Monday, February 28, 2022
Nasi HaYeshiva, Kerem B'Yavneh
Chazal comment in Masechet Shabbat (87b):
"It was in the first month of the second year, on the first of the month, that the Mishkan was erected." (Shemot 40:17) It is taught, that day took ten crowns: first for Creation, first for the princes, first for priesthood, first for [the Mishkan] service, first for the descent of the fire...
All the "firsts" that are mentioned in the Gemara are connected to the beginning of the service of the Mishkan, except for "first for Creation," which seems to stand out from the rest of the list. What is the connection between the "first for Creation" to the dedication of the Mishkan?
In Megillah 10a it says that on the day that the Mishkan was erected, there was happiness before Hashem like the day that heaven and earth were created. Again, we need to ask, what is the connection between the dedication of the Mishkan and the creation of heaven and earth?
Furthermore, Chazal teach (Shabbat 119b) that whoever says "Vayechulu..." becomes a partner with G-d in Creation. How is it possible to become a partner in something that was completed so long ago?
"Hashem desired to have a dwelling in the lower regions [earth]." (Tanchuma Bechukotai) A desire is an ambition that one looks forward to its fulfillment, so what prevents Hashem from dwelling his Shechina in the lower regions if He so much desires it?
The answer to all of these questions lies in the pasuk that is written at the conclusion of Creation: "Thus the heaven and earth were completed ... which G-d created to do." (Bereishit 2:1-3) The creation was, indeed, finished but the doing - the perfecting, all the finishing touches - depend on us in the lower world. When Tornus Rufus showed wheat and pastry to R. Akiva and asked him whose deeds are greater - Hashem's or men's, R. Akiva answered that although Hashem created the world, it is up to us to perfect it. This is how R. Akiva explained circumcision to him. Hashem creates and we do – we perfect and add the finishing touches. (Tanchuma, Tazria 5) Hashem, indeed, desires a dwelling in the lower regions, but He expects us to build it for him.
This is the reason for the commandment: "They shall make Me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell amongst them." (Shemot 25:8) When Bnei Yisrael built the Mishkan, the purpose of the creation of heaven and earth was fulfilled. This is what the Ramban writes at the conclusion of Shemot, which ends with the Divine Presence in the Mishkan: "The book of redemption is completed in which Hashem, G-d of Israel, appeared to Bnei Yisrael - the nation that is closest to him."
This Mishkan was made by Betzalel, who knew how to join the letters with which the heaven and earth were created. The Midrash points to the parallel between what it says about Betzalel: "I filled him with wisdom, insight, and knowledge" (Shemot 31:3), and what it says about Creation: "Hashem founded the world with wisdom, established the heaven with insight, with his knowledge the depths were split." (Mishlei 3:19) In this way man becomes a partner in Creation, because the creation of heaven and earth is worthless without Presence of the Shechina through Am Yisrael.
This was the great joy of that first day. Indeed, "The first of the creation," belongs with the making of the Mishkan. Even though the making of heaven and earth were already completed, they still had not achieved their purpose until the Mishkan was constructed, thus making Am Yisrael partners in Creation.
There is still something deeper to all this. "Hashem desired" – because of his love for Am Yisrael! As feelings are reciprocal, Hashem also expects us to show our love to Him: "As the deer longs for brooks of water, so my soul longs for You, O G-d." (Tehillim 42:2) "In Your behalf, my heart has said, 'Seek My Presence.' Your Presence, Hashem do I seek." (Tehillim 27:8)
How is it possible to long for G-d who is separate, hidden and distant? It is because in the beginning there was love. "He blew into his nostrils the soul of life." (Bereishit 2:7) Chazal write (see Ramban there): "He who blows, blows of himself." They also write: "This is comparable to a princess who marries a townsman. Whatever he gives her does not satisfy her because she is a princess. Thus, the soul also is also from the upper regions, and this is what is says, "The soul cannot be satisfied." (Kohellet Rabbah 6) A person's soul is a part of the Divine G-d from above.
The world was also closely connected to G-d: "They heard the sound of Hashem G-d manifesting in the garden" (Bereishit 3:8), but after the sin the Shechina departed. Yet, in essence the Shechina still is associated with the world. Therefore, both a person and the world can return to the source and reconnect, and the pasuk: "I will place My Sanctuary in your midst ... I will walk amongst you" (Vayikra 26:11-12) will be fulfilled again.
When the longing of the Creation grows to the point that they build a Mishkan, then Hashem's desire will be fulfilled. "Thus the heaven and earth were completed" – "Moshe completed the work" – then, "The glory of Hashem filled the Mishkan."
We say in Adon Olam: "Master of the universe, who reigned before any form was created; at the time when His will brought all into being – then as 'King' was his name proclaimed. When all will end, He, alone, will rule Awesome."
We have here three stages:
1. Master of the universe, who reigned before any form was created.
2. When His will was fulfilled, then He was proclaimed as 'King' by the creation.
3. After everything ends - he will, one again, reign alone.
This process is puzzling. If, at the end, we return to the beginning - what need was there to go through it all in the first place? If the purpose is for Hashem to reign alone after everything, then what need was there for the Creation?
Rav Kook zt"l explains that "V'acharei kichlot hakol" does not mean "When all will end" - that everything will cease. Rather, it means that the souls of all the creation will long greatly for G-d, as it says, "Kalta nafshi – My soul longed for the courtyards of G-d." (Tehillim 84:3) "My flesh and heart long ... for the Eternal G-d." (73:26) This, indeed, is the perfection of heaven and earth. At the beginning Hashem reigned alone, and at the end the souls of all of the creation will long to become closer to G-d. This is the highest level and the purpose of creation, when the lower world will accept the yoke of His Reign willingly. Therefore, through the construction of the Mishkan, the Shechina returned through our actions and our desire for Hashem's nearness, thereby fulfilling the purpose of creation.
Rosh HaYeshiva, Beit El
The Book of Bereisheet (Genesis) examines the creation of the world, in which the Holy One, Blessed-be-He reveals Himself as the Designer and Creator of this, the natural world. This is the story of the forefathers of our nation; their service of God came to them intuitively, prompting them to perform meticulously even rabbinically-ordained commandments. It was through their unique service of God that Avraham, Yitzchak and Ya'akov served as vehicles for drawing God's presence into this world.
With the guidance and inspiration of the forefathers, the private family of Ya'akov became a nation. At the start of Sefer Shmot (Exodus), we read: "And these are the names of the Children of Israel..." The Book of Shmot, as its Hebrew name indicates, is a book that deals with names. A name reveals the inner essence of the bearer of the particular name. As Sefer Shmot opens, we are informed of the name of this nation-in-formation, "Bnei Yisrael" - the Children of Israel - and of the unique name of God: "El Shaddai" that guides them...
In the book of Bereisheet, God appears as the ultimate Director of the natural world. This role of God matches the "natural style" in which our forefathers served God. In the book of Shmot, however, God reveals himself to the nation as a whole. It is in this context that a clearer, more explicit type of revelation is needed - a supernatural, miraculous one. The supernatural guidance of the world, unique to the Book of Shmot, starts with the ten plagues meted out to the Egyptians and later intensifies with the splitting of the Red Sea. It is there that even a common maidservant experienced Hashem more clearly than the great prophet Yechezkel did not at the height of his vision of the Divine Chariot. The climax of this acceleration towards the supernatural is no doubt the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. This was an event, our sages teach, during which the People of Israel heard God's voice boom from north, south, east, west, up, down, to the point where they asked, "What is the source of this wisdom?" The Children of Israel, like any other human beings, had until that time only experienced limited, human voices. At the giving of the Torah, God's voice revealed itself as being unlimited by space, direction, even language.
TORAH = STRENGTH
The giving of the Torah had a major impact not only on Israel, but also on the other nations of the world. Our sages teach us that when the gentile peoples heard the voices, the thunder, and the shofar at the time of Matan Torah, they trembled; turning to the sorcerer Bil'am, they asked: "Has God decided to bring another flood?" Does God wish to destroy the world once more? To this, Bil'am replied: "God will give strength to His nation, God will bless his nation with Peace." The term "strength" in this verse connotes Torah. Our sages teach us that when the Megilah states that, after the defeat of Haman, the Jews experienced light and happiness and joy.." - this "light" was actually Torah. The Sfat Emet thus asks why the Megilah did not simply say that the Jews "experienced Torah." His answer: "to teach us that Torah is light." Along the same lines, the verse did not say, "God will give Torah to His people," in order to teach us that Torah is a source of strength for our nation. Torah study and mitzvah performance unite our people, they give us a common goal - the rectification of the world through adherence to the Divine Will. This unity is a source of strength to us, and is esssential to internal, domestic, peaceful relations between Jews.
At the opening of this week's Torah portion, Moshe gathers the nation and commands it regarding the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and the observance of Shabbat. From the juxtaposition of the passages, our sages learn that the 39 creative acts of labor required for the building of the Mishkan are the same ones that are forbidden on Shabbat. The work done during the period of the Mishkan's construction was no mere mundane labor. It was labor designated for a lofty purpose, the holy service of the Tabernacle. From these acts of labor, we derive the prohibition to perform "melachot" on Shabbat; the Sabbath is a Divinely-fashioned reality in which God bestows his beneficence on the world without our having to even lift a finger! Each week, we are bidden to refrain from work on the seventh day, in order to permit God to bestow His holy bounty upon us.
