Truth vs Peace

Truth vs Peace

Thoughts on Parashat Vayehi

Menachem Mirski

“No one is more hated than he who speaks the truth”, said Plato. “Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it”, said Voltaire. “The truth is, everyone is going to hurt you. You just got to find the ones worth suffering for”, said Bob Marley.

Is telling the truth always good or necessary? Is telling the lies always wrong? Many books were written on these topics, many people have tried to give an ultimate answer to it. Soon after this problem seems to be resolved there comes another answer to it. Also our Torah portion for this week touches this subject. It tells us the story of Joseph’s brothers who openly lie to him:

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him!” So they sent this message to Joseph, “Before his death your father left this instruction: So shall you say to Joseph, ‘Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly.’ Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father.” And Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him. (Gen 50:15-17)

Joseph cried because he immediately noticed that his brothers were lying. This lie was nothing compared to what they had done to him when they sold him to Egypt many years earlier. In his eyes, the brothers’ lie was a rather pathetic expression of their fear, helplessness and sense of guilt. How do we know about this? The rabbis give us some hints. According to Rabbi Luzatto:

He understood that the brothers had instructed the messenger what to say; otherwise Jacob would have told himself. Joseph therefore wept at seeing the tragic state of his brothers, going in fear of their lives and forced to such shifts to stave off his vengeance.

There is no reason to believe that the brothers told their father the truth about the sale of Joseph: the Torah does not mention that Jacob found out about it. Nahmanides explains it as follows:

It seems to me that the plain meaning of the test is that Jacob was never told of the sale of Joseph by his brothers, but imagined that he got lost in the fields and was sold by his finders to Egypt. His brothers did not wish to divulge their misconduct, especially, for fear of his curse and anger. […] Had Jacob known it all the time, they should have begged their father to command Joseph to forgive them […].

The idea that Joseph himself told his father about it also seems improbable. First, he had forgiven his brothers and saw a divine plan in it. So he had no reason to take revenge on his brothers, and it would be revenge to disclose this information to his father, Jacob.

I have already mentioned several times the well-known comment that the family stories in the Book of Genesis are predominantly the stories of dysfunctional families; that these stories often tell us how not to deal with each other and that they capture aspects of ethics that are very difficult to codify into a moral or religious law.

However, let us consider what the case of the lies of Joseph’s brothers will look like in the context of the ethics of Judaism. The Torah does not absolutely forbid lying as such. The 9th commandment of the Decalogue, lo taane ve’reacha ed shaker, commonly translated as You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor, is restricted to bearing a false testimony in order to harm someone. Its literal meaning is: You shall not answer your neighbor, false witness! A false witness is one whose testimony may even be theoretically true, but has no basis in his experience, e.g. they say that they have seen something but in fact only heard about it, etc. The rabbis, however, put many restrictions on what we can say to others: for example, revealing private information about others (gossip – rekhillut) even if true, is prohibited, unless revealing this information can protect someone else from abuse or harm. Obviously, deliberately misleading others (geneivat da’at) through “smooth speech” or seductive language is a violation of Jewish norms of speech and prohibited (however, trying to persuade the people who are informed that they are being persuaded to buy or believe something is not considered misleading and it is allowed.)

So what do the rabbis say about our story? One of them, Rabbenu Bahya Ibn Pakuda, tells us that we may deviate from the literal truth in order to preserve peace between people. Joseph brothers, tormented by their sense of guilt, felt their lives were in mortal danger. Our Sages regarded their conduct as warranted on the principle that truth has sometimes to be subordinated to more important values.

Some say that this means that truth, no matter how important, is not an absolute value and sometimes it must give way to other values and two of them sometimes are more important: peace and life. I believe that this opinion confuses the truth as such, understood by philosophers as accurate cognitive representation of reality with the mere act of ‘telling the truth’ assessed from the perspective of ethics. Telling the truth is sometimes inconvenient, sometimes gravely dangerous but sometimes necessary, even if it ensues sacrifices and sufferings, necessary to begin something new, to say goodbye to something we don’t want anymore or to put reality back on track which I wish everyone in the New Year 2021!

Shabbat shalom


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


Truthfulness, impartiality and pragmatism

Thoughts on parashat Miketz

Menachem Mirski

One definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. While there is a lot of truth to this rather amusing statement, I challenge this conclusion. It would be absolutely true if we had full control over the results of our actions and over other factors that influence those results, however, we have no such control. Additionally, we don’t get everything right the first time we try – so repeating it again, might in fact produce a different result. The same is true of risk-taking situations: these situations, by definition, do not guarantee the desired results. Therefore, at the onset, the truth of the statement is limited.

In this week’s Torah portion, we come across a story that seems quite puzzling in light of the ending of the previous Torah portion. As you may remember, in last week’s parashah, Joseph interprets the dream of the chief cupbearer and predicted correctly that he would be released from prison and regain his former position. Joseph asked the cupbearer not to forget about him. And while he had proof that Joseph interpreted the dream correctly the cupbearer did nothing. But in this week’s Torah portion the situation is completely different. Joseph again interpreted a dream, in order to get out of prison, and in fact, had a different result. Here is what follows after Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dream:

The plan pleased Pharaoh and all his courtiers. And Pharaoh said to his courtiers, “Could we find another like him, a man in whom is the spirit of God?” So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has made all this known to you, there is none so discerning and wise as you. You shall be in charge of my court, and by your command shall all my people be directed; only with respect to the throne shall I be superior to you.” Pharaoh further said to Joseph, “See, I put you in charge of all the land of Egypt.” And removing his signet ring from his hand, Pharaoh put it on Joseph’s hand; and he had him dressed in robes of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck. He had him ride in the chariot of his second-in-command, and they cried before him, “Abrek!” Thus he placed him over all the land of Egypt. (Gen 41:37-43)

How did Pharaoh, unlike the cupbearer, come to believe Joseph when there was no way of proving his interpretation? The dream was about a rather distant future. What was the criteria of truth here? Why did Joseph achieve a different result? Why did Pharaoh listen to this message, from the lowest among the lowest in the social hierarchy, while ignoring his court magicians? Why were the magicians’ explanations not convincing while Josephs were?

We do not know, we can only speculate. We know from my previous sermons that Joseph was seen as truthful and sincere. Perhaps the magicians interpreted the dream in such a way as to please the Pharaoh, but Pharaoh who was quite disturbed by it, didn’t “buy” their “positive” interpretation, while Joseph’s was perceived, in the blink of an eye, as more sincere and truthful and thus more believable. Additionally, Joseph’s interpretation was pragmatic, he immediately gave Pharaoh practical advice on how to deal with the coming famine. Another factor that may have been appealing in Joseph’s response is that he, as a Hebrew, a stranger in the land of Egypt, had at heart, the future of that land. This is also an expression of pragmatism, but what is crucial here is that it is a sign of Joseph’s impartiality.

Let me say it again: truthfulness, impartiality and pragmatism. These are values that we should consistently support and work towards. Not only because untruthfulness, partiality and detachment abound. But because these three values sometimes are in conflict. Pragmatism can mean, and often does mean, being partial. It can also mean silence on topics that need to be addressed openly. I don’t think I need to give any examples here – there are many of them in various areas of our life: in our professional and private life, at work, at home or in our relationships. Similarly being truthful at all costs is also not wise. We know well that not every thought has to be expressed the minute we think it. Not every message or email has to be delivered the minute it is written. We need to be thoughtful about things. What I’m advocating for is to have all these three – truthfulness, impartiality and pragmatism – in our hierarchy of values and strive to always find the right balance among them and their consequences.

