept the Torah that Hashem is giving you? This is the holding of the mountain over their head. While Bnei Yisrael did not mean "We shall do and hear" insincerely, still it was the result of a rare level of amazement. Since the commitment they naturally made did not have a chance to penetrate their consciousness, Chazal viewed it as equivalent to an incomplete acceptance.

But still how did they make it to this exalted level? It is by encamping at Sinai in a manner of unity that made them fit to be described in the singular (see Rashi, Shemot 19:2). The logic is as follows. Every Jew has two special powers: the innate character of greatness (segula); the power to act properly. That which we say, "Even though a Jew has sinned, he is still a Jew" (Sanhedrin 44a) emanates from the power of segula. The national power of segula is linked to the unity within the nation, making them a distinct nation. Then, the combination of the segulot of each part of the nation enables the practical power of Israel to be revealed.

It is for this reason that responsibility for the private actions of other Jews begins only after they crossed the Jordan together – the time that the nation truly worked as one unit. Then, when one organ malfunctions, it affects the whole body. Inversely, when things are working properly, the innate levels sparkle brilliantly, and the Torah can be followed in a complete manner. This is the idea of the binding together that is created by the unity on the earth.

A Human Justice System

by Rabbi Dov Berel Wein

One of the basic lessons learned from this week's Torah reading, though barely discussed by the commentators, is that there is no perfect system of justice if it involves human beings and judges. After the granting of the Torah to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai, our teacher Moshe allows himself to become the sole judge regarding disputes that arise in the camp of the Israelites. He is besieged by claimants and litigants from early morning until sunset. Naturally, anyone who had the ability to appear before such a judge as Moshe would wish to take advantage of that opportunity.

Though Moshe possesses supernatural wisdom and insight, he is known to be incorruptible, fair, equitable and decisive. What other qualities can one expect or hope for in a human judge? None. Nevertheless, as his father-in-law Yitro points out to him, the judge may be as perfect as can be, but the judicial system that Moshe has instituted is far from perfection. Yitro warns that by being the sole judge and having everyone wait their turn to have their claims adjudicated by him alone, both Moshe and the people will eventually become exhausted and wither away. What is needed is a tiered system of judges, courts, police, and other officials of the judicial system that must be appointed and empowered.

This signifies the creation of a bureaucracy, with all the attendant fields that it contains and necessarily entails. But it is the only practical way of dealing with this issue of sustainability that will allow Moshe and the people of Israel to continue to function. In effect we are being taught that attempting to achieve perfection in this instance will lead to exhaustion and eventual destruction.

One of the great lessons of the Revelation at Sinai was and is a simple basic understanding of the true nature of human beings, both individually and in society. The Lord is perfection, while humans are doomed to operate within an imperfect and frustrating world. Sometimes better is the enemy of good, in the attempt to achieve perfection, and only leads to greater imperfection, frustration and even violence.

Moshe aspired to give every Jew who came before him a perfect answer, a judgment that would harmonize with ultimate truth and nobility. He realized that this could not be done through the establishment of a bureaucracy. Within that system, there would be many cooks in the kitchen, and power would be diffuse. Personal interests could govern all decisions, no matter how noble the intent of the persons involved. His father-in-law agreed with Moshe's goal, but Yitro told Moshe, based upon his own life experience as being the chief executive priest of Midian, that Moshe's goal was unachievable in this world.

In this world one can only deal with practicalities, and practicalities always spell imperfection, compromise and the possibility for error and wrong decisions. But that is the human condition, and one must operate within that condition and accept imperfection as one of the basic tenets of human life and society.

The Naturalness of Faith and the Cause of Idolatry

by HaRav Eliezer Melamed
Rosh HaYeshiva, Har Bracha

Faith is a natural foundation of man, and without it, he would be unable to act and create in the world * Paganism was born out of man’s difficulty to strive to connect with the supreme, in order to reach God who is infinite * Without patience and the ability to say “I do not know,” man is drawn to cling to imaginary forces that do not hurt, nor truly help

Currently, I am writing another volume in the ‘Peninei Halakha’ series on emunah (faith) and idolatry, in which the halakhot of avodah zara (idolatry), mesirut nefesh (self-sacrifice), and the prohibitions of creating forms, magic, and sorcery will be explained. Usually, in the first section of each chapter, I delve deeper than other sections, because in it, I explain the clal (the general, overall description) detailed in each chapter. In this column, I will present the first two sections of the first chapter, as they now appear in the original draft. The goal is to clarify where emunah stems from, and in contrast, the tendency towards idolatry. Later in the book, the laws of avodah zara designed to guard emunah from the pagan temptation, will be explained.

The Basic Attribute of Faith
All human beings possess the attribute of faith. By means of it, man trusts his senses and intellect, his family and friends. Through faith, man believes his life has meaning, and consequently, he plans his future with hope and confidence that he will succeed in improving his life for the better. By way of faith, he believes that there are values ​​worth striving for, such as the value of truth and goodness.

On a higher-level, man, by nature, believes a supreme and eternal force exists beyond everything visible. By means of it, all things exist, and bestows supreme and sacred significance to all values. Even man’s individual life is connected to eternity, and its value is greater than his mundane and fleeting routine of life in this world. In order to give expression to this belief, all human societies created religions for themselves.

Emunah Bestows Confidence in the Face of Dangers
I will explain further: faith is the foundation of man’s existence in the world, since on it, rests his cognizance and consciousness. Besides that, his existence in the world is unstable, and around him lurks danger. Nothing that sustains his existence is guaranteed. If he does not work diligently and amass food and property – he may starve to death; if he does not bother to store up water – he may die of thirst. He must build a house in order to protect himself from cold, heat, and prey. He also requires an organized society to protect himself from thieves and enemies who might plunder his property, and subjugate him to slavery. In order to secure himself from illness, old age, and achieve a certain kind of eternal permanence, he starts a family and has children. Yet, after all the trouble, nothing is guaranteed. Without belief that life has value, and his effort will pay off, he will despair, and his chances of survival will decrease. He senses that the belief motivating him originates in the stable, eternal source of life, and defines the source of life as God, omnipotent, and all-powerful. He realizes the more faith he has in God, the more confidence and stability, diligence and resourcefulness, he attains. Especially in times of distress when his life is threatened, such as in times of illness, famine, or war, he turns to God in prayer, and asks for His help, and his faith gives him strength to act in order to save himself, his family, friends, and nation.

Belief in a Good Future
Nevertheless, it is not only the need to survive that necessitates man to call on God; more than that – it is the desire to advance, to break through boundaries, and constantly elevate. This is the meaning of the verse (Bereisheet 1:27): “God thus created man with His image. In the image of God, He created him.” Since he was created in the ‘image of God’, his inner nature has no boundaries, and his aspirations are limitless. Therefore, even when a person achieves stability he does not rest, because due to his natural faith, he always strives for more – to further understand, feel, enjoy, create, and develop. For there is no end to his curiosity in understanding the world — his longing to experience all of the world’s beauty and sublimity, his desire to relish all the pleasantness and good in the world, and his ambition to create and develop the world with the help of his talents. As he delves deeper into his soul, he realizes that the more connected he is to God, the more his desires are fulfilled, his blessing increases, and whatever he achieves and develops, will be of far greater value. Those who delve deeper, come to the realization that man longs for closeness to God, for the infinite source of all aspirations and desires to which he longs, and when he fulfills them, he draws nearer to God.

The Temptation to Paganism
As stated, man’s aspiration is infinite, and consequently, he is inspired with an immense desire to draw near to God, the source of all. However, he faces a huge problem: since God is infinite, He cannot be defined, and without a definition it is difficult to draw near Him. If a person is wise and honest he will restrian himself, understand that God is above and beyond all attainment, and try to find ways to be inspired by Him, walk in His ways, and add blessing to the world. However, many people are tempted to define and materialize God, and see Him manifested in the great powers of creation, such as the heavens and earth, sun, moon and stars, the sea and the wind, animals, plants, and the inanimate. Given there are numerous values ​​and creatures, people are tempted to see many different idolatrous forces, such as the ‘god of truth’ manifested in the sun, in whose light objects are exposed, and the ‘god of war’ exhibited in the stormy wind, and the ‘god of fertility’ expressed in earth, or rain. Over time, in a gradual process, spiritual and creative people formed sculptures and images that symbolized the forces of nature and the significant values, and created ways of worship by which man could honor the idols, and gain their closeness and blessing. In this way, all types of pagan religions of various kinds were created.

The Shared Mystical Experiences
A further explanation: many people occasionally experience a mystical, spiritual experience, in which they suddenly receive a great enlightenment – above and beyond that familiar to them, and feel this enlightenment elevates and inspires their being, and wish to give it a permanent place in their lives. However, once the enlightenment disappears, since there are no words or language to describe it, it gradually fades until it is forgotten, and the only remaining feeling is the longing and craving for that wonderful experience.

The Mystical Experiences of Creative People
In particular, are creative and spiritual people, who merit experiencing these spiritual encounters more intensely and more frequently, to the point where they feel they have met with the source of their life and soul, which they perceive in their consciousness as God. They realize that God constantly revives the world, and for Him they have always longed. Sometimes, in the midst of the enlightenment, they feel the heavens and earth unite, the past and future merge, questions they had are resolved, and are able to foresee the future. Once the experience is over, they are not willing to relinquish it, and know that the more they succeed in restoring it, the more empowered their lives will be.

