Va’etchanan

Faith as a remedy against the obsession of control

Thoughts on Parashat Va’etchanan

Menachem Mirski

What are mitzvot/commandments? The word commandment has many synonyms, such as command, recommendation, indication, regulation, guideline, order, norm, imperative, rule, instruction, directive… Using these synonyms, we can say that commandments are certain directives that order or recommend to do something. And while for the vast majority of the commandments of the Torah this kind of definition would not be problematic at all, in the parashah we read this week we have two commandments that elude this understanding, namely:

You shall love your God יהוה with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:5)

which is obviously the first line of our daily V’ahavta prayer; the second of these commandments begins the repetition of the Decalogue:

I יהוה am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage:  (Deuteronomy 5:6)

This mitzvah seems to completely fall short of our definition of a commandment; primarily because it is not expressed in a normative language at all, it seems to be simply a statement of a fact. Yet this verse is considered a commandment in our tradition, and the one of the most fundamental! It is understood as the commandment to believe in God, and everything is based on it – the entire normative, moral and ritual code of the Torah.

This problem troubled the rabbis, who asked how could you command faith in God or the love of God or neighbor? This question led some commentators to conclude that the term mitzvah / commandment could not apply these verses. The medieval Spanish philosopher Hasdai Crescas argued that:

The very nature of the term „mitzvah” implies by definition that it can only apply to matters of free will and choice. But believing that God exists is one of those things that are not subject to free will and choice. Accordingly, the term mitzvah (commandment) cannot apply here.

Likewise, Abrawanel, a 15th-century Sephardic biblical commentator, believed that the first commandment was merely a prelude to subsequent commandments and commands, a declaration informing the Children of Israel who addressed them. Our tradition, however, rejected this view and placed both mitzvahs in the 613 commandments of the Torah. Ibn Ezra pointed out that there are more commandments of this kind, like those prescribing certain states of mind or emotion:

You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kin but* incur no guilt on their account. (Leviticus 19:17)

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against members of your people. Love your fellow [Israelite] as yourself: I am יהוה. (Leviticus 19:18)

This group also includes the last commandment of the decalogue, which forbids coveting one’s neighbor’s spouse, as well as things at his disposal.

There are (at least) two ways of understanding this issue with different but complementary practical implications. The first is that the commandments ordering us to certain states of mind or feelings are to teach us the self-control that is necessary for a conscious and moral life. According to this approach, action is understood very broadly and also includes the processes taking place inside us. The second understanding defines the aforementioned commandments as general principles from which all the more detailed commandments for practical actions per se derive. Thus, the commandment „You shall love Adonai your God” finds its fulfillment in keeping all God’s commandments. Thus, love, both for God and for the neighbor, is not limited only to specific feelings and emotions – it acquires a practical character, and thus real, deep and true.

In my opinion, these commandments, understood as general principles, are at the same time the deeper grounding for all specific commandments: they are the source of the appropriate kavanah in our moral actions. These general commandments remind us that the purpose of our actions is to build a better world for us and our descendants. With the right kavanah, genuine love and faith, our actions gain a deeper meaning.

While one of the fundamental, practical goals of our religion and of our entire religious law system is to teach us discipline and self-control, we should be aware of their limitations. Many of our actions ultimately go beyond ourselves and we often don’t have control over their outcomes, especially the more distant ones. Where our control ends, faith begins. If our actions are motivated by good, positive intentions, we have a right to believe that God will lead our actions to the ultimate and good goals we have intended. (He usually does it with the hands of good and righteous people, although He has many other impenetrable ways as well.) Human arrogance and the obsession with controlling everything and everyone do a great deal of damage to our lives, both private and social, especially if they are accompanied by a fake collectivism in thinking that does not respect our individual rights and personal freedoms. Faith understood in the above-mentioned way teaches us humility, awareness of our own limitations and is a spiritual remedy for the above-mentioned destructive forces and endeavors.

 

Shabbat shalom!

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

Bechukotai

Justice as a collective venture

Thoughts on parashat Bechukotai

Menachem Mirski

Our Torah portion for this week is called Bechukotai, which can be translated as “in my laws”. It starts with אם־בחקתי תלכו (im bechukotai telechulit. 'if you walk in my laws’) and centers on a brief but eloquent promise of blessings for those who follow God’s ways and an lengthy series of curses for those who reject God’s ways:

If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. Your threshing shall overtake the vintage and your vintage shall overtake the sowing; you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land […] I will look with favor upon you and make you fertile and multiply you […] I will establish My abode in your midst, and will not spurn you. I will be ever present in your midst: I will be your God, and you shall be My people. (Leviticus 26:3-5,9-12)

But if you do not obey me and do not observe all these commandments, if you reject My laws and spurn My rules, so that you do not observe all my commandments and you break my covenant, I in turn will do this to you: I will wreak misery upon you – consumption and fever, which cause the eyes to pine and body to languish; you shall saw your seed to no purpose, for your enemies shall eat it. I will set My face against you; you shall be routed by your enemies, and your foes shall dominate you […] Your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit. (Leviticus 26:14-20)

The entire passage of these blessings and curses is 43 verses long. The quotations above are only the excerpts that give us the general picture of what we are dealing here with. it is one more expression of the deuteronomic doctrine of the reward and punishment, which lies a the core of the oldest Jewish concept of justice, which can be summarized in one sentence: if you do good, you will be rewarded, if you do bad, you will be punished, which means that all your (moral) actions have consequences and determine your fate (in a pretty simple way). All of that implies individual responsibility for each and every action we take.