People are used to thinking that the six days of the week during which we work is our "natural state," and that on Shabbat, God prevents us from working. This perspective places the six weekdays as central, and Shabbat as peripheral, as a day in which man leaves his natural state as a worker and "tiller of the soil." This philosophy, however, is not a Torah perspective. In the eyes of the Torah, Shabbat is the culmination and pinnacle of the week, with the other days drawing their strength from it. In several places in the Torah we learn that, for six days of the week, "melacha may be done." In other words, Hashem gives us special permission to work during the week. On Shabbat, melacha is not prohibited to us, but rather the permission granted to engage in creative labors that applies during the week is not renewed for a 24-hour period . Shabbat provides man with an opportunity to just sit back and appreciate that "The Earth and everything in it is the Lord's.
One of the many new but somehow always temporary buzzwords that are so beloved in our current society is "transparency." In our current world's lexicon this word has substituted for what earlier in my life our teachers used to call "accountability." No matter, the idea is the same; namely, that when it comes to public funds and positions one is held to be responsible to the nth degree for what occurs under one's aegis and watch.
In a project of such magnitude as creating the Tabernacle/Mishkan from scratch, making and collecting the necessary funds and materials, paying the workers and overseeing the construction, it is likely that it will be difficult to account for every agurah involved. Yet we see in this week’s parsha that Moshe in fact did so.
The Midrash tells us that in the original accounting of receipts and expenditures, Moshe was off by one thousand shekels. Since it is likely that the value of the Tabernacle/Mishkan ran into millions of shekels one would think that being off by less than one percent regarding a project and budget of this magnitude could easily be overlooked and certainly forgiven.
However, the necessity for transparency and accountability when it comes to public funds is so vital that Moshe cannot let the matter pass. He searches and searches and finally is able to successfully account for the previously missing one thousand shekels. This sets the standard of the Torah when it comes to public charitable funds. Excellent accounting methods must be put into place to guarantee public trust and to prevent any misuse or slipshod handling of funds donated for the public good and/or holy purposes.
Money can be a terrible thing, especially when one's ego allows one the liberty to see one’s self as all-powerful and exceedingly self-righteous. Handling public funds or being in a highly respected public position creates great temptations. The basest acts of malfeasance and even thievery can be rationalized and excused for one's self.
This has been so from the beginning of time, and as we are well aware, in our generation and present leadership, both religious and political are all prone to succumb to this temptation. Yet we are also aware that there are not enough police and prosecutors in the world to completely overcome this human weakness of temptation and monetary corruption.
It is interesting to note that in First Temple times when the Temple building was to be refurbished, the King had to forego any strict accounting of the funds collected by the priests for that purpose. He rather, almost ruefully, had to rely on the trustworthiness of the priests themselves in the hope that no public funds would be siphoned off into private coffers.
The great lesson here is that honesty and probity is created from within and not from without. We need police and law enforcement in order to have a livable society. But without the self-discipline of honesty and the realization that the Lord holds us accountable for every one of our activities and for every agorah of public funds that passes through our fingers - we are accountable for every bit of behavior in public service – there can be no complete victory over the temptations of wealth and office. Perhaps that is one of the reasons for all of the detail and accounting that fill this final parsha of the book of Shemot/Exodus.
Let us be strong and strengthen others!
For the last few days it’s been impossible for me to think about anything other than the war in Ukraine:
- Full-scale warfare in Europe. Europe! I know I’m showing my “white” bias, because after all, millions have died in vicious conflicts in places like Nigeria or Somalia; but still, this isn’t supposed to happen in the civilized world (no, Nigeria and Somalia aren’t civilized).
- The heroism of Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who has remained in the capital of his besieged country, knowing that Russian special forces operators are looking for him, and who told US officials who had offered to evacuate him from the country, “the fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.”
- The 16 Ukrainian defenders of tiny Snake Island in the Black Sea, who refused to surrender to a Russian warship, responding “go f- yourself,” before they were all killed.
- Ukrainians sending women and children to the borders while giving weapons to men (and some women) up to the age of 60, to fight in the streets.
- Vladimir Putin’s crazy attempt at justifying the invasion in which he cites protecting Russian-speaking Ukrainians against “genocide,” and “denazification” of the country.
At this point, several thousand Russians and a few hundred Ukrainians are said to have been killed in the fighting. The Russians have aimed precision-guided weapons at military targets, and it seems that most civilian casualties are unintentional. But this may not continue. The Russians do not have large stocks of precision weapons, and it is reported that they are now bringing up less accurate weapons which – as we know well here in Israel – are likely to cause many more deaths and injuries among civilians.
In addition, in a very worrisome development, launchers that are capable of firing rockets with thermobaric (fuel-air explosive) warheads as well as other weapons whose use is guaranteed to cause mass casualties, have been seen near the Ukrainian border. The Russians used them in urban areas of Chechnya with devastating effect. Short of nuclear or chemical-biological warfare, these may be the most frightening of weapons.
The financial burden of the war for Russia is astronomical, and has already made itself felt in the Russian economy, none too strong to begin with. Serious sanctions will make it even harder. Supplies of weapons may run low (I don’t know how far to trust this guy, but his analysis suggests big problems for the Russians). Even in Russia, where dissent is severely punished, there have been large antiwar demonstrations. All this indicates that the war will be unsustainable over time. Putin must have a quick victory. And this is where the greatest peril lies.
Vladimir Putin has never shown great compassion to his enemies. The Second Chechen War and continuing conflict in the North Caucasus were characterized by extreme brutality (on both sides, it’s true). Numerous political opponents of Putin, as well as journalists and activists, have been murdered, sometimes poisoned. It is not unthinkable that if he is unable win quickly enough, he will move to a strategy of deliberately targeting civilians in order to force a surrender. In a sense, the Russian army is holding the population – at least, those who haven’t been able to flee – hostage. And if Putin doesn’t get what he wants, he’ll start shooting hostages.
This whole affair has been a series of surprises, at least for me. I didn’t even expect the Russians to invade – I thought Putin would demand some concessions and back off. But perhaps because he sensed that the West would not or could not stop him, he went for the whole enchilada, which apparently includes the installation of a puppet government over all Ukraine.
What’s next? Putin, as I said last week, is clearly a disciple of Sun Tzu, who advised that one should always “build your opponent a golden bridge to retreat across.” So I hope that he will provide a way out that will end the conflict with as little bloodshed as possible, and certainly not force it to devolve into mass murder, as it very well might.
The whole world is watching, as they say, and nations are learning lessons. Israel and other small countries are learning to be wary of Russia, and not to expect your Western allies to come to your aid if you need them. I’m sure Zelenskiy found it instructive when Germany responded to his request for military aid with 5,000 helmets (but to be fair, just yesterday the embarrassed Germans agreed to send anti-tank and antiaircraft weapons, probably too late to matter).
China is watching too. And what China sees is that while might may not make right, nobody is going to stop you from taking what you want if you are strong enough. With that in mind, note that China is holding a “training exercise” in the South China Sea starting today. You may recall that Putin’s buildup on the borders of Ukraine was also called an “exercise” at first.
Remember back in 1991, when the Soviet Empire was falling apart, and everyone thought that we were about to enter a new age in which the enlightened, humanitarian West, under American leadership, would bring about an age of peace, prosperity, and social progress?
Whatever happened to that?
Rosh HaYeshiva, Har Bracha
The virtue of the sermon as Torah study by the masses * The Sages were critical of those who do not come to the Shabbat sermon, and permitted a person to cross over in water on Yom Kippur to hear the sermon * The prohibition to schedule a meal during the sermon * Even eminent Torah scholars should attend the sermon * Today as well, every community should strive to hold an important Torah lesson every Shabbat
All of Shabbat is Torah
It is a mitzvah to study a great deal of Torah on Shabbat. Concerning this our Sages said:
“The Sabbaths and Holidays were given to Israel in order that they might study Torah” (Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 15:3).
In practical terms, our Sages explained the intention is to dedicate half of the day to Hashem in Torah study in the Beit Midrash (study hall), and half to oneg Shabbat (joy of the Sabbath) by means of eating, drinking and sleeping (Pesachim 68b).
Our Sages also said:
“God said to Israel: “My children, did I not write to you in My Torah ‘Let not this book of the Torah cease from your mouths, but recite it day and night’? (Yehoshua 1:8). Even though you labor for six days, you shall dedicate Shabbat to Torah alone” (Tanna De’bei Eliyahu Rabba I).
Thus, it is understood that when one sets the half of Shabbat for Torah, then the portion of the meals is also considered Torah, because the special feature of Shabbat is that it makes peace between the soul and the body, and when the soul is expressed through dedicating half of Shabbat to Torah, then the body is also sanctified. Thus, Shabbat is me’ain Olam Ha’Ba (a taste of the World to Come), the world after techiyat ha’maytim (Resurrection of the Dead), in which the body will not limit the soul, but on the contrary, will intensify the full richness of its manifestation.
