Sh’lach

Be careful what you wish for, it might come true

Thoughts on parashat Sh’lach

Menachem Mirski

Our Torah portion for this week tells us a story of 12 spies sent by Moses to investigate the Promised land before conquering it. They return forty days later, carrying a huge cluster of grapes, a pomegranate and a fig, to report on a lush and bountiful land. But ten of the spies warn that the inhabitants of the land are giants and warriors “more powerful than we”; only Caleb and Joshua insist that the land can be conquered, as it was commanded by God.

Our rabbis analyzed this story from many perspectives. One of the issues they were particularly focused on can be expressed in the following questions: What was the sin of the spies who were sent to investigate the promised land? What did the spies do so dreadfully wrong that it brought the punishment of additional forty years of life on the desert for all the Israelites, making many of them never see the Promised land? One of the answers suggested by our rabbis is that they presented their biased opinion about the land and the possibility of conquering it instead of giving a relatively unbiased factual account on what the Promised land was like. According to Ramban, their goal was to gather the information about the land mainly for logistic purposes, to be able to develop a good strategy to conquer it; this, according to Rashi, is expressed in the name of the parasha shelach lecha – “send out (the spies) for yourself”. But none of that happened and it even seems that these ten spies were on the side of all the complainers among the Israelites who constantly murmured against Moses and God and wanted to come back to Egypt. They did not really go to investigate the land; they went there to collect the information that would prove their narrative, to use contemporary language.

What can we learn from it? The ten Israelite spies who lacked faith in God deemed the Promised land impossible to conquer. The remaining two, Joshua and Caleb, who had faith in God help were way more positive about the land and the ability to conquer it, although they admitted that the Divine help is necessary:

And Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, of those who had scouted the land, rent their clothes and exhorted the whole Israelite community: “The land that we traversed and scouted is an exceedingly good land. If pleased with us, יהוה will bring us into that land, a land that flows with milk and honey, and give it to us; only you must not rebel against יהוה. Have no fear then of the people of the country, for they are our prey: their protection has departed from them, but יהוה is with us. Have no fear of them! (Numbers 14:6-9)

The entire story can serve as an illustration of the 20th century proven epistemological view that our perception of the world (and ourselves) is dependent on our previously acquired knowledge about the world. In other words, we perceive and interpret everything that is around us (and within us, like our identity) in terms of what we have already learned, what we already believe about reality, through the entire cognitive apparatus that is the core structure of our knowledge and our belief system. This cognitive apparatus might be an adequate tool with an adequate language to describe reality; it might be a less adequate or completely inadequate tool for comprehending reality, and therefore a serious obstacle to our perception and ability to process information. It’s not a new concept. The idea that the human subject plays an active role in comprehending reality, was already developed in the writings of philosophers such as David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and some versions of it can already be found in the writings of ancient Greek philosophers. However, this knowledge/belief based determination of our perception and cognitive abilities, contrary to the opinions of some postmodern thinkers, does not create an absolute obstacle in our cognition would make it impossible for us to know the objective truths of the universe. We have already learned how to overcome these obstacles; much of what we call the methodology of science is about overcoming various cognitive limitations, including these ones. Generally speaking, scientific methodology has been very successful in this matter and it is important to mention this because some postmodern concepts completely blurred  the distinctions between science and pseudoscience, opening a path to the reign of ignorance, cognitive nihilism, bringing and perpetuating a variety of cognitive delusions.

Our perception is then determined by our knowledge and beliefs. All of that, in turn, influences our actions. What we believe to be true can have a tremendous impact on our actions and therefore on our fate. But fortunately our beliefs can usually be verified in practical life; therefore, whatever we do we should reflect on (practical) consequences of our beliefs and constantly ask ourselves questions like these: what my beliefs led me to? Do they make me happy? How do they influence my relationships with other people, including my loved ones? How do they influence my career? Are they helpful in achieving my life goals? Is there something I need to correct in my belief system? How, in fact, did I get to believe this and that? An so on.

Getting things wrong can have a bad impact on us; some consequences of our beliefs might be terrible for us, equally bad to those the Israelities faced in our biblical story. The only remedy for that is a prudent, reflective life in which we are able to critically look at our beliefs, even the most fundamental ones, and subject them to re-evaluation. Only this can ultimately save us from many things we never want to experience.

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.

 

Judaism and booze

Judaism and booze

Thoughts on parashat Nasso

Menachem Mirski

One of the fundamental philosophical and at the same time practical problems underlying all religions is how to control things that are beyond our control. Therefore, throughout history intoxicants received religious, and often legal attention. One of the ways in which our religion responded to the challenge posed by these cheering substances was through the ancient institution of Nazirite, which is quite extensively discussed in our Torah portion for this week – almost the entire chapter 6 of the Book of Numbers covers this topic:

God spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelites and say to them: If any men or women explicitly utter a nazirite’s vow, to set themselves apart for יהוה, they shall abstain from wine and any other intoxicant; they shall not drink vinegar of wine or of any other intoxicant, neither shall they drink anything in which grapes have been steeped, nor eat grapes fresh or dried. Throughout their term as nazirite, they may not eat anything that is obtained from the grapevine, even seeds or skin.

Throughout the term of their vow as nazirite, no razor shall touch their head; it shall remain consecrated until the completion of their term as nazirite of יהוה, the hair of their head being left to grow untrimmed. Throughout the term that they have set apart for יהוה, they shall not go in where there is a dead person. (Numbers 6:1-6)

As mentioned in the paragraph above, the basic rules of naziriteship consisted not only of the abstinence from alcohol; nazirites were also not allowed to cut their hair or to defile their special status of holiness by contact with the dead. But let’s focus here exclusively on alcohol and let’s briefly discuss its role in our tradition and history.

The negative effects of alcohol were well known already in the very old days for wine was in universal use in the Near East and the Mediterranean basin. However,  what was not fully understood, was the physiological mechanism that caused the irrational behavior of the drinker. It is likely that alcohol was originally deemed to contain some supernatural powers that were in competition with the gods. The English word „spirits” for alcohol, or Polish “spirytus”, testifies to this ancient belief.

