Ki Tavo

Gratitude as a Jewish value

Thoughts on parashat Ki Tavo

Menachem Mirski

What are the Jewish values? Typically, when this question is raised, the following values are mentioned: devotion to live in community (Israel), education (Torah), governance of life by law (halacha), truthfulness and trustworthiness (emunah), justice and righteousness (tzedek), kindness and taking care of others (chesed), respect and dignity (kavod) and responsibility (acharayut). They all have their social and their religious dimension, and traditionally they were all put under one umbrella: belief in God. They can also be put under another umbrella: fixing up the world (tikkun haolam).  These values are at the core of our Jewish religious system. They remain forever unchangeable despite changes in our rituals, customs, despite halachic changes and even some changes in Jewish ethics. These core values are the felt commitments of lived religion; they remain the same even though their ritual and practical expressions may change.

However, these core values are not completely immune to erosion: a change in religious practices may cause their erosion and disintegration. This danger never disappears (that’s one of the reasons there are those who object to any changes in our religion and tradition) and it was specifically acute in the early stages of our religion’s development, when judaism was particularly vulnerable to a damaging influence from surrounding cultures which did not share many of the values of our religion. That’s why we read in our Torah portion for this week:

If you do not obey the LORD your God to observe faithfully all His commandments and laws which I enjoin upon you this day, all these curses shall come upon you and take effect: Cursed shall you be in the city and cursed shall you be in the country. Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Cursed shall be the issue of your womb and the produce of your soil, the calving of your herd and the lambing of your flock. Cursed shall you be in your comings and cursed shall you be in your goings. The LORD will let loose against you calamity, panic, and frustration in all the enterprises you undertake, so that you shall soon be utterly wiped out because of your evildoing in forsaking Me. The LORD will make pestilence cling to you, until He has put an end to you in the land that you are entering to possess. The LORD will strike you with consumption, fever, and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, with blight and mildew; they shall hound you until you perish […] The LORD will bring a nation against you from afar, from the end of the earth, which will swoop down like the eagle—a nation whose language you do not understand, a ruthless nation, that will show the old no regard and the young no mercy. It shall devour the offspring of your cattle and the produce of your soil, until you have been wiped out, leaving you nothing of new grain, wine, or oil, of the calving of your herds and the lambing of your flocks, until it has brought you to ruin. It shall shut you up in all your towns throughout your land until every mighty, towering wall in which you trust has come down. And when you are shut up in all

your towns throughout your land that the LORD your God has assigned to you, you shall eat your own issue, the flesh of your sons and daughters that the LORD your God has assigned to you, because of the desperate straits to which your enemy shall reduce you. (Deuteronomy 28:15-22,49-53)

These are only 13 verses out of the entire 54-verse passage that tells about what will happen to the Israelites when they disobey the Eternal. Disobeying means questioning the Divine laws and wisdom and it basically means the same today.

This disobedience starts with mere ingratitude towards the Holy One, which is diagnosed at the beginning of our Torah portion, where it stresses the necessity of the annual, mass and solemn sacrifice of the firstfruits (Deuteronomy 26:1-11). Rabbi Yitzhak Breuer eloquently summed up various interpretations of this ritual:

The bikkurim brought every year are an unparalleled demonstration of a happy and blessed nation living on its land in quiet and security. It is a demonstration of the sovereignty of the Holy One over the nation, which each year accepts anew, with bended knee and with bowed head, the land from its God. In that tremendous national joy, the nation offers up its confession, a national confession stemming from national joy.

The Torah is deeply aware of one of the essential features of human nature: when people become well-off and have a leisurely life, they develop a tendency to become conceited and to rebel against the existing norms and rules of life, as we see in the following verses:

When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the LORD your God—who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage. (Deuteronomy 8:12-14)

It all ends by abandoning the true values and in idol worship – today this most often means worshiping money, power, position and technology – namely the products of human hands and minds: the things that should never be worshiped by man. The worst case scenario is worship of man himself – cult of personality. All this, at the end of the day, leads us to decadence and all that it brings: depression, destruction of the social fabric and the decay of social and cultural life.

The remedy lies in the constant and true practice of gratitude towards the Eternal, for everything that is given to us, including every moment of our life. Therefore, it can be said that gratitude to the Eternal is the foundation on which all our Jewish values arise.

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA.
Menachem Mirski is a Polish born philosopher, musician, scholar and international speaker. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy and is currently studying to become a Rabbi at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. His current area of interests focus on freedom of expression and thought as well as the laws of logic as it pertains to the discourse of ideology and social and political issues. Dr. Mirski has been a leader in Polish klezmer music scene for well over a decade and his LA based band is called Waking Jericho.