The most important study on Shabbat is the drasha (sermon), because there is no comparison between few people learning Torah, to masses learning Torah – under the guidance of a Talmid Chacham (a wise Torah scholar). In honor of this week’s Torah portion Parshat Vayak’hel, let us strengthen ourselves by participating in the Shabbat drasha.
The Drasha or Torah Lesson on Shabbat
It has long been customary for rabbis to deliver important derashot (sermons or homilies) on Shabbat, in which they deal with halakhic and theological matters. These would be attended by the entire community. This important practice has its foundation in God’s instruction to Moshe:
“God said to Moshe: “Gather together large groups and publicly teach them the laws of Shabbat. Thus, future leaders will learn from you to convene groups every Shabbat and assemble in the batei midrash to teach and instruct Israel about what the Torah permits and forbids. Thus My great name will be glorified among My children.”
Based on this, the Sages averred: Moshe instituted that Israel discuss matters pertaining to the day – the laws of Pesach on Pesach, the laws of Shavu’ot on Shavu’ot, the laws of Sukkot on Sukkot. Moshe said to Israel: “If you follow this system God will consider it as if you enthroned Him in His world, as it is stated: ‘You are My witnesses, declares the Lord’ (Yeshayahu 43:10)” (Yalkut Shimoni, Vayak’hel §408).
Thus, the regularity of a Torah lesson on Shabbat is an expression of honor of Heaven, and honor of the Torah. By means of holding it on a regular basis, the entire public is reinforced in observance of Torah and mitzvot, as the Maggid Mishneh wrote:
“They would give drashot for the people on Shabbatot, and teach them the laws of God and His Torah, and this was of great benefit to all… the Rav was even critical of eminent Torah scholars who did not come to hear his words, because the gathering of large numbers of people together would strengthen observance of Torah and mitzvot, and the guarding of its boundaries” (Shabbat 23:19).
In order to strengthen the mitzvah, I will mention the words of our Sages about the virtue of participating in the Shabbat sermon, called in the language of our Sages “pirka“.
The Sages’ Running to Hear the Sermon
R. Zeira recounts that originally he thought that people who ran to hear the drasha were desecrating Shabbat by not walking there unhurriedly. However, after he heard R. Yehoshua b. Levi say, “One should always run to hear words of Torah, even on Shabbat,” as it is written ‘They will walk after the Lord, who roars like a lion,’” he too would run to the drasha.
The Challenge of Our Sages
Since the intention of the drasha was to address the entire community, it was difficult to calibrate it to meet everyone’s needs. There were some who already knew everything that the rabbi was about to teach, while others could not understand a thing he was saying. Despite this, everyone was encouraged to attend the drasha, and especially the Torah scholars, so that from them, the entire community would learn to attend the sermon.
The story is told about R. Yosef Karo and the holy Arizal, who went to hear the Shabbat sermon of Maharam Alsich. This, despite the fact that R. Yosef Karo was the rabbi of Maharam Alsich, and the Arizal was the greatest of the generations in Kabbalah.
It is said in the Gemara: “R. Zeira said: The reward for attending the lecture is for running” (Berachot 6b). Rashi explains that since most individuals attending the lecture did not fully understand the material taught, the primary reward received for attendance was for their intention to hear the Torah being taught, as evidenced by their rush to arrive.
However, a question can be asked, for our Sages said (Shabbat 63a) that even those who do not understand their Torah learning, receive reward for it as if they had understood. The P’nei Yehoshua explained that the reward for the study itself is received in Olam Ha’Ba, but for running, one receives reward in this world – in children, health, and livelihood.
The Criticism of Torah Scholars Who Did Not Participate
It is told in the Gemara (Shabbat 148 a) about R. Yehuda, a second-generation Amora who was the rabbi and head of the yeshiva in Pumbedita. “Rabba bar bar Ḥana happened to come to Pumbedita and he did not enter R. Yehuda’s lecture. R. Yehuda sent for Adda, his attendant, and said to him: Go drag him to the lecture. It should be noted that R. Bar Bar Hanna was the same age as the rabbis of R. Yehuda, and yet demanded that he come to the sermon. He went and dragged him forcibly to the lecture. Rabba bar bar Ḥana came and found R. Yehuda teaching that one may not reset a fracture on Shabbat. He said to him: This is what Rav Ḥana of Baghdad said that Shmuel, R. Yehuda’s rabbi, said: The halakha is that one may reset a fracture on Shabbat. Rav Yehuda said to him: Ḥana is ours, a Babylonian scholar, and Shmuel is ours, and nevertheless, I did not yet hear this halakha; did I not rightfully drag you to the lecture?” R. Yehuda humbly accepted the words of the elder Amora, a colleague of his rabbis, and added that he was right in demanding that he come to the sermon, by means of which he was able to correct him, and the halakha was clarified appropriately.
The Gemara (Berakhot 28b) also tells about R. Aviya who was a bit sick, and therefore did not come to R. Yosef’s sermon, and Abaye knew that R. Yosef was very upset about that, and in order to placate him reproved R. Aviya, and said to him that although he was weak, he should have prayed by himself, eaten something, and come to the sermon.
The Story of the Elders of Nezonya
The Gemara relates: The Elders of the city of Nezonya did not come to Rav Ḥisda’s lecture. Rav Ḥisda said to Rav Hamnuna: Go and put them in nidui [excommunication] so they cannot leave their houses until they do teshuva (repent), because they act disrespectfully toward the Sages. Rav Hamnuna went and said to the Elders of Nezonya: What is the reason that the rabbis did not come to the lecture? They said to him: Why should we come, as we asked him about a matter, and he did not resolve it for us. We have nothing to learn from him. Rav Hamnuna said to them: I am his student. Have you asked me anything that I did not resolve for you? Ask me your question. They asked him a question, but Rav Hamnuna did not know the answer. They said to him: What is your name? He said to them: Hamnuna. They said to him in jest: You should not be called Hamnuna, (a good hot fish), rather, your name should be Karnuna, (a cold fish that is no longer tasty), because you do not know any Torah.
Rav Benedict ztz”l learned two things from this story. One, that the nidui was so profound, to the point where there is not one saying in the name of the Elders of Nezonya in the entire Talmud. Second, that when one goes to put someone in nidui because he acts disrespectfully to a rabbi and the Torah, one should not try to persuade him, rather, put him in outright nidui. Therefore, when Rav Hamnuna tried to persuade them by talking to them, he did not receive siyata d’shmiya (help from Heaven), and was despised.
Prohibition to Schedule a Meal at That Time
Our Sages said (Gittin 38b) one may not schedule a meal during the drasha. According to the Sages, doing so is one of the reasons that wealthy people become impoverished. We are told there were two families in Jerusalem and they were both eradicated – one because they regularly scheduled meals during the drasha, and the other, because they regularly scheduled a meal on Friday, and as a result, entered Shabbat satiated, thus offending the honor of the Shabbat meal.
The Death of R. Meir’s Sons
The dreadful story is well-known (Midrash Mishlei 10: 31) about the sons of R. Meir, about whom, Rabbi Meir said that they would enlighten his eyes with their Torah learning, and both died on Shabbat. It is told how Bruria, the wise wife of R. Meir, comforted him, telling him that their sons were a deposit from God, and now He had come to take His deposit back. The Midrash asks: “On account of what did the sons of R. Meir become liable and die at one time? Because they were accustomed to leaving the study hall (on Shabbat), sitting down to eat and drink,” therefore, they died at the time of the sermon, which was the time of their sin (quoted in Magen Avraham 290:1).
The ‘Pirka’ Regulations – The Drasha
On account of the great significance of the drasha, the Sages ruled leniently in certain laws concerning it. They said in the Mishnah (Shabbat 126b) that if many people came to hear the sermon on Shabbat and there was no place for everyone, it is permissible to move baskets of straw or hay in order to prepare a place for everyone to sit. And R. Yehuda HaNasi did just that: once, when he found there was not enough room for everyone in the usual place of the sermon, he went to a field, found it full of bundles of grain, and cleared the bundles from the entire field, so there would be room for everyone to hear the sermon (Shabbat 127a).
Even on Yom Kippur, when bathing is forbidden, our Sages permitted passing through water to go to the sermon (Yoma 77b, and Rashi, ibid).
The Prohibition to study Writings at the Time of the Sermon
Our Sages forbade studying the Writings at the time of the sermon, because studying Writings was appealing, and as a result, people would refrain from going to the Beit Midrash to hear the sermon (Mishnah Shabbat 115a; and Gemara Shabbat 116b).
Today, communities’ arrangements have changed greatly, and controversy amongst Jews has intensified. There are Hasidim, and there are Mitnagdim; there are Jews who follow halakha, and Jews who seek segulot. Sometimes, the position of the local rabbi contradicts everything some members of the community have learned from their rabbis. And most seriously, the official rabbi is not always the appropriate one, for the control of politicians in appointing cronies has escalated, and the status of the rabbinate has been greatly weakened. Consequently, it is difficult to set the sermon regulation in its proper place. Nonetheless, every congregation should strive with all its might to appoint a worthy rabbi, and to hold an important lesson every Shabbat.