The Torah places the use and abuse of wine at the beginning of human history (Noah getting drunk after the flood, Gen. 9:21), and the Tanakh makes repeated references to the effects of drinking. But aside from the special case of nazirites, the drinking of wine was considered normal and proper – wine „cheers human hearts” (Ps. 104:15; Judges 9:13). Excessive drinking was considered degrading and a kind of foolish behavior that may easily lead to impropriety or immorality (Gen. 9:20; Prov. 20:1, 23:29.  Eccles. 10:17). The only explicit prohibition of drinking alcohol was for priests on duty, that they may not die during the Divine service (Lev. 10:9) Otherwise the priests, like other Israelites, were free to make use of wine, which was integrated into the Jewish ritual already in the ancient times. Even the Dead Sea brotherhoods, with all their strict rules of conduct, made no mention in their scriptures of nazirite abstention.

Later Jewish tradition, too, counseled moderation but never total abstinence, and this moderation became an aspect of Jewish social mores. We drink alcohol regularly on Shabbat and other Jewish holidays – obligatory four cups of wine on Pesach, the common minhag of intoxication on Purim aimed at not being able to tell the difference between Baruch Mordechai from Arur Haman.. Sefer ha-tikun, a late 19th-century commentary on the Shulkhan Aruch contains a mind-boggling enumeration of our many obligations to toast:

One is required to make a toast when he builds a house, sells a house, and when his house burns down. One must make a toast when he gets married. If the groom is a widow, he must drink for each wife; an elderly man who marries a virgin must drink forty-nine toasts. If the father of the bride refuses to drink a toast the couple must divorce; and the Polish Hasidim are accustomed to beating the recalcitrant father with his own slipper.

Sefer ha-tikun isn’t actually a real commentary; it’s a piece of anonymous satire on the supposed excesses of Hasidic drinking culture in Poland at that time. The title is a pun on the kabalistic notion of tikkun or cosmic repair and the Yiddish term trinkn tikn, that is, the custom of making toasts in honor of a yahrzeit.

History also brought us a different image – the image of the bad, sober Jew deliberately making „poor Christians” drunk. For various socioeconomic reasons, Jews were vastly overrepresented in tavern-keeping and alcohol distribution. Jews tended not to do the greater part of their drinking at taverns, reinforcing the nefarious image of the Jew profiting off, but not participating in, a culture of drinking. The problem was that liquor was big business in Poland (and it is still a big business today), and Polish nobility profited enormously off its production and distribution. But the Jews were the public face of that industry, leading antisemites to argue that the “peasants only drank excessively … because these bad, sober Jews enticed them into drunkenness in order to dupe them more easily.”

Alcohol has been “culturally integrated” into Judaism since its early days. This might be the reason that among religious Jews alcoholism is a relatively rare problem despite the culture that “expects us” to drink alcohol quite often. The philosophy underlying our culture claims that in order to be able to control something you have to experience it and really know it in the first place. It seems that this approach is working on a more general, societal level.  Of course, this philosophy won’t work in cases of alcohol addiction – it is helpless in the face of brain damage which is the core reason for alcoholism. Complete abstinence is also a way of controlling things we cannot control, sometimes the only efficient one. Thus, according to our religion it is ok to drink and it is also ok not to drink if that’s the necessity. A huge part of our religious tradition is 'case based’ and exceptions from the general rules are not completely uncommon, which is a blessing for many of us.

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.

Matot-Massei

Finish What You Start

Thoughts on Parashat Matot-Massei

Menachem Mirski

“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe,” Albert Einstein reportedly said. He also said that “Nothing happens until something moves.” Indeed, constant movement seems to be the essence of everything. This is one of the few empirical truths we should also consider as normative. To stop, to do nothing, is a fundamental violation of the principle that governs the entire universe. If you violate this principle, if you stop, you won’t have to wait long for the consequences.

In the story from this week’s parasha, two of the Israelite tribes did, in fact, try to stop short. After settling in the favorable piece of land on the eastern side of the Jordan River, Reubenites and Gadites decided that they didn’t have to conquer the Promised Land, that they could just stay where they were – it was good enough:

The Reubenites and the Gadites owned cattle in very great numbers. Noting that the lands of Jazer and Gilead were a region suitable for cattle, the Gadites and the Reubenites came to Moses, Eleazar the priest, and the chieftains of the community, and said, “Ataroth, Dibon, Jazer, Nimrah, Heshbon, Elealeh, Sebam, Nebo, and Beon— the land that the LORD has conquered for the community of Israel is cattle country, and your servants have cattle. It would be a favor to us,” they continued, “if this land were given to your servants as a holding; do not move us across the Jordan.” (Num 32:1-5)

Upon hearing their plea, Moses rebukes them saying that they were committing the same sin as the Isrealites when they took the advice of the spies who, after exploring the Promised Land, discouraged all the people of Israel from conquering it, which resulted in God punishing them with an additional 40 years of wandering in the desert.

After Moses reminded them of this punishment (Num 32:10-14), the Gadites and Reubenites humble themselves under the Divine “threat”. They assure both Moses and God that although they will secure the well-being of their families and flocks in territories already conquered on the eastern side of the Jordan river, they will join their brethren in the conquest of “the core part” of the Promised Land, located on the west side of the river. The promise they make ultimately dismisses the Divine wrath.

This Divine anger is a punishment that happens when we withdraw from an effort, and this is how the story can be understood today. The principle of the story being: never stop halfway along the path you have taken, even if what you have achieved is satisfying enough. Be true to your original goals and intentions and follow through. Do not be fooled by temporary prosperity and stability, because what you already perceive as your reward may, in the near future, in fact, become a punishment. At best, you will plunge into boredom. Then you will regret not taking the next step. You will regret that you lacked the courage and wonder what you could have achieved, especially if the opportunity disappears. Also, never set a goal of just being happy, because that doesn’t really mean anything and what is worse is you can be sure that you are unaware of what will actually make you happy unless you continue to make, work toward and achieve your goals. Happiness is a feeling that accompanies our achievements. We achieve happiness when we achieve the goals we have set ourselves and even if you are unable to ever “feel” happy you will have a sense of accomplishment, of making a difference in the world. We are fundamentally narrative creatures; the essence of our existence is to constantly move forward. The only end point is death. Even if we are very successful and achieve all our goals, the moment we achieve them, we envision the next ones (if we don’t we must envision them). In all you do, reach for the Promised Land and don’t stop… ever, reaching… because none of our goals are, in fact, final.

