Technology and Upbringing

Technology and Upbringing

Thoughts on Parashat Bereishit

Menachem Mirski

God made a world that is good but unfinished. He left his work to be completed by us people, or rather to be constantly completed in the context of changes taking place in the world. There are basically two ways of creating / changing / completing the world around us within our human capabilities: through technology, its development and application, and through the upbringing of subsequent generations.

These two ways of changing the world have always been related in some way. The invention of writing made it possible to pass on knowledge and experience to future generations. The invention of printing caused a real revolution in education and greatly increased the possibilities of its popularization. Today, however, both these areas of human creative activity in the world have become extremely close. Because technology has absolutely permeated all areas and aspects of our lives, never before has it had such a huge impact on upbringing and education, and thus on the formation of human beings.

Apart from their undoubted, revolutionary benefits technology brought to the human world, there are also enormous dangers in bringing these two mentioned areas closer together. Some vivid examples of how technology can negatively affect the formation of human beings are to be found in works of Dr Jean M. Twenge, professor of psychology at San Diego State University, author of over 120 scientific publications and the books Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic.

In her latest book, iGen, the author focuses on the changes that have been made by the latest technological advances of our time: smartphones and social media. Using extensive research, insightful interviews and in-depth analysis of data collected from over 11 million respondents over several decades, Twenge shows that the uniqueness of the iGen generation is reflected in the way they spend their time, behave, and finally in their unique attitude to religion, sexuality and politics. These transformations, however, related to the total domination of life by smartphones, negatively affect every sphere of teenagers’ lives, from social interactions to mental health.

Social media and texting have largely displaced other forms of recreation and communication – an iGen spends less time with friends and family, resulting in levels of anxiety, depression and loneliness never seen in young people before. In fact, the statistics are alarming, to say the least.

The research done three years ago on young instagram users (and similar results have been known in academic research on this topic for many years) proved that the longer a teen girl spends on social media the more likely she is to be depressed or to engage in behaviors like self-harming, cutting etc. The suicide rate has doubled among children aged 10-14 since 2007 and quadrupled for girls in that age group right, as social media became more and more popular… There are lots of children who are 12 years old and younger on those platforms even though they are not supposed to be there. For example, facebook consistently doesn’t enforce that age limit, partly because no one makes them enforce it. The social-media companies are getting away without pretty much any regulation while other things that hurt children are very carefully regulated. The big-tech and social media companies are making billions of our children, wrecking their lives to the extent that they kill themselves… and nobody is actually paying attention to it.

The recent research has proven that every major indicator of mental health among teens – depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicidal tendencies – started to escalate right at the time smartphones were introduced and when they became popular around 2012. Teens’ lives fundamentally shifted at that time: they stopped spending as much time with each other in person and started communicating online through platforms like instagram. Being in the bedroom all the time on your smartphone as opposed to actually being with other people – that is a very poor recipe for mental health.

Whether it is all exclusively about social media or not, it is definitely a part of a more complex problem involving a complete change of the regular, ‘normal’ way of life. It absolutely has to do with the disappearance of traditional social values, like devotion to live in the human community, so much cherished in the Jewish tradition. All these traditional values are constantly forgotten in the world of immediate gratification and overstimulation of senses our children are constantly exposed to.

The long-term consequences of this situation are difficult to predict, but they are likely to be permanent. Destruction of the human world starts from the destruction of young, vulnerable people. One of the foundations of the rise and success of Nazism was the tragedy of young people, especially men, forcibly drawn to the fronts of World War I. It instilled a resentment in their young minds and largely determined who they backed politically as adult men two decades later.

The LORD saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time. And the LORD regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened. The LORD said, “I will blot out from the earth the men whom I created—men together with beasts, creeping things, and birds of the sky; for I regret that I made them.” (Gen 6:5-7)

Contemporary technology is less and less “just a tool that can be used for good to bad purposes.” Its impact on our lives is deeper and much more often beyond our individual control. Of course, the evil that mankind can do to itself through the uncontrolled influence of technology in shaping young human beings may not be of “biblical dimensions”: God ultimately promised that He would not bring a flood-sized catastrophe to the earth any more (Gen 8:20-22). But in humanity as such and the institutions it creates, there is still a dormant potential for evil of “biblical dimensions”, as the 20th century painfully convinced us of. So let us be attentive, understanding, foreseeable and responsible for how the genius of “our generation” affects the development and condition of the young generation that grows among us, because the direction in which they will go determines the direction of the development of the whole world.