The Critical Choice
If they are humble and patient, they will absorb the spiritual experience in its purity, and in a deep and gradual process, it will elevate them to be seekers of truth and kindness. If they continue to purify themselves and rise, they will merit ruach ha’kodesh (Divine inspiration); and if they continue to heighten in their wisdom and good deeds, they may even receive prophetic revelations, as Avraham Aveinu did. For many, however, the temptation to experience the spiritual encounter again and quickly and with all their senses, over-powered them, and using their spiritual, literary, and artistic talents, materialized God, and defined Him and His character, created images and statues, and methods of worship.

The Basis for the Error of Paganism
The basis for the error of paganism is that indeed, God gives life to everything, and in all forces of nature, in man and in animals, a Divine spark is revealed that gives them life. Creative and artistic people are capable of perceiving this spark as being detached from its root, define it, give it a tangible figure of a statue, and create around it methods of worship that give a person the opportunity to recreate the spiritual encounters, and receive inspiration from them. The rituals included sacrificial offerings, singing and ecstatic dancing, illicit sexual relations, drugs, and alcohol.
Pagan Worship Echoes a Mystical Experience

When they succeeded in creating a statue and methods of worship that aroused a powerful impression, and gave expression to the spiritual encounter hidden in the hearts of the rest of the people, an idolatrous cult was created that intensified the sense of faith among them. This gave them the empowerment, confidence, and hope that as a result of worshiping the idol, they would be blessed.

Without Faith in Hashem, People Believe in Idols
Since by nature man has faith, if he does not believe in the true God, he will be inclined to believe in avodah zara. This is because man’s natural faith also includes a belief that there is an explanation and meaning to occurrences in nature and in man’s life, and as well, includes a belief there is a means by which man is able to solve his troubles, and advance himself. Consequently, even when he does not find a certified explanation for occurrences in nature and life, he believes there is an explanation, and will accept the explanation that seems most logical to him, even if it is not accurately based.

Thus, out of a basic premise of faith, creative and spiritual people established the pagan religions that gave explanation and interpretation to what was happening in the world and to man, and developed rituals by means of which they could gain the grace of the idols. Today, their faith seems ridiculous, but when man’s life centered on dealing with the great forces of nature, coupled with his natural faith, the pagan concept seemed a necessity. Indeed, there was different interpretations of the higher powers, however, they were all pagan. Therefore, no profound differences existed between the various pagan religions, and in different locations, paganism was interpreted according to the living conditions and environment. Apparently even today, people believe in things that are not true, because they seem more probable to them.

The nature of man to seek an explanation and believe in it is fundamentally positive, and stems from the image of God in man, namely, from his belief in his ability to understand the world, and act to change it for the better. Owing to this faith, man believes that it is worth the effort to find a solution to every problem. However, the evil instinct diverts this trait to believe in false solutions, and descend into terrible mistakes. Eventually, however, man will understand that as a result of his mistake his troubles and torments multiplied, he will continue to search, and thanks to this, continue to advance.

Only yichidei segulah (virtuous individuals), people with humility and honesty – as long as they do not have a confirmed answer – are able to restrain themselves, and say “I do not know,” and continue to seek a more correct solution – all the while, willing to pay a price for it – and thanks to them, science develops. Above and beyond such people are Avraham Aveinu and the prophets of Israel, who were not satisfied with partial emunah, and the Lord, God of Israel, revealed Himself to them, and illuminated the way for them to cling to His virtues, and bring blessing and tikun (rectification) to the world.

Disappearing the Jews

by Victor Rosenthal

On any scale of importance, the absurdity that the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures somehow ignored the fact that Jews, most of them running from antisemitic Eastern Europe, created the industry ex nihilo in the face of still more antisemitism in America, is insignificant.

Naturally, in these diverse and inclusive days it is supremely important to emphasize the role played by non-whites (and downplay that of non-BIPOC), so that Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki gets more play than – get ready – Walt Disney, who was not Jewish, thus demonstrating that the discrimination was merely racism and historical negationism and not primarily antisemitism.

Nevertheless, leaving out the Jews, not only the famous studio moguls that built Hollywood, but the actors, directors, and technical people that were so much a part of it, is like writing a history of the auto industry without Henry Ford and Alfred P. Sloan. It seems ridiculous to anyone who knows anything at all about the subject. And since the movie industry has declined into woke idiocy (it is possible that there will never again be a good American movie), maybe the memories of Jack Warner and the rest are best served by leaving them out of it.

But when my wife mentioned this to me this morning, I immediately thought of a similar project of historical negationism, one that is even more absurd, but on a much grander scale: the attempt to write the Jews out of the history of the Land of Israel.

How is that possible? The combination of written documentation and archaeological evidence for the existence of a Jewish culture in the Holy Land, back to at least 1200 BCE (and much longer if you credit biblical accounts), is overwhelming. And yet, Palestinian Authority officials and media tell us that there was never a Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, that Jesus was a “Palestinian” – indeed, even that he was the first Islamic martyr – and so on. The PA engaged in excavations in the Temple Mount, in violation of agreements that such actions require archaeological supervision, and discarded large quantities of debris containing artifacts of the Jewish presence there in ancient times. They and their supporters get the UN to declare Jewish holy sites “Palestinian.”

The statement that “Jesus was a Palestinian” is particularly ridiculous, since there the Romans hadn’t renamed Judea “Syria Palaestina” (Philistine Syria) until their vicious suppression of the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 CE; and all contemporary accounts indicate that Jesus was a Jew. The argument seems to run like this: Jesus was persecuted by Jews, [today’s] Palestinians are persecuted by Jews, and therefore Jesus must be a Palestinian. No more perfect combination of false premises and invalid logic can be found, but this nonsense is repeated not only by Palestinians, but retweeted by members of the US Congress.

The BDS movement is yet another example. If Israel can’t be part of anything, from academics to sports to literature, then the message is that it is not real. The State of Israel is treated as an imposter state. “You are not a real country,” I’ve been told on social media. We are accused of “stealing Palestinian culture,” including food and music. This is an example of the psychological phenomenon of projection, since this is precisely what the “Palestinian people” are attempting to do to the Jews. And it flies in the face of reality. Jews from the Middle Eastern exile eat Middle Eastern food and like Middle Eastern music. Should a former resident of Morocco eat gefilte fish?

This is a kind of magical thinking that is especially beloved by Palestinians. They seem to think that if they make maps on which Israel does not appear, and destroy evidence of Jewish provenance in the Land of Israel, they can make us disappear (to be fair, they also take more practical steps to make us disappear, such as murdering Jews whenever possible).

But Palestinians and Hollywood museum directors aren’t the only ones who try to wish the Jews away. The theological stream called “supersessionism” or “replacement theology,” which holds that a “new covenant” supersedes the old one between Hashem and the Jewish people has been a feature of Catholicism since St. Paul, and has often served as a justification for the persecution of Jews. True, in 1965, Pope Paul VI made the Nostra Aetate declaration. But that did not repudiate the doctrine, only in effect asserting that Jews should not suffer as a result of it. More extreme versions of this view exist, like some of the “Black Hebrew Israelite” groups who believe that they are the “real” Jews and that traditional Jews are imposters.

In all the above cases, the common element is that the claims fly in the face of reality. They are not just distortions, they are pants-on-fire whoppers. But that doesn’t matter – just like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the more unlikely a claim is, the more powerful it is if people believe it, and by repeating (and retweeting) these lies enough, it is possible to make people believe them.

Jews Don’t Count

When talking about diversity and inclusion, Jews are not part of the discussion

In 1978, the significant Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case brought the term “diversity” into the lexicon of higher education. Although the Court found that the medical school at the University of California at Davis had used an unconstitutional quota system in denying Alan Bakke admission, Justice Lewis Powell made his now-famous observation that, notwithstanding the inherent defect of such a quota system, universities could likely enhance the quality of their enrollments by striving to create a “diverse student body” engaging in “a robust exchange of ideas,” and that there was “a compelling state interest” in trying to achieve such a goal and in promoting the inclusion of historically underrepresented groups on campus.

Rather than helping students adapt to the real diversity of society outside the campus walls, however, the campaign to increase diversity has served to create balkanized campuses where victims of the moment segregate themselves into distinct and inward-looking racial and cultural groups—exactly the opposite intention of the university diversocrats and their bloated fiefdoms with which they promote this theology of victimization, racial justice, and inclusion.

It seems, though, that not all ethnic groups warrant the concern of woke campus social justice warriors. Jews, a tiny but highly visible and influential minority group, are regularly ignored when victim groups compete for recognition on the sensitivity scale. More than that, the very individuals whose role it is to ensure that all people are recognized and all groups protected have been shown to harbor a particular animus towards Jews and the Jewish state, Israel.

In the rarified atmosphere of racial equity and discussion about oppression and victimhood, Jews are now considered to be white and enjoy “white privilege,” that even though they have long been a maligned and hated minority, Jews are now excluded from victim classification and have themselves become targets for condemnation, criticism, and censure—even from those diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) professionals whose primary role it is to create campus environments free from bigotry, hatred, and bias.

Corporations like Google, along with Facebook and Twitter, have revealed themselves to be core facilitators of contemporary woke culture, but nowhere are identity-based fiefdoms more apparent than on university campuses where DEI officers, “diversity czars” on their respective campuses, decide who comprises this generation’s victim groups and how they should be coddled and their grievances rewarded.

But, troublingly, a 2021 report from Jay Greene and James Paulat the Heritage Foundation, “Inclusion Delusion: The Antisemitism of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Staff at Universities,” has revealed that the very people charged with creating campus environments free from bigotry and places where all groups feel welcome harbor particularly dark and hateful attitudes when it comes to Jews and Israel, the Jewish state.