This Jewish doctrine of reward and punishment has been theologically challenged by the rabbis basically in two different ways. Firstly, it was seen through the lens of theodicy, which typically puts the human individual at its center and deals with the problem “why the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer”. The answer to that question depends on who is to take a bigger chunk of responsibility for what happens in this world, God or human beings. Another way the rabbis reflected on this doctrine has to do with the question: is there an undeserved suffering? Does the fact of suffering always imply a sin committed prior to it? Is moral wrongdoing the only cause of suffering? If the answer is yes, then it results in reversing the logical implication at the core of the entire concept: not only if you do bad, you will be punished, but also if you are suffering it means that you are punished and this means that you must have committed a sin. This radical answer is sometimes called the doctrine of retribution and it is theologically grounded in the Song of Moses (The Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 32), which defines the default moral and existential position of the Chosen People as pretty low: we are corrupt, stiff necked people, and for this reason we have a huge debt to the Eternal for his great deeds and the miracles He had performed to save us from Egyptian slavery and to lift us from our spiritual misery.

But there is yet another way we can approach this passage and it has to do with how we understand the pronoun 'you’ in it: whether this pronoun denotes a human individual or whether it is understood collectively and denotes the entire group of people. As mentioned above, the rabbis tended, although not exclusively, to view this doctrine through the individualistic lens (and that’s the typical way modern people view it), and this brought them to the problems mentioned above, however, if we understand it collectively, it completely changes the direction into which it leads us intellectually. If we understand it the latter way, it leads us to the vision of what the world will be like when it truly becomes God’s kingdom, when most members of the human community would follow God’s ways. It’s worth mentioning here that the Torah articulates here the necessity to view not only the people, but also the mitzvot in a collective way:

But if you do not obey me and do not observe all these commandments, if you reject My laws and spurn My rules, so that you do not observe all my commandments and you break my covenant, I in turn will do this to you […] (Leviticus 26:14)

Therefore you, the people of Israel, shall observe ALL my commandments, says God, and if you do so the righteous will (always) be rewarded and the wicked will (always) be punished. Thus, this doctrine will work only if the (vast) majority of the society would observe the (vast) majority of laws (we should have said that ALL people should observe ALL the divine laws to make this happen but given what we experience and know about human beings it seems to be a pretty unrealistic idea).

Only by creating a situation like that are we able to establish a system in which justice prevails. There will still be a margin of people experiencing injustice and unjust suffering – that seems unavoidable given, for example, the general lack of widespread, fundamental and rigid structure defining what’s the proper ethical conduct and what is not. There will always be cases of premeditated evil and inadvertent evil, which will result in undeserved human suffering. But our goal is to always limit the scope of possible wrongdoings and to constantly expand the sphere of justice, Divine law and all other Jewish values – love, devotion to communal life, education, truthfulness, kindness, respect and responsibility. All of that should be done maintaining a proper balance between individual freedoms and the interests of the community, which is a theme for another d’var Torah.

Shabbat shalom,

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

Acharei Mot

Self-esteem vs. self awareness

Thoughts on parashat Acharei Mot

Menachem Mirski

After the death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu, God instructs Moses regarding the atoning sacrifices to be offered by the kohanim on Yom Kippur:

God said to Moses: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover. Thus only shall Aaron enter the Shrine: with a bull of the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. […] And from the Israelite community he shall take two he-goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. Aaron is to offer his own bull of sin offering, to make expiation for himself and for his household. (Leviticus 16:2-6)

What did this expiation look like? Our Sages teach us that it was done through verbal confession of sins:

And the priest places his two hands on the bull and confesses. And this is what he would say in his confession: Please, God, I have sinned, I have done wrong, and I have rebelled before You, I and my family. (Mishna Yoma 3:8)

The Hebrew word for confession, vidui, comes from the verb lehitvadot – to confess – which is in Hebrew a reflexive verb (as, generally speaking, all the verbs of the binyan hitpael). Therefore, according to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh, the confession ordained by the Torah does not consist of a confession of sins made to another person; furthermore, it is not even a confession made to God, but as its grammatical reflexive form implies, it is confession in which sinner makes himself aware of his sin:

We should not conceal our past misdemeanors from ourselves but regard them with an unprejudiced eye, without extenuation. We should admit to ourselves that not only should we have acted differently but that it was in our power to have acted differently. By doing this we admit and proclaim our freedom of choice, and when we utter the formula “I have sinned” in all sincerity, we include the idea “I shall not repeat the offence”. (Hirsh on Leviticus 16:4)

