Wells and World Cup stadiums

Wells and World Cup stadiums

Rabbi Mati Kirschenbaum

If there ever was a 'Patriarch Cup’ of popularity among Abraham, Isaac, Jakob and Joseph, four most prominent male characters in the book of Genesis, Isaac would be bound to land in fourth place. Sounds controversial? Let’s consider it for a moment.

When we think about other patriarchs, we immediately remember stories of amazing or, at the very least, memorable things they did. Abraham (then Abram) followed God’s command and went for himself and all of us to establish monotheism. Later he showed hospitality to angels (and perhaps the Eternal godself) in Mamre and famously bargained with God to spare Sodom. In turn, Jacob cheated his brother Esau out of his birth right, was tricked into marrying Lea instead of Rachel and wrestled with a mysterious supernatural being till dawn. Last but certainly not least, Joseph had the power to interpret dreams, became the viceroy of Egypt and invited the nascent people (then more of a family) of Israel to settle in the land of Goshen.

All these are vivid stories of characters actively shaping the fate of their people by moving or taking risky decisions. In comparison, Isaac’s life doesn’t seem to abound in turbulent moments. We first get to know him as an adult in the famously chilling story of Akedat Itzchak, the binding of Isaac, which we read on Rosh HaShanah. However, the theological and narrative focus of this story is put on Abraham rather than Isaac, the latter is, sadly, its object rather than a subject. Some of you might also remember that, just like his father Abraham had to hide Sarah’s identity, Isaac once had to pretend that his wife Rebecca was his sister to spare her romantic pursuits of King Abimelech of Gerar. Notwithstanding these two episodes, Isaac’s life was relatively uneventful. So what did he do? How did he merit the honour of being one of our three patriarchs when charismatic Joseph missed out on this coveted title?

This eek’s Torah portion, Toldot, fills us in on Isaac’s seemingly mundane life. Even though he doesn’t travel like his father Abraham, son Jacob and grandson Joseph, Isaac’s plate is always full. He busies himself sowing in the Land of Canaan and digging numerous wells to make it more habitable. Repeatedly, Isaac encounters opposition from other inhabitants of the land, who block the wells that he has dug. This doesn’t make him waiver in his resolve to improve living conditions for all who dwell in the land. When conflicts arise, Isaac simply moves away to a new location in Canaan and digs another well.

Ultimately, even his opponents recognise the beneficial impact that Isaac’s work has had in Canaan. King Abimelech of Gerar comes to the latest well Isaac has built. There, two leaders swear an oath to each other. From now on, there should be no conflict between them, they shall be brothers united in a common task of making the Land of Canaan a better place. Isaac’s commitment to honest hard work for the benefit of all pays off; it ushers in a short but blessed period of prosperity, peace and brotherhood. The memory of the oath he and Abimelech swore is preserved in the name of the place where their pact was made: Beer Sheva, the ‘Well of the Oath’, now the largest city in the South of Israel and the capital of the Negev.

Hard work, brotherhood, peace. These values embodied by Isaac are supposed to be the ethical underpinnings of any international sporting event, including the football World Cup. Unfortunately, this year’s World Cup in Qatar goes against all the lofty ideals it is supposed to promote. Unlike Isaac’s wells, which were built by the sweat of his brow, Qatari stadiums and other World Cup infrastructure were built by economic migrants in conditions akin to slavery. It is estimated that up to 15,000 migrant workers died working on infrastructure projected initiated in Qatar since the granting of the Cup by FIFA in 2010.

Qatar’s blood-stained human rights record extends beyond the treatment of economic migrants. LGBTQ+ individuals, be it native Qataris or economic migrants, can be punished with imprisonment of up to seven years for living out their identity. For Muslims, the punishment is death penalty. As a result, Qatari LGBTQ+ residents live in hiding and in fear, not in peace that Isaac tried to bring to all he encountered.