Ki Teitzei

Between collectivism and individualism

Thoughts on parashat Ki Teitzei

Menachem Mirski

I visited Poland over the last few weeks to perform my dad’s funeral and to help my mother to find herself living in new circumstances, without him. Not having a car throughout most of my four weeks’ trip I was dependent on public transportation. One day I got on the bus in Przemyśl and I went to the driver to get a ticket. I had no change in my wallet, so the driver could not sell me the ticket because he wasn’t able to give me the rest of the money. When I was walking back to my seat in the bus, an older, probably retired woman gave me 5 zloty and said “please go and buy this ticket”. I went back to the driver, got the ticket, thanked the woman and gave her back the rest.

Another day I got my mom a small tv so she could watch it at the rehab center she is currently in. She shares the room with three other women. She was very happy when she got it but her first instinct was to share it with others: “Put it please the way so the other women could also watch it”. I was thinking for a moment and then I said: “Well, if I do that, you won’t be able to watch it, only them”. “I can just listen to it” – she replied – “place it this way, at least for now”.

I’m bringing these stories because they show healthy collective thinking and actions. But is collective thinking always good and healthy? Is it something always recommended by our ‘community oriented’ religion?

Our Torah portion for this week contains the greatest number of laws among all the parashot: 72 positive and negative commandments. Among them are those pointing out to collective responsibility for one another in the society:

When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it. (Deuteronomy 22:8)

Another great example of good collective thinking are the laws of returning the lost animal/item:

If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow. If your fellow does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him. You shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent. If you see your fellow’s ass or ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it; you must help him raise it. (Deuteronomy 22:1-4)

Another set of laws teaches us social responsibility for the poor and needy:

When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf in the field, do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow—in order that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat down the fruit of your olive trees, do not go over them again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not pick it over again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. (Deuteronomy 24:19-21)

These laws are to teach us collective responsibility. I believe that most of them are to be internalized rather than enforced by the court due to the fact that situations of returning the lost item often do not involve more than one witness so their legal application is limited. But our parasha also contains commandments that definitely limit the scope of collective thinking and action:

Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for parents: a person shall be put to death only for his own crime. (Deuteronomy 24:16)

It is yet another expression of individual moral responsibility which is at the core of the Jewish concept of justice: if you do good you will be rewarded, if you do evil, you will be punished; nobody else should be punished for your sins, nobody else should be blamed for them and no man should be your scapegoat. If that happens, the system you have created is flawed and unjust.

Although it is not easy to make such a general statement, I believe that our religion is neither  individualist nor a purely collectivist in its nature. Both extremes, when applied exclusively, are harmful to society and human life. Radical individualism may cause indifference towards the needs and fate of others. Radical collectivism, not balanced by individual freedoms, brings forms group responsibility, which are never just and cause social conflicts as well as resentment, especially if mandated by force or the government. But most importantly, if something is ordained and enforced, it stops being voluntary. Thus, enforced collectivism often kills real, internalized, good collective thinking, together with empathy and compassion, which by its nature cannot be enforced by any law or system.

Collective thinking is always good when it’s voluntary.  A good, healthy life has both aspects, a collective and an individual one. It incorporates both perspectives in our daily life and chooses between them depending on the case. The laws in the Torah were given to us to teach us this necessary balance between what is individual and what is collective. These laws, together with maturity and experience, help us to know what perspective is appropriate in a given situation.

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA.
Menachem Mirski is a Polish born philosopher, musician, scholar and international speaker. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy and is currently studying to become a Rabbi at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. His current area of interests focus on freedom of expression and thought as well as the laws of logic as it pertains to the discourse of ideology and social and political issues. Dr. Mirski has been a leader in Polish klezmer music scene for well over a decade and his LA based band is called Waking Jericho.

Ekev

The importance of human experience

Thoughts on parashat Ekev

Menachem Mirski

This week’s Torah portion includes a beautiful vision of the Promised Land, spoken through the mouth of Moses on the eve of its conquest:

For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey; a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper. When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you. (Deuteronomy 8:7-10)

Rabbinic minds developed this vision of Eretz Israel by exceedingly idealizing the Promised Land. For example, Rabbeinu Bachya believed that the land of Israel, as well as Jerusalem itself in particular, contained all six climates of the world, which rendered the land’s climate as marvelous. Gaon of Vilna believed that the land of Israel contained all possible minerals and all the plants people needed, so there was no need to import anything. The rabbis, however, idealized the land of Israel even more. The nineteenth-century rabbi of Bratislava, Moses Schreiber, in his work Chatam Sofer wrote that fruits of Eretz Israel were tremendously large, as, for example, wheat grains the size of ox kidneys and lentils the size of gold dinars. Rabbi Shlomo Efraim Luntschitz, who lived at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, in his work Kli Yakar claimed that Eretz Israel does not need storage cities; it always has abundance, and there is no need to save from one year to another – its crop is blessed every year, without a break.  Other 19th and 20th-century commentators, such as Jehuda Arie Leib Alter and Shabbatai HaKohen, have argued, for example, that bread made from grains of the Land of Israel has miraculous properties: it can be eaten in infinite amounts, without fear of gaining weight.