Thus, the essence of the confession experience is self-awareness. But self-awareness is also an essential part of all our interpersonal interactions. And here we touch on a significant problem. In the last few decades, starting from the 1970s with Generation X through Generation Y and Z, there has been a real flood of narcissistic and self-centered attitudes, among both men and women. The psychological core of this phenomenon is, in my opinion, low self-awareness regarding certain traits of one’s own character. All of this has its origins in upbringing and has been largely caused by the psychological and socio-cultural concepts openly promoted in the Western culture, such as the concept of self-esteem or other concepts of self-acceptance. These concepts, very often expressed in the form of slogans, like “love yourself”, “everybody is special” etc. seem to be forms of positive, corrective reactions to common, negative socio-cultural practices, to something I would call “the culture of constant degrading and humiliating each other” (someone who grew up in the Polish provinces in the 1980s and 1990s knows what I’m talking about), still present until today in some areas of the Western World. This new (in those days) philosophy of upbringing has definitely had a positive impact on our life, freeing individuals from malice and resentment coming from the social environment. But these doctrines also generate side effects that are profoundly damaging to us, both psychologically and socially. Slogans and concepts of that kind should be applied only to the spheres of human identity – religious, national or sexual. Nobody should be entitled to tell you what you should believe in or to what social group you should belong. However, if we apply these kinds of philosophies to other areas of life, like those pertaining to character or moral issues, they can, and usually do, a lot of damage.

Let’s focus on the self-esteem concept for a moment. It basically teaches you to regard yourself with esteem, no matter what you do or who you are, because it builds your confidence and you need confidence to succeed in your life. Fair enough. But if so, why don’t we just call it confidence? Here is the problem: confidence must be earned. We earn confidence by learning, practicing, working, developing our skills etc. If you just focus on building your confidence it’s likely you will become delusional about yourself. With no connection to reality you can score 90-100% in self-esteem tests, then become an unemployed alcoholic and still score 90-100% in these tests. It is so because the whole point of self-esteem is to be proud of yourself even if there is absolutely no reason to be proud of yourself. Self-esteem can be then called ‘unearned confidence’. It equips you for nothing. It won’t help you at school, it won’t help you at work – it will stifle your career and ambitions, and it will certainly wreck havoc on your relationships. Sure, insecurity and self-doubt can also be damaging but at least there is a chance that they may drive you to be better, in whatever field or area. A person with high self-esteem, also known as narcissist, feels good about himself on the basis of nothing.

We all know self-centered, egotistic people who talk all the time only about themselves. Obviously it’s not a binary issue, we can say that everyone is more or less self-centered. But there are extreme examples in this matter and that’s what I’m focusing on here. Self-centered and narcissistic people often impress others with their life stories, achievements etc. But it is all temporary because that kind of psychological constitution causes many problems. Highly self-centered people constantly overlook or ignore the needs of others. In some cases they don’t even leave other people room to express themselves. By being blind other people’s needs and feelings they inflict emotional harm on them. People like that often have no ability to listen and are more likely to be dismissive of other people’s ideas and thoughts. All of that tremendously affects their connections with other people, particularly the matters of love and friendship, making them incapable of being in long-term love relationships.

On top of that highly self-centered people often have a tendency to overlook their flaws and sins. But being self-centered or narcissistic doesn’t make you by definition a bad person. It’s often difficult to qualify their behavior morally, as something bad or morally questionable. Highly narcissistic or egocentric people may be morally ok and may be right in their moral judgments about themselves: “I don’t steal, I don’t lie, I have never tried to seduce a married person… So what’s the problem?” Therefore, we often don’t have moral tools to judge them or to inspire them to change their behavior. The only remedy for this is self-awareness, which often takes years to develop. But this is where our tradition can be of great help for us: it constantly makes us more social, more sensitive to the needs of others and it contains a lot of wisdom in this matter.

 Shabbat shalom!

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

 

Shemini

Things we deserved and things we didn’t deserve

Thoughts on parashat Shemini

Menachem Mirski 

Does everything (bad) that happens to us happen for a reason? If so, where should we look for answers? In theology, science or our moral conduct as individuals or groups? The Torah portion for this week brings up this topic. On the eighth day, following the seven days of their inauguration, Aaron and his sons begin to officiate as kohanim (priests); a fire comes down from God to consume the offerings on the altar, and the divine presence comes to dwell in the Sanctuary. Aaron’s two elder sons, Nadav and Avihu, offer a “foreign fire before God” and die before God. Aaron is silent in face of this tragedy. Moses and Aaron subsequently disagree as to a point of law regarding the offerings, but Moses concedes to Aaron that Aaron is in the right.

The reason that Nadav and Avihu died is mentioned in theTorah:

And the sons of Aharon took each his censer, and they put in them incense. And they offered before יהוה foreign fire which He had not commanded them.

(Leviticus 10:1)

Yet the Sages and the midrashim give numerous reasons and explanations as to what their sin was and why they died. Some commentators praise Aharon’s sons and consider them as exceptional people: the sons meant what they did for the best and did more than they were commanded. But they were punished because no man has the right to do more or less in the Divine service than he was commanded. Other commentators find serious faults in the actions of Aharon’s sons. Some claim that they showed disrespect for the Mishkan and the Divine service, for example, that they entered the Mishkan wearing the robes of a regular Kohen rather than those of a Kohen Gadol; they had previously imbibed wine; they offered a sacrifice which they had not been commanded to bring. There are also commentators who accuse them of improper behavior which discredited their priesthood: that they were arrogant and did not take wives because of their conceit, for they felt that no other family was as distinguished as theirs, and they did not have children; that they were not friendly to one another; they wanted to determine the halachah in the presence of their Rebbi (Moshe), or, they awaited the death of Moshe and Aharon, so that they could take over the leadership of the nation.

