Ki Tetzei

Promises, Pledges, Oaths

Thoughts on Parashat Ki Tetzei

When you make a vow to the LORD your God, do not put off fulfilling it, for the LORD your God will require it of you, and you will have incurred guilt; whereas you incur no guilt if you refrain from vowing. (Deut 23:22-23)

We can distinguish three kinds of promises that we make: those we give ourselves, those we give to other people and those that we give to God Himself. First-type promises are part of our internal life and fulfill psychological functions, e.g. they are to motivate us to achieve a given goal, or, for example, change those of our behaviors that we considered harmful to us or to others. As such, they do not have an ethical dimension, which is essentially the core of the promises made to other people. However, the heart of the promises made to God, as in the case of the promises made to oneself, is not in their ethical dimension either. The latter have a primarily religious dimension, and thus breaking the promise to the Supreme is rather not an ethical offense, but a religious one.

Our rabbis devoted a lot of attention to this subject and the entire tractate of the Talmud, Nedarim, is devoted to the subject of vows. The rabbis are divided on whether the taking of vows and oaths is desirable; some of them see no harm in the practice, others frown on it even when the promise is in a good cause, a promise to give to charity for example. However, the general tendency is to frown in principle on vow-taking but to leave room for a personal decision as to whether the circumstances demand it.

The subject of promises is all the more important at the moment, since the High Holidays are approaching, during which vows and oaths are one of the leading themes, with the main representation in Kol Nidrei, a declaration which we recite on erev Yom Kippur.

When Kol Nidrei was first composed, its purpose was to nullify vows that had been made and violated during the previous year. While the halakha requires that such vows be specified and can be nullified only if the court is satisfied that they were undertaken under some misapprehension, Kol Nidrei initially referred to vows that have been forgotten and for which the standard remedy is impossible. This raised halachic objections of many rabbis. Thus, an important alteration in the wording of the “Kol Nidre” was made by Rashi’s son-in-law, Meir ben Samuel (early 12th century), who changed the original phrase “from the last Day of Atonement until this one” to “from this Day of Atonement until the next.” Thus the dispensation of the “Kol Nidre” was not as formerly a posteriori and concerned with unfulfilled obligations of the past year, but a priori and having reference to vows which one might not be able to fulfil or might forget to observe during the ensuing year. Thus, by reciting the words of the Kol Nidre prayer, we do not annul the vows that we have already made, but the ones we will make next year.

All of this suggests to us that we should be careful in making promises/oaths every day, to God, to others, and to ourselves alike. If someone asks us for something and we know that we want to do it, the best we can do is to focus immediately on actions that would bring a given situation to life, even if it’s going to be a gradual process. If we make promises, we usually, automatically, postpone our actions in time and, what is important, we silently assume that we are able to keep them. This feeling does not have to be “a momentary illusion”. Often, it seems to us to be the result of cold, rational calculation, our well-established and repeatedly proven beliefs about what lies within our capabilities. However, when promising or swearing something to someone we often forget that we are not the sole masters of our own destiny. We often forget about the possibility of random events, which may sometimes completely thwart our plans. Then we realize how much reality surpasses us. Non-believers will see in this rather only bad luck, “bad omen” or just the enormity and complexity of the world that surrounds us. Believers are able to hear a message from the Eternal in it. In cases of serious failures caused by random accidents, one can actually see a Judgment Day in it, brought to us by God. How we will handle a given failure or a difficult trial moment will depend on how close we were to God Himself, as well as, what follows it – who we were and who we currently are to other people. God will help us then and will strengthen us in a crisis situation, and in this sense His judgment will be “gentle” to us, while the people who surround us will support us and help us then, because they will remember our goodness and all the good things they have experienced from us. These Judgment Days happen in our lives periodically and there is no escape from them. Their true meaning is usually revealed to us after some time, and then we often see transformational experiences in them. May all our future Judgment Days, even those painful ones, be ultimately positive for us and may they transform us into better people.

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski

Menachem Mirski

Ki Tece

Obietnice, przyrzeczenia, przysięgi

Refleksja nad paraszą Ki Tece

Gdybyś ślubował ślub Wiekuistemu, Bogu twojemu, nie omieszkaj go spełnić; gdyż poszukiwać go będzie Wiekuisty, Bóg twój, od ciebie, a byłby grzech na tobie. Jeżeli zaś zaniechasz ślubować, nie będzie na tobie grzechu. (Deut 23:22-23, tłum. I. Cylkow)

Możemy wyróżnić trzy rodzaje przyrzeczeń, które składamy: te które składamy samym sobie, te które składamy innym ludziom oraz te, które składamy samemu Bogu. Przyrzeczenia pierwszego rodzaju są elementem naszego życia wewnętrznego i pełnią funkcje psychologiczne, np. mają nas motywować do osiągnięcia danego celu, bądź np. zmienić te z naszych zachowań, które uznaliśmy za szkodliwe dla nas lub dla innych. Jako takie nie mają wymiaru etycznego, który jest zasadniczo sednem przyrzeczeń składanych innym ludziom. Natomiast sedno przyrzeczeń składanych Bogu, podobnie jak w przypadku przyrzeczeń składanych samemu sobie, nie leży w ich etycznym wymiarze. Te ostatnie mają wymiar przede wszystkim religijny i tym samym złamanie więc przyrzeczenia złożonemu Najwyższemu nie jest przestępstwem etycznym, lecz właśnie religijnym.