There was a disagreement regarding whether the streams and fountains could itself provide enough water for irrigation of fields. 13th century French commentator, Hezekiah ben Manoah, known as Chizkuni, believed that the abundance of water in these streams and fountains depend on rainfall, thus each individual will have to trust in God’s grace for his water. Nachmanides, however, saw a natural blessing in them and that they carry enough moisture to every place it is needed, therefore the land needed no rivers, nor a specific ‘water engineering’.

The first Zionists emigrating to Eretz Israel in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries found out how true all these visions were. These visions do not correspond to reality even today: yes, Israel is a very developed country, abundant in various goods, but all this is the result of hard work of many generations. These rabbinical visions actually teach us how important human experience is when it comes to knowing and judging reality, and how easy it is to make a mistake when one does not have such an experience. These commentators have spent their entire lives in a different world, in Europe, only fantasizing about the Promised Land. The same is often true today, due to instant access to information on everything that is happening anywhere in the world: people are constantly tempted to form and express themselves their opinions about places and countries, having in fact no idea about the reality of these places. Let it be a lesson of restraint for us; let us be restrained in our words, concepts and recipes for the life of human communities who live in other countries and on different continents.

 

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA.
Menachem Mirski is a Polish born philosopher, musician, scholar and international speaker. He earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy and is currently studying to become a Rabbi at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. His current area of interests focus on freedom of expression and thought as well as the laws of logic as it pertains to the discourse of ideology and social and political issues. Dr. Mirski has been a leader in Polish klezmer music scene for well over a decade and his LA based band is called Waking Jericho.

Nitzavim-Vayelech

 Open your heart to receive blessing

Thoughts on parashat Nitzavim-Vayelech

Menachem Mirski

Human beings are religious beings. This means we have a natural tendency to develop religion or something that metaphysically deals with the problematic mystery of human  existence. Every time human beings want to get rid of religion something else fills this gap and becomes a new religion. This new religion is usually a political ideology, an ideologized science or a random stream of philosophy that was accidentally popular at the time.

The problem is that what is metaphysical cannot be replaced with something physical, scientific or political. Whenever humanity tries to do so it hurts itself in the long run.

Conceaed acts concern the LORD our God; but with overt acts, it is for us and our children ever to apply all the provisions of this Teaching. (Deuteronomy 29:28)

We cannot repress or get rid of our metaphysical needs. We cannot escape from our need for transcendence. Why? Because by repressing things that concern our God we will end up, sooner or later, in self denial and nihilism. We were created in divine likeness which means we naturally strive for the divine. Our religious drive is a drive for something holy and eternal – something that is good, something that does not pass. This eternal and good thing has to be able to mark everything we freely do and experience- mark with meaning.

To mark means to affirm, not to subject – and no science, no political ideology nor philosophy is able to fully do that. Why? because the products of human intellect are, by definition, limited. Science and philosophy can give you explanation, political ideology can give you the goal. Religion gives you meaning.

At the end of the day human intellect is there to serve, to make our lives easier, more comfortable and more predictable. Religion very often does the opposite or at least starts with the opposite. Judaism, our religion, does not unconditionally affirm our life. It affirms it deeply, but only when we bring holiness, good and justice. It affirms life with a spirit that deliberately opens itself towards unknown and concealed things. None of these concealed things, nor holiness nor good are the notions that can be politically or scientifically defined without reducing them to fractions.

When all these things befall you—the blessing and the curse that I have set before you—and you take them to heart amidst the various nations to which the LORD your God has banished you, and you return to the LORD your God, and you and your children heed His command with all your heart and soul, just as I enjoin upon you this day, then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and take you back in love. He will bring you together again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you. Even if your outcasts are at the ends of the world, from there the LORD your God will gather you, from there He will fetch you. And the LORD your God will bring you to the land that your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it; and He will make you more prosperous and more numerous than your fathers. Then the LORD your God will open up your heart and the hearts of your offspring to love the LORD your God with all your heart and soul, in order that you may live. (Deuteronomy 30:1-6)

These words contain an endless, divine promise. Note, they don’t make many conditions. There is only one essential: we have to return to God, to everything He revealed to us on Mount Sinai.

Everything that is concealed is known by God. During the coming High Holidays I encourage all of you to express everything that is concealed in us before Him, with our entire hearts and entire souls. If we do that He will turn His countenance towards us and will bless us with all His generosity.