The list of reasons for their sudden death goes on and on. Thus, it is legitimate to ask why the Rabbis were not satisfied with the simple answer given by the Torah and had to bring all of the other reasons. The answer to that question lies in the two fundamental theological assumptions of rabbinic thinking with regard to theodicy: 1) Everything bad that happens to the (Jewish) people can be and generally should be seen as Divine punishment; 2) The rabbinic mind has always been sensitive to injustice, and consequently, to any sort of incommensurability of the Divine punishment. The first assumption actually belongs to the oldest strata of biblical theology and theodicy: God is always just and every suffering/injustice comes from human sin/error. It’s not the only theodicy in Judaism; other answers to the problem of evil, including various concepts of unjustified suffering, had been successively developed starting from the late Second Temple period. But the idea that every misfortune and suffering is a result of human and not Divine action marks the rabbinic mind definitely until Holocaust and to some extent even until today. Thus, regarding the second assumption, the Rabbis, seeing the disproportion of the punishment, had no other choice than to come up with a variety of reasons for it.

Whether it is right to see everything that happens to us through the lens of Divine reward/punishment is a very extensive topic. To see everything that way is more “faith oriented”, so to say, whereas to admit that there is undeserved pain and suffering seems to be more “reason oriented”. Both approaches have their pros and cons. To see everything through the lens of Divine punishment can be for us, and often is, a driving force to be more moral, more careful, more observant, namely, to be conscious of our own responsibilities. To admit that there is an undeserved pain and suffering opens our eyes and minds to everything we have no influence on and it often helps us deal with our feelings of guilt.

All that is particularly relevant in our political judgments today. There are always things we, as individuals, communities or nations could have done better. But there are also the things we had no influence on, even though we could sense long before that they would determine our fate in a way we would want to avoid. Let’s apply this to the current situation of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people: this country has a long record of corrupt governments and social injustices stemming from it. Had they done better in this matter, as a nation and society, their position right now would have probably been better. Even their president, Zelensky, with my entire sympathy and admiration towards him, committed several mistakes, like those in his speech in Knesset a few days ago: his comparisons of the present situation of Ukraine to the Holocaust, as well as his claims about the role of Ukrainians in saving Jews during that time, were very inaccurate. But none of what the Ukrainians and their leadership did or didn’t do in recent decades makes them deserve Putin’s Russia aggression. What the Ukrainian people absolutely deserve is greater support from the West, in every politically doable matter. But on the other hand, this fact should not make us blind to the difficult and painful events that took place in the course of Polish-Jewish-Ukrainian history. It’s not necessary to talk about these events right now but it’s also unnecessary to idealize the victims in order to help them to bring peace and justice.

Shabbat shalom!

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

Mishpatim

 The perpetual cycle of seeing the bad only

Thoughts on parashat Mishpatim

 Menachem Mirski 

The country is difficult when everything seems to be the simplest to everyone
The country is beautiful when everything seems bad to everyone

Marek Grechuta, Jeszcze pożyjemy / Yet we will live

Parashat Mishpatim is extraordinarily rich in laws, judgements and statutes governing every facet of human existence. Many laws and norms found in our sidra are specifications of the laws contained in the Decalogue, which is in the previous Torah portion. This comprehensive legislation covers relations between man and man, man and society, man and his enemy and even between man and animal or plant. And while some of them may appear out of date at first glance, some of them are timeless and unquestionably relevant also in today’s world:

And you shall be holy men to me: neither shall you eat any meat that is torn of beasts in the field; you shall cast it to the dogs. Thou shalt not raise a false report: put not thy hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness. Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shalt thou speak in a cause to incline after a multitude to pervert justice: nor shalt thou favor a poor man in his cause. (Ex 22:30-23:1-3)

The first one, about not eating meat that is torn from an animal, is obvious to all of us. But I included it in the quotation above because for me they are logically a whole (and this whole is part of a larger whole). I believe that the essence of these words is the following: you shall be mindful and civilized, starting with what we eat and ending with our social behavior and political involvement. Not a lot of commentary is required to these words, that seem to be self-evident. But our parasha contains more wisdom regarding social life, and one of the most important of these is expressed in our parasha twice:

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Ex 22:20)

Also thou shalt not oppress a stranger: for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Miżrayim. (Ex 23:9)

The idea to treat the stranger fairly / love him (because you were strangers in the land Egypt) is expressed in the Torah at least a dozen times. One might well ask why the Torah places so much emphasis on this. I believe that the answer is the following: The Torah is fully aware of the historical cycle of oppression happening between various nations and social groups, sees evil in it and therefore orders us not to act on the impulse of retaliation, in order to break this cycle.

This idea is extremely relevant today, especially because from Marx, throughout the twentieth century to the present day, it has become very popular to view history as an endless conflict between the oppressors and the oppressed. Some thinkers and academics see this concept even as a key to understanding the entire human history. Not questioning the fact that the processes of reciprocal, perpetual oppression take place in human history, I strongly disagree that it is THE KEY to understand history and society. Furthermore, I believe that viewing history only through this lens is very simplistic. Why? Because people fundamentally cooperate and viewing history exclusively through the lens of perpetual oppression makes us overlook this positive process of cooperation which is the fundament of our civilization, civilizational development and the source of everything good that humanity brought to the world!