Shabbat shalom!

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


The Ladder of History

Thoughts on Parashat Vayetze

Menachem Mirski

We live in a world that is so deeply divided ideologically that it is commonplace to rationalize the concept that people live in different, parallel realities. We see ideas of tolerance and pluralism, that were born from the Enlightenment, proliferated during the last 20 years – expressed in slogans like “agree to disagree” or, attributed to Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” – mean little to nothing today. What happened to our Enlightenment values? What caused these deep ideological rifts that pierce so many Western societies?

While there are many answers to these questions, it is possible that postmodernism, by deconstructing everything, also deconstructed what was good and valuable in our culture, and now we are living in a time of another “re-evaluation of already re-evaluated values”. It is also possible that much of this “ideological rupture” is a delusion due to the fact that most of our political debate takes place on the Internet. Debate on the internet fuels division and radicalism because it is a place where people have no external stop signs or limits and does not require anyone to take responsibility for their words. All of that has an impact “outside the matrix”.

A wider perspective might see this disorder as an intrinsic orderly process of birth, decay and rebirth, and not only is nature subject to this order but also the world of spirit and ideas.

In this week’s Torah portion we have the story of Jacob, who on his way from Beersheba to Haran has his famous dream about a ladder and angels wandering on it:

And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Avraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land on which thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed (Gen 28:12-13).

In Midrash Tanhuma we have a very interesting interpretation of Jacob’s dream:

“And behold the angels of God are ascending and descending”: These are the princes of the heathen nations which God showed Jacob our father. The Prince of Babylon ascended seventy steps and descended, Media, fifty-two and descended, Greece, one hundred steps and descended, Edom ascended and no one knows how many! In that our Jacob was afraid and said: Peradventure, this one has no descend? Said the Holy One, blessed be He to him: “Therefore fear thou not, O my servant Jacob… neither be dismayed, O Israel”. Even if thou seest him, so to speak, ascend and sit by Me, thence will I bring him down! As it is stated (Obadiah 1:4): “Though thou exalt thyself as the eagle, and thou set thy nest among the stars, thence will I bring thee down, saith the Lord.”

According to this Midrash, Jacob’s dream depicts the rise and fall of nations, empires and cultures in the arena of world history. The fact that this knowledge was revealed to the father of the Jewish people is not surprising. The last mentioned empire, Edom, in rabbinic mind, represents the Roman Empire and its political successors. The author of this Midrash lived in the period of the Roman Empire and had not yet witnessed its decline, so it is no wonder that Edom only ascended. However, the way it is told seems to suggest that the final fate of Edom will be the same as that of any other empire.

Empires rise and fall, and as such, one may predict that just as the Greeks and the Romans fell, so too will the empire known as the “Western World.” I’m not a prophet and I don’t know what will happen, however, from the Jewish theological point of view, where God is a master of history, we know this depends entirely on God. God revealed to Jacob the nature of this historical process; nevertheless He is above nature, He is its ultimate ruler. To what extent is this process dependent on us? It seems that it is dependent on us human beings only to the extent we are able to influence God and His decisions. So, nobody knows. But according to Deuteronomistic doctrine of reward and punishment which we express everyday in our Shma God is more favorable to us when we are righteous. Thus being righteous and having good faith can’t hurt.

Whether it happens or not, the collapse of the West does not have to be immediate, spectacular or complete. It is very possible that it could be a kind of hybridization of different cultures and political systems which ultimately may positively contribute to the development of the whole world. Uniting us all rather than destroying.

The idea of humanity as a single human race is at the heart of our tradition: we are all created in the image of God. Ideas of a great unity of humankind were expressed by our prophets. According to Isaiah’s vision (Isaiah 6) at the end of times all the people will become Jewish. The vision of Micah is, however, a bit different:

Thus He will judge among the many peoples, And arbitrate for the multitude of nations, However distant; And they shall beat their swords into plowshares And their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up Sword against nation; They shall never again know war; But every man shall sit Under his grapevine or fig tree With no one to disturb him. For it was the LORD of Hosts who spoke. Though all the peoples walk Each in the names of its gods, We will walk In the name of the LORD our God Forever and ever. (Micah 4:3-5)

A future where the nations will live in peace and all will retain their distinctiveness and their identity. Relying on common sense and above all my faith in God I would say the following: this vision can not come true until we treat each other respectfully. Unfortunately, we do not. The division among us is apparent on all possible levels and ranges between individuals to family to community to globally. We see the hatred, slander, defamation, demonization, applying group responsibility, contempt, revenge, resentment, self-hatred, bigotry and intolerance everyday and everywhere. In our tradition, hatred, slander and defamation are serious sins and they often start with smaller offenses, like mockery and insults, which, like everything evil, can escalate to unimaginable magnitudes.

We must avoid mocking people who think differently, not to mention treating someone with contempt. Let us remember that people who have a different vision of the world, have the same human nature – they are in the image of God. By insulting them we insult God. We also shouldn’t treat each other as objects – for example, like computers that can be reprogrammed (ideas of this kind are sometimes expressed at the ends of the political spectrum). First, we shouldn’t do it because people, good or vile, should not be treated as objects. Second, because it has the opposite effect: people cannot be reprogrammed. Attempting to do so can only result in retaliation and aggression. If a group in power has a significant advantage over another ideological group and forces its opponents to submit then resentment will arise and like a time bomb will explode when a defensive group comes to power in the future. Treating people as objects is then not only immoral: it is senseless and dangerous.

Let us treat each other with respect and control our impulses of anger. While they may be natural they are the source and fuel for many of the bad things mentioned above. Moral ideas, such as respecting each other, self-control, and many others, like not slandering or deceiving each other, are present in all cultures. These are fundamental and universal values: they are not culturally relative. It is so because they are the foundations of every civilized human society. Had they not developed within society they wouldn’t have survived, let alone thrived. The fact that they are present in all cultures is a strong foundation for the belief that the visions of our prophets are not pipe dreams – their realization is absolutely possible.

Shabbat shalom,

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






The Bible is not immoral

Thoughts on parashat Toldot

Menachem Mirski

Some people accuse the Hebrew Bible of containing fiction or idealizing certain events or phenomena, especially when it speaks of incredible or miraculous events. The main problem with this critique is that the Bible contains testimonies that are to a large extent non-falsifiable. The proposed “methods of verification” of the biblical stories often consist in confronting their factual layer with the knowledge about the world we have today, with our contemporary, often well-founded, but still beliefs, about what is possible in the world, what is impossible, what is probable and what is not. This is one of the reasons that this process always fails and that the Bible cannot be fact-checked and approved or disapproved and put in the archive. This is also one of the reasons why the most important question regarding biblical narratives is not whether something really happened or not, but what is the message of the story.

Certainly, the Hebrew Bible does not idealize its human characters: they are often eminent people, with unique qualities, but at the same time are “painfully human”. Our biblical characters are not “idealized heroes”: even the greatest, the most righteous and pious of them, like Moses, had their human flaws: impatience, tendency to anger etc.