The study, based on an analysis “of the Twitter accounts of 741 DEI staff members at 65 universities to document whether there was evidence of antisemitism to support anecdotal claims about anti-Israel activity by DEI staff,” revealed the DEI professionals were not impartial observers of campus climates and made it “clear that DEI staff at universities actually function as political activists, articulating and enforcing a narrow and radical ideological agenda.”

And, in keeping with the current campus campaign to libel and slander Israel relentlessly in helping to support Palestinian self-determination, these DEI officers target Israel promiscuously, so that the report authors “. . . found that DEI staff are obsessed with Israel, communicating about the Jewish homeland almost three times as often as about the country [China] that is actively interning their Muslim citizens.”

And the obsession with Israel was, predictably, not positive. In fact, the report found, “Tweets about Israel were also uniformly negative: 96% were expressing criticism . . ,” while “[i]n contrast, 62% of the tweets referencing China [included in the report as a comparison] were favorable.”

The tweets examined in the report also confirm that these DEI diversocrats frequently engage in speech that is clearly anti-Semitic based on the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s (IHRA) working definition. “The frequent use of terms [in the tweets] such as apartheid and colonialism are meant to portray Israel as a racist endeavor and deny its right to exist as the homeland of the Jewish people,” one of the definition’s indications of anti-Semitic speech.

Not only that, in holding Israel to a standard not expected or demanded of any other country undergoing similar challenges, the DEI officers are demonstrating another example of anti-Semitism according to the IHRA definition. “The forceful denunciation of Israeli responses to rocket and terrorist attacks prominently feature a double standard,” the report found, “as only the Jewish state is expected not to defend its citizens in a way that all other countries would. The sparsity of criticism of China relative to Israel is also strong evidence of a double standard. Accusing Israel of genocide or ethnic cleansing is clearly meant to equate Israeli policy with that of the Nazis”—other anti-Semitic actions, according to the definition.

What are the report’s final observations? The authors suggest that, because it is perceived that “‘Jews, unlike other minority groups, possess privilege and power, Jews and victims of Jew-hatred do not merit or necessitate the attention of’” those in DEI positions of authority. In fact, the report concludes, it is “becoming painfully clear that many Diversity, Equity and Inclusion staffers charged with pursuing these laudable goals are betraying their mission, at least when it comes to Jews.”

Though by any normal measure Jewish students would be seen as a group worthy of protection from bias, hatred, and harassment by their peers and professors, the debate about Israel and the Palestinians has put Jewish supporters of Zionism and Israel in an uncomfortable position, often where they have found themselves excluded from progressive movements. Radical activist groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine have often been successful in recruiting black, Muslim, gay, and Hispanic students to the anti-Israel campaign that positions Israel as a white, colonial oppressor of a brown indigenous people, with the result being that students and faculty who support Israel are condemned as unrepentant racists and supporters of an apartheid regime.

Liberal students, who may well support the progressive values and beliefs of their peers but support Israel, therefore, frequently find themselves shut off from participating in campaigns for racial equity with which they actually sympathize but which, due to their allegiance to Zionism and Israel, brands them as liberal outcasts.

And because Jews are, rightly or wrongly, perceived as being powerful, of being “white” and enjoying “white privilege,” DEI officers have been less than sympathetic when Jewish students complain about the harassment and vilification they often receive as a result of virulent anti-Israel events, pro-Palestinian guest speakers, and anti-Israel faculty who load syllabi with one-sided anti-Israel, anti-Western, and sometimes anti-Semitic course materials.

That someone charged with fostering inclusion, diversity, and equity among students could at once purport to care about this goal and yet publicly despise Israel and Jews would seem to be contradictory, yet an example of this doublethink is currently roiling the University of Southern California campus. That case involves the vile Yasmeen Mashayekh, a student in the USC Viterbi School of Engineering who a group of some 60 USC faculty has accused of “ongoing open expressions of anti-Semitism and Zionophobia.”

Incredulously, though possibly not coincidentally, Ms. Mashayekh is a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion senator in USC’s graduate student government yet, as cataloged on Canary Mission (a website that compiles dossiers of anti-Semitic, radical students and faculty), on May 9, 2021, Mashayekh tweeted: “I want to kill every mother f**king zionist." When Canary Mission responded to that odious tweet with one of their own, claiming that her tweet was “horrifying,” Mashayekh tweeted: “Oh no how horrifying that I want to kill my colonizer!!"

In June, Mashayekh tweeted: “Death to Israel and its b**ch the US.," and retweeted a tweet that read: “May i****l [Israel] burn to the ground. #SaveSilwan.” And in case there was any doubt about her feelings about the Jewish state, her June tweets included support for terrorism and the death of Jews: “If you are not for the complete destruction of Israel and the occupation forces then you’re anti-Palestinian;" “Death to Israel;" and “Yes I f**king love hamas [sic] now stfu [shut the f**k up]."

But while a group of faculty called on the USC administration to take some proactive action to denounce the rhetoric and sentiment of this vicious student, others who support Mashayekh have been busy transforming her from a hateful, anti-Semitic bigot into a victim of Islamophobia and racism, and someone even experiencing reputational damage.

Mashayekh could thus insulate herself with a mantle of victimhood and was free to attack Zionism, Jews, and Israel with impunity, presumably due to her victim status and the fact that the targets of her vile ideology are “white” Jews, defenders of a racist state who, in her mind, at least, do not deserve protection from hatred.

At Stanford University, the DEI program of the University’s Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) division is at the center of a lawsuit filed by the Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law on behalf of two CAPS mental health counselors, Dr. Ronald Albucher and Sheila Levin, who experienced “a hostile and unwelcoming environment for Jews in its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) program, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act.”

“The DEI program,” the lawsuit claimed, “advanced the stereotype that Jews, including Ms. Levin and Dr. Albucher, are ‘white’ or ‘white passing,’ and invoked the classic anti-Semitic trope that Jews are powerful, wealthy and privileged.” At DEI training sessions, Levin and Albucher were confronted with the language of victimization that animates the progressive ideology on campuses, language which includes “white” Jews as oppressors of people of color. “By endorsing an anti-Semitic narrative that designates Jews collectively as ‘oppressors,’responsible for systemic racism, while simultaneously denying Jewish ancestral identity,” the lawsuit reads, “the DEI program fosters anti-Jewish sentiment and encourages hostility toward Jews.”

And while the “DEI program was designed to ‘help all staff develop[] the skills and confidence to engage with students from different backgrounds,’” disqualifying Jews and the Jewish experience from protections afforded other ethnic groups clearly violates both the spirit and intent of that DEI mission. More troubling, the lawsuit notes, “when the DEI program ignores anti-Semitic incidents on the Stanford campus and spreads the anti-Semitic canard that Jews have ‘immense power and privilege,’ it teaches Stanford’s mental health professionals to disregard the mental health consequences of anti-Semitic incidents.”

This conflation of Jews and white supremacy, the central ideology of Nazism, is, of course, historically absurd and morally perverse, as is the assumption that Jewish students and faculty enjoy “white privilege.” It is also potentially dangerous for Jewish students, who now may have to defend themselves—not only from the perennial accusations of supporting the racist, apartheid regime of Israel that oppresses the hapless Palestinians—but also that they are part of a larger, more sinister movement that includes, in the minds of DEI officers and other woke campus leftists, the worst, most radical elements of the alt-right, supposedly emboldened and given visibility and influence during the Trump administration: conservatives, Republicans, Zionists, and assorted cranks from the neo-Nazi fringe.

The relentless focus on diversity, inclusion, and equity has purposely excluded Jews from this ideological mission, and, in the process, the rights and safety of Jews have been compromised, ignored, and minimized.

“Indeed,” the Stanford lawsuit noted in addressing the broader issue at play here, “this case serves as a cautionary tale: those [DEI professionals] . . . who are engaged in the important and necessary work of combating systemic racism and discrimination, must be careful to ensure that in the process of opposing bigotry that targets one group, they do not in the process promote or perpetuate harassment and discrimination of another group.”

Good intentions aside, Jews need to count.

Friday, January 14, 2022

Rav Kook's Igrot Hare’aya: Course of Study in Contemporary Times, part III

#89 – part III

Date and Place: 21 Menachem Av 5664 (1904), Rechovot

Recipient: R. Dr. Moshe Zeidel. He was a close disciple of Rav Kook, from their time in Boisk. Dr. Zeidel was a philologist and philosopher, who asked Rav Kook many philosophical questions.

Body: [Last time, Rav Kook wrote about the importance of talented students studying well on a basic level the classic works of mussar. Only then can one investigate these matters in depth, which requires a pure heart more than an academic approach. It must be done in a way that is also good for the future. We continue from that point and begin seeing an approach to the Torah’s view of slavery.]

When investigating matters of ethics/philosophy, one must take very measured steps. If, for example, one will breach the boundaries of the attribute of mercy even slightly and briefly but more than is healthy for the very distant future, it can sometimes cause greater damage than the greatest revealed impropriety. We can, then, conclude the following. Although we must not undo the feelings of rectitude and its practical applications in the present, in line with the images these feelings conjure up, we should still not take them too far.

We need to look at life on two scales: how it is and how it should be. Absolute rectitude is always connected to the way life should be. However, temporary rectitude is more connected to the practical world in the present. The loftiness of Torah and G-dliness must by necessity be a precious instrument that is designed to align the world with the situation it is supposed to be in. It is critical for you to be aware that these two elements are connected like the changing views of the horizon that one sees on a long walk.