Nasi rabini poświęcili temu tematowi bardzo wiele uwagi – cały traktat z Talmudu, Nedarim, poświęcony jest kwestii ślubowań, przyrzeczeń itp. Są podzieleni co do tego, czy pożądanym jest składanie przyrzeczeń czy przysiąg; niektórzy nie widzą żadnej szkodliwości tego rodzaju praktyk, inni natomiast marszczą nad tym brwi, nawet gdy obietnica składana jest w dobrej sprawie, na przykład jeśli jej cel ma charakter charytatywny. Generalną tendencją jest sceptycyzm w temacie przysiąg i obietnic, z pozostawieniem jednakże miejsca na osobistą decyzję, jeśli okoliczności tego wymagają.

Temat obietnic i przyrzeczeń jest w chwili obecnej tym bardziej istotny, że zbliżają się Wielkie Święta, podczas których są one jednym z tematów przewodnich, z główną reprezentacją w Kol Nidrei, deklaracją, którą recytujemy w wieczór święta Jom Kippur.

Celem pierwszej historycznie, napisanej wersji Kol Nidrei, było unieważnienie przysiąg, które zostały złożone i zarazem złamane w roku poprzednim. Halacha wymaga, aby śluby i przyrzeczenia, które mają być unieważnione, były dokładnie określone i mogą zostać unieważnione tylko wtedy, gdy sąd (rabiniczny) uzna, że zostały podjęte w wyniku jakiegoś nieporozumienia. Kol Nidrei, natomiast, odnosiła się początkowo do przyrzeczeń, które zostały zapomniane i dla których tego rodzaju środek unieważnienia nie jest możliwy. To spowodowało sprzeciw wielu rabinów i w konsekwencji zięć Rasziego, rabin Meir ben Samuel (początek XII w.), dokonał w “Kol Nidre” istotnej zmiany, zmieniając oryginalny werset „od ostatniego Dnia Pojednania do obecnego” do “od obecnego Dnia Pojednania aż do następnego”. W ten sposób Kol Nidrei straciła charakter deklaracji a posteriori, odnoszącej się do niespełnionych zobowiązań minionego roku i zyskała charakter deklaracji a priori, odwołującej się do przysiąg, których możemy nie być w stanie spełnić lub o których możemy nie pamiętać w roku następnym. Tym samym, recytując słowa modlitwy Kol Nidrei, nie unieważniamy złożonych już przez nas ślubów czy przysiąg, lecz te, które złożymy dopiero w roku przyszłym.

Wszystko to sugeruje nam, iż również na co dzień powinniśmy być ostrożni w składaniu obietnic/przysiąg, zarówno wobec Boga, innych, jak i samych siebie. Jeśli ktoś nas o coś prosi i wiemy, że chcemy to wypełnić, powinniśmy najlepiej od razu skupić się na działaniach, które miałyby wprowadzić daną sytuację w życie, choćby stopniowo. Jeśli bowiem składamy obietnice czy przyrzeczenia, zwykle automatycznie odsuwamy nasze działania w czasie oraz, co istotne, milcząco zakładamy, że jesteśmy w stanie ich dotrzymać. To poczucie nie musi być “ułudą chwili”. Często wydaje się nam być rezultatem chłodnej, racjonalnej kalkulacji, naszych ugruntowanych i wielokrotnie sprawdzonych mniemań co do tego, co leży w zasięgu naszych możliwości. Obiecując lub przysięgając coś komuś często jednakże zapominamy o tym, że nie jesteśmy wyłącznymi panami własnego losu. Często zapominamy o możliwości wystąpienia wydarzeń losowych, które mogą nasze zamiary całkowicie niekiedy udaremnić. Wtedy uświadamiamy sobie, jak bardzo rzeczywistość nas przerasta. Osoby niewierzące dostrzegą w tym raczej jedynie pech, „zły omen” lub właśnie ogrom i złożoność świata, który nas otacza. Osoby wierzące mogą dostrzec w tym wiadomość, przekaz od samego Wiekuistego. W przypadkach poważnych niepowodzeń spowodowanych wypadkami losowymi można w istocie dostrzec ów Dzień Sądu, sprowadzony na nas przez Boga. To jak poradzimy sobie z danym niepowodzeniem, trudną chwilą próby, zależeć będzie bowiem od tego, jak blisko byliśmy i jesteśmy samego Boga, jak też, co za tym idzie – jacy byliśmy i jesteśmy dla innych ludzi. Bóg udzieli nam wówczas swojej pomocy i wzmocni nas w kryzysowej sytuacji, i w tym sensie Jego sąd będzie dla nas łagodny, natomiast ludzie, którzy nas otaczają, wesprą nas i udzielą nam wówczas pomocy, będą bowiem pamiętać naszą dobroć i wszystko dobre, czego od nas doświadczyli. Owe Dni Sądu zdarzają się w naszym życiu cyklicznie i nie ma od nich ucieczki. Ich sens i znaczenie odnajdujemy zwykle po jakimś czasie, i często są one dla nas doświadczeniami transformującymi. Oby wszystkie Dni Sądu, które w naszym życiu nadejdą, nawet te bolesne, były dla nas ostatecznie doświadczeniami pozytywnymi, transformującymi nas w lepszych ludzi.