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.

The Roving Eye and the Wandering Heart

The Roving Eye and the Wandering Heart

Thoughts on parashat Shelach

Menachem Mirski

Reason, feelings, senses… Since antiquity philosophers, thinkers and writers have wandered about these notions relating to intellectual and spiritual phenomena. What should we follow and when? Are there any general rules in this matter or does everything depend on the situation?

Opinions on this matter were divided. This week’s Torah portion also raises this point:

[…] And it shall be to you as a fringe, that you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and that you seek not after your own heart and your own eyes, after which you go astray. (Numbers 15:39)

These words are the words of the third paragraph of our daily Shema: ve’lo taturu akharei levavchem ve’acharei eineichem asher atem zonim achareihem. The Hebrew verb taturu used here to express ‘you shall not seek after’ is the same as the verb (latur) used to describe spying that was to be done by the spies exploring the Promised Land at the very beginning of our parasha (Number 13:2, 13:16) As Rashi explains it further by quoting other sources:

The heart and the eyes are the “spies” of the body — they act as its agents for sinning: the eye sees, the heart covets and the body commits the sin (Midrash Tanchuma, Sh’lach 15; cf. Talmud Yerushalmi Berakhot 1:8).

Indeed, our hearts and senses provoke us to sin and this claim can be found in many religious traditions. But what does this ‘not following’ or ‘not exploring/seeking after’ our hearts and eyes really mean? How can we define it? When our feelings/sensory impressions are kosher and when they are not?

The verse itself gives us a hint: you should have tzitzit and look at them (they remind you of the commandments) so that you do not follow your heart or eyes (or other senses). But should we follow the commandments exclusively and completely reject our feelings and testimony of the senses? Some philosophical traditions have taught that but the Torah would have never suggested it. On the contrary, it is precisely a drinking in of the beauty and wonder of the universe that is likely to draw us closer to God and to love and fear Him. This is what Rabbi Bahya Ibn Pakuda observed in his Duties of the Heart:

Are we obliged to contemplate all created things or not? Both Reason and Tradition (written and oral) oblige us to contemplate creation and learn from it the wisdom of the Creator…
With respect to written tradition it is stated in the Bible: “Lift high your eyes and see: Who created these?” (Isaiah 40:26) and “When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and stars that You set in place, what is man that You have been mindful of him, mortal man that You have taken note of him.” (Psalm 8:4-5)

Thus by loving the Creation we reach the Creator. In the rabbinic literature we can find even stronger expressions of love towards surrounding reality:

“A person will have to answer for everything that his eye beheld and he did not consume” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Kiddushin 4:12).

Rav Yehuda said: One who goes out during Nisan and sees trees that are blossoming recites: Blessed…who has withheld nothing from His world, and has created in it beautiful creatures and trees for human beings to enjoy. (Talmud Bavli, Berakhot 43b)

The Rabbis also introduced multiple blessings with which we should bless God for creating the entire variety of natural phenomena: sea, sun, thunder, rainbow, an unusual creature or even something as abstract as beauty itself:

Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam shekahcha lo baolamo.
Blessed are you, our God, King of the Universe, who has [brought] such [beautiful things] in His universe.

Obviously we also have numerous blessings for various kinds of food, for which we bless the Creator everyday. Thus, how should we understand the commandment that tells us not to follow our hearts and our senses?

I believe that the proper, modern understanding of this commandment should be the following: We need to be constantly able to discern the connection between the phenomena we experience and the Creator. As long as we see this connection, are connected with the Creator ourselves and are grateful for everything that happens to us, we can do quite a lot, without a risk of being led astray by our feelings or senses. This is all on the spiritual level. On the practical level, it all means – metaphorically speaking – never taking your eyes off the tzitzit – off the commandments. In other words, we need to see (or at least be able to see) all reality in the context of the Divine law.

What are the further, practical consequences of what I just suggested here? I believe that we shall never base our (ethical) judgments exclusively on what our heart tells us – exclusively on empathy, exclusively on compassion. These judgements will never be just. Compassion, empathy should be a component of our judgments but only within the wider context of the Divine law that distinguishes what is good and evil, right and wrong. Only when we are able to situate a human being or an action we judge in this context, then we can let our heart speak. In other words – we need to know who the person morally is or know the exact details of the actions we are talking about. Similarly we should never base our judgments exclusively on what we saw or experienced. It is always limited. There is always a lot more that we did not see nor experience. Here again, we should constantly look at our tzitzit – Divine commandments and judge the reality within this framework. The Divine law, spirit and wisdom helps us to constantly overcome our human limitations: subjectivity of our feelings, perception and our views. It also expands our great, but still limited, imagination.

Shabbat shalom!

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

To Share the Sparks of Divine Wisdom

To Share the Sparks of Divine Wisdom

Thoughts on Parashat Beha’alotecha

 Menachem Mirski

When we look around at the life of our society, we often wonder why these or those problems and injustices take place. We find answers here and there, in the media, in the scientific literature, or in the opinions of other people. These answers are true to varying degrees. There are those that include deep and complicated analyses – they are usually presented by scientists, philosophers etc. There are plenty of simple or superficial answers to these problems – these are usually presented by politicians. The criterion of their truthfulness, however, is basically one: their practical effectiveness – whether they help to remove the problems they speak about or not.

This week’s Torah portion speaks about this kind of social problem: we have a story of Israelites complaining that they have no meat to eat. (Numbers 11:4-15) This complaint causes the Divine wrath, which is, however, stopped (temporarily) by Moses. But let’s pause here and analyze this part of the story in a bit greater depth. Midrash Sifre explains that the demand for meat could be a cause for God’s vexation, however, not for the fact that the Israelities indeed lacked meat, but for the fact they did not lack it while wandering through the desert. The Torah tells us that they left Egypt with great flocks of sheep and herds of cattle:

…A mixed multitude went up with them, and very much livestock, both flocks and herds.
(Exodus 12:38).