If you still decide to watch the World Cup, be mindful of the suffering of economic migrants that went into construction of its infrastructure. Be mindful of the mental anguish of LGBTQ+ individuals that was sacrificed on the altar of Qatar’s and FIFA’s PR. Most disappointingly, the World Cup in Qatar testifies to the failure of the international sporting community to uphold and promote values that they purport to represent.

Luckily, we can promote these very values by emulating Isaac’s behaviour, by channelling his strengths. Here are examples of some of the things we can do.

For instance, we can say Aleinu in solidarity with Qatari LGBTQ+ community.

We can praise footballers who make public statements addressing homophobia and transphobia in Qatar.

Moreover, we can raise awareness of Qatari ruthless exploitation of economic migrants by sharing the stories of the victims of the Cup among them (See https://blankspot.se/part-1-families-whose-dreams-were…/). We can say a Kaddish in their memory before each kick-off.

To put it simply, we can respond to the Cup the way Isaac would.

If we do so, we shall earn the merit of calling ourselves Isaac’s descendants not just in spiritual but also ethical sense.

Shabbat Shalom!

Mati Kirschenbaum

Noach

The climate change that caused the flood

Thoughts on parashat Noach

Menachem Mirski

The story contained in our Torah portion for this week can be seen as a metaphor of a great catastrophe in which species were decimated or doomed to total extinction… Only a few of them were to survive, a few individuals of each gender, in order to reproduce and prevent the animal life cycle on the earth from a complete extinction. Does it sound completely unreal today? I don’t think so, it is certainly not beyond the scope of contemporary man’s imagination.

The story of the flood ends with a new Divine promise – the promise of the eternal covenant between God and humankind:

יהוה smelled the pleasing odor, and יהוה resolved: “Never again will I doom the earth because of humankind, since the devisings of the human mind are evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done.

So long as the earth endures,

Seedtime and harvest,

Cold and heat,

Summer and winter,

Day and night

Shall not cease.”

(Genesis 8:20-22)

The above verses can only be understood as a proclamation of faith: as human beings we have no way to verify or falsify them. All we can do is hope that it is true and live with faith that it will, in fact, be so. Nevertheless, people have repeatedly challenged this faith throughout history. The greatest and the most bold challenge to this faith today is posed by climate change.

Climate change is a fact and the one we are experiencing in our times is largely man made. Back in 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) at the request of the UN produced a report from which we know, among other things, a few fundamental things, namely:

  • Increases in average global temperatures are expected to be within the possible range of 0.27 °C (5°F) to 4.8 °C (8.6°F) by 2100, with a likely increase of at least 2.7°F for all possible mitigation scenarios.
  • Except under the most aggressive mitigation scenario studied, global average temperature is expected to warm at least twice as much in the next 100 years as it has during the last 100 years.
  • Ground-level air temperatures are expected to continue to warm more rapidly over land than oceans.

Around the same time climate scientists and economists issued numerous analyses according to which it is going to be very difficult and economically challenging to mitigate the effects of climate change, deeming the most optimistic scenario of 1.5 °C (2.7°F) by 2100 almost impossible to implement, for a variety of reasons – for example, we would have to close and eliminate almost entire energy industry we have at this moment, not only in the US and Europe, but in the entire world, and do it by 2030.

However, what none of those reports says is that we have 12 years until “we all die in a giant ball of fire”, as some politicians and media figures constantly suggest. The idea that the world is going to end in 12 years is an incredible misrepresentation of what the UN Climate Panel has actually done.