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.

Ki Tavo

Gratitude as a Jewish value

Thoughts on parashat Ki Tavo

Menachem Mirski

What are the Jewish values? Typically, when this question is raised, the following values are mentioned: devotion to live in community (Israel), education (Torah), governance of life by law (halacha), truthfulness and trustworthiness (emunah), justice and righteousness (tzedek), kindness and taking care of others (chesed), respect and dignity (kavod) and responsibility (acharayut). They all have their social and their religious dimension, and traditionally they were all put under one umbrella: belief in God. They can also be put under another umbrella: fixing up the world (tikkun haolam).  These values are at the core of our Jewish religious system. They remain forever unchangeable despite changes in our rituals, customs, despite halachic changes and even some changes in Jewish ethics. These core values are the felt commitments of lived religion; they remain the same even though their ritual and practical expressions may change.

However, these core values are not completely immune to erosion: a change in religious practices may cause their erosion and disintegration. This danger never disappears (that’s one of the reasons there are those who object to any changes in our religion and tradition) and it was specifically acute in the early stages of our religion’s development, when judaism was particularly vulnerable to a damaging influence from surrounding cultures which did not share many of the values of our religion. That’s why we read in our Torah portion for this week:

If you do not obey the LORD your God to observe faithfully all His commandments and laws which I enjoin upon you this day, all these curses shall come upon you and take effect: Cursed shall you be in the city and cursed shall you be in the country. Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Cursed shall be the issue of your womb and the produce of your soil, the calving of your herd and the lambing of your flock. Cursed shall you be in your comings and cursed shall you be in your goings. The LORD will let loose against you calamity, panic, and frustration in all the enterprises you undertake, so that you shall soon be utterly wiped out because of your evildoing in forsaking Me. The LORD will make pestilence cling to you, until He has put an end to you in the land that you are entering to possess. The LORD will strike you with consumption, fever, and inflammation, with scorching heat and drought, with blight and mildew; they shall hound you until you perish […] The LORD will bring a nation against you from afar, from the end of the earth, which will swoop down like the eagle—a nation whose language you do not understand, a ruthless nation, that will show the old no regard and the young no mercy. It shall devour the offspring of your cattle and the produce of your soil, until you have been wiped out, leaving you nothing of new grain, wine, or oil, of the calving of your herds and the lambing of your flocks, until it has brought you to ruin. It shall shut you up in all your towns throughout your land until every mighty, towering wall in which you trust has come down. And when you are shut up in all

your towns throughout your land that the LORD your God has assigned to you, you shall eat your own issue, the flesh of your sons and daughters that the LORD your God has assigned to you, because of the desperate straits to which your enemy shall reduce you. (Deuteronomy 28:15-22,49-53)

These are only 13 verses out of the entire 54-verse passage that tells about what will happen to the Israelites when they disobey the Eternal. Disobeying means questioning the Divine laws and wisdom and it basically means the same today.

This disobedience starts with mere ingratitude towards the Holy One, which is diagnosed at the beginning of our Torah portion, where it stresses the necessity of the annual, mass and solemn sacrifice of the firstfruits (Deuteronomy 26:1-11). Rabbi Yitzhak Breuer eloquently summed up various interpretations of this ritual:

The bikkurim brought every year are an unparalleled demonstration of a happy and blessed nation living on its land in quiet and security. It is a demonstration of the sovereignty of the Holy One over the nation, which each year accepts anew, with bended knee and with bowed head, the land from its God. In that tremendous national joy, the nation offers up its confession, a national confession stemming from national joy.