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA

Devarim

An atheist’s guide to prayer

Thoughts on parashat Devarim

Menachem Mirski

Prayer is the salient expression of religious emotion and of man’s relationship with God. Presumably every religious person has asked themselves this question: how much prayer do I need in my life and does it make my connection to God stronger? There may be many answers to this question. One analysis may be: I need to make teshuvah, come closer to God and use religion to organize my life because when I let the world rule my life it brought me chaos and suffering and deprived me of meaning. Alternatively one might muse: I need to focus on action, not prayer. I don’t need to spend that much time in the synagogue and I don’t need to pray all the time. I already have learned what I need to know and now it’s time for action!

The Torah portion for this week suggests the latter:

The LORD our God spoke to us at Horeb, saying: You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Start out and make your way to the hill country of the Amorites and to all their neighbors in the Arabah, the hill country, the Shephelah, the Negeb, the seacoast, the land of the Canaanites, and the Lebanon, as far as the Great River, the river Euphrates. See, I place the land at your disposal. Go, take possession of the land that the LORD swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to assign to them and to their heirs after them. (Deuteronomy 1:6-8)

The revelation on Sinai is complete. The Israelites have their instructions. Now is the time to go and implement the Divine plan. Notwithstanding, are they commanded to drop spirituality, conquer the land and immerse themselves in practical life exclusively? No, not by a long shot. God will accompany them throughout their mission and beyond. The instructions they received in Sinai clearly state their duties to God, such as obeying his laws, the Sabbath, and making sacrifices to him, etc. Forever, they will be His witnesses and He will be their witness.

It is not uncommon today to hear people explain that they are not religious, but they are ‘enlightened’ or ‘spiritual.’ They explain that they don’t need prayer or even God because, they say, it is enough to ‘live in harmony with the universe,’ thus claiming “the God hypothesis” is redundant. Yes, we all know that prayer alone in life is not enough and that to achieve anything in life action is required. But is prayer really unnecessary? Let’s look at this in practice. Imagine I am up for a promotion at work. I pray to God for it but I also know that my promotion won’t happen without my hard work. So in harmony with my prayers, I work hard to impress my boss. What if I get this promotion? Is it because of God’s blessing or simply a result of my hard work? What if I don’t get the promotion? Was it not God’s will? Taking the argument a step further, if we believe things happen because of God’s will anyway then…. what’s the point of praying? Wouldn’t it better to just work in harmony with the universe and simply reap what we earn?

Let’s consider first two incorrect assumptions about (petitionary) prayer in the argument above. First, the person is incorrectly understanding prayer as a kind of magic, believing that you can influence reality with just words and thoughts and God is just a mere element in the process. Another incorrect assumption is that since we cannot measure the exact impact of the Divine action it doesn’t play any role in the entire process.

Sometimes we indeed have a feeling that we don’t need a prayer to achieve something. The task is clear and everything seems dependent on us. But there are other times where we feel that prayer is a necessary part of the process. In these situations we usually know that the goal we want to achieve is attainable, but at the same time we are aware there may be some obstacles and complications on the way that we will need to overcome. We often don’t know what these obstacles will be and we do know that not everything is dependent on us. That is when we need prayer to ensure us that despite the obstacles, we will achieve the goal.

Now, what about those who don’t believe in a higher power? Why should they pray? It turns out prayer is kind of magical – its superpower lies in its ability to harness the mind. Prayer is a great source of strength and motivation. It’s helpful in getting the right mindset and prioritizing things. By getting into a right mindset and setting priorities properly we avoid procrastination. Prayer prevents us from going astray, from giving up. Prayer continuously ensures us that the goal we want to achieve is worthy and meaningful and all the obstacles we will face will cease to exist and at the end of our journey we won’t even remember them. Prayer, when supported by reason and experience, makes us more cautious, sensitive and prevents us from making obvious mistakes.

Prayer also, amazingly, stimulates self-reflection: why didn’t I achieve this or that? It is often the case that the reasons for which I haven’t achieved something were in fact in me, not in the universe. I thought that the universe conspired against me, but after some time I realized that the main obstacles were in fact in me: in my habits, in my behavior, in my wrong priorities, bad time management, in my hierarchy of values, in the choice of pleasures that I pursued, in my erroneous thinking, in my arrogance, in my lack of faith, in my laziness or ignorance. This life wisdom I achieved was and is facilitated through prayer. Regular prayer helps to eliminate the obstacles within ourselves, obstacles that are often more relevant than the objective challenges that we face. In the context of prayer we also ask ourselves questions about what we have achieved and what we want to achieve. These are important questions at any stage of life and they are questions that should be pondered regularly. Quite simply regular prayer promotes this type of internal analysis.

Prayer also helps tremendously when we experience failure. When this connection is supported by reason and experience it will enlighten the reasons of your failure. You can discover the meaning behind the failure.