But let’s pause here for a second and think: from the analysis brought by scientists from IPCC we know that even if we stopped using fossil fuels completely and reduced our global emission to net zero by 2030, the average temperature on Earth would probably still have increased by 1.5 °C (2.7 °F) by the end of the century. It obviously means that the temperatures on our planet are growing no matter what we do. These facts are commonly known and all of this is well documented by geologists.

he last great global warming in the history of our planet happened roughly 55-58 million years ago and it is called Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum. This warming was caused by a massive carbon release into the atmosphere that has been estimated to have lasted from 20,000 to 50,000 years. Geologists estimate that during this entire period, which lasted for about 200,000 years, global temperatures increased by 5–8 °C, from the average earth temperature of 24–25 °C (75–77 °F) of the preceding Paleocene period. This means that the average temperature on our planet might have been at its pick as high as 29-33 °C (84-91 °F), which is about 16-20 °C (27-34 °F) higher than the current average temperature on earth, which currently fluctuates around 13.9-14.5 (57-58 °F)! Both poles were ice free at that time, as in the preceding Paleocene era; the temperatures of Arctic and Antarctic seas were as high as 23 °C (73 °F). The climate of almost the entire planet was tropical; forests covered most areas of our planet, palm trees grew in areas of northern states, like Wyoming, Montana or Canada. How did it affect the animal kingdom? Because of these environmental conditions of that period  an intense evolution of primates took place: The oldest known undoubted fossil primates are about 55 million years old [2][3]. This global warming likely „changed the course of evolution”, as a result of which apes came into being,  from which we, humans, have later evolved. The next epoch, the Eocene, kicked off with a global average temperature more than 8 °C (about 14 °F) warmer than today, gradually cooling over the next 22 million years. Having said that, we are also allowed to say that as living beings we are grandchildren or great-grandchildren of the last global warming.

I am bringing this analysis here in order to put things in a proper perspective and cool down emotions often accompanying this debate. Our planet, and life on it, not only survived but also thrived during much warmer periods than the one we expect to happen. Obviously, the human factor involved in our current situation makes it unprecedented. However, the scenario that things could get out of hand and the earth could become the second Venus as a result of a phenomenon known as the runaway greenhouse effect was found unprobable by scientists in 2013. For this to happen, our whole human civilization would have to emit 10 times more carbon dioxide than we emit today. One of the important factors to stop this effect is life on earth itself, which is capable of absorbing huge amounts of carbon dioxide. Another argument often raised in this debate is that even a global increase of 3°C (5.7 °F) will bring prolonged heat waves, droughts and increasingly common and severe extreme weather events. This may be true, however, it is also true that the global percentage of people dying in natural disasters has decreased since the early 1900’s by 95%.

Climate economists have done numerous analyses of the matter. In economic terms, spending on physical assets on the course to net-zero would reach about US$275 trillion by 2050, or US$9.2 trillion per year on average, an annual increase of US$3.5 trillion. [1] I don’t think any economy in the world can possibly bear that kind of burden. The UN report from 2014 estimated that, if we don’t change anything, the economical impact of global warming by 2070 would be equivalent to each one of us losing somewhere between 0.2 and 2 percent of our income. Juxtaposing these two analyses also brings us some additional context – the necessary context we need in the debate on climate change. The scientists and economists who prepared the reports for the UN knew that the most aggressive mitigation options – like a complete worldwide resignation from fossil fuels in a decade or two – were impossible to implement without ensuing a global economic collapse.

There is no scientific evidence that climate change we are experiencing in our times poses any existential threat to planet earth and life on it. Climate change is a real problem and it is something we should strive to fix but we also need a sense of proportion in this matter. If you tell people this could be the end of the world for everyone of us – which is what existential threat means – you are telling people that we should spend everything on fixing this problem and not bother about anything else.  What poses a real threat – to our economy, and therefore to our societies worldwide, are irresponsible energy policies leading to galloping inflation and financial destabilization of the markets, which happens across the western world due to bad decisions of our political leaders. Calling for complete abolition of fossil fuels is not only irresponsible; it is, in fact, a call for genocide: it has been estimated that if we stopped using fossil fuels today, between 20 and 60 million of people would die from startvation within a few days. Who would be willing to take responsibility for a decision like that? We need to steadily transition to more and more clean energy but it cannot be solely dictated by government fiat or a group of lobbying businessmen: the fundamental solution here is to invest in new technologies (such as hydrogen cars, for example) and improvement of existing technologies (like nuclear energy).