This week Torah portion tells the famous story of how Jacob, our forefather, took the birthright of his brother Esau:

Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the open, famished. And Esau said to Jacob, “Give me some of that red stuff to gulp down, for I am famished”—which is why he was named Edom. Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” And Esau said, “I am about to die, so of what use is my birthright to me?” But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Jacob then gave Esau bread and lentil stew; he ate and drank, and he rose and went away. Thus did Esau spurn the birthright.(Gen 25:29-34)

There are some additional details to this story provided by our biblical commentators. Ibn Ezra, for example, tells us that Esau lived a very hazardous life as a hunter and believed that he might very well die before his father and never enjoy the portion of the first born. That’s why he said I am about to die (hebr. ani holech lamut /Ibn Ezra on Gen 25:32). In another commentary he claims that Esau saw that his father had become poor in his old age and that there was little for him to inherit. Thus he didn’t care about it. (Ibn Ezra on Gen 25:34)

We do not know exactly how much time passed between these events and the actual “taking” of the birthright by Jacob, but from the way the Bible tells this story, as well as many others, it can be inferred that both situations were quite distant in time. After the events described above (Gen 25:29-35), the entire next chapter (Gen 26) tells a story of the famine in Isaac’s land, his journey to Gerar (which was a city or region probably located in the Negev Desert) and his alliance with Abimelech. Isaac settled in Gerara and it seems that he stayed there for at least a few years, if not more. The story ends with the mention that Esau, reaching the age of 40, married two women, Yehudit and Bosmat, and they were a source of bitterness to Isaac and Rebekah. (Gen 26:34-35). Then, the Torah, going back to our birthright story says: When Isaac was old and his eyes were too dim to see, he called his older son Esau and said to him, “My son.” He answered, “Here I am.” (Gen 27:1) Therefore, we can confidently assume that many years have passed between the reckless consent of Esau to give away his birthright and the plot by Rebecca and Jacob to actually take it over.

What does it mean? This means that the question of the birthright was probably a bone of contention between the brothers and Jacob had been planning this takeover for years, waiting only for the right moment to happen. Especially that they were conceived at the same time and were born the same day, one after another. In biblical times the birthright son was entitled to a double portion (that is, twice as much as any other son) of the father’s inheritance: one portion as a son, the second portion as the new head responsible for the whole family including the care of his mother and unmarried sisters (Gen 48:22, Deut. 21:17). This sheds some additional light on Rebecca and Jacob’s deceptive actions to take Esau away from his birthright: they probably believed that Esau, given his personality and lifestyle, was not fit to be a birthright son. However, the law was the law and there wasn’t a way around it other than cheating.

Thus, Jacob’s and Rebecca’s decision might have been completely reasonable and right, especially in the long run. This does not, however, exonerate them and doesn’t change the fact that their behavior violated ethical standards, at many levels. Yes, Jacob actually got Esau’s consent in this matter, but it was given recklessly and casually, probably many years earlier. But what is absolutely ethically indefensible is plotting against the disabled father and deceiving him to obtain the birthright. The result of these actions was as follows:

Now Esau harbored a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing which his father had given him, and Esau said to himself, “Let but the mourning period of my father come, and I will kill my brother Jacob. (Gen 27:41)

Why does the Bible tell us these kinds of “embarrassing family stories” and why does tradition pass them on from generation to generation? There are many reasons for it. One of them is that both the Bible and our tradition want to show us a real life of our ancestors, with all its ups and downs, without sweeping anything under the rug. This, in turn, is aimed to guide us to conduct rightly, even through our embarrassment or maybe exactly through it. This is to teach us many things: to critically analyze ethical situations, to sensitize us to the harm of those we have hurt, to remind us of our own imperfections, our own faults, sins, lies, manipulations and deceptions. Perhaps the Bible tells us all these embarrassing stories so that we would feel uncomfortable and accept it with humility. There is nothing wrong about it: we do similar things in our life; our successes contain sometimes some dishonesty and manipulation deep in the background that has never been revealed. Our parasha gives us a radical example of it that we may not forget, to motivate us to correct our behavior in the future.

The Hebrew Bible is not immoral. This confusion often comes from the belief that the Bible allegedly promotes the imitation of its characters. This belief is incorrect: the ethics of the Hebrew Bible is not a role model ethics (as is the case with the Christian New Testament). It is primarily a normative ethics in which moral norms and standards are codified into law. Nevertheless, not all the ethical standards expressed in the Hebrew Bible have been codified, for a simple reason: many of the ethical situations in our lives are too complex and too situational to be codified into law, into a clear set of rules. The Torah is aware of that and thus it also contains general ethical demands, like: And you shall do the right and the good (Deut. 6:18) urging us to use our conscience and to act beyond the letter of the (ethical) law. For this reason we also need biblical stories, which often show us examples of what are the outcomes of unethical behavior, a prime example of which is the story of our parasha.

Shabbat shalom!

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

Fulfillment of God’s Promise is Accompanied by… Laughter

Fulfillment of God’s Promise is Accompanied by… Laughter

Thoughts on Parashat Lech Lecha

Menachem Mirski

There are days when we completely lose our energy to live, when we feel unhappy and a voice inside us tells us that nothing can be done about it so do nothing. Some people simply accept this voice and for others this can be a harbinger of impending depression. There are also those among us who hear a second inner voice, the voice of rebellion: Now is the time for an important change, don’t hesitate, take this jump. Make a breakthrough!

In this week’s parasha Abram, who was childless and believed that he was approaching the end of his life heard this second type of voice. He receives a promise from God that he will not only have a son, but he will become the father of nations and his offspring will be as many as the stars in the sky (Gen 15:5). The constitutive feature of the divine promise is, of course, that the probability of its fulfillment is 100%. On the same day, God makes a covenant with Abram and foretells him in a dream a fragment of the history of his descendants, the Israelites – their bondage in Egypt and their liberation (Gen 15:12-17).

Soon after Abram’s wife, Sarai, who was infertile, gives Abram her Egyptian maidservant Hagar to bear him a son and Ishmael is born from this union. Abram was then 86 years old. Thirteen years later God appears to Abraham again. This time He promises Abram that Sarai would bear him a son. Sarai, being ninety years old at that time, laughs at this idea. But everything is again, 100% guaranteed and confirmed by another “annexed covenant” according to which God renames Abram to Abraham and ALL men become circumcised and circumcision becomes a fundamental and eternal element of the Abrahamic covenant.

The promise of Isaac’s birth sounds absolutely incredible even for those directly involved in these events at the time. The first reaction of both Abraham and Sarah is laughter. Abraham, moreover, seems to disbelieve this promise and by appealing to common sense he comforts himself with the fact that he already has a son born from a slave, so somehow the divine promise will be fulfilled:

Abraham threw himself on his face and laughed, as he said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man a hundred years old, or can Sarah bear a child at ninety?” And Abraham said to God, “O that Ishmael might live by Your favor!” (Gen 17:17-18)

That’s where Isaac’s name comes from: it means “he will laugh”, reflecting the laughter, in disbelief, of Abraham and Sarah, when told by God that they would have a child. Abraham was then 99 years old, Sara was 90. Even if we believe that the Bible doesn’t speak literally here and if we ‘convert’ their biblical lifespans to our contemporary lifespans, it still sounds incredible: Abraham lived 175 years, so let’s assume that it’s an equivalent of 100. In this scenario Abraham at the time of Isaac’s birth would be 57 and Sarah 51. Even though men lose their fertility with time and becoming a father at this age is not a particularly unrealistic scenario, it certainly was for Sarah and not really expected. The chances of a healthy natural conception after the age of 50 years are only 1%, not to mention that the risk of miscarriage or fetal defects is very high at this age.