Finally, and above all prayer connects you with God and to a moral system around which you orbit. This connection tells you that your life and your goals are not only about you.

By praying we learn to control our internal, spiritual life. Control of our inner life is essential to having true control over our lives in general and the circumstances in which we live. Often things that happen ‘to us’ are, in fact, a combination of both independent objective circumstances and our reactions to them. The more considerable and meaningful are our responses, the more power we gain over the circumstances and their outcome. In this way we expand the borders of our freedom. Through prayer we can come to understand the complexities of the situations we are faced and the positive and negative consequences that ensue.

 

It was a lack of faith and close contact with God that delayed the Israelites’ entry into the Promised Land by 40 years. Thus any call to action should be understood as a call to action with prayer. Sincere prayer improves the quality of our actions and our experience. And every prayer is heard, one way or another.

 

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA

Wa’etchanan

Wszyscy równi wobec śmierci.

 Refleksja nad paraszą Wa’etchanan.

 

Menachem Mirski

Na początku porcji Tory przeznaczonej na ten tydzień Mojżesz prosi Wiekuistego aby pozwolił mu wejść do Ziemi Obiecanej. Bóg nie ulega jego prośbom, jedyne co oferuje mu w zamian to sugestia, żeby wszedł na szczyt góry Pisga, skąd będzie mógł obejrzeć Ziemię daną Izraelowi (Deut 3:23-27). Owa historia ma swój finał w rozdziale 34 Księgi Dewarim (Powtórzonego Prawa), kiedy to Mojżesz wchodzi na ową górę. Wówczas Bóg rzecze do niego:

Oto kraj, który poprzysiągłem Abrahamowi, Izaakowi i Jakubowi tymi słowami: Dam go twemu potomstwu. Dałem ci go zobaczyć własnymi oczami, lecz tam nie wejdziesz».  Tam, w krainie Moabu, według postanowienia Pana, umarł Mojżesz, sługa Pański. I pochowano go w dolinie krainy Moabu naprzeciw Bet-Peor, a nikt nie zna jego grobu aż po dziś dzień. W chwili śmierci miał Mojżesz sto dwadzieścia lat, a wzrok jego nie był przyćmiony i siły go nie opuściły. (Dewarim 34:4-7)

Dni Mojżesza były zatem policzone, bez możliwości złożenia jakiegokolwiek odwołania. Owa frazeologia, jak również sam fakt, że wszyscy, bez wyjątku, kiedyś umrzemy jest źródłem twierdzenia, że wszyscy jesteśmy równi wobec śmierci. Trudno temu zaprzeczyć, choć można się spierać co oznacza termin “równi”. Tak czy inaczej, warto postawić pytanie, czy z faktu, iż jesteśmy równi wobec śmierci wynika jakakolwiek inna, “wrodzona” równość między ludźmi? Przyjrzyjmy się tej kwestii nieco bliżej.

Otóż typowym, często spotykanym wnioskiem pojawiającym się w tym kontekście jest to, że z równości wobec śmierci wynika swoista marność rzeczy (materialnych) świata, w którym żyjemy. Zarówno biednego jak i bogatego czeka ten sam los – wszyscy ostatecznie wylądują w grobie. A zatem nie ma co się za bardzo trudzić i gromadzić bogactw, bowiem nic z tego świata nie zabierzemy. Ale czy rzeczywiście jest to słuszne rozumowanie? Czy z faktu, że wszyscy umrzemy wynika, iż gromadzenie środków materialnych jest tylko pogonią za wiatrem? Że nie powinniśmy za bardzo tym przejmować i najlepiej by było np. zaprowadzić komunizm?

Jest to oczywiście błędne rozumowanie i wielu z nas od razu się z tym zgodzi. I chociaż Biblia hebrajska wielokrotnie porusza temat biednych i bogatych, ustanawia prawa mające na celu sprawiedliwy podział dóbr, nigdzie nie propaguje równości ekonomicznej między ludźmi, a jej prawa (np. Dewarim 10:18, 14:28-29, 15:7;11, 24:17, 27:19 itd.) mają na celu przeciwdziałanie sytuacjom skrajnym i patologicznym. Również, na przykład, wersetom Księgi Przysłów:

Bogacz i nędzarz spotykają się; Pan stworzył obydwu. (Księga Przysłów 22:2)

oraz

Gdy biedny spotyka się ze zdziercą, Pan obdarza światłem oczy obydwu. (Księga Przysłów 29:13)

nie należy przypisywać przesłania, iż biedny i bogaty powinni być ekonomicznie zrównani. Wręcz przeciwnie, istnienie owych nierówności ma głębszy sens; może być np. źródłem wiedzy i głębszego zrozumienia ludzkich losów, co jak najbardziej można wyczytać z wersetu 29:13.