Climate change is not the only challenge facing humanity – everyone realized that during the recent pandemic. Thus, we have to ask ourselves how much we want and how much we actually can spend on mitigating this problem compared to all the other problems we, as humanity, are facing. All of it should be a subject of an open, public, honest, academic and intellectual debate. Unfortunately this debate is all too often exceedingly emotional, partisan, full of fear-mongering, apocalyptic visions invented to scare people and emotionally manipulate them to make them accept everything people in power want to implement in response to these challenges. And it is often the case that real and important questions, as well as good, reasonable ideas for solutions get completely drowned in this entire noise, in this media hype.

There is a lot to study and talk about regarding this problem. I was just trying to hallmark some important issues and make some important, in my opinion, points. There is a widespread opinion that governments should play a central role in the entire process of tackling climate change and restructuring our energy industry. This is, in my opinion, a very dubious and dangerous view, especially if it were to entail unrestrained increase of their governmental powers, without a proper concern on economic stability and growth, and without a proper balance in decision-making. Nobody should have power to unanimously dictate solutions here. Nobody owns the science, nobody is entitled or even able to make predictions with absolute certainty. Science on these problems is not absolutely settled and probably won’t ever be. It’s all based on computer models. Basing on my knowledge of the methodology of science I would say that the certainty of what is going to happen in 100 years is not greater than our certainty regarding events that happened on planet earth 50-60 million years ago. There are so many things we don’t know and can’t predict.

We are not omniscient. Human cognition is always limited. But the world will not end in 2030 or 2050; there is no scientific, nor any other rational knowledge that would suggest anything like that. That kind of ‘predictions’ are typically based on misrepresentation of facts, ignorance and fear. Where our knowledge ends, our faith begins. According to some of our biblical commentators, it was not only arrogance that caused the ancient people to build the Tower of Bavel; it was also, if nor primarily, their disbelief: they did not believe in the Divine promise that there would not be another flood. They rejected faith in God’s covenant with mankind and therefore built a civilization that has collapsed. Let us be mindful and let us not repeat their mistake. We have more time to decide; more than we typically think.

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.

[1]https://www.mckinsey.com/mgi/overview/in-the-news/what-it-will-cost-to-get-to-net-zero

[2]https://www.esrf.fr/home/UsersAndScience/Publications/Highlights/highlights-2013/x-ray-imaging/im2.html

[3]https://milnepublishing.geneseo.edu/the-history-of-our-tribe-hominini/chapter/primate-evolution/

https://climatechange.chicago.gov/climate-change-science/future-climate-change

https://www.britannica.com/science/Neogene-Period

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paleocene%E2%80%93Eocene_Thermal_Maximum

The ritual of accepting uncertainty

The ritual of accepting uncertainty              

 

 Rabbi Mati Kirschenbaum                    

This week’s Parashat Chukat starts with a description of a ceremony called Para Aduma, the ritual of offering a red heifer. This ritual was supposed to enable people who touched a corpse or stayed with it in one room to purify themselves from ritual impurity. This purification took place through the use of ashes obtained in the process of burning the heifer. Here is how the Torah describes the process of preparing these ashes:

“Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid.  You shall give it to Eleazar the priest. It shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered in his presence.  Eleazar the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger and sprinkle it seven times toward the front of the Tent of Meeting. The cow shall be burned in his sight—its hide, flesh, and blood shall be burned, its dung included— and the priest shall take cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson stuff, and throw them into the fire consuming the cow. The priest shall wash his garments and bathe his body in water; after that the priest may reenter the camp, but he shall be impure until evening. The one who performed the burning shall also wash those garments in water, bathe in water, and be impure until evening. Another party who is pure shall gather up the ashes of the cow and deposit them outside the camp in a pure place, to be kept for water of lustration for the Israelite community. It is for purgation.”  (Numbers 19:2-9)

Why did the process of purification from ritual impurity require precisely the ashes left after the offering of Para Aduma, the red heifer?