The Torah is deeply aware of one of the essential features of human nature: when people become well-off and have a leisurely life, they develop a tendency to become conceited and to rebel against the existing norms and rules of life, as we see in the following verses:

When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the LORD your God—who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage. (Deuteronomy 8:12-14)

It all ends by abandoning the true values and in idol worship – today this most often means worshiping money, power, position and technology – namely the products of human hands and minds: the things that should never be worshiped by man. The worst case scenario is worship of man himself – cult of personality. All this, at the end of the day, leads us to decadence and all that it brings: depression, destruction of the social fabric and the decay of social and cultural life.

The remedy lies in the constant and true practice of gratitude towards the Eternal, for everything that is given to us, including every moment of our life. Therefore, it can be said that gratitude to the Eternal is the foundation on which all our Jewish values arise.

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.

Ki Teitzei

Between collectivism and individualism

Thoughts on parashat Ki Teitzei

Menachem Mirski

I visited Poland over the last few weeks to perform my dad’s funeral and to help my mother to find herself living in new circumstances, without him. Not having a car throughout most of my four weeks’ trip I was dependent on public transportation. One day I got on the bus in Przemyśl and I went to the driver to get a ticket. I had no change in my wallet, so the driver could not sell me the ticket because he wasn’t able to give me the rest of the money. When I was walking back to my seat in the bus, an older, probably retired woman gave me 5 zloty and said “please go and buy this ticket”. I went back to the driver, got the ticket, thanked the woman and gave her back the rest.

Another day I got my mom a small tv so she could watch it at the rehab center she is currently in. She shares the room with three other women. She was very happy when she got it but her first instinct was to share it with others: “Put it please the way so the other women could also watch it”. I was thinking for a moment and then I said: “Well, if I do that, you won’t be able to watch it, only them”. “I can just listen to it” – she replied – “place it this way, at least for now”.

I’m bringing these stories because they show healthy collective thinking and actions. But is collective thinking always good and healthy? Is it something always recommended by our ‘community oriented’ religion?

Our Torah portion for this week contains the greatest number of laws among all the parashot: 72 positive and negative commandments. Among them are those pointing out to collective responsibility for one another in the society:

When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it. (Deuteronomy 22:8)

Another great example of good collective thinking are the laws of returning the lost animal/item:

If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow. If your fellow does not live near you or you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home and it shall remain with you until your fellow claims it; then you shall give it back to him. You shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent. If you see your fellow’s ass or ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it; you must help him raise it. (Deuteronomy 22:1-4)

Another set of laws teaches us social responsibility for the poor and needy:

When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf in the field, do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow—in order that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings. When you beat down the fruit of your olive trees, do not go over them again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not pick it over again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. (Deuteronomy 24:19-21)

These laws are to teach us collective responsibility. I believe that most of them are to be internalized rather than enforced by the court due to the fact that situations of returning the lost item often do not involve more than one witness so their legal application is limited. But our parasha also contains commandments that definitely limit the scope of collective thinking and action:

Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for parents: a person shall be put to death only for his own crime. (Deuteronomy 24:16)

It is yet another expression of individual moral responsibility which is at the core of the Jewish concept of justice: if you do good you will be rewarded, if you do evil, you will be punished; nobody else should be punished for your sins, nobody else should be blamed for them and no man should be your scapegoat. If that happens, the system you have created is flawed and unjust.

Although it is not easy to make such a general statement, I believe that our religion is neither  individualist nor a purely collectivist in its nature. Both extremes, when applied exclusively, are harmful to society and human life. Radical individualism may cause indifference towards the needs and fate of others. Radical collectivism, not balanced by individual freedoms, brings forms group responsibility, which are never just and cause social conflicts as well as resentment, especially if mandated by force or the government. But most importantly, if something is ordained and enforced, it stops being voluntary. Thus, enforced collectivism often kills real, internalized, good collective thinking, together with empathy and compassion, which by its nature cannot be enforced by any law or system.

Collective thinking is always good when it’s voluntary.  A good, healthy life has both aspects, a collective and an individual one. It incorporates both perspectives in our daily life and chooses between them depending on the case. The laws in the Torah were given to us to teach us this necessary balance between what is individual and what is collective. These laws, together with maturity and experience, help us to know what perspective is appropriate in a given situation.