Menachem Mirski

Szabat szalom!

Once Again About the Needy

Once Again About the Needy

Menachem Mirski

We will begin today’s drasha by analyzing several subsequent verses from the Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) which are part of the Torah portion read on the Shabbat which falls on the 8th day of Pesach:

There shall be no needy among you — since the [Eternal] your God will bless you in the land that the [Eternal] your God is giving you as a hereditary portion— if only you heed the [Eternal] your God and take care to keep all this Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day.   

(Deut 15:4-5)

If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the [Eternal] your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman.

(Deut 15:7)

For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.

(Deut 15:11)

 

Could it be that the verses quoted above are logically incoherent? In the Hebrew text this seems to be even more evident – in verse  15:4 we have  לֹא יִהְיֶה־בְּךָ אֶבְיוֹן  – (lo jihje beha evyon) – which could be translated literally as, “There shall be no needy among you”; then, in verse 15:7 we have

כִּי־יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן (ki jihje beha evyon), that is: “If (or because) there is a needy person among you”, and finally we have כִּי לֹא־יֶחְדַּל אֶבְיוֹן  (ki lo yehdal evyon), that is: “For there will never cease to be needy ones….” Of course all these sentences are formulated in the imperfective aspect (since in the Biblical Hebrew there is strictly speaking no past and future tense, but only imperfective/perfective aspects), and this mode is used to describe not only events in the future tense, but also in the conditional, modal and “commending” mode, due to which the above quoted translation of these verses is appropriate.

Fine, but how is it exactly with the poor and needy ones? Will they exist in a society whose functioning is based on Divine law or will they not? The explanation of this seeming incoherence seems to be simple: namely, it all comes down to the words: “If only you heed the voice of the Eternal…”  from verse 15:5. Everything seems to suggest that God, as he speaks through the lips of Moses, is assuming from the very beginning that the system of His laws will not function ideally due to the human component which is the key element of the whole system. Thus we have a full spectrum of possibilities here, in which the number of needy persons in a given society depends on the extent to which the Divine Law is being followed in it, on the level of social sensitivity and on the way in which that society is being ruled.

Of course this topic still remains valid, since in this world there is no society without the poor and the needy, there are only differences with regards to their proportions. But why is caring for the needy important at all times and everywhere? Because the absence of such care in the longer run leads to the increase of the level of social frustration and to resentment, and this in turn creates the grounds for the eruption of all kinds of negative, hateful and fanatic stances. This in consequence leads to the disintegration of social bonds, especially when it creates a sharp social polarization between different groups, no matter if that polarization is real or only invented by politicians-demagogues whose aim is to take over power – the effect will be more or less the same. The greatest danger appears when class divisions start to coincide with racial, national or religious divisions in a given society.

How should we help the needy? I won’t go into political and systemic issues here, since none of the political systems invented so far have been really able to deal with this problem, and that is also why we are forced to shoulder a greater responsibility. In addition, the most effective help can take place only between individuals, and not groups of people – in the latter case we very often open up the space to all kinds of violations. So how should we help? The Torah commands us two things: not to shut our hearts and not to shut our hands against the needy. Not to shut our heart means to be sensible towards the fate of the more vulnerable and needy ones. To listen to them, to dedicate a little bit of time to them, to become familiar with their problems, their story etc. This can be – and very often is – a good lesson for all of us, especially for all those who prosper in their lives. Whereas not to shut our hand does not have to necessarily mean financial help, it can be understood more broadly, as active help by means of the actions we undertake.

First of all we have to know the reasons why a given person has find themselves in a difficult situation, since there are no rules here, as human fates can stem from a wide spectrum of events. On one end of this spectrum there are people who found themselves in a difficult situation as a result of unfortunate events, such as the death of a close one, an accident or disaster etc.; these are people who used to function well within the society before that misfortune happened to them. On the other end of the spectrum we have people who are responsible for their own difficult situation, who never truly functioned properly among other people. In each case we should provide a different kind of help. When it comes to people who function well within the society, the necessary help is usually temporary and short-term and it doesn’t require great sacrifices on our side, we also don’t need to take special responsibility for these people. In the case of people who do not function well the situation is much more complicated. The first thing that should be done is to help them change whatever leads to their inadequate functioning, which could be caused by very different reasons, so that our aid will not lead to a situation wherein by helping them we are actually “encouraging” them to remain in a bad situation. Then, depending on the scale of the problem, we must assess the extent of responsibility that a given situation requires us to take. If this responsibility turns out to be too great for us, to the extent that it poses a threat to our life’s order, we have the right to deny that help with a clear conscience.