What is important here is the message of the story: don’t always assume that what you consider impossible or even unthinkable is, in fact, impossible or unthinkable. That’s what Divine promises are often about – they often challenge our beliefs and common sense. In the same way faith, the human counterpart to divine promise, is at its core, suspending what we know and believe – going beyond reason and common sense. Faith is about making possible what is improbable (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.) The Divine voice that speaks inside us when we pray wants us to open our minds to the possibility of improbability, to the possibility of things we consider impossible. When we really open our minds and hearts and follow this voice we are able to see a world full of incredible possibilities. Once we see this we suddenly can see roadmaps to follow these openings and tools to make the change real. Opening our minds means questioning our patterns of thinking.

“Have faith and it will happen” – it sounds cliche, but it actually works. In non religious circles they made up the notion of “the Law of Attraction” to replace religious faith. The law of attraction says that you will attract into your life whatever you focus on. Whatever you give your energy and attention to will come to you. So, if you stay focused on the good and positive things in your life you will automatically attract more good and positive things into your life. If you follow with consistent action and you do not come into a conflict with commandments and ethical teachings it all becomes true and real.

To make a great jump in your life or to overcome a great challenge you must have faith. Good faith that God, or the circumstances, will serve you and that in turn gives you motivation and courage.

Imagine anyone moving from another country to start a new life. Imagine the faith required. But, not just faith, you have to follow the road map, learn new things and change patterns to make it work and when it works you are rewarded with enormous satisfaction. Similarly, this also happens when people decide to have children, regardless of if they “can afford it.” They are often ridiculed for their belief, “If God gives children He will provide for them.” But in reality, if they are responsible people, they adjust everything they do to the new situation and make due. “The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing” Psalm 34:10.

This is what makes improbable not only possible, but real: When we are in a new situation we have to adjust our actions to it. We have to make it work! by changing our mindset we change our situation. The new situation can change everything, even your life span. Abraham being 86 believed that he was approaching the end of his life. After receiving all the Divine promises he got another 89 years.

In our tradition we have many stories about people who have done incredible things. But the greatest testimony of faith and its outcomes is our Jewish history as a whole. I have not heard anyone who expressed this idea better than Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:

When I look at the Jewish people today I am awestruck. Here is a people that in 1945 stood eyeball-to-eyeball with the Angel of Death at Auschwitz. Had they remained traumatized for generations anyone would have understood. And yet, within three years they stood up and made the greatest collective affirmation in 2000 years. “I will not die, but I will live” by declaring the State of Israel. Secondly, the State of Israel itself which has achieved miracles, a country so small, so vulnerable, so surrounded by enemies, with so few natural resources has achieved great things and should, I think, be a symbol of hope for every small country, for every persecuted people. And that too, is cause for thanksgiving. Somehow or other, Jews having been through as close as you can get to hell on earth have come through, have not looked back, have looked forward, have not nurtured feelings of resentment and revenge, but have gone out and built the future. And if that is not a testament of the power of faith, I don’t know what is. Judaism remains, and the Jewish people remains a living symbol of hope, of the power of faith to let possibility defend probability.

Shabbat shalom!

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


 Meaning as an organizing structure

Thoughts of parashat Vayigash

Menachem Mirski

We live in an age of many different and often conflicting narratives. All the different worldviews can be easily pitted against each other, with a promotion of “the only right one”, in order to wage yet another ideological war. One can also go in a different direction: from the fact that there is a multitude of narratives, one may conclude that they are never more than ideological constructs, pure conventions without any grounding in reality and the choice between them is always subjective and/or completely dependent on the situation. From here there is a straight path to justify nihilism or, in a milder version, hedonism, as well as other philosophies which claim that if anything has value at all, it is only experiencing life here and now.

Although there is a kind of ideological pluralism and some freedom of interpretation in the bosom of Judaism, such views and philosophies are, in principle, contrary to the spirit of the Mosaic religion as such (as well as the spirit of other Abrahamic religions). Even though some teachings of our religion are in fact debatable, there are fundamental premises (like You shall not murder or You shall not commit adultery) that belong to the realm of absolute truth.

This contradiction poses challenges and often a danger to many religious traditions and validity of their teachings. The deep narratives about the meaning of life are usually based on many premises, often very context-based, and some part of them is simply taken on faith. It is enough to point out an error or lack of justification of one of them and everything begins to crumble, losing its grounding in our experience.

In this week’s Torah portion Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers, who sold him some years earlier as a slave to Egypt. “I am Joseph,” he declares, and then asks: “Is my father still alive?” The brothers are overcome by shame and remorse but Joseph comforts them. “So, it was not you who sent me here,” he says to them, but “God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance.” (Gen 45:7-8)

This is one of many expressions of the idea of a divine plan in the Bible. This idea, in general, either creates certain meaning of the events to which it refers or profoundly changes the meaning we have already ascribed to them. This happens to be particularly useful in our life in the time we experience suffering. Suffering, by its nature, bothers us, and when we experience it, we are much more likely to ask why this or that has happened. Thus, the idea of the divine plan serves often to give meaning to suffering and quite often to justify it. By giving meaning to suffering we overcome hedonistic concepts of life that simplistically equate good with happiness and bad/evil with pain. The idea of divine plan also limits the scope of the philosophies that reduce explanations of everything to mechanisms of cause and effect. This idea simply says that there is (always) a greater meaning in everything that happens, a meaning that is often invisible at first glance.

But the paradigm of a deeper meaning behind the events does not invalidate naturalistic, temporary or casual views on what happens in our life. The true wisdom lies in the ability of combining both approaches: to know when to follow the deeper meaning/divine plan and when to look at things from a purely naturalistic perspective. To get this balance right prevents us from falling for various reductionist radicalisms and allows us to see one thing from multiple perspectives. Indeed, all the small and simple, human (=not divine) actions are necessary components of greater, divine plans. This is exactly the case of the entire story of Joseph.

But maybe we are merely construct these “divine narratives of a deeper meaning,” as philosophers-naturalists and postmodernists say? Even if that’s the case, they remain valid because of their practical or intellectual utility. They usually allow us to look at our experiences more broadly than from the perspective of the moment in which we are experiencing something. In situations where we experience pain or suffering, they allow us to transcend the experience, and more specifically, transcend it in time. Thus, they anticipate, and sometimes even give already a relief, because they allow us to see a future free from inconvenience or suffering. It is enough that such a vision of the future seems credible to us and it immediately motivates us to act, i.e. to realize this vision. This is one of the mechanisms of religious faith, as well as the one of a “secular faith”, i.e. the faith which exists independently from a religious context.

