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.

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.

Parashat Kdoshim

Parashat Kdoshim

פרשת קדשים

(Wayikra 19:1 – 20:27)

Miriam Klimova Rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem and Rabbi at the “Shirat ha-Yam” congregation in Haifa.
Imagine a perfect morning: the smell of freshly brewed coffee, the singing of spring birds outside the window. You open the door to your apartment, you grab a fresh newspaper brought by the mailman already before dawn, you sit at the table, the paper rustles nicely as you open it and you read the latest news. And suddenly it becomes obvious – a perfect world doesn’t exist, and there are no perfect people…

Similarly we open our weekly Torah chapter.

We see that it begins with a surprising commandment: kdoshim tihju, “You shall be holy!”, but right away we face a difficult question – how can humans be holy?! If being holy requires us to become perfect, then most probably this has nothing in common with the reality which surrounds us.

Parashat Kdoshim forces us to reflect on what holiness is. Is it a certain emotion, or an experience, or maybe you need to be born “holy”?

The commandment to sanctify oneself and to be holy appears in many places in the TaNaCh and it usually refers to sanctifying yourself from something or to making someone holy. For example in II Samuel 11:4: “for she was sanctified from her uncleanness”[1]; in the Book of Joshua: “sanctify the people”. We know the commandment to sanctify the name of God, we also make the Shabbat holy. So the concept of “holiness” has different definitions.

One of the most famous researchers of this concept is  Rudolf Otto, a German philosopher and theologist, who wrote a famous book entitled “The Idea of the Holy”, in which he tried to define this concept and the way in which holiness is experienced by humans. Being a protestant theologist, he was worried by the tendency of liberals to reduce religion to ethics. He was trying to prove that there is a religious element in human nature which is inherently independent from the ethical element. It is a part of ourselves which reacts to that which is mysterious and surprising, to the reality which is both stunning and fascinating, which cannot be neither appropriately understood nor rationally explained. According to Otto the word “holy” and its counterparts point to a sense of a “mysterious” divine reality which evokes fear, respect and humility. This feeling in its simplest and most primitive form is terrifying, shocking and horrifying. In his opinion holiness is a combination of two forces: fear of the sublime character of this thing, and also a longing to draw close to it.

Others describe holiness as a sublime and highest dimension transcending reality. Perhaps there is some truth in these definitions, but it’s difficult to combine them with the commandment “you shall be holy” – here and now!

The commandment “you shall be holy” also states a reason for it: “for I, your God, am holy.” Holiness is an attribute of God, and therefore we must understand how a physical person can be close to the One who doesn’t have any flaws?!

I suggest that we look for an answer in the words of Midrash Avot de-Rabi Natan 27:

„Rabbi Tarfon taught: Do not keep away from a measurement without boundaries, or from work without end. A parable: To what can this be compared?… to someone who is supposed to take water from the sea and put it on dry land. The sea gets no smaller and the land is not filled up with water. So he becomes frustrated. Say to such a person, Empty one! Why are you so frustrated? Every day you are paid a golden dinar!”

Seeking that which is unreachable can be a means to achieving it. The distance between the sublime perfectness of God and our earthly limitations is infinite just like the waters of the sea, but the Torah encourages us to strive to reduce this distance.

The key to understanding the concept of holiness in Judaism is the statement that the path to reaching holiness is following the path showed by God. In Rabbinic literature we find many ways through which one can achieve closeness to God and thereby become a holy person:

„וכי אפשר לאדם להלך אחר השכינה? אלא להלך אחר מידותיו של הקדוש ברוך הוא: מה הוא מלביש ערומים – אף אתה הלבש ערומים; הקדוש ברוך הוא ביקר חולים – אף אתה בקר חולים; הקדוש ברוך הוא ניחם אבלים – אף אתה נחם אבלים; הקדוש ברוך הוא קבר מתים – אף אתה קבור מתים” – (תלמוד בבלי, מסכת סוטה דף יד)

„But is it actually possible for a person to follow the Divine Presence? Rather, the meaning is that one should follow the attributes of the Holy One, Blessed be He. Just as He clothes the naked, so too, should you clothe the naked. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, visits the sick, so too, should you visit the sick. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, consoles mourners, so too, should you console mourners. Just as the Holy One, Blessed be He, buried the dead, so too, should you bury the dead.” – Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sota, 14.