And since I believe that everyone deserves help (or at least a chance to receive it, since ultimately it’s true that fortune is fickle and none of us can predict the situation in which we may find ourselves in the future), before we decide to help someone, let’s always get to know the reasons why they found themselves in such a situation, let’s get to know their story. I believe it is exactly for this reason that the Torah first speaks about not shutting the heart, and only then about not shutting the hand, and not the other way around. By acting this way, in this order, we will be able to realistically assess if and in what way we can help that person, and as a consequence we’ll be able to live with a clear conscience if we decide not to help someone.

Shabbat Shalom,

Menachem Mirski

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka

Is Progress Actually Always Progress? Thoughts on Parashat Haazinu.

Is Progress Actually Always Progress? Thoughts on Parashat Haazinu.

Menachem Mirski

They incensed Him with alien things, Vexed Him with abominations.

They sacrificed to demons, no-gods, Gods they had never known,

New ones, who came but lately, Who stirred not your fathers’ fears.

You neglected the Rock that begot you, Forgot the God who brought you forth.

[…]

I might have reduced them to naught, Made their memory cease among men,

But for fear of the taunts of the foe, Their enemies who might misjudge

And say, “Our own hand has prevailed; None of this was wrought by the LORD!” For they are a folk void of sense, Lacking in all discernment.

(Deut 32:16-28)

 

Today’s drasha will be very philosophical, perhaps more than all my previous drashot. Nonetheless I encourage you to read it and to follow my train of thought. I assure you it will be worth your while!

 

Humanity is continuously growing further apart from its origins, which seems to be something completely natural for human beings. A radical conservative would say that humanity keeps on straying from its path, since the Truth (with a capital “T”) has been already known for a long time and there is no need to come up with anything new; all one needs to do is to adopt “the wisdom of ages” and live according to it; Whereas a radical progressive would say that the wisdom of our ancestors was in essence “mere ravings of the ignorant”,  that all which humanity has embraced until now has been replete with errors and that only striving for progress will lead us to anything of value – but not to the truth, since truth does not exist etc. Oh, wait, actually truth does exist, it exists in science and it is predominantly in science that there is progress; it is owing to science that we enjoy “progress in general”. Only that which is scientific holds any value, and those who dare question this premise are a bunch of ignorants.

 

This is a vastly extensive topic, but we can go ahead and say that it is not reasonable to believe in everything that is spruced up with the label “scientific” or “scientifically proven”. Behind each scientific truth there is a certain methodology which has led to its discovery. And this methodology is a human invention, often an effect of many years of pondering done by methodological minds, but still just an invention, and thereby something which is flawed. Science is not a disengaged reflection on reality, as it had seemed to antic Greek philosophers and as it was commonly believed in the 19th century. The Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper clearly demonstrated (and his theory was improved and confirmed by other philosophers from the same school,  such as Thomas Kuhn or Paul Feyerabend) that scientific truths are not derived directly from human experience nor from experiments. They are a creation of the human mind, the result of its “creative guessing”, wherein the observed reality serves only as “creative inspiration”, since due to our limited capabilities we always have only a certain limited amount of data based on which we can formulate our theories. And only after we have formulated them we proceed to check how they work in practice – and if they do work, we decree that they comply with reality, and therefore are true. However, there can be several alternative theories which work and explain reality. They differ with regards to the range of phenomena they can successfully describe. A theory deemed to be “true” is one which successfully describes the broadest range of phenomena known to us and which does not attempt to deny the validity of those phenomena which contradict it. (In fact the same rule applies to religions as well – a religion which attempts to invalidate other religions is tainted with falsehood. And while some of its other teachings may be true, it cannot aspire to be the „only right” religion, one coming directly from God.)  And if this is the case, then science can be mistaken as well. And while there is undoubtedly progress in science, which amounts to the accumulation of human knowledge and to the constant emergence of newer theories which are better equipped to describe reality, nevertheless this progress is not entirely “linear”. 

Moral progress. Since every epoch faces its own kind of moral challenges, which are the result of the changing paths of history, the question of progress in this field is problematic. Certainly it is not a linear one and the famous metaphor claiming that “we stand on the shoulders of giants” applies here only to a limited extent. According to one belief, actually quite a legitimate one (though counter-examples could be provided), the measure of human morality is their approach towards animals. Generally speaking times of peace and prosperity are the ones which foster the development of that “moral sensitivity”, the level of which can serve as the criterion for progress in this area. But paradoxically in times of peace and prosperity people move away from traditional moral ideas which are part of different religions and from religion as such. A Polish philosopher who worked as a professor at Oxford University for many years, Leszek Kołakowski, claimed that the passing of three generations is enough for a society, if it is cut off from religion, to completely distort its familiar, traditional and deep-rooted morality. And since reality can’t stand a void, the “void left by religion” is filled by various idols: be it human intellect, science, pseudo-sciences, political ideologies or various other kinds of ideologies. All and each one of them start to play the role of religion in a given society. Therefore, if progress entails rejecting traditional religious teachings and turning to “new idols”, then the ancient Israelites, who repeatedly engaged in idolatry, could be called… progressive.