Friday, February 25, 2022
Date and Place: 29 Sivan 5666, 9 Tishrei 5766 (1905), Yafo
Recipient: A young Moshe Zeidel. A close disciple of Rav Kook, from their time in Boisk, he asked Rav Kook many philosophical questions. He would become Dr. Zeidel, a philologist philosopher, and educator.
You will be able to take for yourself the highest levels, specifically because it will come on top of our [classic Eastern European Jewish] education and the two will join together. From this wonderful connection of the two, you will have before you a wonderful model, which is both original and organic, which includes and unites the following elements: sanctity, wisdom, [intellectual] bravery, the pursuit of justice and truth, and the glow of life. Be strong, my dear one, and do not be afraid of the storms of time in the material and spiritual realms.
Your dear letter has brought me happiness, my beloved. I would be very happy if you and our dear R. Binyamin Menashe Levin will be close to each other, as you are both dear to me. You are my witnesses through which I will see amazing things, namely, that Torah that is learned with the deepest possible understanding and the broadest knowledge will reach its mark. This will be able to make dear souls more pure and fine, and will give them a higher, stronger love of Torah and fear of Hashem. My best hope is that you will go on this path in a continually elevating manner. Hashem should help by shining light on your path through life.
It is the day before Yom Kippur. If not for our powerful love, it would not be possible at all to find time for any writing. But you are dear and important in my eyes, and at a distance, from the Holy Land, I think of you with a true love. This is because I know your excellent talents, your fine personal characteristics, and your heart, which is ready to conceive and to do good for others. It also touches me that you are used to my style of expression and understand what I mean better than those with whom I have never communicated in person, even if the latter are intellectually gifted.
I would like you to take a look at my second essay, Ikvei Hatzon, and I hope that what I write there will find favor in your eyes. May you know how to connect one thing to another and extract pearls from between the “wheels” of the intermingled ideas, which will prepare you to go about your service of Hashem with a complete heart and a truthful manner. This is most appropriate because Hashem created us for His honor, to serve Him, to praise Him, and to spread His glory.
Season 2022 Episode 8 Yishai and Malkah Fleisher talk about the complexities of the Ukraine situation and pray for the future. Then, master tour guide Rabbi Aaron Shaffier is on the Jon Voight team filming the Story of God. Then, Voight himself joins Yishai for an amazing interview. Finally, Rav Mike Feuer on Holy Half Shekel.
The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.
If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.
Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.
As I write, there are Russian tanks in Donbas. Does that mean that we are on the verge of a new European war, as US President Biden suggests? I doubt it. I believe that Vladimir Putin is a student of Sun Tzu. He knows that Ukrainian leaders know that they can’t stand against Russia without outside help, that most of Europe can’t fight, and the few countries that can – won’t. He knows that he has been storing up foreign currency and working to make Russia more self-sufficient for several years to insulate Russia from the financial weapons that will be deployed against her. Above all he knows that America, divided, exhausted, fragile, neurotic, and led by an old man far out of his depth, does not have the will to act strongly enough to stop him.
I date the beginning of the collapse of the US as a world power to 9/11. American political and cultural elites all bought into the idea that this was not a skirmish in the struggle between Islamic and Christian civilizations that has been ongoing for at least a millennium, but rather a “War on Terror,” where the terrorists had “perverted” Islam. “Islam is peace,” pronounced George W. Bush a week later, when Ground Zero and the Pentagon were still smoldering. To this day, we have not learned to know our enemy.
Shortly thereafter, the US sent troops to Afghanistan after Osama Bin Laden. Unfortunately, they did not send enough men, and depended on local Afghans to do much of the fighting. They also decided to trust their Pakistani “allies” to cover the back door to Tora Bora. As a result, Bin Laden escaped and was not captured until 2011. But American involvement in Afghanistan continued until Biden oversaw the embarrassing rout of remaining Americans in August 2021.
In February 2003, the US demonstrated its military might when it attacked Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, scaring the hell out of the Iranian regime which, because of its secret nuclear program, expected to be next. American troops captured Baghdad less than a month later. But the military victory was squandered by the remarkably ignorant attempt to remake Iraq into a western-style democracy and the suppression of the Sunni minority that had controlled Iraq under Saddam. The war devolved into an insurgency in which the insurgents were supplied and bankrolled by Iran and Syria. Most Americans left Iraq in December 2021, although a small number remain. Meanwhile, Iranian-controlled militias have solidified their control of much of the country.
These wars cost trillions of dollars and numerous lives, and planted a debt bomb in the American economy that is only beginning to explode today. They demonstrated the truth of Sun Tzu’s belief that sheer military superiority is not enough. “There is no instance of a nation benefiting from prolonged warfare,” he said, and the prolongation of these wars – which were begun with inadequately defined or impossible goals (e.g., establishing democracy in Iraq), has greatly weakened the nation, militarily, economically, psychologically, and politically.
But not only has the real strength of the US declined in recent years, its image as a superpower has been shattered by a series of unnecessary errors. Notable was Barack Obama’s failure to follow through on his threat to punish Bashar al-Assad for Syria’s cruel use of chemical weapons on civilians in 2013. Another misadventure was the original Iran deal, signed in 2015, which did not provide for adequate inspection of nuclear sites, did not limit – even weakened previous limits – on ballistic missile development, and which essentially granted Iran the right to develop nuclear weapons ten years after its signing. It was a signal to virtually everyone (except Obama’s sycophants) that America had chosen the path of appeasement. And there is no need to dwell on the message sent by the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Putin has been watching, and learning. And so has the Chinese leadership, which has studied Sun Tzu if anyone has, and if Putin succeeds, will be encouraged even more to move on Taiwan.
Now the Biden Administration is about to sign another deal with the Iranian regime, and if preliminary reports are to be believed, it will be even weaker and more dangerous than the first. The fact that the American collapse in Vienna is happening at the same time that the crisis in Ukraine is developing is likely to make US negotiators, under the pro-Iranian Robert Malley, even more anxious to give the Iranians everything they want and get it over with.
This is another unnecessary loss for America, which may someday even be a target for the weapons it is allowing the Iranian rogue regime to have. Last month, three US negotiators quit because of Malley’s “soft negotiating stance.” It’s hard to understand why US officials have chosen to surrender here. Where is the American interest in increased worldwide terrorism, the expansion of Iran in the Mideast, and the message of weakness sent to US rivals everywhere?
The deal doesn’t make sense. So what is behind it?
In order to answer that question, we need to know who is behind it, because it’s highly doubtful that Biden or Tony Blinken is determining foreign policy in this administration. And here there is only speculation. My informed guess is that there is an influential group including Malley as well as former Obama Administration officials – Barack Obama himself, Ben Rhodes, Susan Rice, and others – that are guiding the administration’s Mideast policy. Their plan grows out of an idea first voiced in the 2006 Iraq Study Report(which was partly authored by Rhodes. See my discussion here).
The original idea was to reduce pressure on US troops in Iraq by buying off Iran and Syria so they would stop supporting the insurgents that were killing US soldiers with Iranian IEDs. The payoff would be the (possibly fatal) weakening of Israel, which would have been forced to give the Golan Heights to Syria, and to withdraw from Judea and Samaria, where a Palestinian state would be established. Obama, who was closely aligned with the Palestinian cause, adopted many of the ideas in the 2006 document, probably via his advisor Rhodes.
I think that this group now views with alarm the possibility of the rise of a new power bloc in the Middle East, composed of Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, and others. Such a bloc would be very powerful, much more so than even a nuclear Iran, and resistant to control. I also think they see (correctly) that it would mean the end of the Palestinian dream of “return” – and the end of the Jewish state – to which Obama and Malley are ideologically committed. By strengthening Iran, they hope to drive a wedge between the members of this newly coalescing bloc, and return Israel to its isolated status in the region.
Needless to say, this group is acting against American interests. An Israeli-Sunni bloc would almost certainly align with the US, providing intelligence and support for Western interests in the Mideast. On the other hand, since the 1979 revolution, Iran has viewed the US as the “Great Satan” that is their most important enemy, even more so than Israel, the “Little Satan.” Iran is far from America, but its terrorist subsidiary, Hezbollah has increasingly stronger branches in Latin America, where it partners with drug cartels. Given the porous southern border, the potential for terrorism inside the US is great.
I think we can sum up what’s wrong with this policy with one more aphorism. This one is not by Sun Tzu, but it certainly could have been:
He who fights his friends instead of his enemies is guaranteed to lose.
A number of years ago at a parlor meeting of the coalition for the Israeli Soldiers missing in action, someone stood up to share a few words about a close friend of his with whom he had both studied and gone to war: Yehuda Katz.
Yehuda Katz, a soldier who, along with Zack Baumel and Tzvi Feldman, has been missing in action since the battle of Sultan Yaakov in June of 1982, studied in Yeshivat Kerem Be’Yavneh and has been missing now for over twenty years.
