Sh’lach

Be careful what you wish for, it might come true

Thoughts on parashat Sh’lach

Menachem Mirski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat shalom!

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

 

Bechukotai

Justice as a collective venture

Thoughts on parashat Bechukotai

Menachem Mirski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat shalom,

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

Parashat Kdoshim

Parashat Kdoshim

פרשת קדשים

(Wayikra 19:1 – 20:27)

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

Similarly we open our weekly Torah chapter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ…

„Love Your Neighbor As Yourself.”

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

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

Shabbat Shalom!

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

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka

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

Thoughts on Pesach 5782

Leave Behind

Thoughts on Pesach 5782

Menachem Mirski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shabbat shalom,

Chag Pesach Sameach!

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

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka

Neal Brostoff: Polish Jewish Art Music

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

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

Neal Brostoff:  Polish Jewish Art Music

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

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

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

 

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

 

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Shemini

Things we deserved and things we didn’t deserve

Thoughts on parashat Shemini

Menachem Mirski 

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

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

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

(Leviticus 10:1)

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

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

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

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

Shabbat shalom!

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

Eliyana Adler „Survival on the Margins”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Parashat Ki Tisa

Parashat Ki Tisa

(Shemot 30:11 – 34:35)

 

Miriam   Klimova,

rabbinical student   at   Hebrew   Union College in Jerusalem
and the Rabbi of  the  „Shirat   ha-Jam” congregation in Haifa.

           

It’s said that whatever we think about has a tendency to come true. But can we control our thoughts?

The mysterious bond between Moshe and the invisible God must have been a source of endless discussions and doubts among the people. At the beginning of parashat Ki Tisa Moshe is alone on the top of Mount Sinai, where he receives detailed instructions from God regarding the building and functioning of the Tabernacle. In the meantime the people of Israel are left alone, without their leader. Uncontrollable thoughts are filling their heads and are sowing a seed of fear in them. The prolonged absence of Moshe provokes deep anxiety – he disappeared! He said that he was going up the mountain to God, but the Israelites, tired of the desert, need God to be down here, next to them. Why is he spending so much time on that mountain? Does God, who needed only one night to dry up the water and to lead the Israelites through the sea, now need forty days and forty nights to carve 10 Commandments on two tablets?! We must act, we must take matters into our own hands! But how? Maybe we should make us a deity, and then God’s power will enter into it and show us the correct path? Moshe is still not coming back, so even more distressing thoughts appear – that this God of his has disappeared along with him, and these thoughts are slowly starting to drive them crazy.

We are tormented by questions about the people’s morality; how could they have come back to idolatry so quickly?! But did they really view the calf as a change of God? Moshe was a visible link to an invisible God. The Israelites did not think that God could be created from the gold of their decorations. This is a mistaken understanding of ancient beliefs. The calf was their new link to God and it was supposed to replace not God, but “this man Moshe”.

Aaron had nothing against this. He was convinced that the people would not believe in a God who cannot be seen. While Moshe demands an unconditional submission to an omnipotent, invisible Deity, Aaron wants to  express the idea of God in a way that can be understood. We can assume that this wasn’t strictly speaking idolatry. An abstract idea of divinity poses a great challenge for modern people, not to mention in the ancient times.

Why choose a calf? They have just been saved from Egyptian slavery. More than one generation was born there and of course they were being raised under the influence of the surrounding culture. Indeed the two main incidents of idolatry described in the Tanach are directly connected to ancient Egypt. One – described in parashat Ki Tisa, and the other was initiated by Yeroboam after he successfully took control over the fragmented Israeli kingdom  (1 Kings 12). The two stories have several things in common. First of all, in both cases the objects of cult had the shape of calves or caws, and secondly: these events took place in a difficult interim period, when the nation needed a sense of safety and unity. The link to Egypt is not an accident. The ancient Egyptians worshiped several deities which made use of the images of bulls and cows. There was a widespread cult of a heavenly cow – the goddess Hathor, sometimes presented as a cow, and then as a woman with a cow’s head and with a solar disk between the horns. A cow was perceived as life-giving; it sustained life through its milk, it was even said about certain Pharaohs that they were fed by Hathor.

Hathor as a cow suckling Hatshepsut, a female pharaoh,  at Hatshepsut’s temple at Deir el-Bahari, 15th century BC

The goddess-cow strengthened, sustained and granted divinity to royal rule. When Yeroboam wanted to further unify his people, he probably made use of “pop-culture”. And similarly the Israelites, while left without a leader, on a hostile territory, with helpless families, in a time of need turned to a familiar cult in order to save themselves in a difficult situation.