They had not consumed them all in the desert. Surely they ate some, but the herds increased during 40 years of wandering – when they were about to enter the land we are told that:

The Reubenites and the Gadites owned cattle in very great numbers.
(Numbers 32:1)

Thus, it was not the complete lack of meat that made the Israelities complaining. But it is possible that these two tribes – Reubenites and Gadites – had more, or even much more livestock than the 10 remaining tribes. If that was the case, then it would mean that only some of the Israelites lacked meat to eat and only some of them complained. There are two other hints regarding this matter in our parasha. First, Moses, when speaking with God, confirms, that they indeed had livestock:

Could enough flocks and herds be slaughtered to suffice them? Or could all the fish of the sea be gathered for them to suffice them?” (Numbers 11:22)

But at the same time the way Moses speaks about it suggests that there was some gluttonous desire an insatiability involved here, which is completely in line with what we find in the verse 11:4:

The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, If only we had meat to eat! (Numbers 11:4).

Thus, what is really going on here is that the group of people called in Hebrew ha’aspesuf, which can be translated as the riffraff, rabble or mob is frustrated and expresses a gluttonous craving: the Hebrew hit’avu ta’ava can be translated as they coveted with lust. Why did they desire the meat so lustfully? Because they were hungry? Not necessarily. It’s possible that they complained because others had meat and they didn’t. This reading is confirmed by Ramban, who says that the wealthier ones had meat in the desert all the time. Some people tend to view the Israelites wandering through the desert as some sort of “equally disadvantaged” group of people who just left the country where they were all “equally oppressed.” In fact, there is neither textual, nor common-sense evidence that this view is correct. It seems that even in Egypt there was disparity between the Israelites, both in the matter of wealth and social status – if they even existed in Auschwitz (as described in P. Levi or J. Amery writings for example), why should they not exist in Egypt, in place where, despite slavery and the terrible living conditions, our ancestors could survive, had families and were able to meet their needs. They all left Egypt with what they had, some had more and some had less. Then, while encamping in the desert, some were frugal and resourceful, and some others were lazy or wasteful, as people normally are.

Therefore, it seems that the Divine wrath that followed their complaints was not an irritation of a Deity who has anger management issues and finds pleasure in torturing the poor, disadvantaged people. It seems that this Divine anger was a common form of spiritual unrest that stemmed from more complex social phenomena: frustration, gluttony, greed, lack of spiritual discipline and perhaps some general, unjust social divisions among the Israelite tribes.

Poverty isn’t good but it is not poverty itself that causes unrest, hatred and violence. There are plenty of poor and disadvantaged societies in the world where the crime rate is not higher than in our affluent, Western societies. It is the relative poverty that causes all of that; it is the situation in which some people lack perspectives to grow, to obtain better social status, while seeing others doing well and constantly moving up in the social hierarchy. This happens, on a smaller or larger scale, in every human society. But the reasons it happens are not purely ‘systemic’; it is not only due to the fact how the society is organized. There are plenty of equally valid reasons for which unrest and injustices happen: educational, cultural and spiritual. It really matters what people are being taught in our societies: whether they are taught frugality and (spiritual) discipline, or entitlement, wastefulness and balagan are being tolerated or even rewarded. It really matters whether we really teach social solidarity and sensitivity towards the needs of others, or these are all just phony upper class gestures made to feel morally better and to appease ‘the mob’.

Therefore, given the complexity of the problem, ein la’davar sof – there is no end in the strivings for justice in our societies. We all should be actively involved in it. God, in His response to Moses’ intercession for the Israelites singles out seventy elders whom He bestows with His Divine spirit. It was all done to heal the Israelite community and to teach them self-control, mindfulness and to fill them with spiritual strength, joy and hope. All these things matter enormously and they cannot be brought or changed ‘systemically’. It is a spiritual duty of every human individual: everyone of us should share the spark of the Divine wisdom he or she obtained. The work towards justice and peace is to a large extent on us, common people: we have to teach each other and learn from each other as much as we can.

Shabbat shalom!

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

Bemidbar

To do God’s work before He does it

Thoughts on parashat Bemidbar

 Menachem Mirski 

Life sometimes puts us in difficult and complicated situations, in which we say to ourselves „it will be ok”, and then it turns out that what we feared the most becomes reality. It also happens that we are filled with enormous optimism in these difficult situations, which makes us only see what is positive and we do not even let ourselves think that it may happen otherwise. Our disappointment is then much greater. Then, after the fact, we hold ourselves accountable and sometimes find that we didn’t do everything we could to prevent the situation, that we could have been more foresight, circumspect and done more.

Our portion of Torah for this week starts with words that seem to have nothing to do with what I wrote above:

 On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the LORD spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, saying: Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head. You and Aaron shall record them by their groups, from the age of twenty years up, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms. Associated with you shall be a man from each tribe, each one the head of his ancestral house. (Numbers 1:1-4)

God commands Moses to count the tribes of Israel in order to determine the number of men able to go forth in the army into battle, in order to conquer Eretz Israel.  We may ask: why does (all-knowing) God need this number, does He not know it? The answer to that question is: He doesn’t need that number. Moses, the other leaders of Israel, and the people of Israel themselves need it to plan and accomplish this conquest. They need it, because from the moment of leaving Egypt, divine protection and intervention are gradually diminishing. Only the first battle, with the Egyptians, was fought for Israel by God himself, with his own hands, which included sinking the Egyptian armies into the sea. The next battle, fought with the Amalekites immediately after the exodus from Egypt (Ex 17: 8-16), was fought by the Israelites themselves. The relationship between the Chosen People and the Eternal One is consolidated then in a form of partnership, not as a complete dependence on God.

As Nahmanides, following the sages, put it, we must never rely on miracles but must take all necessary preparations for meeting the enemy. Similarly, in our individual life, when we struggle with the challenges that are thrown at us: we must be constantly able to estimate what depends on us, what is in our power and what, consequently, belongs to our duties, which we should not burden the Eternal or other people. Then we should do all that is within our power to face evil or danger. Because of our unique relationship with the Eternal, miracles will (probably) happen (which we observed even in our not very distant history). If they happen, it will be an additional gift for us, a reward for our wisdom and readiness to act –  a gift that will bring us relief, happiness and restore peace between the people.

 

Shabbat shalom!

