Whom Can We Trust?

Whom Can We Trust?

Mati Kirschenbaum

This week’s Parasha Bechukotai concludes the so called “Holiness Code” – i.e. chapters 17-26 from the Book of Leviticus which describe the ritual and moral prohibitions aimed at making the people of Israel a nation aspiring to holiness. The beginning of our Parasha coincides with the summary of the Code in which we find the description of the blessings and curses which are to befell the Israelites if they will – or will not – keep the Eternal’s commandments after entering the Land of Israel. The reward shall be prosperity and peace, whereas the punishment will entail the devastation of the land of Israel, the exile of the Israelites, fear, hunger and humiliation suffered in a foreign land. However, the punishment will not last forever – the Eternal shall not forsake the remnant of His people and eventually He will remember the covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

A reference to the covenant with God can also be found in the Haftarah to our Parasha – that is in chapter 16 and 17 of Jeremiah’s prophecy. In the Haftarah we find the following statement:

אָרוּר הַגֶּבֶר אֲשֶׁר יִבְטַח בָּאָדָם

Cursed is he who trusts in man (Jr 17:5.)

Here is how Jeremiah describes such a person:

He shall be like a bush in the desert, which does not sense the coming of good: It is set in the scorched places of the wilderness, in a barren land without inhabitant (Jr 17:6.)

So where can we find hope? Jeremiah lets us know without a shadow of doubt, as he states:

בָּרוּךְ הַגֶּבֶר, אֲשֶׁר יִבְטַח בַּיהוָה; וְהָיָה יְהוָה, מִבְטַחוֹ

Blessed is he who trusts in the Eternal, whose trust is the Eternal alone (Jr 17:7.)

This Sunday we are going to elect the Polish representatives to the European Parliament. Many of us feel that we are voting for the lesser evil. We do not feel that we can trust our politicians. And we don’t have to: Jeremiah teaches us that in fact we can truly trust only the Eternal. But this doesn’t mean that, full of mistrust, we should abstain from voting. On the contrary, we must vote, keeping in mind the subsequent words of Jeremiah:

עָקֹב הַלֵּב מִכֹּל, וְאָנֻשׁ הוּא; מִי, יֵדָעֶנּוּ. אֲנִי יְהוָה חֹקֵר לֵב, בֹּחֵן כְּלָיוֹת:  וְלָתֵת לְאִישׁ כִּדְרָכָו, כִּפְרִי מַעֲלָלָיו.

Most devious is the heart (the source of human intellect); It is perverse — who can fathom it? I the Eternal, probe the heart, search the mind (one’s character) — to repay every man according to his ways, with the proper fruit of his deeds (Jr 17:9-10.)

Jeremiah teaches us that politicians make mistakes which stem from their human, imperfect nature. Ultimately it will be the Eternal who shall judge their mistakes and hold them accountable for them. But for now we must believe that by trusting the Eternal and His teachings we will be able to choose the best politicians that our society is capable of electing. May you all cast a well-thought-out vote on Sunday. And for now – may you have a peaceful Shabbat! Shabbat Shalom!

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka

Mati Kirschenbaum

Has the Time Come For a Jubilee Year?

Has the Time Come For a Jubilee Year?

 Mati Kirschenbaum

In this week’s Torah portion, Behar, we find the description of the laws of a jubilee year, a year in which property returns to its previous owners. The practise of a jubilee year is described as follows:

And you shall count seven sabbaths of years for yourself, seven times seven years; and there shall be to you the days of seven sabbaths of years, exactly forty and nine years.  Then you shall make a proclamation with the blast of the horn on the tenth day of the seventh month; in the day of atonement you shall make proclamation with the horn throughout all your land. And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof; it shall be a jubilee for you; and you shall return every man to his possession, and you shall return every man to his family.

(Leviticus 25:8-10)

The description of the jubilee seems to suggest that every forty nine years Israelite society went through a social ‘reboot’, during which property which previously changed hands came back to its previous owner. This idea might make many of us deeply uncomfortable. After all, in the world of long lifespans, a jubilee every 50 years is an event that almost all of us would live through during their lifetime. I also believe that most of us would not be happy if, for instance, our flat, bought with the help of a mortgage for 35 years, returned to its previous owner just because the jubilee year has come.