Could this incident, which has left such a deep mark in Israel’s memory, have been avoided? Could they have overcome the fear that had poisoned their lives on more than one occasion? Could they have controlled their thoughts?

A similar question is raised in the story „Sipur chasidi”. It describes how a certain Chassid once came to Dov Ber of Mezeritch, called the Great Magid[1], to ask a question and share his doubts if freedom of choice applies to our thoughts as well – “The Torah forbids us to think evil thoughts. But what can we do when evil thoughts come to our mind? Can man control their thoughts?!”. Rather than giving him an answer, the Magid sent him to a remote place, Zhytomyr, to one of his students, rabbi Zeev. In the middle of winter, after weeks of travel, the Chassid knocked on the door, but there was no answer. With nowhere to go, he kept knocking on the door, while the Rabbi himself, just a couple of steps away from him, was reading by a warm fireplace… Finally Rabbi Zeev got up from his chair, he opened the door and welcomed the Chassids with his characteristic kindness and hospitality. After regaining his strength, the Chassid mustered the courage to ask his question. And Rabbi Zeev smiled and said: “I’ve already answered your question”. With his behavior the Rabbi wanted to show that I am the master in my home: “I let in whoever I want, and whoever I don’t want, I keep them outside”.

This story teaches us that every person is the master of their thoughts and only they can decide who can enter and who cannot. If there is chaos in our head, we won’t be able to fulfill our desires, fear will be bringing us down like a heavy stone, and a bad mood will not let us enjoy the rays of sunshine on our face.

The past few years have been a difficult experience for all of us – sickness, decisions about vaccinations, worrying about our loved ones, remote work or even losing one’s job, and also war conflicts. And although Moshe is not present in our lives as well, we shall not give up. And let us thank our ancestors, the Israelites on Sinai, for the possibility to learn from their mistakes.

May there be a will… that we learn how to control our thoughts and actions, so that each one of us can decide autonomously who can enter into our house-mind. After all, positive thinking, optimism and a sense of happiness require conscious skills!

Shabbat Shalom!

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka

[1] Dov Ber (18th century) was a student of Baal Shem Tov and after his death he succeeded him as the Chassidic leader.

Tecawe

Bezpośrednia komunikacja z Wiekuistym

Refleksja nad paraszą Tecawe

Menachem Mirski

Czynienie rzeczy właściwych różni się od wzywania do lub usprawiedliwiania robienia właściwych rzeczy. Praktycznie rzecz biorąc, te dwie rzeczy nie zawsze idą w parze. Usprawiedliwione dobro nie jest bardziej dobre niż samo dobro, chociaż usprawiedliwienia mogą utrwalać więcej dobra. Podobnie, robienie czegoś złego różni się od próby wybielania lub usprawiedliwiania zła. Usprawiedliwione zło może się jednak stać o wiele bardziej złe niż to, co po prostu złe. W ludzkim świecie rzeczy na ogół dążą się ku złu jeśli są po prostu pozostawione same sobie i nikt o nic nie dba. Może mieć coś wspólnego ze strukturą wszechświata, prawami termodynamiki i entropii. Czasami w naszym życiu stajemy przed trudnymi decyzjami, w których mamy do czynienia ze sprzecznymi rozwiązaniami, które mogą mieć długotrwałe konsekwencje, ponieważ sprawy są bardzo spolaryzowane.

Gdy sprawy stoją na przysłowiowej krawędzi, gdzie jedna decyzja w jednym kierunku może zaowocować rozmaitymi profitami i błogosławieństwem, w drugim zaś kierunku może okazać się katastrofalna w skutkach. W takich trudnych chwilach ludzie w historii często powierzali swój los jakimś wyższym, niż ludzkie, instancjom, a przynajmniej wierzyli, że właśnie tak robią. W naszej porcji Tory na ten tydzień znajdujemy opis jednego z instrumentów, który służył bezpośredniej konsultacji z Najwyższym, właśnie w celu dokonania odpowiedniej decyzji:

Do pektorału dla zasięgania wyroczni włożysz urim i tummim, aby były na sercu Aarona, gdy będzie wchodził przed oblicze Pana. I tak będzie nosił Aaron zawsze na sercu swoim [pektorał] do zasięgania wyroczni dla Izraelitów przed obliczem Wiekuistego. (Wj 28:30)