Realize that the laws of slavery, like all Hashem’s straight paths, which the righteous follow and the sinners stumble on, did not intrinsically bring about any stumbling block to the world. The institution of slavery is a natural one within humanity (i.e., when left unsupervised, man creates it), and legally supervised slavery does not extend beyond natural slavery. To the contrary, its rules in the Torah come to fix certain problems, which tend to exist in natural slavery.

The existence of different social classes – rich and poor, strong and weak, is indisputable. Those who have acquired a lot of property and use legal means to hire poor workers treat them like slaves to a great extent from a natural perspective. For examples, coal miners are hired willfully, but in practice, they are like slaves to their employers. Certainly, some people who have a lowly social status and are at the whims of evil people who manipulate the legal system, would be better off being slaves who were bought for money. For example, now we need moral statements to worry about the lives of workers from a financial and social perspective. A rich person with an insensitive heart mocks the rules of justice and ethics. In the case of the mine owner, he would prefer digging a tunnel that lacks light and air, even if it shortens the lives of and debilitates tens of thousands of people. He prefers that to spending extra money to provide a proper tunnel. If a mine collapses and buries its workers, it is of little concern to him because he can find new workers.

If these jobs were done not by workers but by his legal slaves, he would have incentive to protect their lives, as they are his financial resources, and the poor workers would actually be better off. Therefore, our holy Torah charts out a path to elevate a person’s heart and bring him closer to the ways of the Master of the Universe. As long as social factors dictate that the institution of slavery will exist, the Torah will fulfill the role of “I have created an evil inclination, I have created the Torah as a remedy” (Kiddushin 30b).

The Conversion Challenge

by Rabbi Steven Pruzansky

If as Minister Matan Kahana, and supporters of his conversion reforms, repeatedly state, that their proposals to transform the nature of conversions in Israel are “al pi halacha” (according to Jewish law), why then would the heads of the three leading mainstream Rabbinic courts in the United States oppose these reforms? This is no small matter. The opposition of the leaders of the rabbinic courts (the Beth Din of America, the Chicago Bet Din and the California Bet Din), not to mention that of the Haredi and Yeshivish rabbinic establishments in America, carries the implication that the bulk of Orthodox Jewry in America will not accept Israeli conversions. That prospect foreshadows such an unimaginable rupture between the Jewish people in Israel and those in the Diaspora that one hopes saner minds will prevail. But why is there such antagonism to these reforms if they are “al pi halacha”?

The obvious answer is that “al pi halacha” is a mantra that has been poll-tested and approved by a public relations firm as the means to persuade the multitudes who do not want to delve into the details. It is a clever ruse. There are many practices that could be justified as “al pi halacha” that would render Judaism unrecognizable. Common practice and the Mesorah reject them. There are innumerable opinions in the Talmud, rishonim (early authorities) and acharonim (later authorities) that are part and parcel of the halachic system (“al pi halacha”) but are never practiced because they were not accepted as authoritative. I hesitate to give examples so as not to encourage spiritually reckless behavior but suffice it to say, one who drinks a cup of milk after eating a steak served to him by his concubine while he is bareheaded could make a plausible case that what he is doing is “al pi halacha.” But we would rightfully rebuke such an individual as a bad Jew and banish him from Jewish life, if we could.

We do not assert that deviations from traditional Jewish practice are “al pi halacha” and abstain from providing details. Unfortunately, in this case, “al pi halacha” is being used as an advertising slogan but carries no substance when the details (sparse as they are) are analyzed. Waving the magic wand of conversion over thousands of people who are Israelis but uninterested in living a Jewish life mocks Judaism and the Torah which we hold dear.

The proposed reforms invariably include a dilution of standards of conversion that have been practiced for generations. To be sure, there have been lenient opinions as well, but those lenient opinions were meant to deal with extraordinary situations (usually in the exile) and were never meant to be mainstreamed, certainly not in the Jewish state of Israel. To convert people who have no intention of observing Shabbat, kashrut or the laws of family purity – because their neighbors, friends and relatives who were born Jews do not – falls far short of the historical standard of conversion. After all, conversion is not the process by which we inflate the number of Jews in the world. Conversion is intended to augment the number of “avdei Hashem” – divine servants – in our midst. There is not even the slightest intimation that the new conversion standards will produce more avdei Hashem. Instead, it is admittedly intended to solve a social problem – what to do with the thousands of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who are not Jews according to Halacha?

Conversion to Judaism requires true commitment, not the waving of a magic wand and the distribution of a certificate. For seven years, I headed the Bet Din L’giyur in Bergen County, New Jersey (included in our jurisdiction was New Jersey, upstate New York and much of Pennsylvania). Nothing was more rewarding, even thrilling, than bringing a human being, enthralled by the majesty of Torah and the grand epic of Jewish history, under the wings of the divine presence. Not every candidate was accepted. Some just could not assume the commitment to mitzvot that is expected of every Jew. But many could and did, and we are a better nation because of them.

People often ask, why must the convert be held to the same standards of observance as the born Jew? But we do know the difference between the citizen and the alien. An American citizen, for example, is not stripped of his or her citizenship because of criminal behavior or even rejection of the US Constitution. But a foreigner will not be accepted for citizenship if such a person is a criminal or refuses to faithfully uphold the laws of the country. Becoming a Jew has different criteria than being a Jew. To ignore those prerequisites, for social reasons, cheapens Judaism and obviously will not be accepted by most religious Jews here or abroad.

And what of the argument that there are so many immigrants who are not Jews but will marry Jews? What can be done to stem the tide of intermarriage in Israel?

That question can be turned on its head in two ways. First, what does it say about the quality of the Jewish education in the Jewish state that a young man or woman can be educated here for 20-25 years, and live in an environment in which observance of mitzvot is facilitated – and still have no qualms about marrying a Gentile? Is Jewish – not Israeli – but Jewish identity so shallow and meaningless that there is such a pervasive failure to inculcate the basics of Jewish life and how the Jewish people in fulfillment of the Biblical and prophetic visions returned to the land of Israel after nineteen centuries of exile? Is the secular school system so devoid of Jewish content that Judaism is ignored, trifled or dismissed? That educational bankruptcy is a colossal catastrophe, with the attendant results before our eyes.

Conversely, what does it say about the nature of religious Jewish life in Israel that after an immigrant, or child of an immigrant, lives here for decades, and is unmoved by the sight of religious Jews and knows nothing about the sweetness of Torah, the joy of mitzvot, and the meaningfulness of Jewish life? That too is a failure, and, among other things, we are harmed by religious Knesset members who scream, shout and hurl invectives at others, and thereby tarnish the Torah. Ideally, it should be impossible for anyone to live in Israel and not want to run to convert to be part of the Jewish nation. And yet, although some are running, most are not even walking.

Indeed, it is a problem, but conversion should be the affirmative acceptance of Judaism and never just a technical means of avoiding intermarriage. If it would be the latter, then we can solve the intermarriage problem in America (73% outside the Orthodox world) by just declaring that anyone who marries a Jew is Jewish by definition. Undoubtedly, some would claim such a process is also “al pi halacha” because it is meritorious to be part of the Jewish people. But that too would not be sanctioned pursuant to Jewish law.

Most troubling is the proposal to convert non-Jewish children by the thousands even if neither of their parents are Jewish! Traditionally, there has been a dispute over the level of observance of parents if a child is not Jewish (adopted, or the mother converted not according to Halacha). For example, the Rabbinical Council of America’s “Gerut Policies and Standards” (which I helped draft) requires the parents to be Shabbat and kashrut observant, belong to an Orthodox shul within walking distance and commit to send that child to yeshiva. But to convert a child of two non-Jewish parents?? The child then has almost no chance of living a Jewish life. The end result is the creation of a Jew on paper who will be rejected as Jewish by the overwhelming majority of religious Jews.

The conversion of a child, too young to make a free-willed choice, is done “al daat Bet Din,” on the authority of the Jewish court that assumes the child will be raised observant. In such a case, conversion is a zchut, a benefit for the soon-to-be-observant child, and we can confer a benefit on someone even against their will. But traditionally, converting a child who will not be observant is not a benefit but a hardship and a hindrance. What advantage is it to welcome to the Jewish people a future Shabbat desecrator, put in that position entirely against his or her will? There is a minority opinion, being relied on in these reforms, that it is always a benefit to be part of the Jewish people. That is a minority opinion, but minority opinions should not affect mainstream practice, and as noted above, would render Judaism unrecognizable if universally implemented.

The long term solution to the problem of halachic non-Jews in the land of Israel involves education, outreach, kindness, friendliness, warmth and exuding the attractiveness of Torah. Not everyone will convert, of course, but many would, if they realized the beauty of Shabbat instead of fearing it and the bright light of mitzvot instead of perceiving only restrictions. In fact, all Israelis could benefit from this, even those born Jews.

The consequences of these conversion reforms, if passed, will be dire. It is not just the split that will occur in the Jewish world. The current assault on Jewish identity arising from a number of different areas could lead even religious Jews to clamor for a separation of religion and state in Israel. Who, indeed, wants the government to decide questions of Jewish law? Not me.

And once Israel ceases to be a Jewish state in everything but name, the road is then paved for the realization of the leftist fantasy of the state of Israel-Palestine, one state for all its citizens, which snuffs out the Zionist dream and derails (temporarily) the prophetic vision.

It certainly sounds farfetched, and I don’t suspect many of the people leading the charge for these reforms of harboring such motives. But follow the money, see the groups who are funding the de-Judaization of Israel, and it might not be so implausible after all.