This feeling of discomfort stems from our estrangement from biblical reality. We function in a skills-based economy, in which we earn our livelihood selling our skills and not the fruit of our land. In contrast, biblical society was mostly agricultural – most Israelites worked as shepherds and farmers. For them, selling their land to someone else meant a transformation into a hired labourer, a social class only one notch above slaves. When such hired labourers fell into debt, they sold their freedom, and became slaves. Both the act of selling one’s land and that of selling one’s freedom were made null and void during the jubilee year, when the land was returned to its original owner and the slave was freed and returned to his family. What was the reason for it? Why would Torah annul transactions that were part and parcel of economic life in the ancient Middle East?

Traditional commentaries gave differing answers to those questions. One explanation found in the Sifra, commentary on the book of Leviticus, stipulated that the return of lands to their original owners was supposed to maintain land ownership of Israelite tribes, thus securing peace between them. Sifra also states that Israelite slaves were released because being enslaved made it impossible to serve their ultimate master – God – with full, unrestricted devotion. Medieval Spanish commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra emphasised the importance of personal freedom by comparing a person deprived of freedom to a bird in a cage which, ultimately, loses its will to live.

It seems that the laws of the jubilee years were supposed to secure both  individual freedom and societal harmony in the ancient Israelite society. But how are they relevant to our lives in the modern Western world, where slavery is a thing of the past? What do they mean in democratic society, which respects the inviolability of property rights?

I think we should look at the laws of the jubilee year through the prism of inequalities that threaten the stability of our world. One of them is the ever growing inequality between the global rich and the global poor of today. For instance, in 2018 the richest 1% of world’s population controlled 45% of global worth, while 64% of world’s population owned only 2% of world’s worth. This inequality is even more glaring if we look at the skyrocketing growth of the wealth of the world’s richest individuals. In 2009, the combined wealth of world’s 380 richest people matched the wealth of the bottom half of world’s population. In 2017, the wealth of only 42 richest individuals was enough to equal the value of the assets of the bottom half. The inequality has grown markedly.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t advocate a communist revolution as a cure to rising inequality. I only want to point out that today’s excessive inequality is as harmful to the society as it was in the biblical times. Nationally, it weakens social cohesion, antagonises different segments of society, and fosters the development of right-wing populist movements looking for a scapegoat. Globally, disproportionate wealth disparity leads to the growth of fundamentalism in societies that feel colonised, sparks civil wars, and motivates people to dramatic, often deadly, attempts to get to developed countries.

The consequences of income and opportunity inequality are acutely felt in our society, and result in its deep political division. This Shabbat, the Shabbat before the European Parliament Elections, I encourage you to look beyond mutual recriminations of our politicians and to ask yourself the following questions: which party, which policy can lead to a more equal, less divided society? What can I do to bring about a modern jubilee year so need today in this country, in Europe, in the world. Shabbat Shalom!

Mati Kirschenbaum



Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild

Our Sidra this week covers several themes but in Chapter 23 of Leviticus we have a listing of the festivals that are to be observed – and how they are to be observed. Which raises many questions, because we no longer do what is here described – bringing animal sacrifices or waving an 'Omer’, a sheaf. We count, but we don’t wave! But how should we celebrate our festivals, and what is there to celebrate?

I must say here – I am gradually becoming more and more worried about my rabbinic colleagues in the United States. And this is notSchadenfreude’. For years I would receive mails and comments on the lines of ”How can you stay working in Europe? Isn’t it dangerous there? So much rising antisemitism and right wing populist politicians?” And now – they have to cope with living in a country ruled in a semi-dictatorial manner by a President who believes that he can just issue a decree – and it will be done; who can issue statements against refugees and immigrants, who can turn back the clock of political correctness and liberal values by twenty or thirty years – and still retain the support of a sizeable minority, even majority of the nation behind him; and they have to live with horrific armed, murderous attacks by madmen on synagogues in Pittsburgh and in California… (not counting so many other attacks, on civilians, on office workers in New York, on marathon runners in Boston, and others). For all the wrong reasons – and these are WRONG reasons – the tone of self-righteous complacency has vanished. Liberal values are under threat, and Jews are under threat. The comments from my American colleagues have dried up.