At the beginning of the Lebanon War on the first Sunday night in June of 1982, they received word in the Yeshiva that buses would be coming to take the boys up North to fight. Kerem Be’Yavneh is one of a number of very special Yeshivot (Academies for higher Jewish learning) whose boys combine their yeshiva studies with army service in Israeli Combat units. In addition to their regular reserve duty and studies in yeshiva, whenever the army is in a tight spot, this is naturally one of the first places to receive an emergency call-up; where else can you gather together an entire reserve battalion at a moment’s notice?
The boys were given only half an hour to get their gear together and be on the buses, time was of the essence as this was an elite tank unit whose services were desperately needed on the front lines.
As they were rushing to get back to the buses with their kits, Yehuda told one of his buddies to make sure the bus didn’t leave without him as he had to run to the bathroom.
A few moments later with everyone accounted for and the bus engines idling, they were still waiting for Yehuda Katz to get back from the bathroom. After a few more minutes one of the men decided to go looking for him; it was out of character for him to keep everyone waiting for so long, and especially considering where they were headed, they couldn’t imagine what was keeping him.
As his friend approached the men’s room, he saw Yehuda Katz coming out of the Beit Midrash (the study hall) and break into a run. Not understanding why Yehuda had a made a detour to the Beit Midrash when they were so pressed for time, Yehuda explained he had gone into the Beit Midrash to learn a few minutes worth of Torah, because as a Jewish soldier in a Jewish army going off to fight a war in defense of the Jewish people, “you don’t go to war from the bathroom.”
I have often wondered what it was that Yehuda chose to study for those brief moments in the Beit Midrash, and please G-d look forward to being able to ask him one day when he at long last comes home. But the thing that most challenges me about this story, is how, on the brink of war, in the midst of heading off to battle, and with all the thoughts that I unfortunately know rage through your mind and your soul at such a time, Yehuda Katz was able to turn it all off and sit down to learn five minutes of Torah?
This week’s portion, Va’Yakhel, begins with a moment of pure potential:
“Va’Yakhel Moshe Et Kol Adat B’nei Yisrael, Va’Yomer Aleihem:”
“And Moshe gathered together the entire congregation of Israel and said to them:” (Shemot 35:1)
Rashi points out that this day was the day after Yom Kippur, when Moshe came down with the second Tablets, the Luchot Ha’Brit, signifying that the Jewish people had been forgiven (or at least their sentence had been commuted) following the transgression of the Golden Calf.
Moshe had first gone up on Mount Sinai on the seventh day of Sivan, only to return forty days later on the seventeenth day of Tammuz to discover his people dancing with idolatry (the Golden Calf). He went up again, for an additional forty days coming down on Rosh Chodesh (the beginning of the month of) Elul, having achieved forgiveness. But that just meant they had gotten back to where they had been before the experience of Sinai. Now they had to re-commit to receiving the Torah all over again, this time with tablets fashioned by man, and not by G-d (34:4). So Moshe went up yet a third time, again for forty days, finally coming back down to the people on Yom Kippur with the two new tablets (Luchot) of stone, (containing the ten commandments) signifying Hashem’s forgiveness of the Jewish people, and allowing them to start over again.
Moshe however was a very wise leader; just because G-d had forgiven the Jewish people did not necessarily mean they had forgiven themselves. What were the Jews thinking and how were they feeling the morning after Yom Kippur? They had barely seen Moshe in the last three months, and it was entirely their fault. G-d had basically decreed that the consequences of this transgression (the sin of the Golden Calf) would be suffered by the Jewish people for thousands of years (32:34), and one wonders how the Jews must have felt, now that the immediate danger of annihilation was past and the enormity of their mistake had begun to sink in.
So Moshe, a true leader, rises to the challenge of the moment, and gathers the entire people together with, it would seem, the goal of inspiring them to pick up the pieces and begin again.
I recall, years ago, during what has become known as the first Intifada, a particularly hairy day, when one of our patrols got into some serious trouble. We were stationed near Jebalya, a nasty piece of real estate in the Gaza strip, home to approximately 120,000 Arab refugees, and in the spring of 88’ things were really heating up. We didn’t have enough officers and men to handle the load, so we were working with additional units, and an urgent radio call came in from one of these neighboring patrols who were apparently surrounded by hundreds of rioters with rocks and Molotov cocktails and found themselves hemmed in an alleyway with nowhere to retreat and not enough ammunition.
I couldn’t understand where this huge riot had sprung up from, as I had just finished a patrol in the same area and had even passed the cross- street he described on patrol less than half an hour earlier, but there was no time to think about it.
Standard operating procedure in such situations was to muster up as many vehicles as were available, as quickly as possible and offer the rioters both a second ‘front’ (or contact point) with which to contend, as well as an easy and natural avenue of retreat. A few well-thrown tear gas grenades (which were basically harmless in the long term) would usually suffice to cause an entire riot to begin dispersing in the direction of the avenue they had open to them. Our company commander (I was a lieutenant at the time) sent us in different strategic directions so we would all arrive at the right places at the right time. Only when we got there, there was no riot… and no Israeli patrol.
It took us over half an hour, which for those eight men caught between a rock and a hard place was a very long time, to finally figure out where this patrol actually was. And it transpired that this entire mess had occurred because this new officer had at one point taken a left turn instead of a right one, and was in a completely different area from where he thought he was. In fact, he had led his patrol into an area we were not even supposed to be venturing into, as it was a hot spot far enough away from the main road that it wasn’t part of our mission (which was to keep the road open to civilian traffic).
In the process of this frantic search, not only the battalion, but the brigade level got involved, and by the time we finally arrived, expecting a huge fight and worse, the rioters took one look at all the vehicles roaring down the streets, and dispersed entirely before we even reached the alleyway.
I still remember our battalion commander, Rami, who understood the value of an officer learning from his mistakes rather than being broken by them, taking the young second lieutenant aside for a quick de-briefing.
The young officer was obviously pretty shaken; he and any number of his men could have been injured or worse, and an entire brigade had just spent the better part of an hour diverting valuable manpower and equipment all because he had made a wrong turn. All I caught were the first words Rami said as he walked him off to the side: “Well, we needed a good exercise for the men, so I’m glad you found an original way to set one in motion….”
That sentence carried more lessons in commanding men, and for that matter counseling life, than many entire books I have read on the subject. And this was Moshe’s challenge: how, now that the Jewish people had been made to realize the error of their ways, and the guilty had suffered the necessary consequences, to find the right words that would offer the Jewish people a sense of comfort, hope, and even inspiration after the trying events of the past few months.
Which makes the message Moshe actually shared with the Jewish people so puzzling. We might have expected him to tell the Jewish people that they were on their way to the land of Israel, or even, as he begins to do subsequently (35:4), to review the mitzvoth concerning the Jewish people’s mission to build the Mishkan (Tabernacle), meant to be a resting place for the Divine presence which, at least according to Rashi, represented some level of atonement for the debacle of the Golden Calf.
Instead, inexplicably, Moshe shares with them a most unlikely mitzvah: Shabbat.
“These are the words Hashem has commanded to do: Six days shall you labor, and the seventh day shall be holy for you, a day of complete rest for G-d; whomsoever shall do work on it shall die. You shall not kindle fire in all your dwellings on the Sabbath day.” (35:1-3)
What does Shabbat have to do with Moshe’s desire to comfort the Jewish people after their terrible error in building a golden calf? And, if, for whatever the reason Shabbat is the right topic to mention here, why does Moshe feel it necessary to warn them that the penalty for its transgression is death? After all, Moshe is trying to comfort the Jewish people after narrowly avoiding imminent destruction, so how is the promise of a death penalty any form of comfort? And what does the prohibition against fire (and labor in general) have to do with all this?
If the Torah is going to remind the Jewish people of Shabbat, a mitzvah already given them at Marah (16:25-27; 30) as well as in the Ten Commandments (20:8-11), why not share with them the beauty and peace of the Sabbath day? Why present the prohibitions and the penalties here? And what does all this have to do with the Golden Calf?
In order to understand this we need to take a closer look both at the sin of the Golden Calf, and the concept of sin in general, as well as the true purpose of Shabbat.
What was the Golden Calf all about? The Jewish people, at the foot of Mount Sinai, not six weeks after hearing the Ten Commandments which include a specific injunction not to worship idols, forget the words they heard from G-d Himself and believe that a calf of molten gold is their true god? The Jewish people come to Aaron, struggling with what they perceive to be a new reality: Moshe, who has ‘brought them up out of Egypt’ (32:1) is gone, and they are obviously looking for a substitute.
So, Aaron throws their gold into the fire and fashions it into a golden calf, and they say: “This is your god O’ Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt.” (32:4)
It is hard to imagine the Jewish people believing that a calf of gold they have just seen fashioned in the fire is the One who brought them out of Egypt; after all, they witnessed the ten plagues and the splitting of the sea! It is worth noting that this phrase corresponds directly to their description of Moshe (in verse 1) who also is described as having brought them out of Egypt, despite the fact that Moshe is clearly known to be a messenger of G-d, and takes great pains to ensure that this is indeed the viewpoint of the people.