Our sages have been pondering this question since time immemorial. They viewed  the Para Aduma ceremony as a typical example of “chok”, a commandment for which it’s impossible to find a rational explanation. In tractate Yoma of the Babylonian Talmud Rabbi Akiva claimed that verse 7:23 in the Book of Kohelet (“I thought I could fathom it,  but it eludes me”) in fact refers to the commandment of Para Aduma. The author of the Book of Kohelet is traditionally believed to be king Solomon. Rabbi Akiva seems to suggest that even King Solomon – the symbol of wisdom – was not able to grasp the logic behind this commandment.

It’s hard to disagree with Rabbi Akiva. There is no way of guessing why the Para Aduma ritual required the offering of a red – and not for example yellow – heifer. In the Torah we also don’t find an answer to the question why before being offered it could not have carried a yoke. What’s more, the procedures of the Para Aduma ritual seem to escape the laws of logic. After all, throughout its course the priests who engaged in the process of obtaining the ashes required for ritual purification are themselves becoming ritually impure!

So the Para Aduma ritual is not only enigmatic, but also inherently contradictory. This makes it an especially hard nut to crack for progressive Judaism, which is based on a rational and scientific approach to religion. The sense of its strangeness is magnified by the fact that progressive Judaism doesn’t recognize the concept of ritual impurity; instead, we focus on “purity” in an ethical sense. But it seems to me that both the procedures and the mysterious character of the Para Aduma ceremony are supposed to help us accept the nature of our existence, which is full of uncertainties.

A lack of a rational explanation for the procedures of the Para Aduma ceremony reminds us that often we are not able to fully explain the reality which surrounds us. The fact that during the Para Aduma ceremony those who are ritually unclean regain purity, but the priest who takes part in it becomes impure reminds us that actions which are beneficial for us in the long term can entail some inconveniences. We are not sure if the benefits stemming from future actions will outweigh the potential losses.

Unsure if we understand correctly the world which surrounds us, unsure if our actions will yield the intended results, we yearn for certainty. The answer to this desire are ideologies and religions which offer us answers to all the questions.

The red heifer offering ceremony teaches us that Judaism doesn’t focus on looking for answers to questions about the essence of what happened or what can happen. Our tradition is interested predominantly in the actions that we can undertake today, here and now, and the readiness to take responsibility for their consequences.

While describing the process of bringing up the priests participating in the Para Aduma ritual the Mishna reminds us that taking responsibility for the fate of the world is not easy and it requires preparations. The priests who were supposed to conduct this ritual in the future were brought up in isolation from the rest of the world. This isolation was supposed to protect the young priests from ritual impurity linked to the contact with that which was dead. I think that the priests participating in the Para Aduma ritual became ritually impure because they had to confront death – the great, uncertainty-provoking unknown. Their ritual impurity lasting until the evening gave them a chance to understand the fate of the rest of the people of Israel whom they were supposed to serve. By spending time outside of the camp they experienced the uncertainty which came with the status of the ritually impure Israelites. Thanks to this experience the priests did not live in an elitist, ritually pure “soap bubble”. On the contrary, they were aware that undertaking actions aimed at changing the world for the better requires sacrifices. They knew that uncertainty and inconveniences are the price worth paying to secure a better tomorrow for their community.

Progressive Judaism has abolished the division between the priests and the rest of the People of Israel. We believe that Jews as a collective are obligated to become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” (Exodus 19:6). This means that each individual is obligated to undertake actions drawing Jews as a collective closer to holiness.

The ritual of Para Aduma reminds us that our individual and collective path to a better world entails undertaking actions in spite of uncertainty. I wish you that this Shabbat Chukat you can find your red heifers – the sources of courage and inspiration to take action.

Shabbat Shalom!

Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka

Mati Kirschenbaum

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.

 

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

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.

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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