 

Progress in culture, understood in its broadest, anthropological sense (that is when by culture we understand for example eating with the use of a knife and a fork, and not for example with chopsticks) objectively speaking does not exist, even though people commonly believe that in fact it does exist, since they view certain cultural behaviors as better and some as worse. These judgments are being made only on the basis of conventions accepted in a given society. Real progress in culture applies only to those of its parts which are directly related to interpersonal relationships and to ethics, when given cultural norms are subordinated to ethical norms. But here we also face a problem, if in a given situation different ethical norms contradict each other: for example “love thy neighbor” and “tell the truth.” From the first norm the rule that we should be nice towards others or that we should treat everyone with respect is commonly derived. These guidelines become difficult to adhere to in certain situations, for example when we should tell someone a certain unpleasant truth about them, a truth regarding which there is a consensus among many people. While respect seems to be something unconditional, which is possible to display in almost any situation, things get much trickier when it comes to being “nice”. The truth may be painful for the other person, it may be perceived as an attack and it can trigger a counterattack. Of course a lot depends on the way in which we communicate a certain message to someone, but let’s remember that the more diplomacy there is in language, the more falsehoods it contains, if we define truthfulness as a complete agreement of our words with our thoughts and feelings. Thus with excessive diplomacy communication starts to falter as well, since we leave much more to speculation: We hope that the other side will guess our true intentions. They might, but they don’t have to. They might derive completely erroneous conclusions from what we said. Also, good communication is valuable in itself and it is yet another variable which factors into the equation in all of this chaos.

Different cultures of different communities have created different norms trying to find a balance between these rules. To resort to stereotypes and simplifications, Californians are nice and diplomatic, whereas Poles and Israelis are honest and blunt. However, there are no criteria which would allow us to determine that the culture of a given country, of one community, is superior to the culture of a different community, since both of them have their virtues and vices. In spite of that people in many countries across the world are convinced of the superiority of their own culture over their “neighbor’s” culture. Or, in the best case scenario – that their own culture is not “inferior” to or worse than others. If I’m mistaken, then please show me a country, a community, a society which thinks of themselves differently on the whole. Of course I’m not counting individuals who display a critical approach towards their own country’s culture, since such people exist in every society, but they play only  a marginal role in them.

Such a social egoism does not have to be something bad, if kept to reasonable proportions. The problem starts when, blown out of proportion by local demagogues, it turns into a universal basking in self-complacency, which usually serves to compensate for the inferiority complex displayed by that human community. All displays of nationalism and all forms of tribal thinking are symptoms of an overblown ego of a given group of people. The larger the size of that ego, the more defensive or aggressive its reaction to criticism will be (this rule applies to each separate human being as well.) The larger the size of the ego of a given society, of a given human community is, the larger its genocidal potential directed towards all kinds of strangers, since the easier it becomes to dehumanize all those viewed as “inferior”. A society with an overblown ego and devoid of any criticism commences its path towards the annihilation of all the others by choosing/establishing the only proper and “legitimate” authority, which is already dangerous once it turns into an oligarchy, but becomes even more dangerous when it evolves into tyranny – the despotism of one individual. Regardless in which of these two forms it manifests itself, this new authority starts to claim that it possesses a Divine mandate, and thus the right to create a new law, a new morality and a new “truth”, all of which is done solely for the sake of its own group, nation or tribe. In our religion this kind of arrogance is vehemently reviled:

 

The pious will celebrate with song,

evil will be silenced

all wickedness will disappear like smoke,

when You remove the tyranny of arrogance from the earth

(U-v’khein, Mahzor Lev Shalem)

And that is why in the Hebrew Bible God repeatedly calls for humility and He admonishes and rebukes the Chosen Nation, which is also repeatedly called the “stiff-necked people”. The aim of these Divine actions is to offset all the possible negative traits, such as that overblown ego, which stem from being  the nation chosen by Him. “Yes, you are my people, but I’m the one who’s God here!” – that’s one way to put this concept in a nutshell.

Based on my observations of the political world I can say that generally in many societies people accept words of critique only when it becomes absolutely clear and commonly known that they have done something truly bad, when they have absolutely no other choice. And even then – not always. Therefore I am not an optimist when it comes to the belief that criticizing  social norms can serve as a driving force for their further development, at least in most cases.