Obviously, then, what the people are looking for is not to replace G-d, but rather a substitute vehicle in relating to G-d. Indeed, when G-d speaks directly to the people in the first two commandments, the people are overwhelmed, and beg Moshe to speak the word of G-d instead. (20:16) The problem the people have is not that they forgot G-d exists, rather, they are so aware of G-d’s existence, they aren’t sure what to do with it. How do you maintain a relationship with something so intangible as G-d?
Indeed this is exactly how the Rambam, in the beginning of his Hilchot Avodah Zarah, (Laws of idolatry) explains the gradual process whereby believers in One G-d, sink into the morass of idolatry. It begins with the attempt to find tangible objects of G-d’s creation with which to maintain a relationship with G-d. And eventually, the original goal, of maintaining a relationship with G-d is forgotten and all that remains are the tangible objects, which have been so deified they end up taking G-d’s place.
Essentially, the Jewish people are struggling to find a way of bringing G-d into the physical world, and that’s good; in fact, that is our purpose here on this earth; they are just going about it in a way that negates Hashem’s will; they are using the very molten image G-d has warned them against in the first place.
Their desire to bring G-d into the world is good, but in choosing the path that is not Hashem’s desire they inevitably distance themselves from Hashem’s will, and that was their tragic mistake.
How often do we have goals that are so noble and so pure, and yet get lost along the way when the means by which we attempt to attain those goals are not nearly as noble as the goals themselves? And one day, we wake up and take a look around, and can’t quite figure out how something that started so right became so wrong. And the way in which we realize it really is all wrong, is because it becomes abundantly clear that we have somehow strayed off the path that Hashem (G-d) really wanted us on; we have substituted, on some level, His will for ours.
And this is where the lesson of this week’s portion becomes so crucial, because so many people live with incredible amounts of guilt, over all the decisions that caused them to be headed in the wrong direction. ‘If only I could have done it differently’, is a refrain heard often amidst painful regrets of past misdeeds and mistaken courses of actions.
In truth, however, this is not at all what Judaism teaches.
Think about it: do we really have the ability to change G-d’s will? Can we look back at anything that has ever happened in this world and say that it was not the will of G-d? How could anything ever be against the will of G-d? By definition, if something transpires, it must be the will of G-d (though of course this does not mean we can necessarily understand the will of G-d), which is why it occurs in the first place.
In Judaism when we look back at the mistakes or sins we have committed, they are not about what we have done, they are about what we wanted to do. Transgressions are not about the actions we have done wrong, because in reality whatever happens is always what Hashem meant to happen. Rather our mistakes are about the desire to do what we perceive to be against Hashem’s will.
For example, when Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge, which Hashem told them not to eat from, Hashem knew they would eat from the tree (because G-d, by definition has to know everything), and thus all of history was based on the events that unfolded as a result of their eating of the tree. Ultimately, had they waited, they would have eventually been given from that tree by G-d. Their mistake, however, was that they wanted to do something which they perceived to be against the will of G-d. And ultimately, all Hashem wants of us, and all we are here in this world to achieve, is to make his desire ours. “Aseh Re’tzono Re’tzoncha” “Make His will yours”, says the Talmud.
Which is why the first component of Teshuva (mistakenly translated as repentance, but really from the root ‘Shuv’, to return, and all about trying to get back to where I once was.) is charata: regret.
Maimonides clearly points out in his Hilchot Teshuva (Laws of Repentance) that the first stage of Teshuva is to regret my desire to do something different from that which Hashem wants me to be doing. Once I have succeeded in changing my desire, once I no longer want to sin, then I have achieved atonement, because I am a completely different person. And once my desire changes then there is nothing left but the reality that always was, and which was always good.
Now, imagine how different life would be for so many people, if we could all just tap into this idea. I have met people living with anger or pain or guilt for decades over things they have done that they can’t even speak about. But if this world is really an illusion and anything I have ever done wrong was ultimately the will of Hashem and serves Hashem’s purpose just as much as all of the things that I have done right, then all that really matters is where I am at right now, in this moment.
And if I truly desire only what Hashem desires, then nothing I have done is wrong anymore, because the only thing that was really wrong about anything in the first place was the desire of people to try and do something Hashem doesn’t want them to be doing, but whatever happened, happened as it was meant to. So now that my desire is as it should be, all that’s left are the actions, which are always good.
So how does one access this idea? How do we tap into the reality of everything as the will of Hashem, and let go of the illusion that what I do (as opposed to my desire to do) is what is real in this world?
That, finally, is the secret of Shabbat. On Shabbat, I get a taste of the world to come, because after six days of work and labor where I do so much to be in partnership with G-d, I take a day to consider what that is all about. And I manage, if only in a small way, to let go of the illusion that this world is what is real. On Shabbat we try to access what Hashem really wants of us, and why we were put here in the first place, and we get back in touch with the reality that it’s all good, and that whatever happens is ultimately all part of Hashem’s plan.
And if everything is part of Hashem’s plan, then the consequences, however painful are also good, if we only we could see that reality.
Which is why on Shabbat we don’t light fires, which are representative (along with all the categories of labor we desist from on Shabbat) of what we do in this world. According to the Midrash (Jewish rabbinic legend), fire was the first thing we created, and it thus represents our creative abilities, and our partnership with G-d in creating the world. And I let go of that on Shabbat, because on Shabbat I realize that everything I am creating is really G-d, I am just a tool, and my only challenge is to make myself a willing tool.
And this is why if we violate Shabbat we die, because if we do not understand the message of Shabbat, then we are not really living life, because if life is all about what we want without taking into account what Hashem wants, then life is really death.
Indeed, Rav Avigdor Nevehnsahl, in his Sichot Le’Sefer Shemot, points out that this is the understanding of the Midrash (Bereisheet Rabbah on Bereisheet 4:16) that when Adam heard of Cain’s success in doing Teshuva, he clapped his hands to his face, realizing he too could have done Teshuva, and then immediately, he composes a Psalm for The Sabbath day. What does Teshuva have to do with Shabbat? Adam understood that the essence of Shabbat was in seeing everything as part f the wondrous and continuously unfolding plan of G-d.
This, then, is the reason Moshe begins here in our portion with Shabbat. The Jewish people, struggling with the immense tragedy of their mistake (the Golden Calf) are stuck in the world of ‘Oh, What might have been…” And Moshe here is reminding them that while looking forward we are supposed to imagine it is all up to us, nonetheless when reflecting on events passed, everything is ultimately in G-d’s hands, and part of that master plan….
Indeed, this leads to the challenge of learning to live in the moment, which is what Shabbat is also all about. So often, we are so busy trying to get somewhere, we don’t realize where we already are. And the ability to really see things as they are and let go of where we think things should be going, is also what Shabbat is all about. Because if Hashem runs the world, and what is crucial is tapping into what Hashem wants of me now, in this moment, then that is also the essence of Shabbat: we let go of where we are trying to get to, and slow down to appreciate where we are right now, here, in this moment.
And this is the secret to letting go of the guilt about past mistakes: they were never really mistakes, and Shabbat teaches me, and better, allows me to experience, that Hashem doesn’t waste our time with where we were, He just wants to know we are here now.
The incisive question that Eliyahu Hanavi asked his contemporaries (Melachim I 18:21) reverberates in almost every generation in one form or another. “How long will you dance between two opinions? If Hashem is G-d, then follow Him. But if Baal, follow Him. And the people answered him saying, it is good.” But of course, they didn’t answer Eliyahu’s question, which was his whole point in raising it.
Israeli society has been divided since its origins on one such question which, when elided, places us on both sides of the fence. Is Israel intended to be a Jewish state or a state of Jews? Israel’s scroll of independence, interestingly enough, comes down squarely on the side of a Jewish state (“we are thus proclaiming the establishment of a Jewish state in the land of Israel, the State of Israel”). But the debate rages on, sometimes vehemently and sometimes subtly, and often both simultaneously.
A state of Jews has no pretense to being based on the religion of the Jewish people. Its value is primarily as a haven for Jews from persecution, surely nothing to dismiss given our bloody history. It tries to embrace the history and culture of the Jewish people, partly to buttress its claim to the land of Israel and partly to serve as a unifying element in a country comprised of immigrants from more than a hundred countries.
In that state of Jews, the Torah is something to be honored in simplistic, ill-defined manner, Halacha is to play no role in public affairs or in the public lives of its citizens and “Jewish” as an adjective connoting adherence to a divinely ordained set of values, principles and deeds is missing and sometimes suppressed. But let’s face it openly: Judaism without Mitzvot is, more or less, Christianity without its founder. Almost every “Jewish value” articulated by those who profess them but eschew the performance of Mitzvot is essentially indistinguishable from Christianity and most of the world’s religions. So why then is a state of Jews necessary?