Seeing our experiences through the lens of great and deep meta-narratives may give a meaning to every single event in our life. I believe that the more meaning we have in our lives, the better for us. It helps us to deal with lots of problems and challenges. For example, there are situations in which we, sometimes desperately, want to do something, but we fail. Soon after we realize that doing the thing we desired would be totally unnecessary from the perspective of the larger context. Let’s assume that Joseph, after being already elevated and gained a high position in Egyptian society realizes that his own prophecy about famine is not credible, verifiable and he decides to return to the land of Canaan to meet his father and deal with his brothers. Would that be helpful for them all at all? No, they would all probably die because of famine that pervaded the land. And in reality it doesn’t really matter whether it was God or pure chance that sent him ahead of time to Egypt. The fact that Joseph realized the meaning of all his experiences, including all the bad ones, only helped him to understand and accept the final situation he was in. The same fact made him grateful for it and helped him to reconcile with his brothers.

Without a deeper meaning we can’t really, and certainly not in the long run, live fully and fulfill our plans and desires. All attempts to deconstruct or annul the great meta-narratives made by some naturalistic oriented  philosophies and postmodernists are in practice psychologically and socially destabilizing, and, in fact, are impossible to implement fully and completely. Our minds naturally defend themselves against them, and the effects of understanding our experiences in only “short-term”, flat perspectives may be miserable for us. The presence of this deeper meaning in life also balances its drama and is psychologically healthier.

In the New Gregorian Year I wish everyone to focus their lives on purposeful and thoughtful tasks as well as to find time to implement great plans and long awaited changes, keeping in mind the necessity to divide all the great plans into stages, because in this way they are usually easier to implement. However, we should never forget about the significance of what is happening here and now, as well as about the causes and effects of our actions. These two ways of thinking are not mutually exclusive; to think that they are would be just yet another false alternative. Only in this way, only by being aware of different time perspectives and layers of meaning in our lives, we are able to participate (consciously) in the Divine plan.

Shabat shalom!

Menachem Mirski


Sens jako struktura organizująca

Refleksja nad paraszą Wajigasz

Menachem Mirski

Żyjemy w epoce wielu różnych, skonfliktowanych ze sobą narracji. Owe odmienne wizje świata łatwo  sobie przeciwstawić sobie, ze wskazaniem na jedyną słuszną, by w ten sposób rozpętać kolejną ideologiczną wojnę. Można również pójść w innym kierunku – z faktu, że istnieje wielość narracji można wnieść, że tak naprawdę wszystkie one są wyłącznie ideologicznymi konstruktami i ich wybór jest zupełnie subiektywny lub całkowicie zależny od sytuacji. W ten sposób łatwo dojść do uzasadniania nihilizmu lub, w łagodniejszej wersji, hedonizmu, czy też innych filozofii głoszących, że jeśli cokolwiek ma wartość, to wyłącznie przeżywanie życia tu i teraz.

Pomimo istnienia pewnego ideologicznego pluralizmu i swoistej wolności interpretacji w łonie judaizmu, poglądy i filozofie tego rodzaju są z zasady sprzeczne z duchem religii mojżeszowej jako takiej (jak również z duchem innych religii abrahamowyh). Pomimo, iż niektóre z nauk naszej religii mogą mieć charakter dyskusyjny, istnieją w niej fundamentalne prawdy (jak Nie będziesz mordował lub Nie będziesz cudzołożył) należące  do sfery prawd absolutnych.

Wspomniana sprzeczność stanowi wyzwanie, a czasem zagrożenie dla tradycji religijnych i ich nauk. Głębsze narracje na temat sensu w naszym życiu są zwykle oparte na wielu przesłankach, często mocno ukontekstowionych i spora część z nich jest po prostu brana na wiarę. Wystarczy wskazać błąd bądź brak uzasadnienia choćby jednej z nich i cały nasz zaczyna się chwiać, tracąc ugruntowanie w naszym doświadczeniu.

W porcji Tory na ten tydzień Józef ujawnia swoim braciom swoją prawdziwą tożsamość, barciom, którzy sprzedali go przed laty jako niewolnika do Egiptu. „Jestem Józef”, deklaruje, po czym zapytuje: „Czy mój ojciec ciągle żyje?” Braci ogarnia wstyd i wyrzuty sumienia, ale Józef ich pociesza. „Nie wyście posłali mnie tutaj”, mówi do nich, lecz „Wysłał mnie tedy Bóg przed wami, abym przygotował wam ostój na ziemi, i utrzymał przy życiu waszych, dla wieloznaczącego ocalenia”. (Gen 45:7-8, tłum. I. Cylkow)

Powyższe słowa stanowią jedną z wielu biblijnych ekspresji idei boskiego planu. Idea ta, jako taka, albo nadaje pewien sens wydarzeniom, do których się odnosi, albo głęboko zmienia sens wydarzeń, którym znaczenie już przypisaliśmy. W naszym życiu jest to rzecz szczególnie użyteczna wówczas, gdy doznajemy cierpień. Cierpienie, z natury, jest dotkliwe, i kiedy go doświadczamy, dużo częściej pytamy dlaczego to lub tamto się stało. W ten sposób idea boskiego planu często służy nadawaniu znaczenia cierpieniu, a niekiedy jego usprawiedliwieniu. Poprzez nadawanie sensu cierpieniu przezwyciężamy hedonistyczne filozofie życia, które dokonują poważnych uproszczeń, zrównując dobro ze szczęściem oraz zło z bólem i cierpieniem. Idea boskiego planu także ogranicza sferę działania filozofiom, które ograniczają wyjaśnienia tego co się dzieje wyłącznie do mechanizmów przyczynowo-skutkowych. Ta idea zwyczajnie głosi, że to, co się wydarza posiada (zawsze) głębszy, często nie dostrzegalny na początku, sens.

Ów „paradygmat głębszego sensu wszystkiego co się dzieje” nie unieważnia jednakże naturalistycznych, tymczasowych lub doraźnych poglądów na to, co się wydarza w naszym życiu. Prawdziwa mądrość tkwi w umiejętności połączenia obu tych podejść w praktyce: w umiejętności zdecydowania kiedy trzeba podążać za owymi głębszymi wyjaśnieniami (boskim planem), a kiedy należy patrzyć na świat z czysto naturalistycznej perspektywy. Osiągnięcie owego balansu chroni nas  przed popadaniem w różne redukcjonistyczne radykalizmy i daje nam umiejętność widzenia jednej kwestii z wielu różnych perspektyw. W istocie, wszystkie drobne, ludzkie (=nie boskie) działania są koniecznymi częściami składowymi wielkich, Boskich planów. Całość historii Józefa stanowi dobitny tego przykład.

A może jednak jedynie konstruujemy te “boskie narracje głębszego sensu”, jak twierdzą filozofowie naturaliści I postmoderniści? Nawet jeśli tak jest, to zachowują one swoją ważność, przez wzgląd na ich praktyczną lub intelektualną użyteczność. Zwykle pozwalają nam one szerzej spojrzeć na nasze doświadczenia aniżeli z perspektywy chwili, w której czegoś właśnie doświadczamy. W sytuacjach, w których doświadczamy bólu lub cierpienia, pozwalają je nam transcendować, a konkretniej, przekraczać w czasie. Tym samym antycypują, a czasem nawet od razu dają ukojenie, bo pozwalają nam widzieć przyszłość wolna od niewygód lub cierpienia. Wystarczy, że taka wizja przyszłości wydaje nam się wiarygodna i od razu nas to motywuje do działania, czyli do urzeczywistnienia owej wizji. Tak działa mechanizm religijnej wiary, a przynajmniej jeden z nich, a także często “wiary świeckiej”, czyli tej istniejącej niezależnie od religijnego kontekstu.