However, our religion, especially in its traditional form, introduces no sharp distinction between science, morality and culture. In its case all of these spheres can be ascribed to one category: the realm of human spirit. Our tradition abounds in different visions of “final days”; almost in all of them the arrival of a new world order is preceded by some enormous catastrophe. All that which I’ve mentioned above seems to be already somehow encapsulated in these visions – namely in the claim that “human nature” can be changed only through some kind of an enormous catastrophe, after which humanity will engage in a truly deep reflection about itself and will decide to build a society based on entirely new pillars and rules, keeping in mind that previous drama and intent on not re-living it never again. That’s how the theological significance of all the great catastrophes which took place over the course of human history could be understood: despite the enormity of evil and suffering they bring with them they are a necessary element which leads all of us towards a better future. However, if that vision of history has a cyclical character – that is how history was understood by the ancient Greeks – then we can’t really speak of progress. We can speak of progress in the realm of human spirit only if we embrace the Jewish, linear concept of history and if we believe in the coming of one, final catastrophe, which will completely change the course of things as well as the “human nature.”

Shabbat Shalom!

Hag Sukkot Sameach!

Menachem Mirski

 

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka

To love is to see potential. Thoughts on Parashat Nitzavim

 To love is to see potential. Thoughts on Parashat Nitzavim.

Menachem Mirski

 Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us, that we may observe it?” No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.  See, I set before you this day life and prosperity, death and adversity (Deut. 30:11-15.)

The people of Israel had its priests, but, contrary to the priests in Egyptian or Greek temples, their knowledge regarding Divine law was not something exclusive. While admittedly due to their knowledge and position (and this applies also to the Rabbis, their direct inheritors) their decisions were of greater significance, still the leaders of Jewish communities were always dealing with the law and the tradition available to everyone.

According to the Mishna (tractate Yoma, chapter 8) if someone has eaten and drank on Yom Kippur (thus breaking two of the prohibitions which had to be observed on this day), but has done it inadvertently (for example they did not know about the existence of such prohibitions or did not realize that it was already Yom Kippur), they had to bring only one sin-offering to the Temple. Whereas, if they had done it on purpose, they had to bring two offerings, one for each sin. And since there are no objective determinants which would allow us to find out whether a given person has done something on purpose or not, therefore each person had to make such a call in their own conscience.

This moral autonomy ascribed to each individual is a key element of our religion. Judaism is not and has never been an esoteric teaching, available only to a selected few, who wished to wield power over people’s consciences. And although God’s nature remains hidden from us, the Torah, in which He is present, has been revealed to us and can be shared and become a common property of all the people who have accepted it as their life path (Deut. 29:28.)

Let us remind here who has been actually chosen by God: a people de facto weak, oppressed and traumatized as a result of 400 years of slavery. Why did He choose them? Our tradition abounds in answers to this question. One of them, expressed directly in the Bible, states: Because of the promise He had made to its righteous ancestors. Another answer states that He did it out of His enormous love for Israel and for humankind in general. Yet another answer, which I’d like to propose here, states: God chose the Israelites because He saw a potential in them.   

Everything that I’ve mentioned above serves as proof of the great trust that God has put in men. He sees in each of us a potential to be realized and He wants us to also notice that potential and to strive to fulfill it.

Ibn Ezra in his commentary on the verse from Deuteronomy 30:16 emphasizes: It is of key importance to love that Being (i.e. God). However, to love God also means to see a potential for change in the world, for a change which He – and with His help also ourselves – can bring about together and which we are bringing about. Religions as such can be viewed as specific projects for the world, projects outlining plans for its transformation. They put forward visions for the future, visions of a better world – along with rules, norms of behavior and detailed instructions as to how we can bring about that new world order.

Seeing potential in another person is something we often forget to do, as we tend to focus on their specific actions and the results of these actions instead. The world we live in is organized in a way that essentially forces us to adopt such a stance towards others. It forces us to think predominantly in practical terms, about the here-and-now (this is to a large extent a legitimate approach and there is nothing wrong with it, as long as we don’t reduce everything to exactly such a stance). In most areas of our life the only thing that counts (or rather that has been made to seem like the only important thing) is what a given person can do at this given moment. This way our lives have turned into an endless skill- and beauty-contest – i.e. a contest evaluating everything that exists in the present and that has been already achieved or can be achieved any minute now. We yield to this “instantaneous-moment” diktat and to this endless competition, and we adjust our dreams accordingly. Only a handful of people are capable of breaking free from this pattern. Some of them are able to do this effectively and successively, and it is exactly those people who often introduce truly significant changes in the world. However, unfortunately for various reasons some of them end up at the sidelines of human life and their inherent potential is squandered.

To love another human being entails among others seeing their inner good and the potential for a future good which is yet to be achieved as a result of their actions. In fact, this act of noticing someone’s potential constitutes the essence of parental love. When we don’t recognize the innate talents and potential of our children or if we do notice it, but we ignore it and try to shape these human beings and their lives according to our own whims, we are causing them harm. Whether the harm we’ve caused will go on to destroy their lives – that depends on many other factors, but as a general rule by acting this way we are greatly increasing the likelihood of that.