I understand why some people so strongly insist on viewing history and social affairs through the oppressor/oppressed lens: being particularly focused on what is still bad in our society is often a sign of great concern for the good of society. This idea is captured in the song by the Polish singer and poet, Marek Grechuta, which I quoted at the beginning: The country is beautiful when everything seems bad to everyone. But the problem is that it cuts both ways. Being completely one-sided and overly negative in perceiving the world and human affairs does a great psychological harm to us and our communities. Talking all the time about various groups fighting and oppressing each other makes us resentful and causes a desire for revenge to sprout in us. This leads people create various harmful concepts like the one of “good discrimination” (i.e. because people from one group historically oppressed another group of people it is now good and just to reverse the process and oppress the former oppressors, as a group). If we lose control over it and let these feelings escalate, it will only lead to violence. And this is exactly what the Torah wants to prevent us from doing, at the very beginning of this entire process!  The essential part of it is forgiveness: if you want to be forgiven, you have to be able to forgive others, no matter what their identity is. The Torah teaches:

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am the LORD. (Lev 19:18)

The concept of breaking the cycle of perpetual, mutual oppression has the same goal as other laws in our parasha, including these quoted above: to raise us to a higher civilizational level. Thus, let us not be fooled by all sorts of concepts that question the wisdom of the Torah and let us continue in the process of social and moral self-improvement.

 

Shabbat shalom!

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

Chayei Sarah

Age gracefully, time is on your side

Thoughts on parashat Chayei Sarah

Menachem Mirski

What is time? Time is a measure of the variability of all things. Although this definition may not be sufficient, for example, in astrophysics, it is completely sufficient for our human, earthly perspective and living experience.

Life is reborn in cycles. Our imagination, dominated by Euclidean geometry, often gives us a linear vision of time. It is enough to „superimpose one on the other” to get possibly the most adequate vision of time: time is a spiral. This vision corresponds with our everyday experience: each day brings us something new and even if we experience the same things cyclically, the experience is slightly different each time. The same dinner, made according to the same recipe again, will taste slightly different.

Of course, for all these new experiences there comes an end which is ultimately marked by death. The Torah portion this week describes the death of the mother and the father of our nation(s) – Sarah and Abraham. According to midrash Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer (Chapter 31) Sarah died of despair after learning that Abraham had murdered their only son Isaac by sacrificing him on Mount Moriah:

When Abraham returned from Mount Moriah, Satan[1] became infuriated. He had not gotten what he desired, which was to thwart the sacrifice of Abraham.  What did he do?  He went to Sarah and asked: “Did you hear what happened in the world?”  She answered, “No.”  He said, “Abraham took Isaac his son and slaughtered him, offering him up on the altar as a sacrifice.” Sarah began to cry, and moan the sound of three wails which correspond to the three blasts of the shofar, and her soul burst forth from her and she died.  Abraham came only to find that she had died. From where had he come? From Mount Moriah.

This midrash sees Sarah’s death as tragic: she died of despair after hearing Satans’ lie. It is interesting, however, that Abraham’s death is quite opposite of Sarah’s:

This was the total span of Abraham’s life: one hundred and seventy-five years. And Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin.

Abraham died at a good ripe age, old and content. This is the kind of death we all desire. Is there Jewish wisdom that would help us to “achieve this goal?”.

Yes. Woven into the fabric of Judaism there are many views and values and ideas that help us achieve this contented death. I will try to summarize some of these ideas.

Perhaps first is teaching the younger generation to have respect for the elder generation which starts with honoring parents (Ex 20:12), but also all elders in society, the importance of which cannot be overestimated.

You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old; you shall fear your God: I am the LORD. (Lev 19:32)

We are commanded to respect our elders even if they no longer possess their mental capacities. Traditionally, the source for this teaching is the Ten Commandment tablets that Moses shattered, which were kept alongside the new tablets in the Ark of the Covenant. It teaches that we must continue to respect the elderly, even when they are intellectually „broken.”

The older generations should be credited for what they have done – and they have done quite a bit: they built the entire world in which you live. This awareness is especially salient for those that experience a life of comfort and luxury. Your elders are those that made it happen through their hard work. While there are countless examples one only must think of the state of Israel. At any time, for any reason, we always NOW have a safe haven. This miracle is on the backs of our elders that went to Israel and moved rocks and dug through mud to make this thriving democracy. Tell me, doesn’t just thinking about them bring you deep joy and gratitude? Respect your elders.

While we are commanded to respect our elders – we also have a responsibility as human beings at all stages to do whatever we can to stay mentally clear and physically fit  in order to guide “our” next generation. This commandment can be seen as a two-way street – I will nurture my mental faculties in order to share and inform your generation and you must agree to listen, respect and ultimately do the same to your next generation.

If you are a mid-age person, learn humility and to accept the changes time brings. You can still play sports at any age. You can still be fit and beautiful at any age. But being 60 you won’t beat a 23 years old athlete or 20 years old girl in a beauty contest. Of course this requires you to adapt to changes, but nevertheless, you can thrive. The remedy to defying aging is to constantly revise your habits and customs and not let them dictate completely your lifestyle. This, in its purest form, will prevent ‘spiritual aging’, which only accelerates physical aging, which can happen even in one’s youth. As Baal Shem Tov said once: “Do not forsake me in old age”: let not old age and stagnation rule my habits and customs. While aging brings less physical strength and a slower body, it also brings wisdom, which is a virtue and a blessing.