The answer we are always given is that otherwise the Jewish people’s existence is in danger. That itself ignores the million dollar question that those who believe in a state of Jews never answer: why is important that Jews survive, especially if we are not going to observe the Torah, and certainly if we have no interest or intention of fashioning a polity based on the laws and values of the Torah? What would the world be missing if there were no longer any Jews? I have heard this question answered in ways that don’t appeal to me. “Look at what we have brought to the world - Waze and the camera pill, technological wizardry and medical innovation, a respect for human rights and the dignity of all mankind.” That sounds great - but cannot Gentiles produce the same creativity? Do not the religions of the world also endorse human rights and dignity? They do indeed, with occasional failures, but those same failures are also attributed by our adversaries, some of them Jews, to Israel.
The founders tried to have it both ways. They were focused - rightfully so - in creating an Israel that would be a land of refuge for survivors of the Holocaust, persecuted Jews in Arab lands, and for any Jew who would want to return to his or her ancestral homeland. But they were also mindful of the need to stamp this state of Jews with “Jewishness.” Hence the promulgation of the status quo agreement that ensured the public observance of Shabbat, Kashrut in all public institutions including the military, and Rabbinic authority over personal status issues such as marriage, divorce, and conversion. These were concessions, even limitations on personal liberty that would in other contexts encroach on Western, democratic norms, all so that the state of Jews would exist within a Jewish infrastructure.
There was something for advocates on each side of the fence.
Eliyahu’s question speaks directly to us. “How long will you dance on both sides of the fence?” Thus, the status quo has become steadily enfeebled over the decades, and with the proposed reforms Israel’s pretensions to be a “Jewish state” are teetering on the brink of disappearance. That it is being orchestrated by people who wear Kipot on their heads is disappointing but unsurprising. Years ago I addressed the phenomenon of the Orthoprax, Jews who observe Halacha to their heart’s content (but no more than that) and yet are secular-leaning in their values and world view. Many such Jews - and this is a general comment, not a specific reference to anyone in particular - prefer the state of Jews to the Jewish state, notwithstanding its inherent contradictions. Typical of this mindset is the repeated notion that service in the IDF, worthy as it is, somehow confers Jewish status on those soldiers. That is a non sequitur masquerading as a cogent argument. The United States is a predominantly Christian country, but military service does not make one an honorary Christian. But advocates here see it differently, reflecting their original error conflating Israeli identity with Jewish identity. That error is only possible, and is exacerbated, by proponents of Israel as a state of Jews and not a Jewish state.
An Israel that so waters down Jewish identity that it would confer Jewish status on Gentiles with Jewish blood but no interest in Mitzvot except in the flimsiest sense is a state of Jews and not a Jewish state. An Israel that would officially repudiate Shabbat by opening malls and commerce and providing public transportation on Shabbat is a state of Jews and not a Jewish state. An Israel that would treat its rabbis as ceremonial functionaries whose opinions on public issues are not sought, and when proferred are ignored, is a state of Jews and not a Jewish state. An Israel that would officially desecrate its holy places (such as the Kotel) by allowing egalitarian prayer in defiance of all religious norms is a state of Jews and not a Jewish state. Indeed, the latter is the most telling example although by no means the most significant. In a state of Jews, the Kotel has symbolic, historic and cultural value - but no more; in a Jewish state, the Kotel and the Temple Mount are places of holiness, where the divine presence rests, where the past, present and future of the Jewish people come together.
What is a Jewish state? A state in which the values, ideals and practices of the Torah are realized in the public sphere and encouraged (though not coerced) in the private sphere. It is a state in which religious leaders share the Torah’s wisdom on all issues of the day and are not limited to ritual matters. (In this regard we are witnessing a dual failure. On one hand, the kippa-wearing leadership is doing more to undermine Israel’s status as a Jewish state, and weaken its connection to Torah, than secular advocates ever anticipated in their wildest fantasies. On the other hand, the Haredi leadership has locked itself into a parochial world in which its focus is on securing the interests of their bloc rather than broaden their base to include all Jews. Neither, at this point, is truly representative of a Jewish state. The proof of this is the primary argument used by the reformers to justify their reforms: the Haredim are against them, therefore they must be good. They are wrong - plenty of non-Haredi religious Jews are against them - but they are now inextricably bound to their ideology, if not to their ministries and seats.)
A Jewish state prioritizes the needs of Jews and the settlement of the land of Israel, and feels no need to apologize for that emphasis. A Jewish state seeks to defend Jews wherever they live and doesn’t aver that living in certain parts of the land - even Yerushalayim - is a provocation. A Jewish state honors the concept of family as we have always known it and extols the roles and virtues of mother and father, son and daughter, rather than redefine them into irrelevance and ignominy. Leaders of a Jewish state speak with pride about the Torah and Mitzvot, about Jewish history and destiny, and about the accomplishments of the generations that paved the way for redemption after emerging from the pit of destruction. They are mindful at all times of the prophetic vision fulfilled before our eyes - and that Israel as haven is simply part of the progression to Israel as the Jewish state envisioned by the Torah. A Jewish state has eschatological significance; a state of Jews could as well but does not necessarily have to advance that objective.
There is one more troubling element to Israel as the state of Jews which seems to be what the political system is now endorsing, either on the merits or because of shallow, coalition politics. The Torah repeatedly underscores that our residence in the land of Israel is conditional on our fidelity to G-d’s law. There is nothing to indicate that this historical rule has been repealed or that G-d has given our generation a mulligan. I don’t know how G-d’s runs His world. But I do fear that a state of Jews, as opposed to a Jewish state, if it treads down to the path of secularism, will become unworthy of His protective hand which underwrites our armies and its successes in battle.
In the last quarter century, the steady dilution of Israel’s Jewish identity - in terms of Shabbat, Kashrut, personal status, respect for Torah, etc. - has been accompanied, if only coincidentally, with terrorist explosions in our cities, relentless threats to Jews in the heartland, and retreat from our biblical centers. Indeed, the failed Oslo process itself was a triumph of those who advocate for a state of Jews while warring against the notion of a Jewish state. A Jewish state has defined and sacred boundaries. A state of Jews need have no contours at all; in fact it doesn’t even have to exist in the land of Israel, as imagined by Mordecai Manuel Noah’s Ararat in northern New York or still inhabited by Jews in Birobidzhan. The riots last May that featured murderous attacks on Jews and wanton destruction of Jewish property (including synagogues and yeshivot, and in the middle of Israel) were perpetrated by Israelis, albeit Arab Israelis. That alone should have forever eradicated the notion that Israeli and Jewish identity are synonymous. Jews were assaulted and their homes and stores were burned not because they were Israelis but because they were Jews. Yet, rather than lead to a surge in measures that strengthen Jewish identity and the Jewish character of the state, it seems that the riots galvanized those who seek to dilute the Jewishness of the state even more.
Some will argue that a truly Jewish state, besides offending non-observant Jews, will always segregate Israel from our Arab neighbors. Neither the former or the latter needs to happen, and the converse is equally plausible. A restoration of Jewish pride in our traditions strengthens our claim to the land and disincentivizes our non-Orthodox brothers and sisters (those who still are of Jewish origin) from further straying. But this is also important to remember. Just like yesterday’s enemies can be tomorrow’s friends, so too today’s friends can be tomorrow’s enemies. And today’s enemies can be tomorrow’s enemies as well. It is not ironic that the conversion reforms designed to dilute Jewish identity are being introduced as the West is poised to enter into an agreement with Iran that will, for all intents and purposes, subsidize Iran’s production of a nuclear weapon. Israelis who are banking on America intervening militarily to thwart an Iranian bomb are living in a dream world. It will not happen, or to be fair, it is unlikely in the extreme to happen. As the Americans like to say, “all options are on the table,” and there the military option will always remain, on the table, like leftovers at a meal that carried on too long. And of you doubt that, please consult the people of Ukraine, beneficiaries this week of heartfelt sympathy and strong words but not much else.
Strengthening ourselves militarily requires strengthening ourselves spiritually. It requires increasing our commitment to Torah and Mitzvot, not reducing it. It requires bolstering Jewish identity, not diluting it by importing thousands more Gentiles and waving over them the magic wand of conversion. It requires that we internalize that the state of Jews is not eternal. The Torah is eternal, and the Jewish state partakes of that eternity in equal proportion to its fidelity to the Torah.
I am not a prophet, so I cannot be a prophet of doom. Indeed, so many of Israel’s trend lines are positive that if those could be married to a religious revival, the potent impact both domestically and globally is immeasurable.
Israel’s founders were probably prudent in deferring to another era these questions of identity. But now that the status quo has been breached and the battle joined, we must choose wisely. Eliyahu’s contemporaries, challenged to choose between two inconsistent beliefs, hesitated until Eliyahu forced the issue and miraculously demonstrated the falsity of Baal. We are not yet privileged to those interventions, but we can still climb off the fence and choose Torah, life, honor, pride and eternity. We can start by asking ourselves, each individual, what can I do today to make Israel more Jewish?
Wednesday, February 23, 2022
Rosh HaYeshiva, Machon Meir
In the Shemoneh Esreh prayer, after the request for the ingathering of the exiles, comes the request: “Restore our judges as at the first, and our counselors as at the beginning; remove from us grief and suffering.” This ordering is no coincidence. As the ingathering of the exiles continues, we make the urgent request that G-d set up legal and educational systems for the Jewish People as they originally were, so that “Remove from our grief and suffering” can be fulfilled. Indeed, the individual and national mood depend upon these two systems -- that of education and that of law. If these systems operate properly, resting upon kindness, mercy, and justice, there is joy and happiness in the world. If, however, education and law are corrupt, then there is grief and suffering, and the nation is engulfed in sadness.