Let us arrest the decline in Jewish life, provide positive images of Torah and its adherents, re-affirm our commitment to the Jewish state and its sovereignty over the entire land of Israel, and the problem will ultimately solve itself.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Iran's Ayatollahs' war on women

by Ambassador (ret.) Yoram Ettinger
US policy toward Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran
President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken are recalibrating, reassessing and reviewing military cooperation (including sale of arms) with pro-US Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The latter are lethally threatened by the anti-US Iranian Ayatollahs and the pan-Islamic, transnational, anti-US Muslim Brotherhood, which is the largest Sunni terror organization in the world, operating from Indonesia, through the Middle East, Europe and Africa to the American continent.

The US is urging its two Arab allies to make "tangible and lasting improvements" on human rights, referring specifically to the manner they fight Muslim Brotherhood terrorists (Egypt) and the Iran-supported, rogue Houthis of Yemen (Saudi Arabia). In 2011, the US opposed the way that Qadhafi fought Islamic terrorists in Libya and led a NATO military offensive against the Libyan despot, which toppled Qadhafi and transformed Libya into an uncontrollable country, a major platform of civil wars and global Islamic terrorism.

The change of US policy toward Riyadh and Cairo – as it was in 2011 - has been triggered by the decision to put human rights, democracy and multilateralism (alignment with Europe and the UN) at the center of foreign and national security policy.

At the same time, while pressure is imposed on Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the anti-US Iranian Ayatollahs are offered a lavish diplomatic and economic bonanza in return for another nuclear accord. This generous US offer is extended irrespective of the Ayatollahs' systematic track record of anti-US subversion, terrorism, war mongering, drug and human trafficking and money laundering, in addition to their history of horrendous violations of human rights, in general, and women's rights, in particular.

Iran's track record on women/human rights
Germany-based The Green Political Foundation noted on March 16, 2021: "The 1985 compulsory hijab law states that all women in Iran, regardless of their religious beliefs, must dress in accordance with Islamic teachings…. Every year in Iran, thousands of women are prosecuted for having a 'loose' hijab. Teenagers have been arrested by 'morality police' at private, mixed-gender parties for failing to wear a hijab. The law is also used to prohibit young men from wearing shorts or brand-name shirts that sport a Western look…. The women who peacefully protested against mandatory veiling in 2017 and 2018 were charged with prostitution…. In 1936, Reza Shah issued and strictly enforced a decree banning all forms of hijab in a bid to Westernize the country. In 1979, in order to Islamize that same country, Ayatollah Khomeini announced that women should observe an Islamic dress code….

The 3rd quarter, 2020, issue of The Indonesia-based Jurnal Cita Hukum reported: "[In Iran], violence against women is a common phenomenon …. Many women have traditionally been subjected to violence…. The law does not criminalize it and has religious support to legitimize it…. Criminal regulations and laws exacerbate violence against women…. Iranian law emphasizes the power of men and the powerlessness of women…. Women are allowed to participate in some public areas, subject to the husband's permission…. Serial killings of women [wives, daughters and sisters] by men, who believe that the women prostitute themselves…. Light [if any] punishment of such behaviors is a stimulus to increase violence in society and the family…."

According to the 2019 State Department Iran Country Report on Human Rights Practices (issued before the current reassessment of US policy toward Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt): "Significant human rights issues [in Iran] included executions for crimes not meeting the international legal standard of 'most serious crimes' and without fair trials of individuals; numerous reports of unlawful or arbitrary killings, forced disappearance, and torture by government agents, as well as systematic use of arbitrary detention and imprisonment; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; severe restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, and unjustified arrests and prosecutions against journalists, censorship, site blocking, and criminalization of libel; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; severe restrictions of religious freedom; widespread government corruption; unlawful recruitment of child soldiers by government actors to support the Assad regime in Syria; trafficking in persons; violence against ethnic minorities [Azerbaijanis, Kurds, Lurs , Mazandaranis and Gilakis, Arabs, Balochis, Turkmens, etc.]; violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; criminalization of LGBTI status or conduct; outlawing of independent trade unions; harsh governmental restrictions on the rights of women and minorities….;

"Most rape victims feared official retaliation or punishment for having been raped, including charges of indecency, immoral behavior, or adultery, the last of which carries the death penalty. Rape victims also feared societal reprisal or ostracism…. [Iranian] law does not prohibit domestic violence…. The law permits a man to have as many as four wives and an unlimited number of sigheh (temporary wives), based on a Shia' custom under which couples may enter into a limited-time civil and religious contract, which outlines the union’s conditions…. Women sometimes received disproportionate punishment for crimes such as adultery, including death sentences. Islamic law retains provisions that equate a woman’s testimony in a court of law to one-half that of a man’s and value a woman’s life as one-half that of a man’s…. In cases of inheritance, male heirs receive twice the inheritance of their female counterparts…. The law provides that a woman who appears in public without appropriate attire, such as a cloth scarf veil (hijab) over the head and a long jacket (manteau), or a large full-length cloth covering (chador), may be sentenced to flogging and fined….

The March 8, 2021 report by the UN Human Rights Commission states that "women and girls continue to be treated as second class citizens in Iran, citing domestic violence, thousands of marriages of girls aged between 10 and 14 each year and continuing entrenched discrimination in law and practice…. By law, a girl as young as 13 years can marry, while girls even younger can legally marry with judicial and paternal consent. In the first half of the current Iranian calendar year, over 16,000 girls aged between 10 and 14 years have married, according to official Government figures…."

In conclusion
Is it logical to assume that such an abhorrent and intrinsic track record of human rights – in addition to a consistent regional and global track record of terrorism, wars, proliferation of ballistic technologies and drug trafficking – makes the Iranian Ayatollahs amenable to good-faith negotiation, peaceful-coexistence and departure from a 1,400-year-old fanatically imperialistic vision? In fact, Iran's Ayatollahs, on the one hand, and good-faith negotiation and peaceful coexistence, on the other hand, constitute a classic oxymoron.

Moreover, Middle East reality has demonstrated that – when it comes to US policy toward Saudi Arabia and Egypt - the US does not face a choice between human rights-abiding Muslim regimes and human rights-violating Muslim regimes, but between pro-US human rights-violating Muslim regimes and anti-US human rights-violating Muslim regimes.

The Bedouin Occupation

by Victor Rosenthal

Bedouin citizens of Israel formerly embraced a nomadic lifestyle, drifting between Arabia and the Sinai; but since 1948 many have permanently settled in the southern part of Israel. They established their settlements on any convenient unoccupied land, where they grazed their flocks and planted crops. Israeli authorities have established several towns and even a large city, Rahat, for Bedouin occupation, and in recent years have legalized numerous unrecognized settlements; but many Bedouin still live in the “dispersion,” a collection of hundreds of illegal favelas built on state land that resemble garbage dumps with scattered satellite dishes.

Throughout the years there have been various programs in which the state offered plots of land or homes in or near the recognized towns, along with agricultural land to replace state land on which Bedouins were squatting. Success of these programs was mixed. About 3/4 of the roughly 200,000 Negev Bedouin live in recognized towns.

The Negev Bedouin are virtually all Muslims. The population is significantly younger and is growing faster than either the Jewish or non-Bedouin Arab sectors, with (as of 2009) a fertility rate of 5.7, compared to Jewish and other Arab rates that are close to 3. Some 30% (as of 2002) of married Bedouin men have more than one wife.

Their political loyalties are primarily to their tribe or clan, though they are citizens of the state of Israel. A small number choose (it’s optional for Arabs) to join the IDF. Probably an equally small number of them identify with anti-state groups like Hamas. Those that vote lean towards the Ra’am party of Mansour Abbas (not to be confused with Mohammad Abbas of the PLO), a party whose official ideology is Islamist and associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. But Abbas has adopted a pragmatic approach – i.e., obtaining money and benefits for his constituents – in preference to an ideological one. This, and the deadlock resulting from the fourth successive election in two years, has led to Ra’am becoming the first Arab party to join a governing coalition in Israel.

Apparently the price paid to Ra’am for joining the coalition was astronomical, close to 30 billion shekels (US$9.6 billion) for programs to benefit the Arab sector. One of the promises made to them was that structures in unrecognized Bedouin settlements could be hooked up to the national electrical grid. This past week, the coalition, in one of the most raucous Knesset sessions ever, kept its promise to Mansour Abbas, passing an amendment to the Construction Law (referred to as the “Electricity Law”) permitting connection of illegal structures to electrical and other utility systems.

Normally, a structure built without a permit on land that the builder does not own cannot be connected to the national electrical and water systems. This has been described as “one of the state’s most effective tools against the national epidemic of illegal construction.” There have been exceptions when the state planned to legalize or otherwise regulate the structure, but these have been few. It will now be possible for tens of thousands of homes and other structures built illegally on state land to become permanent. To add insult to injury, an attempt to include “young Jewish communities” in Judea and Samaria to the law was voted down.

The law was passed by the Coalition with a vote of 61-0 after much of the Opposition walked out. Supporters say that it will save lives by eliminating unsafe electrical connections and will result in the Bedouins paying for electricity instead of stealing it. Opponents say that it will formalize the illegal occupation of state land, and permanently eliminate the possibility of relocating squatters. Israel Harel writes,

What’s the big deal? All they did was whitewash the (intolerable) status quo, in which thousands of illegal buildings are connected illegally to utilities, mainly electricity, putting lives in danger. Very humane. But – and it is a big but – in so doing we determine, in both theory and practice, that the piratical construction that extends over hundreds of thousands of acres will become permanent. Let’s recall that the so-called Kaminitz Law [increasing enforcement of building codes – vr] was suspended as a preface to the Electricity Law. Thus, the government put an end to existing plans to help the residents of the “Bedouin dispersion” to move, at almost no cost to them, to planned communities built by the state connected to modern infrastructure.