Właściwą odpowiedź na pytanie jaką postawę należy przyjąć wobec posiadania rzeczy i innych spraw materialnych w kontekście bycia śmiertelnikiem podsuwa nam również nasza dzisiejsza porcja Tory:

A gdy wprowadzi cię Wiekuisty, Bóg twój, do ziemi, którą zaprzysiągł ojcom twoim, Abrahamowi, Icchakowi i Jakóbowi, że ją da tobie – miasta wielkie i piękne, których nie budowałeś; I domy pełne dóbr wszelakich, których nie napełniałeś; i studnie wyciosane, których nie wyciosałeś; winnice i oliwnice, których nie sadziłeś – strzeżcie się, abyś nie zapomniał Wiekuistego, który cię wywiódł z ziemi Micraim, z domu niewoli. (Dewarim 6:10-12, tłum. I. Cylkow)

Krótko mówiąc, jesteśmy najemcami, nie zaś właścicielami rzeczy w świecie, w którym żyjemy, i powinniśmy być za to wdzięczni. Co w żadnym wypadku nie oznacza, że wynajęcie kawalerki w suterenie jest tym samym co wynajęcie pałacu.

Tak więc z faktu równości wobec śmierci (i Boga) w żadnym wypadku nie wynika paradygmat równości ekonomicznych. Argumentował bym, że wręcz przeciwnie. Czy istnieją jakieś inne równości, które mogą wynikać z owej fundamentalnej, “równości egzystencjalnej”? Zanim odpowiemy na to pytanie, spróbujmy odpowiedzieć na pytanie co tak naprawdę ludzka równość wobec śmierci oznacza.

Otóż tym, co oczywiście wynika logicznie wprost z owej równości jest to, że ramy czasowe życia każdego człowieka są ograniczone. To znaczy mniej więcej to, że każdy z nas dostaje notes, z inną, ograniczoną ilością stron, w którym zobowiązany jest napisać historię swojego życia. Żeby owa historia miała jakikolwiek sens, musimy założyć, przynajmniej teoretycznie, że ilość stron w naszym notesie jest nam znana. Wówczas możemy planować i pisać kolejne rozdziały księgi naszego życia. W całej tej aktywności pomocna jest także świadomość, że ilość stron, jaką zawiera nasz notes, jest w mniejszym lub większym stopniu zależna od naszego postępowania. Sam fakt, że ich ilość jest skończona może człowieka trwożyć, ale może być, i często jest, pozytywnym bodźcem do napisania najlepszej możliwej historii. To, w jaki sposób ów limit postrzegamy zależne jest od stanu psychicznego człowieka w danym momencie, a ów stan psychiczny zależny jest od bardzo wielu czynników, wśród których owa ilość stron w notesie bywa często niezbyt istotna.

I tu dochodzimy do dwóch równości, które moim zdaniem wynikają z owej fundamentalnej równości wobec śmierci. Są nimi równość wobec prawa oraz równość szans. Przez równość wobec prawa rozumiem konieczność istnienia jednakowej odpowiedzialności wszystkich ludzi względem pewnego systemu ogólnie uznanych reguł wspólnego życia, zapewniających wszystkim pokój, bezpieczeństwo oraz możliwości rozwoju, czyli właśnie ową równość szans. Tylko wówczas mamy oparcie w obiektywnej strukturze, w której każdy z nas posiada możliwość, szansę napisania historii swojego życia świadomie, odpowiedzialnie i zgodnie z własną wolą oraz środkami, które odziedziczyliśmy lub zdobyliśmy sami. Brak takowej struktury zwiększa rolę czynników losowych w historii życia każdego z nas, co prowadzi do wielu problemów. Dlatego też nieodpowiedzialne “majstrowanie” przy tej strukturze zawsze stanowi niebezpieczeństwo i może niekiedy doprowadzić do wielu ludzkich tragedii.

Wszystko to marność i pogoń za wiatrem (Kohelet 1:14).

Słowa te w moim odczuciu nie opisują obiektywnego stanu rzeczy w świecie, lecz są ekspresją pewnego egzystencjalnego doświadczenia, związanego z rozciągnięciem perspektywy czasowej, z jakiej patrzymy na nasze życie, daleko poza jego ramy czasowe. Ową perspektywę możemy intelektualnie rozciągnąć tak, że w konsekwencji wszystko co istnieje straci jakikolwiek sens. Ale nie chodzi o to, by sięgać pustych, intelektualnych skrajności. Jeśli zachowamy w tym wszystkim umiar, to okazuje się, że owo wywołujące dreszcze doświadczenie jest ostatecznie bardzo cenne. Ów rozszerzony, czasowy kontekst bowiem zmienia naszą percepcję świata i w tym stanie świadomości poznajemy prawdziwe wartości. Innymi słowy, uczymy się odróżniać to, za czym zawsze warto podążać i co zawsze warto wdrażać w życie od tego, co jest chwilowe, efemeryczne, bezwartościowe, co stanowi wyłącznie ową pogoń za wiatrem.