     What makes this more noticeable is that for decades there were numerous colleagues who felt rather unhappy about the traditional Haggadah for Pesach – which has of course replaced the one-time  traditional sacrifices. Now, it is a few weeks since we used a version of the Haggadah but I notice that this is still an issue for debate: Whether or not to incorporate traditional paragraphs which criticise non-Jews. ”After all,” goes the argument, ”Nowadays we have a much better relationship with our non-Jewish neighbours than before, in the Middle Ages (defined as the fifth to the fifteenth centuries) or the Later Middle Ages (defined as the first half of the twentieth century); Nowadays many of our members themselves began their lives as non-Jews and many have non-Jewish family members or non-Jewish partners, and we do not wish to insult these people.” These are interesting arguments, but they miss the point. The paragraphs most usually referred to – the ”Vehi She’amda” and the ”Shefoch Chamatcha” – are not prayers against Non-Jews as such, they are statements and prayers against Antisemites. NOT all Non-Jews are Antisemites and indeed many non-Jews share the values which Judaism introduced into the world, of monotheism and responsibility and respect for each other, of blessing and of the yearning for stability and peace. BUT – and it is a big 'But’ – there are some people who are driven only by Hatred: Hatred of Moslems, hatred of Christians, and hatred of Jews. Of course there are some Moslems who hate other Moslems for being the wrong sort of Moslem, and there have been many Christians who have hated other Christians for being the wrong sort of Christians, and European history and now Middle-East history has been stained red many times by the blood of Shiites and Sunnis and the Ahmadis, by Catholics and Protestants and Copts and Hussites and Albigensians and  others, many others…..   However, one common factor throughout all these bloody and bloodthirsty centuries has been the way in which the soil and the waters have been stained by the blood of Jews. Jews killed solely because they were Jews. For our enemies, there are no ”wrong kinds of Jews” – ALL Jews universally (and even former Jews who had converted, or baptised Jews, or descendants of Jews) were recognised as legitimate targets for their hatred. When we describe the murder or martyrdom of Jews we use the term ”Kiddush HaShem” – they ”sanctify the Name” – and this is a way of saying that their sacrifice, their loss, their suffering was due solely to the fact that they were Jews – not Germans, not Poles, not Russians, not even Israelis – but Jews. It was the Name – in this case, the name 'Jew’ – that counted.

And this is why I feel it is totally legitimate to recite during our celebration of liberation from slavery and oppression, that this was not just a one-off event. ”Vehi Sheamda” says ”In EVERY generation there are those who rise up against us and seek to destroy us. In EVERY generation, whatever we did or do, wherever we are. We cannot escape. But until now, the Holy One has always rescued at least some of us – otherwise we would not be here today to sing this.”

Which strikes me as a very reasonable summary of Jewish history and Jewish hope for the future. Until recently the Jews in the United States at least had felt that they had survived for several generations with only mild social antisemitism, the exclusion from certain clubs and maybe from certain political positions but essentially a near-total acceptance and a sense of safety and security. But not any more…..

The ”Shefoch Chamatcha’’, often traditionally recited standing while the door has been opened to show any lurking enemies outside that we had nothing to fear, nothing to hide, is an appeal to God to wreak divine vengeance on ”those nations who rise up to destroy us, to devour us” – not the others, who leave us alone, in peace. And why not? Where is it stated in the Tanach that we are duty bound to remain passive and pacifist and accept calmly and without anger the unjustified attacks upon us? Quite the reverse – starting with the defence against the Amalekites in Exodus Chapter 17. The prophets speak many times of JUSTIFIED attacks, when we have done something evil to annoy God and to deserve punishment – this is a difficult theological equation but it exists. However, when peoples attack us for no reason, then we have no reason to accept the blame upon ourselves falsely. That would be 'false modesty’, to say the least. We do not rise up and say that it is OUR duty to attack and punish these enemies, but we ask God to do it for us.

There are many who claim that they are acting in the name of God when they blow up  churches or murder worshippers in churches, synagogues and mosques, or when they threaten to wipe out the Jewish state with its inhabitants – but this is a vile blasphemy. There is nowhere stated in any of the monotheistic scriptures that God, under any name, has actually asked or commanded them to do this. They are misusing God’s name, they are abusing it, to justify their own human weakness and hatred. If they truly believed in God, they would ask God to punish those with whom they do not agree – and then wait for God to do so. And if God did not do so – then this should indicate to them that maybe their wishes were unjustified and their beliefs misguided.  So let us be clear that we do not have to believe or accept those who claim to be acting out of Belief; they are actually acting out of a LACK of Belief. They do NOT believe that God will act, and so they do so themselves. A total twisting by 180 degrees of any truth, of any faith.