Czym były Urim i Tummim? Były to bardzo tajemnicze elementy, często przedstawiane jako kamienie, które sprawiały, że napierśnik Arcykapłana “działał”. Napierśnik wykonany był z 12 drogocennych kamieni, na których wyryto imiona 12 plemion izraelskich. Komentarze Nachmanidesa podają za Talmudem (Joma 77), że na napierśniku znalazły się również imiona Patriarchów wraz ze słowami Sziwtei Jeshurun ​​– Plemiona Jeszuruna (Izraela). W ten sposób na napierśniku znalazły się wszystkie 22 litery alfabetu hebrajskiego. Urim i Tummim umieszczono wewnątrz napierśnika i przez nie właśnie Wiekuisty podświetlał niektóre litery imion na napierśniku, a Najwyższy Kapłan (Kohen Gadol) porządkował te litery w słowa. Na przykład, gdy Izraelici zapytali: „Kto powinien wystąpić z nami przeciwko Kananejczykom?” (Królewska 1:1), litery słowa „Jehuda” zaświeciły się wraz z literą jud Lewiego, ajin Szimona, lamed Lewiego i he Avahama, przeliterujących słowo ja’ale – „Jehuda wystąpi” (dosłownie “wzniesie się”, “wyjdzie na górę.”

Cały kapłański napierśnik nosi nazwę Choszen Miszpat, co po hebrajsku oznacza „napierśnik sądu” (Wj 28:15). Oryginalny napierśnik z Urim i Tummim zaginął wraz ze zniszczeniem Pierwszej Świątyni i od tego czasu nie został odnaleziony.

Ciekawą, symboliczną interpretację tego, czym był Choszen Miszpat i jego funkcji, można znaleźć w komentarzu Kli Yakara (rabina Shlomo Ephraima ben Aarona Luntschitza, 1550-1619, mieszkającego w Pradze). Kli Yakar cytuje innego komentatora, Akedę, który znajduje w postaci “napierśnika sądu” doszukuje się aluzji na do tego, jak winna działać żydowska sprawiedliwość. Każdy rząd miał trzy kamienie: jest to aluzja do batei din (sądów żydowskich) obsadzonych przez trzech sędziów. Niektóre kamienie były cenniejsze, inne mniej cenne – to uczy nas, że bogaci i biedni są równi w świetle prawa, a sprawy dotyczące małych kwot należy traktować równie poważnie, jak te dotyczące dużych kwot. Imiona synów Jaakowa zostały wyryte na kamieniach zgodnie z kolejnością ich urodzenia, aby nauczyć, że opinie zarówno starszych, jak i młodszych sędziów muszą być wysłuchane. Urim i Tummim zostały umieszczone w napierśniku, aby nauczać, że dajanim – „sędziowie w beit dinach” – niosą światło całemu światu. Sędziowie nazywani są „oczami społeczności”, ponieważ rzucają światło na kwestie, które wprawiają w zakłopotanie strony procesu.

Gdy ujmiemy to wszystko nieco bardziej ogólnie, poucza to nas, że sprawiedliwość jest zasadniczo przedsięwzięciem społecznym. W konsekwencji uczy to nas też o stronniczości naszego indywidualnego osądu człowieka. Uczy nas również, że szczytem sprawiedliwości jest obecny w niej Boski głos. Ten szczyt wyznacza jednocześnie ideał i najwyższą aspirację ludzkiego osądu. Dbajmy więc o ów ideał, bowiem bez niego nasz osąd będzie zawsze kulawy. Robienie czegoś dobrze, z długotrwałymi konsekwencjami, często wiąże się z różnymi przeszkodami, które “chcą” udaremnić nasze wysiłki. Tym, co sprawia, że nie ustajemy w naszych wysiłkach osiągnięcia dobra jest właśnie boskie światło, które jesteśmy w stanie objąć rozumem i to ono ostatecznie przezwycięża wszelką ciemność.

Szabat szalom,

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.

Studiowanie Paraszy Jitro z Miriam Klimovą

Studiowanie Paraszy Jitro z Miriam Klimovą

W tym tygodniu, czytając paraszę Jitro, jesteśmy w jednym z najważniejszych szabatów pod względem czytania Tory. Po około dziesięciu tygodniach od wyzwolenia, Izraelici rozbili obóz naprzeciwko świętej góry. Wyjście z Egiptu stało się fizycznymi narodzinami Izraela jako narodu, jednak duchowe znaczenie jego istnienia ma nastąpić właśnie tu – na Górze Synaj. To właśnie w paraszy Jitro następuje punkt kulminacyjny Księgi Szmot, objawienie się Boga ludowi izraelskiemu. Bóg objawia podstawowe zasady Tory, które nazywamy dziesięcioma przykazaniami lub Dekalogiem.

Miriam Klimova jest Studentką Rabinacką w Hebrew Union College w Jerozolimie oraz Rabinką Kongregacji „Szirat Ha-Jam” w Haifie.

Zapraszamy do wspólnego studiowania Tory!

 

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