In 2005, the state of Israel tore Gush Katif from itself. Now, after the Electricity Law, it is ripping away large parts of the Negev too. In the area that extends eastward from Be’er Sheva nearly to Dimona, and southward from Be’er Sheva to the mountains of the central Negev, an independent regime will be established that will operate – and already does operate – according to Bedouin law. The neighboring state, Israel, will pay for this regime, according to the provisions of the most recent national budget.

Recently, there has been a sharp increase in crimes committed by Bedouins in southern Israel: car theft, drug offenses, agricultural theft, theft of weapons and ammunition from IDF bases, the use of firearms, and protection rackets. Women are harassed on the streets. Criminal activity is in the open, policing is ineffective, and judges give light sentences to those arrested, because they fear retaliation. Residents of the area complain of a “wild west” atmosphere; not long ago there was a shootout between gangs in the parking lot of a hospital emergency room.

One of the promises that the government has made, both to Jews and Arabs, was that it would crack down on crime among Arabs. So in November, the police took a stab at cleaning up the Negev, sending 1,200 policemen, with IDF assistance, into the area. They made a total of 12 arrests and confiscated a few makeshift weapons (in fact, the Bedouin are armed to the teeth with stolen military weapons) and some marijuana.

The Bedouin do not accept the idea that there is land which belongs to the state; as far as they are concerned, land belongs to whoever cultivates it. So this week the Jewish National Fund tried to plant trees on state land that Bedouins had decided was theirs. A riot ensued (encouraged by Hamas), in which cars were burned and rocks placed on railroad tracks. The planting continued this morning (Wednesday), but after Ra’am threatened to topple the government, a “compromise” was reached in which the tree-planting was delayed. Israel Harel’s words about “an independent regime” operating according to “Bedouin law” are apparently no exaggeration.

It seems that the Right’s worries about the consequences of including an Islamist party in the coalition were well-founded. Of course, the present coalition, which includes both Ra’am and the left-wing Meretz party, only exists because the Right has split itself over the question of Binyamin Netanyahu. Could we work any harder to defeat ourselves?

Taking the long way home

by Rav Binny Freedman

It is hard to imagine, looking down at the dry, windswept desert floor far below, what it must have been like two thousand years ago, to be a Jewish rebel soldier atop the isolated fortress of Masada. What kept you going, as you gazed down at the might of three full Roman Legions, all bent on your destruction?

In the year 70 CE, with the Temple (the Beit HaMikdash) in flames, Jerusalem breached and destroyed, hundreds of thousands of Jews dead, and hundreds of thousands more sold into slavery, the Romans announced that the great revolt had finally been put down. They even minted a coin to communicate their victory to the entire Roman Empire. The coin, known as ‘Judea Capta’, shows a woman, meant to be the Jewish people, cowering at the feet of a Roman legionnaire. The Jewish people had been defeated, and the war was finally over. The only problem was, the Romans were wrong.

Two hundred Jewish rebel fighters and their families, who had slipped away from the fighting and escaped to the fortress of Masada, decided to show the world that the war wasn’t over just yet.

Finally, word of a pocket of Jewish fighters still ambushing patrols in the desert reached Rome, who could not afford for the word to get out that they had been wrong and that the revolt was not really over. And so the Senate dispatched what would eventually amount to three full Roman legions to defeat the Jewish resistance at Masada. Three Legions; that’s fifteen thousand men; the sheer size of such a force must have been terrifying.

One wonders what it must have felt like, to see a cloud on the horizon to the North one day, which did not seem to move, it simply grew larger and larger. What was it like to realize with a sinking feeling in your stomach that this was no ordinary cloud, it was the dust raised by the feet of thousands upon thousands of marching legionnaires, all coming to destroy you, and all that you hold dear?

What must it have been like to watch the Romans surround the bottom of the mountain and begin building one of their infamous siege walls? Set back from the base of the mountain far enough to ensure a no-man’s land no-one could pass through undetected; this was a nine-foot-high wall set with guard towers within sight of each other around the entire mountain. What did it feel like to realize that it was no longer a question of whether; it was simply a question of when? And how did you explain to your five-year-old son who might have come to visit you on guard duty, why there were fifteen thousand men encamped below your home?

Nearly two thousand years later, long after the Roman Empire had crumbled into dust, a small group of archeologists and students came back to this place and began their search for the legend of Masada. Led by Yigal Yadin, the former Chief of Staff of the Israeli Army and one of the heroes of the War of Independence, they were determined to find out whether the incredible story of a small band of Jews who stood up to the mightiest Empire the world has ever known could be true.

And one day, along the Eastern casement wall, in what was thought to be a Jewish rebel guard post overlooking the Legions far below, they made an incredible discovery. Hidden beneath the dirt and dust of two thousand years, they discovered a small piece of parchment, and on it was written the eighty-second psalm, in its entirety, exactly as we have it today. A small piece of the book of Tehillim (psalms) read and re-read most probably by a Jewish soldier on guard duty, two thousand years ago.

“A Psalm of Asaf. G-d stands in the congregation of G-d, He judges among the judges. How long will you judge unjustly, and respect the persons of the wicked?

Judge the cause of the poor and fatherless! Vindicate the afflicted and the needy! Deliver the poor and destitute: rescue them out of the hand of the wicked.

They know not, nor do they understand, they walk on in darkness, and all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

I had said: ‘You are angels (messengers of G-d), all of you sons of the most high; Nevertheless, you shall die like a man, and fall as one man, O’ princes.

Arise, Oh G-d, judge the earth, for you shall inherit all of the nations.”

I remember one particularly depressing Sunday morning, heading back up to Lebanon from Yad Eliahu, the stadium near the central bus station in Tel Aviv. It was a ten-minute walk from the bus station to where the buses were waiting, outside the stadium, to take the various units back up North after a weekend off. And you could easily spot any soldier that was headed back up to the hell of active duty in Lebanon; they were the ones carrying flak vests, helmets, and ammo webbing. (You had to leave Lebanon in military gear because of the danger, so guys would just take the gear home for the weekend.)

As I was leaving the bus station, a beggar woman accosted me for tzedakah, a little bit of charity. The Jewish tradition teaches: “Tzedakah Tatzil Mi’Mavet” “Charity saves one from death”, so if you’re on your way up to Lebanon and a beggar woman asks for tzedakah, you find some coins. After I gave her some tzedakah, though, she wouldn’t let me be, insisting on giving me a small miniature book of Tehillim (psalms) encased in plastic.

Now, if you’re on your way up to Lebanon, and a Beggar woman insists on giving you a book of Tehillim, you take it; so I did. And that book of Tehillim, which I have opened and used on a number of very challenging occasions since that day, still sits in the breast pocket of my army uniform, where it’s familiar feel and shape gives me comfort wherever the army sends me.

Two thousand years ago, facing the full might of the Legions of Rome, with the Temple destroyed and Jerusalem in ruins, a small group of Jewish men and women took a stand. And one of them, a lonely Jewish soldier, despite what appeared to be the end of the Jewish people close at hand, pulled out his little Tehillim and began to recite the psalms. And today, two thousand years later, in a modern State of Israel, with the first Jewish army since the fall of Masada, Israeli soldiers are still reading from that same book of Tehillim, which may well be why we are still here.

On the one hand, this idea still fills me with awe, and suggests very obviously (to me) that Hashem (G-d) is really running the show. And yet, it also raises some very challenging questions. After two thousand years of wandering and suffering, trials and tribulations, one wonders, why did it, and why does it still have to be so hard? Why is G-d playing all these games with us? After all, if in the end we were meant to be here again, while Rome was meant to disappear, then why couldn’t G-d have arranged that in the year 70, without all of the challenges and struggles we have had to endure since then?

It may be that we are not meant to understand the answer to this question in this world. But hidden in this week’s portion Be’shalach, may well be the Torah’s response to this challenging issue.

This week’s portion begins as the Jewish people are leaving Egypt, and the Torah points out that there are really two routes the Jews can take to get to Egypt. The shorter, more obvious way to go will take the Jews straight up the coast through the Sinai desert to Israel. With a brief stop at Sinai (why that is necessary is next week’s portion), they could be safely back in Israel within the week. Hashem, however, chooses the long way around, through the Red Sea to the East, then up through the heart of the Sinai desert and North through the lands of Edom and Moav (today Trans-Jordan) and then back west across the Jordan River into Israel.

Why does Hashem choose this much longer, and certainly much more arduous route?

“G-d led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, though that was near, for G-d said: ‘lest the people relent when they see war and return to Egypt. And so G-d turned the people through the desert of the Sea of Suf (the Red Sea).” (Shemot 13:17-18)

In other words, Hashem knew the people would not be able to handle an immediate encounter with the Philistines, three days North of Egypt, and knew that when the Jews were confronted with a military campaign, they would panic and head back to Egypt.

So, to avoid this conflict, G-d takes them all the way around, on a much more difficult journey. Now, the idea of the entire Jewish people, having just left Egypt and two hundred years of slavery behind them, and seeing G-d’s miracles in the form of the ten plagues (whose purpose was in fact to make known the mighty hand of G-d, see Shemot 10:1-2) turning tail and running back to Egypt at the first sign of trouble, is challenging enough. But what really makes this difficult is what happens next. Because the very next thing that happens is that the Jewish people find themselves in exactly the scenario G-d seemed to want to avoid!