There have been times and places where we felt more secure, more accepted than elsewhere and until now the USA, partially established by a persecuted sect of British Puritans who demanded a separation of Church and State, was perhaps one of them. Maybe less so now. This does not, of course, make things any easier for us here, in Europe where we face plenty of evidence for human stupidity. But it makes us understand better those anonymous geniuses who composed the two paragraphs of the Haggadah shel Pessach which – I feel – are an important part of the ritual and of the way we approach our history and our identity. They incorporate uncomfortable but deep truths.

Chukat Olam leDorotechem – ”it is an eternal law for all your generations” – this is the term the Torah uses for something which  should continue; alas we must use it also to describe things which should NOT continue, but somehow do……

Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild


The World Between Order and Chaos

The World Between Order and Chaos.

Thoughts on Parasha Shemini.  

Menachem Mirski

In this week’s Torah portion (Leviticus/Vajikra 9:1-11:47) Aaron and his sons begin to fulfill the duties of kohanim (priests). God sends a fire which consumes the sacrifices on the altar; thereby the Divine presence begins to live in the Tent of Meeting, in Hebrew also called the Mishkan.[1]

Moses and Aaron then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of the [Eternal] appeared to all the people. Fire came forth from before the [Eternal] and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces.

(Leviticus/Vajikra 9:23-24)

However, soon after that moment, after a time of great joy and euphoria, a tragedy takes place:

Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the [Eternal] alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the [Eternal] and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the [Eternal]. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the [Eternal] meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people.” And Aaron was silent.

(Leviticus/Wajikra 10:1-3)

The above mentioned events have drawn the attention of many commentators and often times they posed a challenge for theologians. Quite a lot has been written on this topic, but this is not what I’d like to focus on here; I’d rather focus on the sheer chronology of the events: a moment of euphoria, happiness, joy, and then suddenly a tragedy.

Sounds familiar? Of course, perhaps even too familiar; probably almost every one of us could recall a similar turn of events, about which they have either heard about or directly witnessed it themselves. In the latter case we often remember such events until the end of our lives; such experiences are often traumatic and they leave us with a number of dramatic questions, such as: could this have been prevented, what was really the cause of this tragedy, why did it have to happen and so on.

One mistake, one moment of inattention can lead to a catastrophe. Could we organize the world in such a way as to ensure that such situations never take place? In my opinion this is a utopian idea, first of all because as human beings we do not have the necessary means nor minds to rule over the entire reality which surrounds us. Therefore the best thing is to be aware of this and accept our own limitations. The world is still too large and too complex and we still don’t know enough about the processes which occur in it, although of course we know much more than our grandparents and great-grandparents. And while we should pay special attention to ensuring our safety, we must make sure we do it in an appropriate way.

The need for safety is one of the most fundamental and biological of human needs, along with others such as the need for nutrition, procreation etc. However, concern about safety, especially when it comes to our close ones, can easily turn into patronizing, which could potentially be even more dangerous for the people for whose safety we are concerned, such as our children. Why? Because if we arrange for someone to live in permanent comfort, they will never learn how to keep themselves safe on their own. That’s why as we bring up our children we should not strive to keep them safe at all cost and in all circumstances – and many experts in the field of psychology and pedagogy would agree with me here –  but instead we should teach them how to ensure their own safety and how to be cautious in their everyday conduct and in their lives in general. Therefore we should gradually, in a way that’s suitable for their age, expose them to the real world, with all the problems, difficulties, failures or pain it entails. Otherwise, if we decide to keep them in a “safety bubble”, after a while reality will ruthlessly correct our mistakes and teach our children a lesson, sometimes in a very brutal way. Being overly cautious about someone else’s safety infantilizes them and as a result of it people never grow up and avoid taking responsibility for themselves, not to mention taking responsibility for others. A world in which humanity would consist of only such individuals would be one possible version of hell on earth.

And while there is nothing fundamentally wrong in wanting to control the  world which surrounds us (provided that our rule does not entail brutal or even senseless exploitation) and this is in fact necessary for our survival, we must nevertheless renounce the idea that we could ever have control over everything. No, that is impossible, and that’s why we have to learn how to distinguish between that which we can control and those things over which we have no control and which perhaps we will never be able to control. Just like it’s not possible to “take care of” and fully fulfill our need for safety (or any other of our needs) once and for all. Chaos will always burst into our orderly surroundings, regardless of whether it’s an order that we established ourselves or a natural one. And there is nothing we can do about it, since that is simply the nature of the world that we live in, to put it in very traditional terms. So what can we do about it?