Widzenie naszych doświadczeń przez pryzmat wielkich i głębokich meta-narracji może nadać sens każdemu, pojedynczemu doświadczeniu wydarzeniu w naszym życiu. Uważam, że im więcej sensu w naszym życiu, tym lepiej. Pomaga to nam w zmaganiach z wieloma problemami i wyznaniami. Na przykład, zdarza się czasem, że czegoś bardzo, wręcz desperacko, chcemy dokonać, lecz ponosimy porażkę. Niedługo potem zauważamy, że rzecz, której chcieliśmy dokonać, w szerszym kontekście okazuje się całkowicie zbędna. Załóżmy, że Józef, po tym jak został wyniesiony i zdobył wysoką pozycje w Egipskim społeczeństwie, uznaje, że jego własna przepowiednia dotycząca głodu nie jest weryfikowalna i postanawia się powrócić do ziemi Kanaan, by spotkać swojego ojca i rozprawić się ze swoimi braćmi. Czy w jakikolwiek sposób byłoby to dla nich wszystkich pomocne? Nie, wszyscy oni by prawdopodobnie pomarli z powodu głodu, który nawiedził tę ziemię. I tak naprawdę nie ma żadnego znaczenia czy to Bóg, czy może czysty przypadek sprawił, że Józef znalazł się w odpowiednim czasie w Egipcie. Fakt, że Józef uświadomił sobie sens i znaczenie wszystkich swoich doświadczeń, także doświadczeń niedoli, pomógł mu zrozumieć i zaakceptować ostateczną sytuację, w której się znalazł. Ten sam fakt uczynił go także wdzięcznym za tę sytuację i pomógł mu pogodzić się braćmi.

Bez poczucia głębszego sensu nie możemy tak naprawdę – a już na pewno nie długofalowo – w pełni żyć i realizować naszych pragnień. Wszystkie próby dekonstrukcji lub unieważnienia dużych meta-narracji, dokonywane przez filozofie naturalistyczne i postmodernizm są w praktyce psychologicznie  i społecznie destabilizujące, i tak naprawdę niemożliwe do pełnego, całkowitego wdrożenia. Nasze umysły naturalnie się przed nimi bronią, bo efekty rozumienia naszych doświadczeń w perspektywach wyłącznie „krótkofalowych” i płaskich mogą być dla nas marne. Obecność owego, głębszego sensu w życiu balansuje również jego dramatyzm i jest zdrowsze psychologicznie.

W Nowym gregoriańskim życzę wszystkim aby skupili swoje życie na celowych i przemyślanych zadaniach i aby znaleźli czas, by skupić się na wielkich, upragnionych planach i zmianach. Owszem, wszystkie wielkie plany winniśmy dzielić na etapy, gdyż w ten sposób łatwiej jest je realizować. Nigdy jednak nie zapominajmy o znaczeniu tego co się dzieje tu i teraz, oraz o przyczynach i skutkach naszych działań. Owe dwa, wspomniane sposoby myślenia się w żaden sposób nie wykluczają, to fałszywa alternatywa. Tylko w ten sposób, tylko mając świadomość różnych czasowych perspektyw i warstw sensu w naszym życiu, jesteśmy w stanie (świadomie) partycypować w Boskim planie.

Szabat szalom!

Menachem Mirski


The humiliation of Joseph

Thoughts on parashat Vayeshev

The Torah portion for this week starts with the story of Jacob settling in Hebron with his twelve sons. His favorite son is seventeen-year-old Joseph, with whom his brothers are jealous for the preferential treatment he receives from his father. To make matters worse, Joseph relates to his brothers two of his dreams which foretell that he is destined to rule over them which obviously increases their envy and hatred. At first they plan to kill him but instead humiliate him and sell him into slavery in Egypt.

We can only image the pain, grief, sense of hopelessness and anger Joseph experienced. In similar situations people, depending on their temperament, want revenge, to reprimand and/or seek justice. In the Talmud, tractate Bava Kamma (83b and the following pages) the rabbis debate the famous, ancient “eye for an eye, tooth for tooth” law. It is likely that this law lost its literal legal implementation at the beginning of the Second Temple period and certainly wasn’t in place at the beginning of the Christian era. We know that from Mishna, where it is replaced by a set of laws concerning various compensations for various damages. The code starts with the general law:

One who injures another is liable to pay compensation for that injury due to five types of indemnity: He must pay for damage, for pain, for medical costs, for loss of livelihood, and for humiliation.

(Mishna Bava Kamma 8:1)

This is later elaborated in details in all the following mishnayot of chapter 8. The Talmud (Gemara), however, starts with putting a question mark to the very idea of paying compensation instead of following the biblical law literally. Then the rabbis analyze other cases of damage (like those done on animals or property.) After finding several justifications for not following it literally, they come to the conclusion that monetary compensation for loss is the most lawful option given the fact that paying for damage with damage is actually impossible since it is impossible to repay with exactly the same damage. In this way the Mishnaic law is restored and it is given firm justification and further elaboration.

A few pages later (Bava Kamma 86b) the rabbis debate a case which is particularly relevant to our biblical story: humiliation.

When Joseph came up to his brothers, they stripped Joseph of his tunic, the ornamented tunic that he was wearing, and took him and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.

(Gen 37:23-24)

Putting aside our biblical story, the rabbinical laws regarding humiliation (like shaming someone publicly, exposing someone’s nakedness or destroying their reputation) are quite interesting. To give you a little taste, here is a short part of the Gemara:

The Sages taught in a baraita: If one humiliated another who was naked, he is liable, but the magnitude of humiliation felt when he humiliated him while naked is not comparable to the magnitude of humiliation felt had he humiliated him while clothed, since one who chooses to be naked is less sensitive to humiliation. Similarly, if one humiliated another in a bathhouse, he is liable, but the magnitude of humiliation felt when he humiliated him in a bathhouse is not comparable to the magnitude of humiliation felt had he humiliated him in the marketplace.

(Talmud Bava Kamma 86b)

As we can see already in this passage, the rabbis carefully analyze many circumstances in which the act of humiliation took place. They also take into consideration the psychological and social factors, i.e. whether the essence of humiliation is just a feeling of embarrassment or is it social disgrace seen by others. They conclude that the law regarding it should be rather based on objective evidence of harm rather than on the feelings of the victim. For this reason they, for example, exclude insane/mentally ill people from the right to compensation for being publicly shamed/humiliated, claiming that these people are already humiliated par excellence and no further damage can be (practically) done to them. It may seem brutal or even inhumane for many contemporaries, but I believe that there were some practical reasons behind this law: 1) it was difficult to define the boundaries of responsibility in this case (due to lack of organized institutions taking care of such people) and 2) a mentally ill person could theoretically come up with endless financial claims.