If you are not an older person, yet, you should remember that mental decline in old age is primarily preventable. You just need to keep working on your intellectual capabilities early enough and keep doing it throughout your life. Then, when you retire, your mind will be clear and you will finally have time to read all the books you have always wanted but have never had time for.

“He removes the speech of men of trust and takes away the sense of the elders.” But when it comes to aged scholars, it is not so. On the contrary, the older they get, the more their mind becomes composed, as it is said: “With aged men comes wisdom, and understanding in length of days.” (Mishnah Kinnim 3:6)

And you will not feel irrelevant and forced to hide away from the world during your “slow years”, which you shouldn’t do, because by doing it you don’t fulfill the purpose of the wisdom that you spent years accumulating and do a disservice to the younger generation that needs and relies on your wisdom.

When our bodies start to age – and this starts pretty early, around 25, we should start growing our spirit. The sooner the better. If we do that, we will have the capacity to overcome the fears of time and be able to be happy and content during our last days. We can grow our spirit in many ways: by learning, by doing moral actions, involving ourselves in intellectual activities, studying and performing art, being involved in social actions, charity and altruism and generally doing what is good beyond your own good.

Spirit, over time, takes some responsibilities of the body. As long as bodies are the dominant forces to animate themselves, they are to a large extent subjected to biology and all kinds of natural laws. Over time this determinism decreases (except time when you are sick) and that’s good news because we are becoming more and more free in our actions, including moral actions, and more aware of everything that determines our actions and their consequences. Talmud delineates the different stages of life: age 30 is for peak physical strength, and age 80 is for peak spiritual strength. In the contemporary, secular world, where physical strength and beauty is emphasized, a person at age 80 is – generally and unfortunately – regarded as having little value. In the Torah world, 80 is prime time!

You should never stop caring about your body and you should never stop caring for your spirit. We grow the spirit in the body and when the body becomes more and more fragile the spirit shall take over the care of the body. If you do all of that, time will not be your enemy, it will be on your side!

Gray hair is a crown of glory; It is attained by the way of righteousness.

(Proverbs 16:31)

 

Shabbat shalom,

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

[1] Satan in Judaism is not a physical being ruling the underworld, rather, in the Torah, the word Satan indicates “accuser,” “hinderer” or “tempter.” Satan is therefore more an illusory obstacle in one’s way – such as temptation and evil doings – keeping one from completing the responsibilities of tikkun olam (fixing the world). Satan is the evil inclination to veer off the path of righteousness and faithfulness in God. (Jewish Virtual Library)

EMOR

EMOR

Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild

This is a day whose significance cannot be ignored, even if it is a day which has many facets. Officially, on 8th. May 1945, the Third Reich capitulated against the victorious Allied forces represented by Britain (together with its Imperial forces), the United States and the Soviet Union. At the stroke of a pen. Since I come from Britain, live and work in Germany and work also in Poland (even if held geographically distant at present by a new form of Iron Curtain) this is an anniversary that cannot be ignored. As we know – if we bother to listen and learn – this did NOT mean that the conflict called the Second World War was over. (It had become a World War perhaps when America joined in December 1941). The conflict in the Far East continued for another half a year and military planners at the time assumed it could continue for several more years – it was only the horrendous shock of the realisation that one aeroplane with one bomb could instantaneously wipe out an entire city, something which until then had required thousands of men and tanks and shells and months of misery, that jolted some of those responsible into calling a halt. (And even that required a repetition, a duplication before the message was understood.)

As we know, the killing did not stop straight away, nor did the dying – from wounds, from hunger, from exhaustion, from disease, from despair. As we know, many millions of people of all ages and nationalities were on this date displaced refugees, bereaved, lost, traumatised, impoverished, disoriented. Some felt they should return home, some already knew they had no home to go to, some only found this out once they had made the effort to return to the places from which they had been so brutally taken – but which were no longer 'home’. Many found themselves the sole survivors of their family or of their generation or their community. Many were imprisoned, prisoners of war or prisoners of political prejudice. Many were dispossessed, many were maimed. The list of forms of human misery can continue. Stalin, of course, had initially made a secret treaty with Hitler then, when Hitler broke it, demanded aid from the Allies – given at enormous cost in lost convoy ships – and a Second Front and then immediately afterwards changed his tune again, so that for large sections of Europe the Liberation was not, in fact, a true Liberation but merely the replacement of one totalitarian invader by another. Wars rarely have tidy endings. I have seen pictures of how Berlin looked in May 1945 and I have seen pictures of how Warsaw looked in 1945 – I am sure that you will have seen similar pictures – and, frankly, there is little difference and one wonders how anyone, ANYONE could find the strength to start all over again.