Of course, loving someone in a mature way entails seeing the flaws, the shortcomings and the obvious weaknesses of the people we love, but if we truly love them, these traits will not overshadow their virtues and everything that is good in them – it is those positive traits that we notice in them in the first place. And this was exactly the principle on which God’s love towards Israel was (and still is) based, although the vast amount of Biblical narratives describing His wrath can sometimes make us take this notion for granted. God had certainly expected the failings of His people and although He vented His anger on this people on numerous occasions, He has never forsaken them and He has never broken their Covenant, since who we are is the result of the successes and failures of our ancestors.

The upcoming High Holidays season is not only a time for reflecting on our moral/religious transgressions (commonly called “sins”) which we’ve committed in the passing year. It is also a time to take stock of our life-achievements and to reflect on them, since these achievements are inextricably linked to our actions: to our sins and our mistakes. But at the same time it gives us a chance to reflect on the potential that lies within us, both the one which we have already fulfilled as well as the one which we have squandered. In this New Year 5779 I’d like to wish everyone that besides fulfilling their various not yet fulfilled potentials they will also keep on deepening their insight into other persons, regardless of whether they are someone close to us or not. I also wish you a constant  development of the ability to see the entire potential for good in other people, even when – or especially when – the ability to notice it has been distorted by our, not necessarily positive, experiences with those people.

Shabbat Shalom!

Menachem Mirski

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka

Szczęście oraz sprawiedliwość. Refleksja nad paraszą Ree.

Menachem Mirski –

Szczęście oraz sprawiedliwość. Refleksja nad paraszą Ree.

 

„Po upływie siedmiu lat urządzaj odpuszczenie. A oto sposób odpuszczenia: odpuszczać ma każdy wierzyciel wierzytelność swoję, którą wypożyczył bliźniemu swemu; nie będzie nalegał na bliźniego i na brata swego, gdy ogłoszono odpuszczenie gwoli Wiekuistemu. Na cudzoziemca możesz nalegać, ale co masz u brata twego, odpuści ręka twoja. Tylko że nie powinien być wpośród ciebie ubogi; gdyż błogosławić ci będzie Wiekuisty na ziemi, którą Wiekuisty, Bóg twój, oddaje tobie w posiadanie, abyś władał nią. Jeżeli tylko słuchać będziesz głosu Wiekuistego, Boga twojego, starając się spełniać wszystkie te przykazania, które przykazuję ci dzisiaj; Albowiem Wiekuisty, Bóg twój, pobłogosławiłby ci jako ci przyrzekł, i byłbyś wypożyczał wielu narodom, a sam nie zapożyczał, i byłbyś panował nad wielu narodami, a nad tobą by nie panowały!” (Deut 15:1-6, tłum. I. Cylkow)

 

Gdy wyrwiemy ostatni z powyższych wersetów z kontekstu, możemy go interpretować rozmaicie. Żydowscy szowiniści (w każdej grupie etnicznej lub religijnej spotykamy takowych) mogą w tym widzieć ekspresję „żydowskiej wyższości”, usankcjonowanej najwyższym, boskim mandatem. Podobną proklamację będą w tym widzieć antysemici, dokładając do tego kilka innych idei, np. teorię o żydowskim spisku mającym na celu realizację tejże wizji. Werset ten jednakże znajduje się w kontekście praw dotyczących sprawiedliwości społecznej. Szczęśliwość, dobrobyt, a w konsekwencji i siła społeczeństwa są skutkiem relacji, jakie panują między jednostkami i grupami w danym społeczeństwie i zależą od tego, jak sprawiedliwe owe stosunki są. Jeśli idea sprawiedliwości jest powszechnie szanowana i poddawana głębszemu namysłowi ze strony rządzących (a więc nie w sposób prymitywny na przykład, streszczający się w tezie, że ci, którzy nie odnieśli w życiu sukcesu są sami sobie winni etc.) istnieją wówczas warunki dla zaistnienia sprawiedliwego podziału dóbr i efektywnej, społecznej kooperacji w każdej dziedzinie życia. To m.in. tworzy fundamenty silnego społeczeństwa oraz państwa, które ma szansę dominować (po spełnieniu kilku jeszcze warunków) nad innymi państwami i społeczeństwami, które ze sprawiedliwością są na bakier i nie wytworzyły u siebie sprawiedliwych reguł wspólnego, społecznego życia.

Oczywiście istnieją państwa i społeczeństwa rządzone niesprawiedliwie, które mimo tego są silne i dominują nad innymi na różne sposoby – militarnie, liczebnościowo itd. Tego rodzaju systemów nie będziemy tu jednak brać pod naszą rozwagę, bowiem generalnie wizja państwa rządzonego przez dyktaturę oraz przemoc jest antytezą biblijnej wizji państwa oraz stosunków społecznych.