Humans can be holy when they walk the paths of God, when they do good deeds for others and when they work towards the existence of the world. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that several verses later we find another well-known and often quoted commandment:

וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ…

„Love Your Neighbor As Yourself.”

In Judaism holiness is not an experience, it’s not an emotion, and you don’t have to be born holy. In Judaism holiness – is an action!

So let’s go back to the perfect morning: again, the smell of freshly brewed coffee, birds singing, a newspaper, the latest news… and suddenly it becomes clear: the world needs holiness, your holiness!

Shabbat Shalom!

Miriam Klimova,
Rabbinic student at HUC in Jerusalem, 
A Rabbi at the Shirat ha-Yam congregation in Haifa.

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka

[1] English translation according to the Polish version [translator’s note].

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.

 

Thoughts on Pesach 5782

Leave Behind

Thoughts on Pesach 5782

Menachem Mirski

This Friday at sunset we will mark the beginning not only of Shabbat, but also the festival of Pesach, which is one of the main pillars of our religious experience and our identity. Passover is a festival of freedom and joy, but also of certain duties and necessary sacrifices which are supposed to shape us psychologically so that we become conscious “owners of freedom”:

The Egyptians urged the people on, impatient to have them leave the country, for they said, “We shall all be dead.” So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls wrapped in their cloaks upon their shoulders… Moreover, a mixed multitude went up with them, and very much livestock, both flocks and herds. And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had taken out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, since they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay; nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves. (Ex 12:33-34;38-39)

The above story is the source of a law according to which during Pesach we don’t eat not only leavened bread, but also any kind of products containing chametz, i.e. made based on the leaven of five grains: rye, wheat, spelt, oat and barley, or containing even trace amounts of them, if the process of their production could have led to the creation of leaven. Not only eating, but also owning these products on Pesach is forbidden.

Sometimes it is generally said that we do all this to commemorate those events; but this statement is not correct, since this tradition is based on a “stronger” rabbinical rule expressed in the Mishna (Pesachim 10:5): “In each and every generation a person must view himself as though he personally left Egypt, as it is stated: ‘And you shall tell your son on that day, saying: It is because of this which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt’ (Exodus 13:8)”. This rabbinical rule is almost ordering us to “embody” the fact of leaving Egypt, so that we never go back there again and so that once and for all we can remain free people, which in the human world has always been and still remains a challenge, often an uneasy challenge.

That’s among others the reason why our tradition abounds in rituals and laws helping us “embody” the experience of the exodus from Egypt. Some of them are laws regarding chametz:

When one searches for chametz on the night of the fourteenth or the day of the fourteenth [of the month of Nissan] or in the middle of the festival, he should recite the blessing before he begins to search: Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us about destruction of chametz. And he searches and seeks [it] in all of the places into which we introduce chametz, as we have explained. (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Leavened and Unleavened Bread 3:6)

And he searches and seeks [it] in all of the places into which we introduce chametz…– such a search can be very time consuming or actually never ending, if someone treats this matter very meticulously. So we don’t become obsessed over this, the Rabbis decided that there must be a rule limiting the practice of searching and getting rid of the chametz:

And when he finishes searching – if he searched on the night of the fourteenth or on the day of the fourteenth [Nissan] before the sixth hour, he must nullify all of the chametz that remained in his possession and that he does not see. And he should say, “All the chametz that is in my possession that I have not seen – behold it is like dust.” (Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Leavened and Unleavened Bread 3:7)

Therefore we are obliged to end the search for the chametz at a certain point and recognize that we’ve done everything in our power and seal this with the above mentioned statement. In my opinion what’s very important here is that we should use such “limiting rules” not only with regards to chametz, but also many other areas of our lives. Let us then engage in an intellectual experiment and let’s consider that chametz is: a burden, a problem, a hardship, a yoke or – a weakness or addiction. All such things are obstacles limiting our freedom. We should be always eliminating them from our lives. In many cases we should be as meticulous as with the searching for and destruction of chametz, otherwise the problems and burdens will quickly come back to us. But here we also need a “limiting rule”, so that we don’t become obsessed with fighting against all these things, since this can yield contrary to expected effects. For example focusing obsessively on one’s own weaknesses or an exaggerated search for evil in everything that surrounds us, even if the motivation behind it is positive, doesn’t make our life better. At a certain point while fighting against such things we must simply recognize that we’ve done a lot, that we’ve done all that was in our power, seal it with a blessing, leave those burdens and weaknesses behind us and keep on living our lives, not letting ourselves be determined by something we have already largely overcome, yet not completely.