In the past, in Biblical times, those in charge of education and law were the wise men, the rabbis, and prophets -- the noblemen of spirit whose task it was to educate the Jewish People in the light of the holy Torah to follow in G-d’s path. It was Hillel who said, “Be among the students of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving people and bringing them close to the Torah” (Pirkei Avot 1). The legal system was in the hands of the Sanhedrin, in which sat the greatest Torah scholars, men of sterling character, fearful of sin, chosen carefully to stand at the head of the legal system. The whole nation was nourished spiritually and morally by these noble, superior personages.
Right now, we are at the height of a period of the ingathering of exiles. It is only natural that there be tension as the different streams of Israeli society struggle over the spiritual, cultural, and legal fabric that that society should have. In these struggles, we must scrupulously safeguard the unity of the people despite differences of opinion.
Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook used to say that education and law are two spheres that must be rectified within the Jewish People and that this can be achieved through a return to the sources, for through this we become one. Moreover, the more we delve into those sources, the greater will be our common ground. Yet to begin rapprochement between the different camps, what is most important is clarifying such questions as who and what we are as a nation, and what is unique about us. By studying and clarifying the identity and destiny of the Jewish People, we will understand that we are a chosen people whose historic destiny was already stated to the father of our nation, Abraham: “I will make you into a great nation... You shall become a blessing.... All the families of the earth will be blessed through you” (Bereisheet 12:2-3). When these ideas are set firmly in the hearts of the Jewish masses, we will continue together on the winding pathway upward towards complete, redemption, security, and joy.
Looking forward to salvation,
With Love of Israel,
In 1979, US policy toward Iran crashed against the rocks of reality, when Ayatollah Khomeini assumed power with the help of the US, but – contrary to US expectations - transformed Iran, "The American policeman of the Gulf" into the world's leading epicenter of anti-US subversion, terrorism and drug-trafficking.
In 2015, US policy toward Iran crashed, again, against the rocks of reality, when – contrary to US expectations - Iran's Ayatollahs did not harness the mega-billion-dollar bonanza, yielded by the nuclear accord (JCPOA), to upgrade domestic standards of living. Instead – as expected - this bonanza bolstered Iran's preoccupation with anti-US subversion, terrorism and the development, manufacturing and proliferation of non-conventional military systems.
In 2022, once again, US policy-makers seem to stick to the 1979 and 2015 practice of basing their Iran policy on assessments of the future behavior of Iran's Ayatollahs, rather than on the Ayatollahs' rogue, systematic track record since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
US policy-makers base their policy on the hope that a mega-generous Western gesture could induce Iran's Ayatollahs to depart from their 1979-2022 systematic and rogue anti-US policy, which is driven by a 1,400-year-old religious, cultural, historical and imperialistic vision.
The hope (rather than reality)-driven policy toward Iran has led to a display of eagerness to conclude an agreement with Iran's Ayatollahs, downplaying the Ayatollahs' non-good-faith conduct, and waving the military option and the regime-change option.
However, on February 1, 2022, Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, the powerful Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered a strident warning to President Biden on the Senate floor: "Hope is not a national security strategy!"
Africa's geo-strategic significance
According to General Thomas Waldhauser, a former Commander of the United States Africa Command (USAFRICOM), during his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee: “instability in North Africa may be the most significant near-term threat to U.S. and allies…."
General Waldhauser's testimony has been vindicated by the accelerated transformation of Africa – the second largest continent with over 1.2 billion people - into a major global epicenter of anti-US Islamic terrorism.
Iran's Ayatollahs consider North Africa as the soft underbelly of the "infidel" Europe, and the whole of Africa as an extension of Iran's strategic depth.
One of the examples of Africa's geo-strategic significance is The Horn of Africa (150mn people, about 40% Moslems), which is one of the more militarily volatile, unstable, unpredictable and critical regions in the world. It stretches along the southern part of the Red Sea, across from Saudi Arabia and Yemen, controlling the geo-strategically vital strait of Bab al-Mandeb, which facilitates trade between Asia and Europe, including Persian Gulf oil shipments. It is a significant platform, militarily and economically, for regional and global powers.
The Washington-based Foreign Policy contends that "Europe's future will be decided in North Africa. Morocco and Spain are separated by a mere 9 miles. There are only 146 miles separating the Tunisian coast and the Italian coast, and 286 miles from Libya to Greece. Algeria’s beaches are 469 miles from those of France — about the distance from Washington, DC to Charleston, South Carolina….
"Algeria (920,000 sqm), Libya (680,000 sqm), and Tunisia (63,000 sqm) all have terrorism problems that have affected Europe in frightening ways…. Algeria and Libya border Chad, Mali, and Niger, which are themselves confronting [Islamic terrorism]….
"Africa is the foundation of the global supply chain – a strategic source of almost 40% of the raw materials, agriculture, fresh water and energy essential for global growth…. Africa has become the fastest-growing oil producing region worldwide. Not only does it produce oil that is easily refined, but many experts also believe that there are still large undiscovered oil fields with immense potential. Africa possesses 60% of the world’s diamonds, 40% of its phosphate, and 30% of its cobalt [and 18% of its uranium] resources….
"11% of Europe's natural gas is imported from Algeria… Spain, for example, gets 52% of its natural gas from Algeria. The North African giant is also Italy’s second-largest gas supplier. If Algeria descended into violence — which is not out of the realm of possibility — and its gas supplies were somehow disrupted, Europe would have a significant problem…. Libya has a lot of gas, but it is in the midst of a civil war….
The Washington-based Atlantic Council reports that "In 2015, the number of people killed in terrorist attacks in Africa was the same or higher as the number of fatalities caused by ISIS in the Middle East…. African-based groups such as Boko Haram—the second most lethal terrorist group in the world — and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) espouse dangerous anti-US and/or anti-Western ideologies…. Africa is a growing transit hub for illegal drugs…. 12% of the cocaine trafficked through Africa is destined for the US…. Drug trafficking in West Africa has been likened to drug-related violence in Latin America and the Caribbean…. [West Africa's] Guinea-Bissau has been labeled a narco-state…."
Africa as a springboard to export Iran's Islamic Revolution
Iran's Ayatollahs have been active in Africa since the early 1980s, leveraging Africa's inherent instability, failed-states, tribal, ethnic and religious military conflicts:
*Recruiting and training anti-US terrorists;
*Fueling local and regional conflicts (e.g., assisting the anti-US Polisario Front's war to end the pro-US and pro-Saudi Morocco's sovereignty in Western Sahara; and cooperating with the Algerian opposition, Islamic Salvation Front, during the 2002-1991 civil war);
*Challenging all Sunni regimes through subversion and terrorism;
*Establishing Shiite seminaries and converting Sunni Muslims to Shiism; *Forging a West Africa – Latin America drug trafficking and money laundering coordination;
*Supporting anti-US African governments (e.g., assisting Ethiopia in its war against Tigray rebels);
*Expanding access to uranium resources.
According to King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies: "Iran sought Africa’s support for its nuclear program, promoting the concept of Third World's “nuclear unity”. The initiative was designed to assist Iran's access to Africa’s uranium markets [in Algeria, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Senegal, Mali, Nigeria, Niger, and the Democratic Republic of Congo], and derail international sanctions…. Iran invested in the uranium mines of Namibia and Malawi [and possibly in Gabon and Zimbabwe].
Iran's Ayatollahs have realized that adding fuel to tribal and regional wars, unstable and failed-states – which have plagued Africa – feeds violence and global terrorism, serving the Islamic Revolution. Thus, North Africa (Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Egypt), has produced a substantial percentage of the foreigners who have joined ISIS' terrorism in Iraq and Syria in defiance of their own home-countries.
Iran's African network consists of religious, cultural, drug-trafficking, money laundering and terror operations, in collaboration with its Hezbollah proxy, and in coordination with their joint initiatives with Latin American drug cartels, terrorist groups and anti-US governments.
Democratic Senator Robert Menendez' warning (ibid)
The Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee stated on February 1, 2022: "…. We are not dealing with a good faith actor here…. We can’t live in a counterfactual world where all parties remained in full compliance, but we do know that even for the first couple years of the JCPOA, Iran’s leaders… fought vigorously to keep their highly advanced nuclear infrastructure in place…. Iran’s consistent obfuscation, continual stalling, and outlandish demands have left us flying blind…."
The Chairman indicated that there are no grounds for the hope:
*that Iran's Ayatollahs will sign and comply with an accord which will undermine the hegemonic vision of the Islamic Revolution;
*that democracy will take hold in Iran;
*that Iran will desist from its nuclear ambitions;
*that the Ayatollahs will stop exporting and supporting terrorism;
*and, that they will stop their "Death to America" policy.
Will the US Executive heed this vital advice from a senior member of the Legislature?