The answer is: We can try to live in a reasonable way. What does this mean? It means to continuously deal with that chaos, to live in opposition to it and at the same time to try to organize that chaos, both in our external and internal life. With regards to this second aspect, and to a certain extent also the first one, the system which is best suited to fight with chaos is, I dare say, our religion – Judaism. If we live according to its rules, then almost every aspect of our life becomes meaningful and well-organized. Of course there are practical matters which extend beyond our religious life, but also in this case a reasonable way of organizing them is necessary, and here the wisdom of our tradition can also lend us a hand, since Judaism teaches how to live according to rules and in moderation, with a permanently implemented, regular obligation to rest, which in the longer run protects human life, since it is subordinated to it. In order to save a life on Shabbat one is allowed to break all of its rules and essentially to do everything except for that which we know will lead us to worship idols, to prohibited sexual relations or to bloodshed.

People who have a goal in their lives and who follow a regular schedule are statistically less prone to depression, addictions and other destructive tendencies. So, we should set goals, follow a regular schedule (with regards to meal times, sleep, work, study, entertainment etc.) and have a well-ordered personal life. For some people this could already be a goal in and of itself. Only then will we be able to plan and achieve all that which we want to achieve. Are we going to face failures? Of course, they will always happen from time to time, but we must simply come to terms with them and get on with our lives. It’s very possible that already the next day we will discover their meaning and significance, thanks to which we will for example discover and implement in our lives certain rules which will help us avoid potentially even much greater misfortunes in the future.

Of course there is still the question of the role of spontaneity in our lives – and indeed there is room for it as well. A conflict between our plans and our life as it is here and now is something that we’ve all experienced many times. This being said, there is nothing bad or stupid in planning and this statement absolutely does not contradict the old, funny Yiddish saying: Der Mentsh tracht un Got lacht – humans plan and God laughs – which is first of all an expression of an ability to laugh at oneself and a healthy reaction to our own failures. Having too many plans and goals also doesn’t have to be stupid at all. The more of them we have, the more of them we carry out (provided that we do not simply have millions of ideas per minute or that for example we don’t have a certain constant, pathological element in our lives which thwarts everything, such as for example an addiction, although fighting with an addiction also entails implementing order in our life or expanding its extent). We will carry out more, though of course we will never carry out all of our plans, but this often turns out not to be a serious problem in the long term. And the same could be said about the commandments and rules in our religion: the more of them we honestly decide to fulfill, the more of them we will actually fulfill and as a result our life will change for the better. That’s why the allegedly “common sense” tendency to reduce the number of rules in our lives is actually not good for us – the less rules and principles we respect in theory, the less of them we fulfill in practice, and then our life can slowly start to drift towards chaos, although this can end up affecting especially the lives of our children.

This could be one of the answers to the question why Judaism entails so many commandments, rules and norms, regarding essentially everything. This is presumably also one of the answers to the question why as a community with a continuous identity and tradition we’ve been able to survive for already over 3 millennia, whereas many other nations and religious groups simply ceased to exist.

A life which is purposeful, meaningful and filled with responsibility is not some kind of pie in the sky made up by “religious lunatics”, as some, allegedly rational, modernist and postmodernist “sages” would want it. What’s the point of doing anything, since in a million years we won’t be here anyways – this argument is simply a trick played by the nihilistic mind. Yes, our mind is capable of this and we can always imagine a certain time perspective in which none of our actions will make any sense. And it doesn’t even have to be a time-frame of a thousand or million years – a hundred is enough. However, such reasoning is a logical-metaphysical trap, and the stance that stems from it amounts to simply giving up the fight with chaos, the fight for life, to losing it by default. There is nothing lofty about this, nothing valuable, nothing worth emulating and finally – nothing wise.

If we renounce the belief in the meaningfulness and purposefulness of human life, then nihilism, chaos, and ultimately destruction creep in. The notion of meaning and the purposefulness of human life, in any shape and form – be it religious, lay, collective or individual, is not something “irrational” – on the contrary – it is the highest form of human rationality.

Shabbat shalom,

Menachem Mirski








Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka

[1] According to some linguists the Polish word “mieszkać” (to reside somewhere) comes exactly from the Hebrew mishkan.