The Jewish people arrive at the Sea of Reeds (Yam Suf) and with the way ahead blocked by the Sea, turn around to see the entire Egyptian army bearing down on them. With nowhere to go, and nowhere to hide, they are, just as G-d predicted, terrified. In fact, their reaction is exactly as Hashem said it would be (big surprise there…):

“And they (the people) said to Moshe: ‘are there no graves in Egypt that you have taken us to die in the desert? What have you done to us to take us out of Egypt? …It would be better for us to work in Egypt than to die in the desert!” (14:11-12)

Given that this should be no surprise, Moshe’s (read G-d’s) response is surprising to say the least:

“And Moshe said to the people: ‘Do not fear (Al Tira’u), stand and see the salvation that G-d will do for you this day, for as you have seen Egypt this day, you shall not see them again any more forever. Hashem will fight for you and you will hold your peace.” (14:13-14)

“Do not fear”? How can the Jewish people be expected not to fear? Especially considering the fact that Hashem has already pointed out that the people will see war and be afraid, why does Moshe (and G-d) expect them not to fear? And how indeed, if this is the expectation, does one overcome their fear?

Furthermore, if Moshe is telling the Jewish people not to be afraid, one wonders why? After all, once the Sea splits, it won’t matter whether the Jewish people were afraid or not, because the Egyptians will be wiped out. So why do the Jews need to cease being afraid?

But the most obvious question here is, why does G-d take the Jewish people all the way around in order to avoid imminent warfare, only to lead them to between a rock and a hard place, where they are confronted with… imminent warfare!

And since Hashem’s response to their encounter with war, and their subsequent desire to return to Egypt is to split the Sea and essentially vanquish the Egyptians Himself, why could Hashem not simply have done this with the Philistines? G-d could have led the Jews up the coast and when they encountered the Philistines, Hashem could have split the earth, and vanquished the Philistines, just as He did the Egyptians?

All of which, again, leaves us wondering, especially when considering that it is G-d who actually leads the Jewish people to the Sea of Reeds where they will encounter warfare, what the real purpose of this long, arduous, roundabout journey is really all about.

And of course, add to all of this the fact that at the end of this week’s portion, the Jewish people encounter war again, this time with the nation of Amalek, which leaves us wondering what is really going on here?

In addition to the afore-mentioned questions, a closer look at some of the events in this week’s portion further add to the challenge of understanding the nature of the Jewish people’s journey into the desert.

Immediately after the splitting of the Sea, the Jewish people arrive at Marah, so named because of the bitter, undrinkable water they find there, after not being able to find any water for three days. (15:22-23) So why does Hashem take them there (remember that the Jews are following heavenly clouds and pillars of fire to show them the way…) if there is no water? Didn’t G-d realize an entire people in the desert would need water?

Not surprisingly, the Jews complain (15:24) and we expect we know what will happen next, right? It’s like a problem-solving exercise: the Jewish people are in the desert and have no water, so what do you do? Get Moses to grab his staff and hit a rock, and presto! You get some water right?

Only G-d doesn’t do it that way; he has Moshe throw a stick (which Jewish tradition teaches was actually itself bitter) into the water, and behold, the water became sweet. Impressive, right? Only it was G-d who led them to this bitter water in the first place, obviously in order to do this miracle, so what exactly was the point of it all? G-d hadn’t done enough miracles by then? The people weren’t sufficiently impressed with ten plagues, the Exodus, and the splitting of the Sea? Isn’t this miracle a bit redundant? After all, you see one miracle; you’ve seen them all, right? (Especially since immediately after this miracle, (15:27) they come to Eilim, where they find 12 wells and seventy date trees, so Hashem obviously could have brought them to a place where this miracle was not even necessary!

And why doesn’t G-d have Moshe do the famous ‘hit the rock’ scene here? Is it more impressive to use a bitter stick to make bitter water sweet?

And when G-d actually makes the bitter water sweet, He then launches into a rather strange little speech:

“And He said, if you will hearken to the voice of G-d, your G-d, and do that which is right in His eyes, and listen to His mitzvoth, and uphold all his laws, then all of the sickness which I placed in Egypt I will not place upon you, for I am the Lord your healer.” (15:26)

What is this all about? Is G-d threatening to unleash another set of plagues, this time on the Jews if they don’t listen to Him? Even if that is the case, what is this strange warning doing here? And what does bitter water turning sweet have to do with adherence to Hashem’s commandments?

Next, after the embarrassingly poor planning at Marah, G-d takes the Jewish people by way of the desert of Sin. (Not sin, as in transgression, but a place named Sin, in Hebrew.) And this time, the problem is, they run out of food!

Predictably, the Jewish people, again, complain:

“Would that we had died by the hand of G-d in the land of Egypt, where we sat by the flesh (read chulent!) pots and ate our fill of bread, for you have brought this entire congregation out to this desert to kill us all with hunger.” (16:3)

Many commentators ask the question, as to how the Jewish people, after seeing so many miracles from G-d, could possibly still be complaining, much less considering going back to Egypt? But upon closer examination, given the circumstances, the behavior of the Jewish people is quite understandable; it is G-d who seems to have much to answer for! First, they are taken out of Egypt only to face extinction by the Egyptian army, then they have no water, and now they have no food! So, what gives?

And G-d’s response here, famous in Jewish history, is even stranger. Recall, that G-d is taking the Jewish people all the way around on this long, circuitous route to get them ready to face the inevitable combat awaiting them in Israel. So, the last thing you want to do when training future soldiers is to make life easy. Yet, that is exactly what G-d does!

“Behold I will rain down bread from the heavens, and the people will go out daily to collect it, in order to test them as to whether they will follow my Torah.” (16:4)

In response to the people’s desire for bread, G-d gives them the Manna, which for the next forty years, day in and day out, every day except for Shabbat, they will go and collect right outside their tents. According to Jewish tradition this was real miracle bread, able to taste like whatever you wanted (and were thinking about) when you ate it. So why do they get this bread now? After all, if G-d had this trick up His sleeve, why not just rain the Manna down from day one? In fact, we could have skipped the whole matzah story, and gone straight to the Manna?!

And, incidentally, if G-d is already performing this miracle, why not do it once a week, and let the Jews have food in the cupboards; why make them do it every day? (And the importance of only collecting enough for each day is emphasized by the focus devoted to the individuals who do not heed this command, attempting to store additional Manna in their homes, see 16:19-21)

And, most of all, what exactly is the test here? G-d gives us bread for free every day, which can taste like anything we want, and the test is…?

And then, when the issue of the food is finally resolved, the people move on to Refidim, where again, there is no water! (17:1) This of course, is unbelievable! Is G-d just having difficulty with his GPS navigational system? And yet again, predictably, the people complain saying:

“Why have you taken us up from Egypt to kill me, and my children, and my cattle with thirst?” And, incredibly, Moshe is upset with the Jewish people! (See 17:2; 5)

And this time, G-d will unveil the ‘hit the rock’ plan, but with a twist: G-d doesn’t just tell Moshe to hit a rock; he has to gather together the elders of Israel (the Ze’keinim) and hit a specific rock that G-d Himself designates. (17:5) And most interesting, is that Moshe, with the Elders in tow, has to go all the way to Chorev, another name for Mount Sinai, to find that rock! And apparently, the water must then have flowed all the way back to Refidim. (See 19:2 and note that the Jewish people eventually journey from Refidim to Sinai) So why the need for this miracle? And why was it done in this way? What is the connection of all this to Mount Sinai?

Lastly, the portion of Beshalach then concludes with the attack of the Jewish people by the nation of Amalek. (17:8-16) And this time, the Jewish people have no time to complain, because this time, G-d will not be splitting any seas; the Jewish people will, at last, have to do their own fighting. Well… sort of. You see, while Joshua is leading the troops in battle below, Moshe’s plan (17:10) is to go up on the mountain with his staff, the same staff that wrought the plagues and split the Sea. This is very strange; why doesn’t Moshe lead the Jewish people into battle himself?

Even stranger is what happens next, because when Moshe holds his hands high to the heavens, the Jewish people in battle below prevail, but whenever Moshe’s hands grow weary it is the Amalekites who prevail and seem about to carry the day. What is that all about? Who is really fighting this war? G-d, or the Jewish people? And again, if this entire journey is to avoid a war, how is it that the Jewish people find themselves fighting the war that G-d was trying to avoid?

Obviously, there is something much deeper going on here behind the scenes, and if Hashem is introducing challenge after challenge to the Jewish people, especially condensed into such a short period of time, then we have to at least try and understand what Hashem is trying to do, and what we are meant to learn from it all.

What really, is the purpose of getting us out of Egypt to begin with? What is the goal of this entire four-thousand-year story we call the Jewish people?

Ultimately, we are meant to become a “Mamlechet Kohanim Ve’Goy Kadosh”, a “Kingdom of Priests (teachers) and a Holy Nation”. Every nation has its mission; essentially the gift it offers the world. And ours is to be an Or La’Goyim, a Light unto the Nations.

In order to do that, however, the goal is to become Am Yisrael, Be’Eretz Yisrael, Al pi Torat Yisrael. (The Nation of Israel, according to the Torah of Israel, in the land of Israel.)

In other words, in order to achieve our purpose as a Nation, three things have to happen:
  1. We have to get to Israel, because a nation is not a Nation without a land. Only in a land can we be seen as a separate entity and have an ethical impact on the world as a Nation. Every Nation has its place, and only in that place can it truly become all it is meant to be, and achieve all it is meant to achieve as a people. And just like the world would not have gained all the gifts the Greeks had to offer had they been anywhere else but Greece, our place to become who we are meant to be as a Nation, is the land of Israel.
  2. Before we can become a nation in our land, we must first receive the Torah, because in order to become an ethical people who can be a role model of what ethics are meant to be, we have to have an objective source for those ethics, and there is only one truly objective source in this world. So we have to stop at Sinai to ‘pick up’ the Torah.
  3. But before we can do any of this, we first have to become a Nation. Andthatis the theme of this entire portion.
In this week’s portion, having just left two hundred years of Egyptian slavery, the Jews are not really a Nation; they are just a collection of ex-slaves, with a very pronounced slave mentality. And, with that slave mentality, the first challenge that comes their way will obviously send them packing back to Egypt. Which is why G-d cannot take them straight to Israel; they need a National therapy session!