Shabbat shalom!

Menachem Mirski

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.

Shoftim

A Manual for the Elimination of Evil and Injustic

Thoughts on Parashat Shoftim

Menachem Mirski 

Is it possible to eliminate crime from our societies completely? Or is it possible only to eliminate one type of crime, let’s say the worst – murder? It probably is possible. What about locking all the people down in prison cells, separately. Let’s construct our societies like that. It would require three social castes: prisoners (let’s say 90% of the society), guards (9%) and various administrators and rulers (1% or less than that). If any murder would happen then it would mainly happen between the rulers fighting for power between each other, who would be the only free people in this society. Murder would be a phenomenon affecting up to 1% of the population, so the murder rate would be probably much lower than in our contemporary societies. And who would care about them killing each other. They, this 1% of the population, would be probably the most hated group in the entire society.

Or maybe let’s create a better system. In the US, for example, 93% of people in prison are men. The vast majority of murderers were involved in some sort of criminal activity before. So let’s introduce a penal code according to which even the smallest crime will be punished with a life imprisonment. Let’s be generous and create a different penal code for women who are a tiny minority of all criminals, use less alcohol and drugs which directly cause a lot of violent crimes and who are less likely to be recidivists. They also do better at school, on average, and are less often homeless. There is a lot of arguments that they shouldn’t be treated as harshly as men regarding crimes.

Let’s create a social system like that. Not only murder would basically disappear but also many smaller crimes. So what’s the problem, why can’t we do that?

This week’s Torah portion starts with a call for establishing law enforcement institutions: judges (chieftains, Hebrew shoftim) and officials (Hebr. shotrim):

You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the settlements that the LORD your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice. (Deut. 16:18)

Immediately after this, the Torah points to the fundamental principles of the rule of law:

You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. (Deut. 16:19)

Here, the Torah prohibits bribery, but the principles of a fair trial are discussed elsewhere in the Torah:

You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly. (Lev. 19:15)

or at the beginning of the Book of Deuteronomy:

I charged your magistrates at that time as follows, “Hear out your fellow men, and decide justly between any man and a fellow Israelite or a stranger. You shall not be partial in judgment: hear out low and high alike. Fear no man, for judgment is God’s. And any matter that is too difficult for you, you shall bring to me and I will hear it.” (Deut. 1:16-17)

Our Torah portion for this week concludes its call for fairness with another call:

Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you.  (Deut. 16:20)

Tzedek, tzedek tidrof… The Hebrew verb lidrof used here means to be behind, follow after, pursue, persecute, run after. Exactly, justice is something you shall pursue. Not ‘establish’. The Torah is aware of the answer I suggested implicitly at the beginning: that it’s impossible to eliminate injustice completely from the world because it would require to eliminate mercy, love, compassion and put tremendous restrictions on human freedom. God, according to the Torah, has never intended to create a world like that. Probably nobody would want to live in that kind of world except some psychopaths.

Justice is not something that can be decreed by some decree. It’s a never ending process. Injustice then is not a problem that can be fixed the way we can fix a car or airplane: by fixing a system that is working improperly. Justice in society, while being no less complex than an airplane, contains another crucial and incalculable element: freedom of human decision. This element cannot be eliminated.

Yes, some forms of injustice have been eliminated in the course of history, like slavery for example. But it hasn’t been eliminated completely – there are slave auctions in Libya, there are other forms of human enslavement that can be considered slavery – in China, for instance. Let alone North Korea where the entire society is held hostage by a group of insane despots. Nor has slavery been eliminated permanently in places where it was eliminated: there is no guarantee that when things get really bad in the world some of old practices based purely on domination and power will be reestablished, even with the acceptance of entire nations. Thus we should never take for granted what we – as humanity – have achieved.

For the same reasons – freedom of human decision and its fundamental value – neither evil nor the human inclination towards evil has ever disappeared. To get rid of (moral) evil in the world we would have to fix the so-called human nature, as the prophets believed. The Rabbinical view of yetzer hatov – the inclination for good – and yetzer harah – the inclination for evil – is more developed and more useful practically: it doesn’t claim that yetzer hara should be eliminated. According to the rabbinic view on the problem the goal is to employ those bad, impossible to eradicate inclinations, to work towards good purposes. This philosophy is not only positive; it’s also easier to put into practice, when understood properly: it can take a form of rewiring your brain in which you modify your impulses and processes they cause to work for desirable outcomes.

It’s a better approach than hating the evil and injustice in my opinion. Hating evil and injustice is ultimately about hating something in human nature. Thus it is very important to strictly define this thing that supposedly causes all the evil we fight with. It’s very important to define it precisely and make sure that this element is not something that is, in fact, essentially good, like desire for freedom, ambition or even something that is relatively good like rivalry or competitiveness. If something is relatively good it basically belongs to the realm beyond good and evil. It is more of a tool and tools tend to be useful.

We should keep all the above in mind when debating other negative social phenomena we deal with and want to eradicate, like corruption, theft, racism or prejudice. To completely eliminate them we would have to employ similar measures like those we would need to eliminate murder (but because they are lighter offenses, we probably wouldn’t have to implement them in all the realms of human life.) We cannot eliminate erroneous thinking and speaking by law not suppressing freedom of speech and thought. We can minimize it and its negative impact through proper education but only to some extent and to the extent the education we offer is correct – we also cannot completely eliminate errors from our teachings.

As I showed at the beginning, eliminating one kind of evil, one kind of injustice, here and now, would require totalitarian measures. That’s probably one of the reasons for which people obsessed with only one or two particular forms of evil or who very narrowly define what is the worst evil in the world (which often is not the worst, sometimes it is not evil at all) develop tendencies to totalitarian thinking. I believe that part of the proper attitude towards evil and injustice is be able to perceive many different kinds of evil and injustice, and to put them in some sort of hierarchy, as we do with things we consider good and just It doesn’t mean that different people shouldn’t be specialized in fighting particular forms of injustice or evil. They should. But it is also very good and healthy to see the evil, suffering and injustice you are fighting within the context of the evil, suffering and injustice other people are fighting with.

Shabbat shalom!

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

Barry Cohen’s Opening the Drawer: The Hidden Identities of Polish Jews – webinar

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

Barry Cohen’s Opening the Drawer: The Hidden Identities of Polish Jews

with photographs by Witold Krassowski

Are there any Polish Jews? This is a frequently asked question by Jews and non-Jews around. The non-question adds the caveat, Poland is empty of Jews or Poland has too many.Barry Cohen listened to the life narratives of 54 individuals spanning three generations of Polish Jews. He will tell us about his experience beginning with the generally reticent of Polish Jews displayed about themselves, even among fellow Polish Jews to reflect a serious presence in Polish society. Professor Antony Polonsky, chief Historian of POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jew and emeritus professor of Holocaust studies was participated in the conversation. A number of the original participants in the book wparticipated in our conversation including interviewees who for reasons that they will explain chose to participate.

 

GET THE BOOK

https://www.ipgbook.com/opening-the-drawer-products-9781910383810.php

This will only work for those based in the USA.

For people in Poland and the UK:

https://www.vmbooksuk.com/collections/holocaust-studies/products/9781910383810

Ekev

The importance of human experience

Thoughts on parashat Ekev

Menachem Mirski

This week’s Torah portion includes a beautiful vision of the Promised Land, spoken through the mouth of Moses on the eve of its conquest:

For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey; a land where you may eat food without stint, where you will lack nothing; a land whose rocks are iron and from whose hills you can mine copper. When you have eaten your fill, give thanks to the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you. (Deuteronomy 8:7-10)

Rabbinic minds developed this vision of Eretz Israel by exceedingly idealizing the Promised Land. For example, Rabbeinu Bachya believed that the land of Israel, as well as Jerusalem itself in particular, contained all six climates of the world, which rendered the land’s climate as marvelous. Gaon of Vilna believed that the land of Israel contained all possible minerals and all the plants people needed, so there was no need to import anything. The rabbis, however, idealized the land of Israel even more. The nineteenth-century rabbi of Bratislava, Moses Schreiber, in his work Chatam Sofer wrote that fruits of Eretz Israel were tremendously large, as, for example, wheat grains the size of ox kidneys and lentils the size of gold dinars. Rabbi Shlomo Efraim Luntschitz, who lived at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, in his work Kli Yakar claimed that Eretz Israel does not need storage cities; it always has abundance, and there is no need to save from one year to another – its crop is blessed every year, without a break.  Other 19th and 20th-century commentators, such as Jehuda Arie Leib Alter and Shabbatai HaKohen, have argued, for example, that bread made from grains of the Land of Israel has miraculous properties: it can be eaten in infinite amounts, without fear of gaining weight.

There was a disagreement regarding whether the streams and fountains could itself provide enough water for irrigation of fields. 13th century French commentator, Hezekiah ben Manoah, known as Chizkuni, believed that the abundance of water in these streams and fountains depend on rainfall, thus each individual will have to trust in God’s grace for his water. Nachmanides, however, saw a natural blessing in them and that they carry enough moisture to every place it is needed, therefore the land needed no rivers, nor a specific ‘water engineering’.

The first Zionists emigrating to Eretz Israel in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries found out how true all these visions were. These visions do not correspond to reality even today: yes, Israel is a very developed country, abundant in various goods, but all this is the result of hard work of many generations. These rabbinical visions actually teach us how important human experience is when it comes to knowing and judging reality, and how easy it is to make a mistake when one does not have such an experience. These commentators have spent their entire lives in a different world, in Europe, only fantasizing about the Promised Land. The same is often true today, due to instant access to information on everything that is happening anywhere in the world: people are constantly tempted to form and express themselves their opinions about places and countries, having in fact no idea about the reality of these places. Let it be a lesson of restraint for us; let us be restrained in our words, concepts and recipes for the life of human communities who live in other countries and on different continents.

 

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.

Parashat Pinchas

Not in an Earthquake You Will Find Me but in a Soft, Murmuring Sound

Thoughts on Parashat Pinchas

 

Menachem Mirski

Is there a general rule of how we should deal with evil? Should we fight back, respond with poker face or with doing good to an evildoer, hoping that he will become aware of the wickedness of his behavior and will return to the right path? The answers to these questions are dependent on what we believe about the nature of evil: does evil exist objectively? Or maybe certain human actions are only evil ‘in our eyes’ – we only perceive them as evil and call them so. It also depends on what we believe about bad people: can someone be evil simply by nature or are the so-called bad people merely misguided?

Generally speaking, this is an endless debate, with lots of arguments for and against this and that position. It is good, however, to have an elaborated opinion on that topic because we never know when we find ourselves interacting with, God forbid, real, genuine evil. Thus, let us, religious Jews, look into the Torah for hints, especially because our Torah portion for this week also deals with this problem.

Our parasha starts with the story of Pinchas’ divine reward. Pinchas, grandson of Aaron, was rewarded with the eternal priesthood for killing another Israelite – the Simeonite prince Zimri – as well as the Midianite princess who was his paramour. It all happened after “the Israelite people profaned themselves by whoring with the Moabite women, who invited the people to the sacrifices for their god” (Numbers 25:1-2). Although that may sound at least controversial to our modern ears, both our Sages and biblical commentators believe that the slaying of Zimri was correct. Not recommended, but correct. Halachically speaking it was the case of halacha ve’ein morin ken – a halacha we do not teach. Although our sages in tractate Sanhedrin consider excommunicating Pinchas for his deed, commentators like Rashi, Ramban, Kli Yakar portray Pinchas as a hero, who actually deserves praise because he did the right thing risking his own life for the sake the Torah.

Therefore, what Pinchas did was correct, but the act of execution itself was beyond the norms of Jewish ethics and Jewish law. The story of Pinchas is often compared to the one of prophet Elijah, who killed 450 prophets of Baal, as we find in I Kings 18:40:

Then Elijah said to them, “Seize the prophets of Baal, let not a single one of them get away.” They seized them, and Elijah took them down to the Wadi Kishon and slaughtered them there. (I Kings 18:40)

Right after that Elijah runs away from king Ahab, because his wife, Jezebel, swears to avenge the murdered prophets and kill him. But Elijah’s behavior goes beyond fearing for his life. He is indeed very sorrowful in the aftermath of what he did. Being hungry and parched he wishes to die on the desert:

Frightened, he fled at once for his life. He came to Beer-sheba, which is in Judah, and left his servant there; he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness. He came to a broom bush and sat down under it, and prayed that he might die. “Enough!” he cried. “Now, O LORD, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” He lay down and fell asleep under a broom bush. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Arise and eat.” He looked about; and there, beside his head, was a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water! He ate and drank, and lay down again. (I Kings 19:3-6)

Elijah is on his way to mount Horeb (Sinai). He goes there for 40 days and 40 nights because he wishes to relive the Sinai experience and return to what is the proper, Divine path. God saves Elijah’s life and shows him His ways:

“Come out,” He called, “and stand on the mountain before the LORD.” And lo, the LORD passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind—an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake—fire; but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire—a soft murmuring sound. (I Kings 19:11-12)

The passage above tells us what are the ways of the Holy One and how should people who follow His ways conduct. Even though all these phenomena were caused by the Divine power, God was not in them; God was not in the wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire. God was in this what happened at the end – He was in a soft, murmuring sound. This is to teach us that in God’s eyes the appropriate action involves calmness and forethought.

In that kind of considerate, calm and patient manner we should approach evil, which exists objectively. Generally speaking, it means that we should never allow evil to dominate our minds and our behavior. The rest depends on the situation. Sometimes we need to fight back, sometimes we need to remain indifferent and sometimes we need to respond to evil with good. Everything depends on the magnitude of evil and the power dynamic between the parties involved: if power is on our side and our life and well being is not endangered, then we definitely have a luxury to respond to evil with good. If the situation is equal, it’s usually better to retain poker face and negotiate, to try to take someone away from the wrong path, to stave off bad intentions and plans. If power is on the side of evil doers, we don’t have much of a choice, and that was basically the case of Pinchas.

The kind of killing that Pinchas or Elijah did was not justified already in rabbinic times, let alone today – it would be considered a murder. But both stories contain one more message: every social conflict that escalates can reach its tipping point after which there is no return. After reaching that point there is only violence and this violence becomes justified in the eyes of each party that decides it is the last resort. We have no a priori knowledge about when this tipping point will be reached. Therefore, in our turbulent times, we need to at least hear the arguments of ‘the other side’ and treat them seriously, for the sake of peace. The more we do in this matter, the better. Even though peace can be sometimes sacrificed for the sake of truth, it is still in the interest of each party – peace is in the interest of all humanity and above all the “tribal” interests.

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.

Stargazer staring at Israel

Stargazer staring at Israel

Thoughts on parashat Balak

Menachem Mirski

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man, said ancient Greek philosopher, Heraklitus. This great metaphor says that change is at the essence of everything, both in the world of nature and the human world. Although there are constant elements in the universe (like laws of physics) and there are constant patterns of human behavior, at the end of the day the change, particularly in the human world, can nullify everything, including these constant patterns.

On the other hand, this constant element, pattern in human behavior, can also bring change, as well as nullify or destroy everything, including human life. This week’s Torah portion tells us the story that contains both elements of change and constant patterns. The (non-Jewish) prophet Balaam gets hired by a Moabite king, Balak, to curse Israel in order to further defeat them. Balaam tries to curse Israelites three times and each time he tries, he blesses them. However, contrary to the common opinion, he ultimately completes his task and manages to curse Israel: he becomes an inciter, who advises Moabite and Midianite women to seduce Israelites to perform idol worship with them and this brings the Divine wrath upon them. Ultimately, Balaam dies at Israel’s hand, for they conquer Midian and slay him (Num 31).

Who was Balaam? Opinions of the rabbis are very different on this subject. Some believed he was among seven great prophets who prophesied in the non-Jewish world (Talmud Bava Batra 15b). Midrash Bereshit Rabba 65:20 calls him the greatest philosopher in the world whereas Bamidbar Rabbah 14 portrays him as a prophet like Moshe, even exceeding Moshe’s greatness in certain ways. He was able to know the state of God’s feelings and predict the moment of the Divine wrath (Talmud Berachot 7).

Ibn Ezra, however, calls him only a stargazer and astrologer, and credits him with no ability to curse or bless. Similarly, many other commentators call him a sorcerer or even charlatan. Zohar portrays him as a man with an Open, but Evil eye: wherever he gazed, he sent forth evil spirits to do the damage and that is what he aimed towards Israel. According to Abravanel Balaam actually wished to harm Israel even more than his ‘employer’, Balak, did yet his evil powers disappeared when he came to deal with Israel.

Opinions on Balaam differ because the situation described in our Torah portion is dynamic and it develops. Our parasha tells a story of a fallen prophet, of a man endowed once with the Divine wisdom that was turned into our enemy and God’s enemy. Our Sages say in Midrash that Balaam was infused with a prophetic spirit (ruach hakodesh), but when he joined up with Balak, it left him and he became a mere magician. In this light the miracle of his donkey speaking to him would have the following meaning: it would symbolize a decline of his prophetic abilities and thus the fall and failure of a once illustrious, enlightened man, who has become dogged and blinded in his intentions and actions and thus lost his outstanding, supernatural abilities. Indeed, it was the donkey who made him aware of the inconsistency of his intentions with the will of God. What could be more emphatic, what could be more ‘screaming’ to a prophet than this?

However, for Balaam it only worked partially and temporarily. After he hit the donkey three times and made it speak to him, the Holy One opened his eyes:

Then the LORD uncovered Balaam’s eyes, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, his drawn sword in his hand; thereupon he bowed right down to the ground. (Numbers 22:31)

But Balaam continues his journey with the intent of cursing Israel, which, according to the angel’s behavior, seems to be legitimized by God Himself. God changes his heart temporarily and makes his mouths bless Israel instead of cursing them. But it seems that the situation becomes more and more difficult. When he tries to curse Israel for the third time God intensifies His presence in the world and the Divine spirit itself (ruach Elohim) descends upon Balaam:

As Balaam looked up and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the spirit of God [ruach Elohim] came upon him. (Num 24:2)

Which is a rare occurrence that happens in the Torah only three times besides our parasha: before the Creation of the world [Gen 1:2], when Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams [Gen 41:38] and when God bestows it on Bezalel to design and construct the Mishkan [Ex 31:3 and 35:31]. But it doesn’t help. We don’t hear about Balaam until Numbers 31 when he gets killed by the Israelites and when his last plot against them is being revealed (Num 31:8-16)

What may be the significance of this story for us today? I believe that several conclusions can be drawn from what I said above. Firstly, even smart and enlightened people can become our enemies, even vicious enemies. Thus, intelligence and education is not a completely reliable vaccine against antisemitism and hate. World history proves this point: there have been great luminaries who were antisemites or who sided with antisemites (like Voltaire, Dostoyevsky, Martin Heidegger or Romanian scholar of religion Mircea Eliade). Secondly, we should be careful when dealing with people who put their interests ahead of their values: in this case everything can turn on a dime, and our ‘friends’ can be turned into our enemies instantly. For this reason we should rather look for friends among people who share similar values to ours, or at least we need to know their table of values and that they really cherish them. And thirdly, although we should patiently work on our relationships with other peoples and their leaders, we should be aware of the winds of history and should be aware of the relative fragility of all relationships between people of different nations, cultures and faiths. Even God gave up on Balaam, all the more so our power is limited in this matter. That is also why we need to support our state – Israel. It is our home where we don’t have to rely on anyone else than us, no matter what happens in the rest of the world and no matter what the world thinks about Israel.

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