Coming back to our biblical story, Joseph didn’t have any means to sue his brothers for all the pain, humiliation and harm they had inflicted upon him. In a sense, human courts weren’t helpful as they didn’t exist. They also fail, of course, when they do exist. Joseph had to endure all the trauma and suffering in the terrible conditions of an Egyptian prison, for a long time, until he received his final compensation from the higher, Divine court. In my opinion, this made his further act of forgiveness possible and that’s one of the messages hidden between the verses of this biblical story. That’s the reason I believe that we should never disconnect forgiveness from a sense of justice experienced in particular situation. In the majority of cases, without satisfying the latter, the real and true forgiveness (not to confuse with an act of simply forgetting) is not actually possible.

Shabbat shalom

Menachem Mirski



Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild

”And Jacob lived where his father had only been passing through, in the land of Canaan.” (Genesis 37:1).

Many commentators have tried to explain this sentence which is so heavily laden with meaning, for it raises some fundamental questions by positing a contrast between two terms – to ”live” somewhere or to ‘wander” somewhere – the English word ”sojourn” means to be pausing while on a journey. What does it mean to ”live” somewhere? To become a citizen? To ‘put down roots’? To purchase a property and own land or a house? To speak the language as well as those who were raised here, without a foreign accent? To share the same culture, religion, values as the majority population, the ‘host’ population? Plus – Who gives a country its name? Who has the ‘right’ to live there? Can one inherit the right, may one fight for the right to call a country ”your own”? Is not every country little more than a part of the same planet, what meaning may borders and boundaries have, are we not ALL mere wanderers over the earth’s surface? What separates, what unites? By this time in the Torah we have met people who claim to be ‘Kings’ of Gerar, of Sodom, of Egypt and so forth. Who made them such, what right to they have to rule? Kings usually have an unhealthy tendency to employ (or misuse) Religion to back up their claims for earthly power, they recruit amenable priests to give them a certificate of ‘Kashrut’, to proclaim that they sit on their thrones because of the will of God or of the Gods. It is an age-old habit and people still fall for it, even now!

The verse has so much deeper meaning one could talk for a week about it. Jacob’s father Isaac had in fact also been born here – it was his grandfather Abraham who had immigrated from Iraq via Syria. Jacob’s mother Rivka had been brought from Haran (Syria) to marry Isaac, and his twin brother Esau eventually heads off to what becomes known as Edom after his reddish colour. Edom is east of the Jordan, Canaan to the west; Jacob had had to flee his brother’s anger and lust for revenge by fleeing northwards to Syria and on eventually returning had had to encounter Esau again, make an uneasy truce with him, had then bought some land at Shechem in the north of the country (now known as Nablus – an Arabic version of a Greek name ‘Neapolis’ which means simply ‘Newtown’) – built at the site of and over the remains of the old town – you see, even this issue of names reflects different periods of history, different inhabitants and their cultures. (Much as with Danzig and Gdańsk, Breslau and Wrocław….) But due to a violent incident he could not stay there and had to head further south, into Canaan….

Yes, he settles here, with twelve sons (for a while) and a dishonoured and unmarriageable daughter – we never hear of Dinah marrying later – but soon one of the sons, his favourite one, will vanish, presumed killed and when, many years later, this son is miraculously found again and the family comes to Egypt to save itself from famine, and Pharaoh asks Jacob how old he is, he will answer (Genesis 47:9) ”Yemei Shenei Megurai sheloshim-uMe’ah Shanah” – ”the days of my WANDERINGS are 130 Years” – and then he will describe his lifespan as being ”Me’at veRa’im” – ”Few and evil” and not as long as the ”years of the life of my fathers in the days of their sojournings” – ”velo hisigu et-yemei Sh’nei Chayay Avotai, bimey M’Gureyhem.” He never says he ever felt ”settled” anywhere, it seems he feels he was always a wanderer just like his ancestors.

Can one explain this by saying he was a nomad, living in tents and not in cities? Part of a deliberately-wandering minority? That could be one explanation. There are – there have always been – people who prefer to travel, maybe on the seas, maybe as merchants, drivers, explorers, people who seem to spend a lot of their lives on trains and aeroplanes or on the motorways, maybe as nomadic shepherds, maybe even as homeless beggars – rather than be fixed and ‘tied down’ to a specific place. There have however also been others who wanted to settle, wanted to be ‘at home’, maybe even thought they had achieved this, had built homes and planted crops – but then were forced to move on again.

Jews have spent most of their history as a minority in other nations’ countries – even if the word ‘nation’ meant different things in the third century BCE or in the 19th. century CE., as a tribal or an ethnic or a political entity. We did not always feel we were ‘Gerim’, passing through; a Ger Toshav is a stranger who lives with you as opposed to someone who has just, say, a transit visa or a tourist visa or a working visa. A Ger Toshav is someone who immigrates and integrates. No, we often felt we were indeed ‘at home’ – it was the ideology of Zionism that confronted Jews with the uncomfortable truth that even when everyone else had stopped being just subjects of various Kings or Dukes and Emperors, but had now become citizens of newly-formed nations, French or Italians or Austrians or Germans – Jews were still Jews, still a separate minority and perceived as something different, foreign, often uncomfortable or even threatening. Zionism told Jews – ”You might as well accept this, make something positive out of it, you have to go to settle your OWN Homeland.” But this brought many ironies with it. An Oleh or Olah, someone who makes aliyah to Israel, remains for the rest of their lives an Oleh; but their children, born there, are Sabras. Native-born. Now we are witness to an interesting reverse process: Some Israelis decide, for various quite justifiable reasons, to move to America or to Europe, and they remain Israelis in America and Europe even though they settle down and marry locally; but their children – are they Israelis or Americans with an Israeli father? Poles with an Israeli background or Israelis living in Poland?

And what about those ‘melting pot’ societies such as the United States or Australasia where NONE of the ancestors of the current white inhabitants lived on this land until at most a couple of centuries ago, when they deliberately moved there but with the intention of settling, and without asking permission of the existing inhabitants! And the real natives or aborigines are now pressed back into being a minority and under-class in their own countries? The countries and continents even being given totally new names? ‘Virginia’ named for Queen Elizabeth I, the ‘Virgin Queen’? Washington after a general and statesman? The Carolinas after King Charles? Louisiana for King Louis? New South Wales being named after the ‘old’ South Wales, Victoria after another British queen? Even the term ‘America’ comes from an explorer, Amerigo Vespucci from Florence, 1454-1512 who actually worked out in 1502 that Brazil could not be the Eastern coast of China and so there had to be another continent blocking the way from Portugal to Asia. In 1507 this ‘New World’ was then named after his first name, latinized. What fame!

There are many ironies in naming. ‘Transjordan’ was the name given to the area ‘across the Jordan’ when seen from the West, in 1922. (West of the Jordan was ‘Cisjordan’, meaning ”This side”.) In 1946 the country became independent, as ‘Transjordan’, but two years later after it had occupied land west of the river – the ‘West Bank’ – it changed its name to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan – because it was now situated on both sides of the river, not ‘across’ it any more! From the perspective of the Bible, when the Israelites following Moses were in the Land of Moab, the term ‘Across the Jordan’ means from East to West! And Jews are so named because they were considered to be descended from the people of Judea – see Mordechai who is so described as an ‘Ish Yehudi’ in the Megillat Esther – whereas the Other Kingdom established after Solomon’s death was ‘Israel’!