Shabbat shalom,

Chag Pesach Sameach!

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.

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka

Neal Brostoff: Polish Jewish Art Music

Beit Polska and Friends of Jewish Renewal in Poland present a new series

Freighted Legacies: The Culture and History of Jewish Interactions in Poland

Neal Brostoff:  Polish Jewish Art Music

Klezmer music has dominated the conversations about the post-communist Jewish culture renaissance in Poland.

However, creative activity in art music (classical music) has its own proud history, beginning with the virtuoso pianist and composer Maria Szymanowska in the late 18th century We will listen to one of her nocturnes, which strongly influenced Frederic Chopin’s compositional style. The webinar will offer an overview of primarily 20th century music of the Polish-Jewish experience, including the work of Krzysztof Penderecki (not Jewish) whose powerful Kaddish Oratorio concludes with the version of the Kaddish prayer sung at the High Holydays morning services. Szymon Laks survived Auschwitz, where he conducted the inmates’ orchestra. We will learn about his haunting art song on the poem of Antoni Slonimski, Elegy for the Lost Jewish Villages.

The program’s presenter, Neal Brostoff, taught courses in Jewish and Israeli music history and Jewish music  performance in UCLA’s Departments of Ethnomusicology and Musicology from 2011 to 2016. Mr. Brostoff has also served as the music programs coordinator for the Mickey Katz Endowed Chair in Jewish Music at UCLA. He has taught Jewish music courses at Loyola Marymount University and at American Jewish University in Los Angeles. In his professional career, Mr. Brostoff has produced Jewish music concerts and festivals and has lectured on Jewish music topics. He has also served as director of cultural affairs for the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles and as a music specialist at the Skirball Cultural Center. Active as a cantorial accompanist and choir director, Mr. Brostoff served congregations Adat Ari El and Temple Aliyah in Los Angeles from 1971 to 2007. He holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in music from Mount St. Mary’s College and California State University, Fullerton.

 

********************************************************************
LINKS:
FREIGHTED LEGACIES
THE CULTURE AND HISTORY OF JEWISH INTERACTIONS IN POLAND
https://www.jewishrenewalinpoland.com/freighted-legacies/

 

DONATE:
Cedaka צדקה PAYPAL
paypal.me/BeitPolska

Bank transfer details

Beit Polska – Związek Postępowych Gmin Żydowskich
Account number:
Bank Pekao S.A.
IBAN: PL47 1240 1040 1111 0010 3311 7066
SWIFT/BIC: PKOPPLPW
Transfer title: „Donation for statutory objectives for Beit Warszawa”

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.

Eliyana Adler „Survival on the Margins”

Beit Polska and Friends of Jewish Renewal in Poland present a new series

Freighted Legacies: The Culture and History of Jewish Interactions in Poland

Eliyana Adler „Survival on the Margins: Polish Jewish Refugees in the Wartime Soviet Union”

The implementation of the August 1939 accord between Germany and the Soviet Union (Molotov-Ribbentrop) erased Poland. The Jews in the Soviet controlled sector of the former Poland, many of whom fled eastward or were deported by Soviet authorities or simply exiled to vast howling regions found a paradoxical refuge. They were at a far remove from unfolding persecutions and murders the Germans planed. The narrative about the fate of the 200,000 Polish Jewish refugees in the Soviet Union remained peripheral to the study of the Holocaust for over 75 years. Dr. Adler’s ground breaking work has opened up these areas of study for the English speaking audiences.

In the Soviet Union, refuge was an arduous path including meager food, hard labor, freezing temperatures, illness, inadequate shelter, and the Soviet system – all, were a tortuous obstacles to survival. Initially Jewish Poles were designate to the Artic regions – “Siberia” and later, other locations in central Asia. After the war, they were allowed to return to Poland, where they discovered the full extent of the Holocaust’s destruction. By 1946, these Jewish Poles were the majority in the Displaced Persons camps established in Germany. Their story was subsumed into the main Holocaust narratives.