Szabat szalom!

Menachem Mirski

Chaos and hate – our outer and inner enemy

Chaos and hate – our outer and inner enemy.

Thoughts on Parashat Beshalach

Menachem Mirski

This week Torah portion contains stories that are famous and widespread in the entire western culture. It tells us about Pharaoh chasing after Israelites, to force their return to Egypt, splitting the Sea of Reeds; Israelites experiencing their first thirst and hunger in the desert, Moses bringing forth water from a rock by striking it with his staff, manna raining down from the heavens and so on.

But today we will focus in the story told in the last verses of our Torah portion. They tell us the story of Amalek, who brutally attacked our people in Rephidim, but was fortunately defeated by Moses’ prayers and an army raised by Joshua. However, it’s just the beginning of Amalek’s and Amalekites story, which is already announced in the last verses of our parashah:

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Inscribe this in a document as a reminder, and read it aloud to Joshua: I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven!” And Moses built an altar and named it Adonai-nissi. He said, “It means, ‘Hand upon the throne of the LORD!’ The LORD will be at war with Amalek throughout the ages.” (Shemot/Exodus 17:14-16)

In the Torah as well as the rest of the Bible, the people of Amalek occupy a unique position: they were among Israel’s enemies, but alone among these their enmity will last forever. It would by divine fiat be irreconcilable and only complete disappearance of the Amalekites would satisfy God’s anger. The necessity of their disappearance is strongly emphasized in the Torah: as many as three from 613 commandments enumerated by Maimonides concern Amalek:

598 Deut. 25:17 – Remember what Amalek did to the Israelites

599 Deut. 25:19 – Wipe out the descendants of Amalek

600 Deut. 25:19 – Not to forget Amalek’s atrocities and ambush on our journey from Egypt in the desert.

What Amalek and the Amalekites did in fact to Israelites? The rabbis believed that the Torah used ‘euphemistic language’ to describe what they did. The Talmud and Midrash fill in the details: the Amalekites raped, castrated and murdered the Jewish men (Midrash Tanchuma 10; Rashi on Deuteronomy 25:17). This was hardly a way to treat a people who just suffered hundreds of years of slavery and were wandering in a great desert.

There’s another question about it. Exodus 17:14 says that God himself will blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven, whereas Deuteronomy 25:19 states that you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven, and, Do not forget! Is this a contradiction? It is not and I will explain it below.

Indeed the Israelites failed in fulfilling these commandments numerous times, starting from king Shaul, who spared the life of king Agag for one day, even though he was commanded exterminate all the Amalekites, immediately:

Spare no one, but kill alike men and women, infants and sucklings, oxen and sheep, camels and asses!” (I Samuel 15:3)

Shaul “fixed his mistake”, but during that one night Amalek, as the Midrash tells us, conceived a son, which made the Amalekites survive. As a result of that we have then, centuries later, Haman the Agagite, who, in the Book of the Esther, wanted to exterminate all the Jewish people. Then we have the king Sennacherib, who, according to the Book of Isaiah erased the borders of peoples; have plundered their treasures, and exiled their vast populations. (Is 10:13). What happened then? According to traditional, rabbinic interpretation, the Amalekites have been spread among all the nations and it is called sometimes “the transmigration of Amalek”.

There are various interpretations regarding this issue: who are the contemporary Amalekites? How to recognize them? And so on. We will leave this aside here. What I would suggest in this drasha is the following: Amalek represents chaos; we and our tradition – order and the rule of the law. Amalek represents war and hate, whereas we and our tradition – peace and love. Amalek is an enemy of every decent and sensitive human being. And since there is a debate whether he is a real, personified enemy or our own, “internal enemy”, in the form of all our internal negativities, I will suggest that he is both.

In fact, in order to fight hate and chaos we must first overcome it in ourselves. Only then we will have enough strength for fighting them in the ‘external’ world, by having the ability to come out of the context of hatred and face it with our backs straight and our shoulders back. It does not mean simply to fight evil with good; no, the matter is not that simple. It depends on the balance of power, when facing evil directly. We can fight evil with good effectively only when there is a strong advantage of power on our side. If the forces of evil have a significant advantage of power over us the only thing we can do is run away from them. Otherwise we will become victims and that’s not the scenario we would like to embrace, at least, most of us. Thus we need to make sure that there’s enough power in us. If we lack it, we must necessarily get it from all possible sources. Thus we need to be united, since unity is one of the main things that power flows from.