Only three quarters of a century later, the war is still not yet really over, it has certainly not diminished in the folk memory even though the last of the active eye-witnesses are leaving the scene. I have spent some of the time in 'lockdown’ catching up on reading, including the memoirs of 'My Rabbi’ Hugo Gryn z’l’ who was 'liberated’ in Austria after a zig-zag odyssey from Hungarian-occupied Czechoslovakia to Auschwitz to Lieberose near Cottbus to Gunskirchen near Linz. I have also been looking through a remarkable work, published in 1981, concerning Hitler’s bizarre fantasy of constructing a gigantic railway line to link Berlin with Kharkov, with Moscow and with Constantinople. Photographs show him, just two weeks before his suicide, gazing wistfully at models of the planned new cities of the Greater European Empire he intended to found, if necessary by destroying the existing ones. Quite fascinating is the way he single-handedly both dreamed of, planned and started the war – and personally caused the German defeat. In early 1941 he told General Paulus, who was worried about supplying the troops in winter, ”Stop talking about winter campaigns, there will not be a winter campaign, I forbid anyone to talk about it.” That winter – the Wehrmacht froze and the Blitzkrieg against Russia came to a halt. Just as fascinating is the way intelligent, experienced, competent men followed him blindly, even when they knew he was wrong, even when they knew the cause was lost, even when it went against the way they had been raised, or the consciences they still (just) had.  And if one were to have asked any of the Axis leaders of the time just what it was they really needed, what they personally wanted, what they hoped to gain by moving national borders backwards by several kilometres whilst spilling so much blood and destroying so many homes, I am not sure what they could have told you. Apart from empty rhetoric about 'national pride’ or 'Destiny’.

I have flown often over parts of Europe and the interesting thing is that, when you look down from the window, you can see mountains and rivers and cities and fields – but you cannot see borders. Maps, on the other hand, are dangerous – you do not see mountains and rivers and cities and fields, the evidence of what people have built, you see only blobs and lines writhing over the paper and the sheet divided into different colours. Nations are defined by their place on the map, not their place in the world.

 

Humans often dream of changing the world, and some even achieve this. It is, after all, a part of being human. They design or compose or write or preach, they persuade people to change their lives, they present them with new opportunities, how to travel, how to grow food, how to heat their houses, how to build, how to heal their bodies against infections, and more. They persuade people to try new forms of social organisation, they persuade them to think of themselves in the universe differently. But this is best done by showing, by teaching and by persuasion – not by force, not by compulsion, not by threat and not by violence. That way leads, sooner or later, to destruction and death.

But some dream differently. They dream of Control. Control of a country, control of a business, control over anyone and everyone. Their psyche seems to need it. I believe that World History would be much better if all those men who dream of playing soldiers could remain content with painted lead models. (Nowadays there are of course electronic video games to take the place, but although these permit faster and more realistic two-dimensional conflict, they also suppress the need and the ability to fantasise.) Some like to build model landscapes and some like to design model railways to run in them. As the creator of a model railway layout one can decide everything, for there is no-one else to have a different opinion, to complain, to object. No-one who needs to be forcibly removed or eliminated….   There are no shareholders to complain about the cost and no passengers to complain about delays. Total control.

What happened in that awful period was that people – maybe, proportionally, only a few – felt they had the right to control whole countries and whole continents; that they and they alone would have the right to decide who might live (and where and under what conditions) and who must die. Proportionally, only a few – but once they had gained or been given power and authority, it is a sad reflection how many others were prepared to help them; How many others were prepared to benefit from the weakness or the losses of others, to exploit them, rob them, dispossess them.

In the Sidra 'Emor’ which (should be) read this week, we find in chapter 25 of Leviticus the command to treat the Land with respect. The land, just like every living creature, needs a rest, a break once in every seven cycles.  For a human, or an animal, a cycle is a day, and seven days; for a land, which wakes, flourishes, then returns to sleep, a cycle is a year, and seven years.  God says that the Israelites have to learn that the land is not theirs, to do with as they wish, it is God’s, and needs to be cared for. Prior to this, in chapter 23, the Israelites have to create or impose the one-year cycle upon themselves, to count days and months (including the Omer, the period in which we find ourselves), so that each annual cycle can have a proper beginning and a proper end. They also need to learn that they need the Land, more than the Land needs them.

If one looks at what human beings are capable of – and this week’s anniversary is a prime example of this horror – then the Torah with its commands for a modest subjugation to God combined with a regular expression of gratitude and care becomes a very potent symbol indeed, of what our relationship to the land, to the lands and to each other and indeed to time itself could and should be. The Jubilee should come every fifty years, states the Torah. That is as far as one can look ahead, and then all is ”re-set”. There is no mention of a Thousand-Year Reich…..

 

Shabbat Shalom.   Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild

P.S. One should mention also at this time, even though it is less fashionable, the issue of Blame. In the past few weeks, as one may possibly have read, researchers in the Vatican Archives (recently opened) have discovered that Pope Pius XII was indeed made aware of the mass murder of Jews in Europe, but was either encouraged by his assistants to downplay it or chose to do so himself. But there is documentary proof of meetings and written submissions and this indicates that the time for blurring this matter or questioning it must be put behind us. Similarly, this very week the Catholic Church in Germany has publicly confessed to the misdeeds of the Church in the Nazi period, with most of its bishops and priests supporting Hitler and the National Socialist Party through a mixture of nationalism, fear of Bolshevism and, one supposes, stupidity and prejudice against all those who were not Catholic. This is an enormous step forwards. Individual priests and others did their best to help or save whom they could, but the Church as an institution failed – as the 'Body of Christ on Earth’ it seemed to have lost or sold its soul. Whilst this blame does not attach to those active today (unless perhaps one believes in inherited sin?) it should serve as a reminder that mixing religion and politics usually corrupts both. It would be helpful if this lesson could be learned, or re-learned today.