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

Pinchas

Pinchas

Rabbi Dr Walter Rothschild

Poznałem Pinchasa wiele razy. W istocie wydaje się, że prawie w każdej społeczności, w jakiej służyłem, był jakiś Pinchas! Jest on (bądź ona) ogromnie entuzjastyczny, głęboko zaangażowany, impulsywny i ma skłonność do podejmowania szybkich i skrajnych działań, nie zawsze do końca przemyślanych. Mają dobre intencje i wiedzą, że realizują dzieło Boga i że Bóg jest po ich stronie. Niektórzy z nich zostają nawet rabinami albo przynajmniej ludźmi przekonanymi, że wiedzą więcej od rabinów! Z najgłębszym szacunkiem, potrafią być też zupełnie nieznośni.

W istocie sam Pinchas był nieznośny w dwójnasób – jako że pod koniec zeszłotygodniowej sidry (w Lb 25, 6-8) wstaje i z własnej inicjatywy przebija włócznią dwójkę osób zastanych „in flagranti” – Izraelitę przez plecy (najwyraźniej był na górze), a Midianitkę przez brzuch. Tora pozwala sobie przy tym nawet na żart – Pinchas wchodzi do „kuba” – jest to słowo, które pojawia się tylko w tym miejscu i oznacza rodzaj dużego, ceremonialnego namiotu – i przebija włócznią parę nieszczęśników w trakcie ich ostatecznego „stosunku przerywanego” przez „kuba” – słowo to pojawia się w Torze tylko dwukrotnie, ale tutaj oznacza brzuch albo żołądek. Była to wyjątkowa prowokacja – wielu spośród Izraelitów, którzy teraz mieszkali w Szitim, zaczęło zadawać się z lokalnymi Moabitkami, a nawet zaczęli przyłączać się do ich rytualnego oddawania czci „Baal Peorowi” – przypuszczalnie miejscowemu bogu góry Peor, o której wspomina się w Lb 23, 28 i z której Balak i Bilaam spoglądają w dół na pustynię. Samo słowo „Peor” oznacza „szeroki” albo „otwarty”. Bóg jest naturalnie rozgniewany, że Izraelici przestrzegają pogańskich zwyczajów – dołączając do rytualnych ofiarnych posiłków ze zwierząt poświęconych bożkowi Baalowi, a zwłaszcza angażując się w stosunki płciowe, które w kultach pogańskich miały najwyraźniej symbolizować relację między człowiekiem a bogiem.

Czytamy następnie zwięzłe, ale bardzo gwałtowne i brutalne wersety opisujące sposób, w jaki zostaną ukarani winni (25, 4-5) – i dokładnie w tym momencie Izraelita (Zimri) postanawia współżyć w bardzo publiczny, prowokacyjny sposób z Midianitką (Kozbi); nie jest do końca jasne, w którym namiocie oddawali się swojej rozpuście – Izraelici siedzą i lamentują przy wejściu do Miszkanu, Namiotu Spotkania – „Ohel Moed”. Czy nasza para w istocie użyła „Ohel Moed” jako kuba i miejsca dla swojej schadzki? Jeśli tak, to dopuściliby się jego zbezczeszczenia – ale nie w takim stopniu, co Pinchas, który w swojej gorliwości i porywczości morduje dwie istoty ludzkie, rozlewając tym samym ludzką krew w świętym namiocie…. Krótko mówiąc, mamy do czynienia z naprawdę nieciekawą sytuacją, z kryzysem. I to abstrahując od politycznych konsekwencji zamordowania Midianickiej księżniczki, córki wodza.

Być może właśnie dlatego rabini postanowili podzielić sidrot właśnie w tym miejscu, w środku relacji na temat tych wydarzeń. Żeby dać wszystkim szansę na odzyskanie oddechu, żeby zastanawiali się przez tydzień, jak ta historia potoczy się dalej w kolejny szabat. Żeby mogli się uspokoić.

Ale reakcja zatyka dech w piersiach. Bóg mówi Mojżeszowi, że wnuk jego brata (jako że Pinchas jest wnukiem Aharona) dobrze postąpił i że wszyscy powinni być z niego dumni! Choć Pinchas należy już do rodu kapłańskiego, to teraz jego status kapłański oraz status jego potomków został zagwarantowany na zawsze. (Nawiasem mówiąc, kohen powinien oczywiście unikać wszelkiego kontaktu z ludzkimi zwłokami i ludzką krwią, które uczyniłyby go nieczystym – może Pinchas użył długiej włóczni i dzięki temu nie został ochlapany krwią?). Bóg mówi nawet, że za sprawą swojego czynu Pinchas zasługuje na „Moje przymierze szalom” – „Briti Szalom”. Bóg zatrzymuje plagę.

W rozdziale 26 przeprowadzony zostaje kolejny spis powszechny, a tym razem osobą odpowiedzialną za liczenie jest Eleazar, ojciec Pinchasa; tym razem celem jest ustalenie, ilu jest dostępnych mężczyzn w wieku poborowym (powyżej 20 lat) – jako że żadnego z tych młodych mężczyzn nie było na świecie, kiedy Mojżesz z Aharonem przeprowadzili pierwszy spis powszechny na pustyni Synajskiej – za wyjątkiem Kaleba i Jozuego. Rzeczywiście nadszedł czas na zmianę na górze i Mojżeszowi przykazuje się, żeby przygotował się na własne „usunięcie ze stanowiska” i żeby mianował Jozuego na swojego następcę, za przyzwoleniem Arcykapłana Eleazara. Eleazar zajął miejsce Aharona, a Jozue zajmie miejsce Moszego, jedyna różnica jest taka, że Eleazar był synem Aharona, zaś Jozue nie jest w ogóle spokrewniony z Mojżeszem.

W Lb 31, 6 wojska izraelickie wysłano, żeby walczyły z Midianitami; Pinchas zostaje wysłany jako swoisty pierwszy „kapelan wojskowy”, „który zabrał ze sobą święte naczynia i trąby wojenne.” Tym razem nie jest uzbrojony w żadną broń, a tylko w wyposażenie służące do rytuałów i do komunikacji. Przypuszczalnie uważano, że jest młody i w dobrej formie fizycznej i nie będzie się bał widoku krwi. Czy jest to rodzaj awansu czy też degradacji? To wciąż właśnie do jego ojca Eleazara ludzie muszą przynosić wszystkie łupy. Jest to nieprzyjemna historia i trzeba zadać sobie pytanie, jaką tak naprawdę rolę odgrywa w tym wszystkim Pinchas.