In fact, when Moshe at the Red Sea tells the Jewish people: “Do not fear” (“Al Tira’u”), it is not a command, or even a challenge; it is, rather, the entire point.

You cannot be a slave in Egypt for so long without being affected by the Egyptian way of thinking. In Egypt, it was very simple: might makes right. This is, in general, the nature of paganism, which worships nature, because in nature the strong survive, and the weak perish. And Egypt was the theological center of this philosophy.

Hence, when Moshe first asks Pharaoh to “Let my people go” (5:1) Pharaoh’s response is: “Who is Hashem that I should listen to His voice to send Israel forth? I do not know Hashem and thus I will not send Israel” (5:2)

Pharaoh is basically saying: if G-d wants to have His way, let’s see how tough He is. There is no objective ethic, and no absolute ‘right’. If you want something to be right, you have to make it right, and if you can’t then it’s wrong. And this ideal of ‘might makes right’, which is the natural outgrowth of a pagan, nature-worshipping society, is exactly what the Jewish people came into the world to undo. And it is why they have to leave Egypt to receive the Torah.

However, part of the problem with the Exodus from Egypt itself was that while G-d gets the Jewish people out of Egypt, He ends up teaching them that Egypt was really right all along. Because they only get out of Egypt by virtue of ten plagues, which, if looked at the wrong way might demonstrate to the Jewish people that in the end, Pharaoh was right. G-d proved that he was stronger, so he won. Now, the dangerous consequence of this impaired view is that the Torah itself will then only be valid as long as, indeed G-d remains the strongest, (something with the hindsight of two thousand years of exile might be thought, however mistakenly, to be untrue later in Jewish history.)

In other words, in order for the Torah, which the Jews are about to receive, to be accepted as an objective and eternal truth, not only Egypt but the philosophy of Egypt as well must be destroyed in the eyes and hearts of the Jewish people. Only then will they be the Jewish people they are meant to be.

Thus, when Moshe tells the Jewish people “Al Tira’u”, rather than ‘do not fear’, it may mean, do not be in awe, and do not continue to see Egypt in the way that you have; Tira’u being from the root ra’ah, which means to see. And that, perhaps, is why Moshe continues there (14:13) by saying that the Jewish people will no longer see the Egyptians in the way they have until now.

At the Sea of Reeds, the Jewish people learn that war isn’t about who has the stronger army; war is in the hands of heaven, and Hashem, not the chariots of Pharaoh, decides the outcome.

And after the splitting of the sea, the Jewish people come to Marah, where the water is bitter. But Hashem doesn’t tell Moshe to hit a rock to get water, precisely because that might send the wrong message to the Jewish people, who need to learn that might does not make right, so the bitter wood sweetens the bitter water, because that is an unnatural thing to do. Hashem performs this miracle to teach the Jewish people that G-d is above nature, and not the other way around.

At Marah, the Jewish people learn that all of nature, and indeed, all of life, is in the hands of G-d.

Then the Jewish people journey to the desert of Sin, where they have no food, and Hashem gives them the manna, which is more than just a lesson that all of our sustenance comes from G-d. This lesson is not only about the goal, it is, even more, about how to get there.

Assuming one has accepted the need for an objective ethic, and the value of becoming an ethical person, the question still remains as to how one actually achieves this. This is the lesson of the Manna, the heavenly bread.

What indeed, is the test of receiving bread from heaven? Maimonides, in his Guide to the Perplexed, points out that sometimes we are challenged by what we lack, and the difficulties of the journey, but sometimes we are challenged by what we have, and the ease with which it is available. Manna represents the ‘test of the good times’; when everything is so easy, and so readily available, do we remember where it all comes from?

The Jews will spend forty years collecting Manna every day; will they remember who gives it to them? Will they retain the sense of gratitude for this extraordinary gift?

This is one of our greatest challenges today, in the western world. We take for granted all of the extraordinary things we have, including the given that we will have food on our tables, a bed to sleep in, and a roof over our heads. Do we really appreciate what a gift this is, and where it really comes from?

But there is more; because the manner in which the manna gives us this message is also a valuable lesson that we should take care not to miss.

There are essentially two ways in which we experience change in our lives: the natural and the supernatural, the extraordinary, and the routine. (The Maharal speaks about this at length in his Gevurat Hashem.)

Sometimes, we get so stuck where we are, and have such difficulty getting out of the rut, or the desert of where we are, that we need a splitting of the Sea, as it were, to get ourselves moving. Such events, or moments, are rare and far between, and are really opportunities, however challenging they may be. Hashem doesn’t split the Sea every day, and when such a window of opportunity comes along, you have to grab it, and be willing to walk on through.

But make no mistake about it; sea splitting moments are never the solution, they are only opportunities to get a head start, or begin the journey of really becoming who we are meant to be, and getting to where we need to go. The real recipe for transformation, growth, and success, is in the manna we are given every day. When the sea splits, if you don’t succeed in turning it into the manna of every day, then it will never last.

Which is why, after the splitting of the Sea, the Jewish people are still whining about Egypt. And take note of the fact that even though the manna is a gift directly from heaven, the Jewish people still have to go out and gather it, because manna, even while being a gift from G-d, is also something you have to give yourself. The Jewish people are given the manna every day, which is why it is so easy to forget where it really comes from. And that is also why they have to at least go out and bring it in.

And the manner in which they receive this gift is by way of the daily routine. There is something very powerful about something we do every day, day in, and day out. If a person wants to break a habit, they can start by splitting the Sea, by going cold turkey, or something similarly traumatic. But ultimately, that is just a head start; what they are trying to do will last, when they succeed in creating a daily routine.

Thus, the Talmud tells us that one of the questions Hashem will ask of us when we get ‘upstairs’ is: “Kava’ta Itim La’Torah?” “Did you set aside times, (every day) for Torah study?”

Now, in truth, what Hashem could have asked was: ‘How much Torah did you study?’ After all, what’s the difference, really, between studying a page of Talmud a day which allows one to finish the entire Talmud in seven years, as opposed to studying seven pages of Talmud a day in the seventh year allowing one to complete a review of the same entire Talmud on the same exact day?

The difference is six years. Because the five or ten minutes a day has an impact on a person, and contributes to changing who I am.

Imagine, for example, that you want to lose weight and be healthier. Most people go on a drastic diet and lose a lot of weight in a short amount of time; they essentially ‘split the sea’. But then, eventually, they usually gain all the weight back with interest. Because the goal is not to diet, it is to learn to eat healthier. And the only way to really accomplish that is to change the way you live, and establish a daily routine, which over a long period of time loses the same amount of weight. Only this time, people are usually successful in keeping it off, because they are no longer on a diet, they have succeeded, one day at a time, through a daily routine, in becoming different people. They have become who they are meant to be.

And this is the secret of the manna, gathered one day at a time.

In the desert of Sin, through the manna, the Jewish people learn that Egypt was wrong; might does not make right; ‘right’ is something you build, by way of the manna you have from Hashem every day, one small step at a time. And the Jewish people begin the journey of learning how to become the free men and women they are meant to be, unraveling the slave mentality they carry in their hearts, one day at a time, for the next forty years.

Which is why they are now ready to arrive at Refidim, where again, there is no water. Only this time, the Jewish people are not asking to go back to Egypt, they are ready to understand why they have been brought out. And so, G-d has Moshe take the Elders and go to Sinai (Chorev), which is where they are about to receive the Torah.

At Refidim, the Jewish people learn that it is not the Nile or even the rock that gives water; it is G-d, which is why Hashem designates the rock, on Sinai, and why the Elders need to be there, because this is part of the process of transformation the Jewish people need to undergo. They need to be ready to receive the Torah from Hashem, but through Moshe and the Elders.

It is not just that might does not make right; the source of all might is Hashem, and Hashem’s Torah.

Which brings us finally, to the war of Amalek, where once again, Hashem demonstrates, as at the Sea of Reeds, that war isn’t about who has the stronger army; war is in the hands of heaven, and Hashem, not the chariots of Pharaoh, decides the outcome. However, this time, with a noted difference.

This time, the Jewish people have to be willing to fight. And in the midst of war, which is such an intensely physical experience, wherein the danger of the theology of Egypt is only too obvious, they are reminded that even so, it is Hashem who determines the outcome of all war. Yet, they have also finally achieved the goal of this portion and all of these stops along the way: they are no longer merely passive slaves, to whom life occurs; they have become a Nation, the Nation of Israel, ready to be active partners in making life happen.

And thus, they are finally ready to receive the Torah and journey on to Israel, where they begin their mission of becoming all that they are meant to be, to make the world all that it is meant to be.

Today, more than ever, as we journey along the road of becoming, after two thousand years of exile, the Jewish people we once were, let us remember that in order to be able to give all that we have to give to the world, we have first to succeed in transforming ourselves into the Nation we are meant to be: the Nation of Israel, living by the code of Israel, ultimately, in the land of Israel. And perhaps, as at the end of this week’s portion, rather than waiting for peace, maybe peace is waiting for us.

Shabbat Shalom.