In a prescient supplementary essay What’s in a Name? How Titles Construct and Convey Knowledge about Migrants, Adler frames for us some of the difficulty and complexity facing those of us who seek to understand the circuitous paths of Polish Jewish Refugees. Dr. Adler remarks cross temporal boundaries to indirectly, comment on contemporary and historical constructs about migrants. Dr. Eliyana Adler’s ground breaking study employs the still meager Soviet era archival sources but foregrounds the recollections of survivors. Adler’s work confronts us with several questions: how we understand the Holocaust? What does it mean to be a survivor? We are left to understand and ponder the paradoxes of history.

********************************************************************
LINKS:
FREIGHTED LEGACIES
THE CULTURE AND HISTORY OF JEWISH INTERACTIONS IN POLAND
https://www.jewishrenewalinpoland.com/freighted-legacies/

CLICK HERE TO BUY THE BOOK
https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674988026

EXCERPT FROM SURVIVAL ON THE MARGINS
https://www.jewishrenewalinpoland.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/Adler-Intro.pdf

EXCERPT FROM SURVIVAL ON THE MARGINS. (POLISH)
https://www.jewishrenewalinpoland.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/Introduction_Adler_POL.pdf

DONATE:
Cedaka צדקה PAYPAL
paypal.me/BeitPolska

Bank transfer details

Beit Polska – Związek Postępowych Gmin Żydowskich
Account number:
Bank Pekao S.A.
IBAN: PL47 1240 1040 1111 0010 3311 7066
SWIFT/BIC: PKOPPLPW
Transfer title: „Donation for statutory objectives for Beit Warszawa”

Lukasz Krzyzanowski – Ghost Citizens: Jewish Return To A Postwar City

Beit Polska and Friends of Jewish Renewal in Poland present a new series

Freighted Legacies: The Culture and History of Jewish Interactions in Poland

Lukasz Krzyzanowski – Ghost Citizens: Jewish Return To A Postwar City

The poignant story of Holocaust survivors who returned to their hometown in Poland and tried to pick up the pieces of a shattered world. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the lives of Polish Jews were marked by violence and emigration. But some of those who had survived the Nazi genocide returned to their hometowns and tried to start their lives anew. Lukasz Krzyzanowski recounts the story of this largely forgotten group of Holocaust survivors. Focusing on Radom, an industrial city about sixty miles south of Warsaw, he tells the story of what happened throughout provincial Poland as returnees faced new struggles along with massive political, social, and legal change. Non-Jewish locals mostly viewed the survivors with contempt and hostility.

Many Jews left immediately, escaping anti-Semitic violence inflicted by new communist authorities and ordinary Poles. Those who stayed created a small, isolated community. Amid the devastation of Poland, recurring violence, and bureaucratic hurdles, they tried to start over. They attempted to rebuild local Jewish life, recover their homes and workplaces, and reclaim property appropriated by non-Jewish Poles or the state. At times they turned on their own. Krzyzanowski recounts stories of Jewish gangs bent on depriving returnees of their prewar possessions and of survivors shunned for their wartime conduct. The experiences of returning Jews provide important insights into the dynamics of post-genocide recovery. Drawing on a rare collection of documents—including the postwar Radom Jewish Committee records, which were discovered by the secret police in 1974—Ghost Citizens is the moving story of Holocaust survivors and their struggle to restore their lives in a place that was no longer home. Lukasz Krzyzanowski’s monograph Ghost Citizens: Jewish Return to a Postwar City, was published by Harvard University Press in 2020. For this work, he received the 2021 Sybil Halpern Milton Memorial Book Prize. His research situates in the field of social history of 20th Century Central and Eastern Europe, primarily the Holocaust and its immediate aftermath in Poland. His current project focuses on everyday life and social order in small towns and villages of Central Poland during the German occupation and the Holocaust.

Cedaka צדקה PAYPAL
paypal.me/BeitPolska

Bank transfer details

Beit Polska – Związek Postępowych Gmin Żydowskich
Account number:

Bank Pekao S.A.
IBAN: PL47 1240 1040 1111 0010 3311 7066
SWIFT/BIC: PKOPPLPW

Transfer title: „Donation for statutory objectives for Beit Warszawa”