Temat sprawiedliwości jest niezmiernie obszerny, wiec skupimy się tu na jednym aspekcie: szczęściu i jego roli w osiąganiu sukcesu, w powyższych wersetach jest bowiem mowa o tym, iż należy pomagać tym, którym się w życiu, w aspekcie materialnym, nie powiodło. Jest to rzecz niezbędna aby utrzymać porządek w danym społeczeństwie. Pytanie, które tu postawię, brzmi następująco: czy sukces jest (wyłącznie) wynikiem własnej pracy oraz umiejętności, takich jak inteligencja czy spryt, czy może w osiągnięciu sukcesu kluczową rolę pełni po prostu szczęście? Przynajmniej kilka studiów psychologicznych przeprowadzonych na ten temat w ostatnich dwóch dekadach wykazało, że mężczyźni i kobiety różnie pojmują rolę szczęścia w osiąganiu sukcesów, i odmiennie odpowiadają na te pytania. Mężczyźni mają silną tendencję do przypisywania swoich sukcesów swoim umiejętnościom, kobiety natomiast – szczęściu. Jeśli zaś chodzi o porażki, to rzecz wygląda odwrotnie – kobiety, z reguły, znajdują przyczyny swoich niepowodzeń we własnych brakach – umiejętności, wiedzy itd., mężczyźni natomiast swoje niepowodzenia przypisują zwykle czynnikom zewnętrznym, np. pechowi.

Co natomiast na ten temat głosi nasza tradycja? Wiemy, iż zasadniczo odcina się (i zabrania) rozmaitych praktyk wróżbiarskich, mających przywołać owo szczęście. Jednakże wątek szczęścia pojawia się zarówno w źródłach biblijnych, rabinicznych, jak i kabalistycznych. Po raz pierwszy znajdujemy go w kontekście urodzin Gada, syna Jakuba:

I rzekła Lea: „Przyszło szczęście!”. I nazwała imię jego: Gad. (Gen 30:11, tłum. I. Cylkow)

Raszi, w swoim pierwszym wyjaśnieniu tego wersetu, tłumaczy znaczenie imienia Gad jako mazal tow, co dosłownie oznacza właśnie łut szczęścia, powodzenie (potocznie mazal tow to oczywiście „gratulacje”). Ale kwestia szczęścia i wiary w nie nie jest taka oczywista w naszej tradycji. W Talmudzie (Szabat 156a) w kontekście rozważań nad astrologią znajdujemy wypowiedź ein mazal le’Israel, co dosłownie oznacza „Nie ma szczęścia dla Izraela”, lecz prawidłowo tłumaczone jest jako „Nie ma konstelacji (gwiazd) dla Izraela”. Innymi słowy, powodzenie lub niepowodzenie Izraela nie jest „zapisane w gwiazdach”. Tym samym Żydzi nie powinni wierzyć horoskopom. Majmonides odnosi owo mazal do „praw historii naturalnej”, którym według niego historia Izraela nie podlega.

Tym samym nie ma także predestynacji. Nawet jeśli coś jest „zapisane w gwiazdach” lub w historii, Żydzi nie podążają za tym ani temu ostatecznie nie podlegają, bowiem posiadają moc przemiany swojego losu, także jeśli jest on „niefortunny”. Czyżby więc w judaizmie dominowała typowa, „męska” odpowiedź na kwestię szczęścia i jego roli w życiu?

Bynajmniej. W innym miejscu Talmud (traktat Moed katan 28a) powiada, iż długość życia, (posiadanie) dzieci oraz zarobkowanie nie są zależne od czyichś zasług, lecz od losu. A więc – od szczęścia. Kabalistyczna natomiast interpretacja ein mazal le’Israel mówi, że owo szczęście pochodzi z miejsca, które jest poza czasem i przestrzenią, poza naturą i jej przyczynowo-skutkowymi związkami, poza wszystkimi możliwymi poziomami duchowości człowieka; pochodzi z miejsca zwanego ein sof („bez końca”), czyli najwyższej rzeczywistości duchowej Boga, będącej ponad jego wszelkimi manifestacjami i de facto ponad jego wolą, zamysłem i działaniem. Można wręcz zaryzykować stwierdzenie, że nasze szczęście pochodzi z „boskiej podświadomości”.

Konkludując, odpowiedź naszych mędrców na kwestię szczęścia nie jest ani typowo „męska”, ani typowo „kobieca” – zawiera oba komponenty w sobie. Nasze pomyślność, powodzenie w życiu zależne jest zarówno od czynników, które są w nas i nad którymi mamy kontrolę, takich jak nasze wysiłki, praca oraz umiejętności, jak i od czynników, nad którymi kontroli nie mamy, czyli od tego, co ludzie określają mianem szczęścia. Owo szczęście, które na nas skapuje (rzeczownik mazal posiada ten sam rdzeń co czasownik linzol, oznaczający właśnie kapać) ma swoje źródło w ein sof, a więc w najgłębszym wymiarze boskiej rzeczywistości – w „boskiej podświadomości”. Bóg, przekazując nam prawa mające na celu zaprowadzenie sprawiedliwości w świecie ludzkim koryguje niejako zrządzenia swojej „podświadomości”, tak, ażeby szczęśliwości mógł zaznać każdy, który zaprosił Boga do uczestnictwa w swoim życiu.

Szabat szalom!

 

Menachem Mirski