Incidentally, one could (tongue in cheek) suggest that the best time ever to have lived in Germany was just after the Capitulation. Despite the land being filled with rubble, mass graves and misery, the one shining point was that, wherever you looked, whomever you asked, there were ABSOLUTELY NO NAZIS!!! If there ever had been, then they must have flown back to Mars. Everyone was Innocent! Truly a form (a strange form) of Paradise…..

Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild

Shemini

The Bad Thing Happened. What’s Next?

Thoughts on Parashat Shemini

Menachem Mirski

Pesach, the festival of freedom, has just ended. The concept of freedom is inextricably linked to the concept of choice. Life brings choices before us, maybe not all the time, but it does, at least most of the time bring us in a position to choose. There are small choices and big choices. Small choices are usually easier to make because the consequences are smaller. The big choices entail bigger consequences – sometimes even entailing suffering, and thus, they are significantly harder to make. The inherent problem is our knowledge about the future is always limited, so hard choices are hard to make. But we have a choice.

We never have completely reliable recipes about what we should do at a given moment  because of those two facts: that our life requires choices made on time and that we never have complete knowledge about the future to make sure our choices are right (because we cannot wait infinitely for this knowledge, because we have to make our choices on time, quality of our knowledge is dependent on time we are given to gather the data and create a theory.) Thus we have the entire spectrum of attitudes towards life – we have people who value security above everything else and we have people who cannot live without taking risks. This duality of attitudes often overlaps with another duality: we have people who act patiently (not because they are afraid of losing security, but because they deeply think over consequences of any act)  and people who act quickly and move on, because they don’t care or believe that they know everything. We can multiply these overlapping dualities. The core problem is that we don’t have objective criteria to judge which attitudes are correct and which are not. I agree that to be an educated risk taker might be the best choice from all the above, but we usually know it post-factum, basing on the outcomes of certain decisions.

This week’s Torah portion describes the tragedy of the death of Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu.  Both of whom died as a result of offering a “strange fire before God, which He commanded them not (to offer.)” Aaron fell silent in the face of what had happened, but Moses seemed to overreact: he was both angry because of what had happened and at the same time afraid of a possible recurrence of this tragedy. For this reason he decided to be extra careful, to the extent that he forbade Aaron to perform a mourning ritual over his sons:

And Moses said to Aaron and to his sons Eleazar and Ithamar, “Do not bare your heads and do not rend your clothes, lest you die and anger strike the whole community. But your kinsmen, all the house of Israel, shall bewail the burning that the LORD has wrought. And so do not go outside the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, lest you die, for the LORD’s anointing oil is upon you.” And they did as Moses had bidden. (Leviticus 10:6-7)

Later we have a series of instructions on sacrifice procedures and a debate between Moses and Aaron on this subject. This story gave rise to an extensive rabbinical debate on all issues related to this incident, from the causes of the accident, to practical conclusions on how to deal with similar situations in the future. Without going into details, both the Bible and the Rabbis agree that Aaron was right: He was forbidden to rend his clothes as a sign of mourning but he was not obliged to force him to rejoice. The sacrifice does not bring the worshipper nearer to the Divine automatically without being accompanied by the proper state of mind. This would mean that if there had been other priests, besides Aaron, and his two remaining sons, Itamar and Eleazar, to perform the duties, they wouldn’t have to continue making those sacrifices.

What we can learn from this story is that, the fact that we are right when it comes to analyzing the causes of a given situation does not necessarily mean that we are right about how we should deal with its outcomes. Our knowledge is always limited, and it is often best to assume that OTHER PEOPLE KNOW SOMETHING WE DON’T. Let’s face it, this is why we often have different opinions. Let’s face it, we only know what we know – should we not be open to knowing … learning … what other people know. Let’s face it, this is the Talmud.

What we learn from this story is that being extra careful is not always good. The philosophy behind “better safe than sorry” can have negative effects, especially if fear, anger or any other strong emotions are involved.

Another very relevant consideration when it comes to restricting freedom is the inherent rebellion of man. Being overprotective and going too far with restrictions can do more harm than good. This is particularly relevant today with our stay at home “orders.” As a society, for our government, it is crucial to weigh the consequences of societal actions in a complete context. Specifically, when we talk about Covid stay at home restrictions and discussions of opening up society, we have to be very careful in putting restrictions on people and on humanity. This is not a “economy vs life” discussion, as any thoughtful thinker can see. The belief that by putting strict restrictions on people you can produce submission is not founded in human psychology or in history. We know from history, heck, anyone who has raised a teenager knows, if you place arbitrary restrictions on a soul they will rebel. Anyone that saw communism fall in the 90’s know that if you place arbitrary restrictions on society they will rebel. They will rebel for various reasons but the bottom line is being forcibly deprived of freedoms is not a natural state and unless you are trained and beaten down by a … communist society for instance, humans will not submit. The moment “the people” realize that the restrictions are not essential and even arbitrary they are bound to overreact and see all restrictions as arbitrary and worthy of rebellion and this will have tragic consequences, especially now when the stakes are so high. That’s the reason the proper balance is always important. The proper approach to this matter is to have a clear, understandable and justified set of rules and a good and effective system of enforcement.

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