O co tu więc chodzi? Co Bóg próbuje powiedzieć Mojżeszowi i jego bratankowi, ojcowi Pinchasa? Co próbuje powiedzieć ludowi? Że siedzenie przed wejściem do Namiotu Spotkania i lamentowanie nad zaistniałą sytuacją nie wystarczy, że trzeba COŚ zrobić? Podjąć działanie, a w razie konieczności dopuścić się przemocy? Sądzę, że u wielu z nas taka myśl budzi dyskomfort. Judaizm nie jest formą pacyfizmu, rozumiemy, że czasem konieczne są wojny obronne, a uczestniczenie w takiej wojnie uznawane jest nawet za „milchemet micwa” – jednak w tym przypadku zagrożenie, z jakim zmagają się Izraelici, ma charakter duchowy, a nie fizyczny; ich wiara w niewidzialnego, jedynego Boga jest wystawiana na próbę w efekcie styczności z rozkoszami pogańskiego politeizmu i oddawania się przyjemnościom materialnym i fizycznym – jest to z pewnością rozpaczliwa sytuacja, ale czy usprawiedliwia to taką rzeź? Niestety historia świata wypełniona jest sytuacjami, kiedy jedna grupa czuła się usprawiedliwiona, żeby zmasakrować inną grupę po prostu za wyznawanie „niewłaściwych” przekonań i zjawisko to nie przeszło jeszcze do historii – tutaj, w tych rozdziałach, odkrywamy ku naszemu dyskomfortowi, że historia żydowska – albo, żeby lepiej to ująć, starożytna historia izraelicka – nie jest całkowicie wolna ani od takich koncepcji, ani od takich zajść.

Jako Żydzi czasem – nazbyt często – mierzyliśmy się z egzystencjalnym pytaniem: „za co jesteś gotów umrzeć?” – i wielu Żydów wybierało na przykład raczej męczeństwo aniżeli chrzest. Druga strona tego samego pytania brzmi: „za co jesteś gotów zabić?”. Mam nadzieję, że większość z nas nie będzie się nigdy musiała mierzyć z tym pytaniem w konkretnej, rzeczywistej sytuacji, ale niedawno toczyłem dyskusję z członkiem kongregacji w Berlinie, któremu nie podobała się modlitwa za Siły Obronne Izraela w synagodze – „Możemy równie dobrze wrócić do błogosławienia armat!” – powiedział. Nie zgodziłem się z nim. Są w tej chwili młodzi mężczyźni i kobiety, których obowiązkiem jest chronić i bronić – w razie konieczności (i jest to obwarowane warunkami i podlega ścisłej kontroli) przy użyciu przemocy, przy użyciu broni, tak żeby inni mogli dalej wieść swoje życie jako Żydzi w (stosunkowym) pokoju. Nie dlatego, że inni koniecznie chcą, żebyśmy przyjęli ich religię, ale ponieważ chcą, żebyśmy porzucili naszą własną – albo nie widzą powodu, dlaczego mielibyśmy żyć, jeśli mamy naszą odrębną religię. Jest to poważny problem i póki co nic nie wskazuje na to, żeby miał zniknąć, a jego zaczątek możemy zaobserwować już w Biblii.

Pinchas NIE jest wzorem do naśladowania dla nas wszystkich, ale jest człowiekiem, który bierze sprawy w swoje ręce, żeby zrobić to, co uznaje za słuszne. Przynajmniej za to należy mu się nasz szacunek, nawet jeśli uznamy jego metody za nazbyt skrajne w bardziej „normalnych” czasach.

Szabat Szalom,

Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild

tłum. Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka

Bamidbar

About our obligations to the Covenant.

Thoughts on Parashat Bamidbar

 

Menachem Mirski

 

This Sabbath we begin the Book of Numbers, in Hebrew Bamidbar (In the Desert). At the beginning of Parashat Bamidbar God asks Moses to conduct a census of the twelve tribes of Israel. Moses counts 603,505 men able to bear arms (20 to 60 years); the tribe of Levi, however, numbering 22,300 males aged one month and older, is counted separately. Almost everything our parasha speaks of is discussed in the context of numbers. Names, placement of the people in the camp, in the hierarchy, as well as some obligations and responsibilities. Everything is in the context of numbers.

The first verse of week Haftarah reminds us about the promise given to Abraham:

The number of the people of Israel shall be like that of the sands of the sea, which cannot be measured or counted; and instead of being told, “You are Not-My-People,” they shall be called Children-of-the-Living-God. (Hosea 2:1)

Hosea gives the same promise to the Israelites whose God wants to remarry, rebuking them at the same time (for this one of the fundamental elements of prophetic activity) and setting conditions upon which the promise will be given again. These conditions can be summarized on one: break with the past. Doing so, Hosea also introduces one important theological concept: the Covenant seen as a marriage between God and Israel – Husband and Wife. This imagery was adopted by later prophets, like Isaiah and Jeremiah. But the origins of this concept are not particularly beautiful. In the first chapter of the book God commands Hosea to marry a whore, Gomer, and to have children with her. Hosea’s acceptance of his shameful role as the husband of a whoring wife is analogical to God’s shameful status of being connected to Israel. But on the other hand it illustrates that God would not abandon Israel even if they left Him to serve false gods. It demonstrates how far God can go to restore the proper, covenantal relationship with His people.

The Torah accustomed us to a strict connection between fertility and divine blessing. That’s one of “the laws of nature” I would say and this particular “law of nature” incorporates the divine laws as well. What’s the reason for such a claim? I’m saying this because mere fertility is not enough for a people’s survival, especially if we talk about specific, ethnic or religious groups. We are not animals, our survival has always had a political aspect. We have to maintain stable societal institutions, we have to obey laws and principles to provide people with an environment in which they can grow and develop. We have to live according to a certain ideology or ethos that recognizes true values, like justice, love and peace, as well as the value of human life itself and not only the value of individual life but also the life of the community. There have been numerous tribes, ethnic and religious groups or even entire civilizations which disappeared from the face of the earth throughout history. We are one of those very few ancient peoples that did not. It is mainly because our religion has always recognized the true values, the value of life itself and has never stopped putting those values actively into practice.