So is a part of ”living” somewhere being able to give it whatever name you want? Or is to be able to purchase land and to establish oneself, to buy rather than to rent, to build and to establish? To have a vote? In what used to be the ‘United Kingdom’ we have heard voices telling European citizens that they are not somehow ‘British enough’ despite possibly living and working there for decades, paying taxes, educating their children there – no, suddenly the Former United Kingdom as I call it has dissolved into squabbling minorities and even I, born and raised and educated there, someone who ”lived” there though my father arrived as a refugee, a country-less wanderer, now find myself a wanderer in a strange land that no longer feels like ”my own”. And I know I am not alone in this. The entire political and social atmosphere has been poisoned with each group telling the other groups that they ”don’t belong”. Not just because they may be Jewish (though this has in fact been raised as an issue), but because they may be pro-Europeans or anti-Europeans, pro-Scots or anti-Scots, pro-Welsh or anti-Welsh, pro-democracy or pro-referendum or whatever. And I gather that certain other countries in Europe – not so far away – are not much better.

Everyone shouts. Nobody listens.

This is often the trouble with biblical verses, especially the ones that seem so simple and harmless. They jump out and bite you when you are not expecting it. This is why one must read, and read carefully, and search for any lessons, and apply them as best one can. Some things may appear old and old-fashioned, but there is much that never changes.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild


To speak your mind or not


Thoughts on parashat Vayera.

Menachem Mirski

The Torah portion of this week contains only great and famous stories. We have in it the story of Abraham interceding for Sodom and Gomorrah, their destruction, the story of Lot and his daughters. Then we return to Abraham again, this time he is in Geraar where he tells King Abimelech that Sara, his wife, is actually his sister. Our portion of the Torah also includes the story of the birth of Isaac, the banishment of Hagar and Ishmael and concludes with the binding of Isaac.

I have to admit that I had a great dilemma which story to choose for this week’s reflection. As I managed to find a connection between the story of the Flood and the story of the Tower of Babel in parashat Noah that we read two weeks ago (in short – humanity decided to build this tower not to be defenseless against the next flood and thus be able to do what they please), I decided to look for some connection between stories here. What I found is that there is a certain motif appearing in the stories from our portion of Torah, namely, not telling the truth and in some cases outright lying.

First, God is asking Himself if He should hide from Abraham what He is planning to do with Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:17-18). Then Abraham, in Geraar, tells the king Abimelech that Sarah is not his wife, but his sister. In another story God prevents Abraham from telling Sarah what he really thinks about the expulsion of Hagar and Ishmael even though the matter distressed him greatly (Gen 21:11-13). In a sense, God closes his mouth by saying:

Do not be distressed over the boy or your slave; whatever Sarah tells you, do as she says, for it is through Isaac that offspring shall be continued for you. (Gen 21:12)

And finally, even God Himself is telling untruth by asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, which from the beginning was not his intention. He did it only to put Abraham to the test. (Gen 22:1-2). It is possible that this test of faithfulness was due to Abraham’s previous behavior since the story begins with: After these events God put Abraham to the test (Gen 22:1, hebr. Vayehi achar hadvarim haele, sometimes incorrectly translated as Some time afterward. This translation completely eliminates the connection between this story and previous narratives. The accurate translation is: [it was so] after these events).

But of course, all those untruths or half truths were told for a reason, sometimes even a good reason. And it has been an age old ethical dilemma because there are situations in which not telling the (entire) truth or not speaking someone’s mind is better than doing so.

However, this is no longer an exclusively ethical problem but increasingly a legal one. In the last two decades, we have been observing a certain trend in Western democracies: governments of different countries are trying to regulate what can be publicly said and what can not be said, under threat of punishment. For example, in 2018 Polish government passed a law on “the Polish concentration camps” which tried to shut down the entire debate about Polish involvement in the Holocaust attrocities. The law was relaxed later after several months of heated debate. Some governments have gone even further, wanting to regulate what needs to be said in a given situation. (e.g. Canadian C-16 bill, issued in 2016)

I will not analyze political issues here. I will just say that I think creating a theory or doctrine that would answer the question of when to tell the truth and when to be silent is simply not possible and certainly not without jeopardizing a democratic fundamental like free speech. Why? Because such a theory would have to sum up all possible situations in which we wonder whether to tell the truth or not. Mathematically it is impossible because there is an infinite number of these situations. It’s similar to disprove God’s existence: in order to do that, we would have to investigate all the phenomena existing in the world from its very beginning to its end and prove that certainly God is not involved in any of them. It’s technically impossible.

Because the rationale for this kind of concepts is always ideological, it is an even greater utopia to convince all people of the validity of similar doctrines. Not only legal, but also customary regulations of speech issues have a very limited scope. One can not globally order compulsory compassion or even compulsory being “nice.” It simply will not work, people will rebel – and rightly so. One has to raise people to be compassionate or nice, it has to be internalized otherwise their compassion and their “being nice” will not be real and being real matters.

This seems to be reality. According to studies done in 2018 political correctness is deeply unpopular. Some 80 percent of people said they viewed excess political correctness as a problem. Only 8% of Americans say they are far-left and of those, ⅓ see political correctness as a problem. The vast majority of Americans want to feel free to speak their mind, regardless of gender, age or race. The study that includes this issue, among many others, is available here:

Attitudes towards political correctness also influence, sometimes critically, people’s political beliefs and their decisions for whom to vote.

Nevertheless, I believe we can all agree, at a minimum, the need of moral regulations of our speech. Our tradition has plenty to offer in this matter. The laws that stem from the concept of lashon hara prohibit derogatory speech that is true; the only exception is a situation where not telling unfavorable truth can bring harm to someone. We also have the prohibition of rechilut – a speech that causes hatred toward the subject, or between the listener and the subject. Let alone, slander (motzi shem ra) – the deliberate dissemination of damaging untruths – is banned by Jewish law.

Words can hurt and do real damage. We have to use them responsibly and thoughtfully – this is also something with which it is difficult to disagree. Whether we have to be nice and kind in every situation – I think that’s debatable. Being nice/unpleasant or kind/unfriendly are not binary situations. They create an entire spectrum of human emotions and behaviors which sometimes have to be tempered, but sometimes left alone. There are situations in which it is worth the wait to express your opinion, but alternatively it can be worth expressing exactly what you are thinking at the moment. Unquestionably, no rule should prevent us from raising important and difficult topics, limit our freedom of thought or our freedom of opinion. It is definitely better if dangerous, disgusting or even inhuman ideas are analyzed and talked through by good, smart, intelligent and educated people than to leave them to frustrated and hateful bigots. In the first context we are able to deconstruct these inaccurate ideas, in the second we are leaving them to spread like an infectious disease.

There is always a tradeoff between freedom of speech and the ideas of how communal life should look because there is always a tradeoff between freedom and ideology. Personally, I am in favor of placing this pendulum on the side of freedom of speech, rather than on the side of political correctness, but everyone needs to find this balance for themselves.

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski