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.


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


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.


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.

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

To Share the Sparks of Divine Wisdom

To Share the Sparks of Divine Wisdom

Thoughts on Parashat Beha’alotecha

 Menachem Mirski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat shalom!

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

On “moral superiority”

On “moral superiority”

Thoughts on Parashat Nasso

Menachem Mirski

Why do people need religion and what is it for? From the traditional, moral perspective the main goal of religion is to provide individuals with the fundamental distinction between good and evil, and to teach them what is right and what is wrong. Another goal of religion is to unite social life (religious rituals serve that purpose very well) and to bring peace between people. From the existential perspective, religion is supposed to give us a general and coherent vision of the world as something integrated and meaningful, which is essential in the process of giving life meaning / discovering this meaning.

This week’s Torah portion contains laws that apply to all of the above-mentioned aspects of human life. Of particular interest are the laws relating to the ancient practice of 'spiritual purification’ known as the Nazirite. In short, the man who vowed to be a nazir is subject to three restrictions: (1) he must abstain from wine, (2) he must allow his hair to grow, (3) he must not become ritually impure (tame) through contact with a corpse. The law of the Nazir as well as the idea itself was, of course, a subject of an extensive rabbinical debate. For the sake of this d’var Torah, this debate can be best summarized by quoting the following passage from Talmud:

Said Samuel: Whoever indulges in fasting is dubbed a sinner: this is in accordance with the view of Rabbi Eliezer Hakapar Berebi who stated: What is the meaning of the verse states “And he will atone for him for that he sinned by the soul [nefesh]” (Numbers 6:11). But with what soul did this nazirite sin? Rather, the nazirite sinned by the distress he caused himself when he abstained from wine. […] And if this nazirite, who distressed himself by abstaining only from wine, is called a sinner, all the more so, does this apply to the person who denies himself the enjoyment of the other pleasures of life?!

Conversely, Rabbi Elazar says: One who accepts a fast upon himself is called sacred, as it is stated: “He shall be sacred, he shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow long” (Numbers 6:5). And if this nazirite, who distressed himself by abstaining from only one matter, wine, is nevertheless called sacred, how much more does this apply to the man who denied himself enjoyment of other things? (Ta’anit 11a)

We have two opposing views expressed here on denying ourselves the pleasures of life, forms of asceticism or mortification: One view is that it is a sin to deny the joys of life because it is against the will of God who called us to live and enjoy our lives. The further we go along this path, the worse it gets for us, because the more we negate the purpose and essence of our existence. The opposite view looks suspiciously at these 'pleasures of life’ (to quote Maimonides: …for [wine] has killed the many and the mighty) and sees their limitation as a path to holiness: the further we go along this path, the better for us, because it leads us to holiness.

Both views are biblically grounded, although the Torah in Her wisdom does not explicitly express either of them. This is because the situation is too complex and essentially depends on many circumstances. It seems that the Nazirite, as well as other forms of self-depreciation, were perceived as right if they had a specific goal: to regain control over their impulses and desires. In this context, it is understandable why a person swearing a nazireate acquires a status similar to that of kohanim, being at the same time seen as a sinner who must repent for his sins. Thus, the purpose of the Nazirite was to spiritually ennoble and strengthen a human individual; all the practices of renouncing pleasures served this purpose and were not considered ends themselves.

To see them as such would be wrong, and hence rabbinical opposition on this issue. It also seems that our Sages wanted to protect us from one more thing: haughtiness, arrogance, self-righteousness and the sense of (moral) superiority that may come from spiritual practices. In every time, society and on both sides of the political spectrum we find people who, often not fully coping with their own lives, have made the limitations they put themselves into a virtue. This, in turn, often makes them want to impose these restrictions on others as well: due to their simplistic worldview they see themselves as „morally better” and fail to notice that others may simply not need these restrictions. This fact irritates them, it only enhances their presumptuousness and sense of mission among those whom they perceive as „unenlightened” or „culturally inferior” (although they would never openly admit that they see others this way) This mechanism of moral self-exaltation serves no one, especially when these „morally superior” people have lost touch with reality and the experience of common people through piling up these „ennobling limitations” they impose on themselves.

The world rests on three principles: on justice (din), on truth (emet) and on peace (shalom). (Pirke Awot 1:18). Moral self-exaltation does not serve justice, because self-righteous, arrogant people see reality usually in a very subjective way, almost exclusively through the prism of their own experiences and their ideology, and thus they are incapable of proper judgment of nuanced reality. Self-exaltation does not serve the truth either, because it destroys the possibility of real dialogue and shuts down public debate, so much needed in our times. Thus, it also does not serve peace, because by doing all this, it only divides people into „these and those”, instead of uniting them. So let’s not be like them.

Shabbat shalom!

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


To do God’s work before He does it

Thoughts on parashat Bemidbar

 Menachem Mirski 

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

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

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

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

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


Shabbat shalom!

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


Remembrance, bond and blessing

Thoughts on parashat Behar-Bechukotai

Menachem Mirski

Difficult times come cyclically in our lives. One of such experiences is the death of a loved one. We feel powerless then, because we cannot bring anyone back to life. The closer this person was to us, the closer that persons’ „spiritual presence” later in our life – the more our consciousness is preoccupied with this person. This state of mind prompts us to reflect in various ways: we analyze the objective reasons that caused that person’s departure; we analyze our own actions, potential negligence on our part that could have an impact on the course of things – that is, we examine our conscience. The subject of our reflections is, of course, that very person: his/her life decisions, actions, mistakes and achievements, and our assessment of all this and our role in it.

This week’s Torah portion takes this topic from a specific angle – from the perspective of people’s collective, intergenerational responsibility for the reality that future generations inherit:

Those of you who survive shall be heartsick over their iniquity in the land of your enemies; more, they shall be heartsick over the iniquities of their fathers; and they shall confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers, in that they trespassed against Me, yea, were hostile to Me. When I, in turn, have been hostile to them and have removed them into the land of their enemies, then at last shall their obdurate heart humble itself, and they shall atone for their iniquity. (Leviticus 26:39-41)

The Torah language is quite harsh here. This is because the Torah speaks of the foretold, tragic situation of Israel, which as a result of disobedience to God’s Law suffered all sorts of misfortunes: plagues, diseases, wars, and ultimately expulsion from the Promised Land. However, I believe that there is a more abstract idea behind these words: we are the heirs of our ancestors in every dimension. Not only of our immediate ancestors, but also the ancestors of our human society in the national dimension. Our starting position in life is determined by the life position of our parents at the time we were born. Their position was determined by the multitude of decisions they made over the years, but also by the social reality in which they lived (this was determined by the decisions and fate of the entire community, nation, etc.) and by the life position of their parents at the moment they were born, and so on.

Thus, we live in a world that is the aftermath of the decisions and actions of our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, etc. The boundaries of what we can do here and now are therefore determined not only by the freedoms of other people who live in our society, but also by the decisions and actions of our ancestors, because they, to a large extent, decided about the shape of the world that we came to live in. These are the boundaries of our freedom in its social and practical dimension – our freedom is limited by a number of human factors independent of us. Nevertheless, if we understand our freedom in a metaphysical way – i.e. we choose to believe that we have an inherent, ‘essential freedom’, that is not dependent on our current diagnosis of what is practically achievable for us at the moment (which always contains arbitrary or even blatantly false elements), then many of these practical or social limitations cease to exist. The only factors that will then limit our freedom will be our finite time/space limited nature and our imagination. Then various prospects of a profound transformation or renewal of our life / restoration of our relationship with the Eternal open up before us:

Then will I remember My covenant with Jacob; I will remember also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham; and I will remember the land. (Leviticus 26:42)

God renews His covenant with us because of the just deeds of our ancestors. Then – everything is (again) possible, because what once has become a fact can certainly be repeated. However, to make everything renewed and possible again, two fundamental conditions must be met: First, we must be able to detach our mind from what is here and now, and to challenge our diagnosis of what is within the limits of what is possible. Second: we must make a thorough account of the merits and faults of our ancestors and ourselves. The memory of all this must be permanent – it must remain with us forever. The deeper it all sticks to us, the better for us, because we constantly learn from this. The more deep is the spiritual presence of our ancestors in our lives, the better for us. Our religion is basically all about them: about bringing them closer to us, about creating and maintaining a strong intergenerational bond. If this deep bond exists, then all that our ancestors did or experienced – both good and bad – will be a blessing to us.

Shabbat shalom,

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