I believe that both, the life of an individual and the life a community as a whole is, by default, of equal value. The community which respects this balance is the community God wants to marry or to remarry, as it is in our Haftarah; these are the people among whom His spirit would inhabit. He divorced and will divorce a community of selfish people who only take care of their individual needs and interests. He will do so not only for ethical reasons: communities like that are not sustainable over time. If they are not sustainable, they cannot fulfill their part of the covenant with God, which is, by definition, eternal. That’s one of the fundamental ideas and beliefs in our religion: we were appointed to be witnesses of the one and only God and we are to remain witnesses forever, until the end of times (whatever that means, but very very long). I also believe that God would never have married a community that constantly sacrifices the capacities and interests of its individuals on the altar of so called ‘common good’ – a community that embraced various, radical forms of collectivism and doesn’t care about individual rights.

What does it mean for an individual? It means that your life is precious, but it is finite. Life you may create is not less precious than yours – it is equally precious, by definition. The goal is to maintain a certain balance between valuing your individual self-fulfillment and valuing procreation. This balance is of course different at different stages of human life. We must obtain certain wisdom to find this balance. At the societal level we must obtain certain wisdom to find the balance between rights and dreams of an individual and the well-being of the community. This line can be and should be drawn somewhere, because both, radical individualism (that is seeing and valuing everything exclusively from the perspective of an individual) and radical collectivism (seeing and valuing everything exclusively from the perspective of the group) is harmful to human beings. Radical, thoughtless individualism hurts primarily the individuals, the society – to a lesser degree, depending how widespread it is. Radical collectivism, especially in the long run, hurts most of the individuals, thus it also hurts society itself.
Collectivism has been expressed strongly through political philosophies such as socialism, fascism, and communism. Its radical renditions existed in practice in various totalitarian systems established throughout history. They are visible and real also today. They are put in practice in countries like North Korea, islamist theocracies like Afghanistan, and perhaps to a lesser degree – China, Belarus. In the West the collectivists ideas exist in the ideologies of far-right and far-left movements.

Collectivism is also present in those forms of identity politics that put the group identity ahead of the identity of the individual. These kinds of concepts are dangerous because they may easily result in ascribing something that is called collective responsibility to certain groups in the society. I’m not denying that a phenomenon like collective responsibility may exist but we should deal with this idea very carefully. It generates a number of controversies on many levels: metaphysical, moral, psychological and sociological. The situation becomes even worse when in the name of the collective responsibility we drop the idea of individual responsibility. This makes any form of justice impossible because justice is inextricably linked to individual responsibility. As Jews, we know too well how ascribing collective responsibility works in practice and how tragic the consequences might be. We should be the first to reject these patterns of thinking, or at least approach them with deep criticism.

The threats that stem from all these radical concepts are never gone and will never be gone. It’s a direct consequence of human freedom: freedom of thought, speech, action and the freedom of existential self-defining. Knowing all of that we should, however, distance ourselves, not only practically, but also ideologically, from all the forms of these concepts: radical collectivism, various forms of self-centeredness, narcissism, as well as from its supposedly reasonable justifications. We should distance ourselves also from group forms of self-centeredness and narcissism, which are very common in our societies today and only fuel partisanship and deepen divisions. All beliefs like: “only people from my group are really smart, intelligent and educated, all other people (especially those from a group I hate) are either crazy, dumb or uneducated” fell into this category.

God loves us equally as individuals and as a community. He is in charge of solving conflicts of human interests. His actions might be delayed, but they are always just. Whenever you feel that as a result of those conflicts you were treated unjustly, by people or even by God himself, one should have patience and trust that justice will come. It does not mean that you should just wait passively and not actively repair the situation. On the contrary, you should take action if you feel it’s warranted. But being patient and having trust in the Supreme Judge first makes subsequent actions more thoughtful, more reasonable and more balanced, which is always necessary in pursuing justice.

Shabbat shalom!

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

Matot-Massei

Plemiona Izraela: gałęzie jednego drzewa czy pręty „boskiego gniewu”?

Refleksja nad paraszą Matot-Massei

Menachem Mirski

Porcja Tory na ten tydzień zaczyna się od słów, które z pozoru nie wyróżniają się niczym szczególnym:

„I oświadczył Mojżesz naczelnikom pokoleń Israela, i rzekł: Oto, co rozkazał Wiekuisty!” (Lb 30, 2, tłum I. Cylkow).

Dalej następuje wykładnia praw dotyczących składania przysiąg, a następnie mamy historię wyprawy wojennej mającej na celu odwet na Midianitach. Mojżesz gniewa się na dowódców wojsk Izraela za to, że nie byli wystarczająco bezwzględni w postępowaniu z wrogiem. W konsekwencji poucza ich, jak należało się z owym wrogiem rozprawić.

W dzisiejszej refleksji skupimy się na tym problemie, jednakże nie tyle z perspektywy historycznej, lecz, nazwijmy to, lingwistycznej. Otóż w Torze znajdujemy zasadniczo dwa różne słowa na określenie „plemion Izraela”. Jedno to szewet (l.m. szewatim), drugie to mate (l.m. matot). I podczas gdy zarówno szewet i mate oznaczają „gałąź”, oba też oznaczają „kij” albo „pręt”. W tym tkwi głębsze znaczenie obu tych nazw: w niektórych przypadkach Tora odnosi się do nas jako do „gałęzi”, podkreślając tym samym konieczność elastyczności i ustępliwości w życiu. W innych kontekstach Tora, używając tych samych określeń, nazywa nas „prętami”, podkreślając przy tym potrzebę zdecydowania i determinacji w realizacji naszej misji jako „ludu świętego” i „światła dla narodów’. Oba określenia znajdujemy np. w wersecie Księgi Izajasza, w której to właśnie Bóg, ustami proroka, oboma określa króla Asyrii:

„Ach, ten Asyryjczyk, rózga (szewet) mego gniewu i bicz (mate) w mocy mej zapalczywości!” (Iz 10, 5),

którego wyznaczył, by dokonał sprawiedliwego sądu nad nieposłusznym narodem Izraela.