Fighting the contemporary Amalekites, that is, all the dark powers in us and in the world is in fact divine-human enterprise. In my opinion that’s precisely the reason that the Torah states it twice and differently, firstly about God blotting out his name and then about our obligation to do so. I strongly believe that with the divine help we are all able to fight Amalek in us and in the external world. And that’s the goal, the most important goal of our time – to overcome hate and chaos.

 

Shabbat shalom,

Menachem Mirski

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

Standing Before the Heavenly Court

Standing Before the Heavenly Court

Mati Kirschenbaum

This week’s Torah portion, Vayelech, has the least number of verses out of all the parashot which we read throughout the year. This is because we usually read it together with the previous Torah portion, Nitzavim. However, this year this parasha is being read separately. It starts with a confession made by Moses, who is aware of his physical limitations.

“I am now one hundred and twenty years old, I can no longer be active. Moreover, the [Eternal] has said to me, ‘You shall not go across yonder Jordan.’” (Deuteronomy 31:2.)

Therefore, Moses was thinking about the need to select a leader for the Israelites, someone who would take the people of Israel into the Land of Canaan and who would act as their commander during its conquest. Moses decides to appoint as his successor his loyal servant Joshua, who was one of the two spies sent to the Land of Canaan who came back from it convinced that the Israelites would be able to conquer it. Joshua is an ideal candidate for this leadership role, since he is courageous and he knows the topography of the areas to which he is supposed to take the Israelites. However, this does not mean that the task he faces is an easy one. This is contradicted by the very words of Moses, who seems to be reassuring Joshua and at the same time also giving him advice, as he says,

“’Be strong and resolute, be not in fear or in dread of them [Israel’s enemies]; for the [Eternal] your God Himself marches with you: He will not fail you or forsake you’. Then Moses called Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel: ‘Be strong and resolute, for it is you who shall go with this people into the land that the [Eternal] swore to their [ancestors] to give them, and it is you who shall apportion it to them. And the [Eternal] Himself will go before you. He will be with you; He will not fail you or forsake you. Fear not and be not dismayed!’” (Deuteronomy 31:6-8.)

The need to choose a new leader for the Israelites is not the only problem troubling Moses, who is preparing his people to cross over Jordan. He is also worried about how the Israelites will behave after he is gone. No wonder; for he remembers how many times they rebelled against him as they were  wandering through the wilderness. That is why Moses orders the Israelites to read the Book of Law during every Sukkot, which is supposed to remind the Israelites of how they should behave. What’s interesting is that Moses is aware that simply reading the Law will not protect the Israelites from bowing down before deities and from immoral conduct. And that is why Moses writes a song in which the Heavens and the Earth are being called as witnesses for the future misconducts of the Israelites. Moses puts the scroll with the words of this song in the Arc of the Covenant.

How are we to understand the statement that the Heavens and the Earth have been called as witnesses against the people of Israel? This means that no evil deed of Israel shall go unnoticed, that all of Israel’s transgressions shall be severely punished. Therefore, this song serves a pedagogical function – it is supposed to remind the Israelites of their rebellious inclinations which sooner or later will push them towards sin.

The idea of a Heavenly Court (before which the Heavens and the Earth are being summoned to testify against us) reminds us of Yamim Noraim (the Days of Awe), the period between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur which is now underway, during which we ourselves are standing before the Heavenly Court. What’s more, many of the prayers recited during Yamim Noraim seem to serve the same purpose as the song composed by Moses; their goal is to make us become aware of our failings and their consequences. These prayers are throwing us off balance and their depiction of human nature is riddled with pessimism. One can’t help but wonder whether it wasn’t possible to encourage us to engage in self-reflection in a different, less drastic way, without the need to call the time for reflection Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe.

After this year’s reading of parashat Vayelech I can’t help the feeling that we – contemporary Jews – are not much different from the Israelites camping by the Jordan river. Just like them we are not always able to behave properly. From time to time we must confront the unpleasant truth about ourselves. This is neither an easy nor a pleasant process, but it helps us get back on the right track.

During this year’s Yom Kippur you might feel overwhelmed by the prayers aiming to describe all the possible transgression one can possibly imagine. If the prospect of experiencing such feelings during the High Holidays seems familiar to you, I encourage you to focus your attention on the similarities between the prayers for Yamim Noraim and Moses’ song. Both our prayers as well as this Biblical song are meant to help us become better people. That is why it is worth reflecting on their message, even if this might be a difficult experience for us.

Today’s Shabbat, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, is traditionally called Shabbat Shuva – the Shabbat of the Return to the Eternal. Today I’d like to wish you the courage and the strength necessary to make yourself aware of your flaws in the coming days. Shabbat Shalom and Gmar Chatima Tova – may we be sealed in the Book of Life.

Mati Kirschenbaum

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