Tym samym owa dwuznaczność implikuje dwojakie rozumienie pojęcia „plemienia”, tak samo, jak dwojakie jest rozumienie hebrajskiego słowa Isra-El, które oznacza jednocześnie „walczący z Bogiem” (znaczenie dosłowne) jak i „naród wybrany”. Dwuznaczność określenia Isra-El określa dwie formy naszej relacji z Bogiem – na przemian Mu służymy i się z nim spieramy – natomiast dwuznaczność pojęć szewet i mate określa formy naszej relacji z ludźmi innych narodów i religii, wobec których, zależnie od sytuacji, powinniśmy być raz ugodowi i ustępliwi, innym razem zaś stanowczy i nieugięci.

Prawdziwa mądrość tkwi w umiejętności rozpoznania obu rodzajów sytuacji i odpowiedzeniu sobie na pytanie, kiedy powinniśmy postępować z innymi ugodowo i łagodnie, jak gałąź uginająca się pod naporem wiatru, kiedy zaś stanowczo i bezkompromisowo, jak pręt czy drąg, który przed nikim ani niczym się nie ugina. W okazywaniu innym pokory i skromności nie tkwi zasadniczo nic złego, tak długo, jak owa druga strona jest przyjaźnie do nas nastawiona. Problem pojawia się wówczas, gdy owa druga strona – zbiorowość ludzka czy pojedyncza osoba – świadomie wykorzystuje naszą ugodowość lub wręcz na niej żeruje. W tym wszystkim zawiera się pewna teoria negocjacji i odpowiedź na pytanie, czy mają być one „twarde” czy może „miękkie”. By zdecydować o tym, jakie negocjacje mamy prowadzić, musimy bacznie obserwować zachowanie i intencje ludzi, z którymi przyszło nam toczyć spór. Rozwiązanie, które tu zaproponuję, jest dosyć proste i brzmi następująco: tak długo, jak widzimy w reakcjach i działaniach innych pokojowe intencje (które nie zawsze mogą być dla nas doraźnie korzystne, ale np. obliczone na wspólne dobro lub inny, głębszy cel), powinniśmy raczej przyjmować strategię wobec innych przyjazną. Jeśli jednakże widzimy, że strategia drugiej strony ma na celu wyłącznie jej własny interes, realizowany świadomie kosztem naszego, lub dostrzegamy wręcz jawną wrogość wobec nas, powinniśmy zasadniczo pozostać w naszych działaniach stanowczy i nieugięci. Tylko wówczas, gdy posiądziemy ową mądrość widzenia i rozróżniania, będziemy w stanie zbalansować nasze działania tak, ażeby torować drogę najwyższej, boskiej sprawiedliwości.

Szabat szalom!

Menachem Mirski

Matot-Massei

Tribes of Israel: Branches of One Tree or Rods of „Divine Fury”?

Thoughts on Parashat Matot-Massei

Menachem Mirski

The opening words of this week’s Torah portion may not seem like an extraordinary statement at first sight:

“Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying: This is what the [Eternal] has commanded…” (Numbers 30:2.)

Next we find an explanation of the laws regarding making vows, after which we read about a military expedition aimed at taking revenge against the Midianites. Moses is angry at the commanders of the Israelite army for not being ruthless enough in their dealings with the enemy. As a result he instructs them how they should have dealt with that enemy.

In today’s reflection I’d like to focus on this problem, but not so much from a historical perspective, but rather from a somewhat more linguistic standpoint. It turns out that the Torah uses two different words to describe the “tribes of Israel”. One of them is shevet (plural: shevatim), whereas the second one is mate (plural matot). And while both shevet and mate mean “branch”, both can also mean “stick” or “rod”. This duality reflects a deeper meaning of these two names: in some cases the Torah refers to us as a “branch”, thus emphasizing the necessity to be flexible and pliant in our life. But in other contexts the Torah uses the word “rods” to describe the same concept, thus emphasizing the need to exhibit firmness and determination as we carry out our mission of being the “holy people” and a “light for the nations”. Both of these terms can be found for example in a verse from the Book of Isaiah, in which it is indeed God Himself who through the mouth of the prophet uses  both of these terms to describe the King of Assyria,

“Ha! Assyria, rod (shevet) of My anger, in whose hand, as a staff (mate), is My fury!” (Isaiah 10:5),whom He appoints to pass a just judgment on the disobedient people of Israel.

Thus this ambiguity implies a two-fold understanding of the concept of a “tribe”, just as there is a dual understanding of the Hebrew term “Isra-El”, which means both “wrestling with God” (the literal meaning) as well as  “the chosen people”. The ambiguity of the expression “Isra-El” corresponds to the two forms of our relationship with God – we alternately serve Him and engage in disputes with Him, whereas the ambiguity of the terms shevet and mate sheds some light on the character of our relationship with members of other nations and religions, towards whom, depending on the circumstances, we should at times display a conciliatory and pliant attitude, whereas on other occasions be firm and unyielding.

True wisdom lies in the ability to distinguish between these two types of situations and in being able to recognize when we should be conciliatory and lenient towards others, just like a branch bending under the pressure of the wind, and when on the other hand we should act in a firm and uncompromising way, like a rod or a stick, not yielding to anyone nor to anything. In principle there is nothing wrong with showing others humility and modesty, as long as the other side is also displaying a friendly attitude towards us. A problem arises when that other side – a community of people or an individual person – deliberately takes advantage of our conciliatory approach or simply starts to exploit it. All this encompasses a certain theory of negotiations as well as answering the question whether we should display a “hard” or perhaps “soft” approach in such negotiations. In order to decide which of these two options to employ, we must pay close attention to the behavior and the motives of the people with whom we happen to be engaged in a conflict. The solution which I’d like to propose here is quite simple and it suggests the following stance: as long as we perceive the reactions and actions of others as a sign of their peaceful intentions – even if these actions might not always be beneficial for us in the short term, but their aim is for example achieving a certain common good or another, deeper objective), in such cases we should exhibit a friendly approach towards the other side.  However, if we see that the other side’s strategy is to look solely after its own best interests, which are being deliberately protected at the expense of our own good, or if we notice an openly hostile approach towards us, we should essentially keep on upholding a firm and unyielding stance. Only once we acquire this wisdom of seeing and discerning will we be able to adjust our actions in a way that will enable us to pave the way for the supreme, Divine justice.

Shabbat Shalom!

Menachem Mirski

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka