PUBLICZNA MODLITWA W TRUDNYM CZASIE
Wykład Miriam Klimovej z dnia 01.04.2020
Zrealizowano przy wsparciu Dutch Humanitarian Fund
This week’s Torah portion contains a number of laws and regulations regarding the responsibilities of the representatives of each tribe of Israel in the Tent of Meeting. These regulations are only a part of the whole Code of Law which was supposed to ensure the harmonious co-existence of the tribes of Israel in Biblical times. The theme of harmony and conflict between the tribes of Israel runs through essentially the entire Hebrew Bible and it was very significant from the very beginning.
Of course it bears great importance today as well. Are we, modern Jews, a coherent and well-functioning society on a global scale? I won’t provide an answer to this question, since in essence any answer would be risky, for reasons I will discuss below.
First of all, we are greatly dispersed across the world and we are immeasurably more diverse than our biblical ancestors. This has a substantial impact on the diversity of our life-experiences, since we live within the structures of various societies which differ from one another. Our life, both in its Jewish as well as universal dimension differs depending on the place we live in; it is different in Poland, different in Sweden, different in Ukraine, in Russia, in the USA, in Israel etc., which also leads to differences in our mentality, our cultural identity, our moral and political convictions etc. Polish Jews are now substantially culturally different from German or Swedish Jews, and this is certainly true to a much greater extent when it comes to for example American Jews. We simply become imbued with the culture and mentality which surrounds us. In addition, there is also race-related diversity, although this also depends on the region of the world we live in. African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, native Americans, Sephardim and Mizrahim – namely all the non-Ashkenazim – comprise nearly 20% of American Jews. Because of all this our definitions of being Jewish also vary in different parts of the world. Even if they seem to stem from the same, rabbinical root, in practice they are slightly different in Israel, Poland, Western Europe and the US.
The above mentioned global diversity with regards to our lives and experiences may not be especially visible in our everyday life, due to which our perception of other Jews is distorted – we look at them through the lenses of our own experiences and our own worldview, and we are also influenced by the illusion that there is cultural unity among all Jews. As a result of this we often judge inadequately the actions of our brethren who live on the other side of the world, in a different cultural, political or economic reality. Our modern globalized and digitalized world often makes us believe in the illusion that in essence we know everything or at least that knowledge about everything is within our reach. As a result of this we easily extrapolate our own experiences and we draw all possible kinds of analogies. The greatest illusion of all is probably the belief that the so called Western culture or civilization is in fact a unity or one cultural monolith. Even though as a whole it was built on the same foundation (Judeo-Christian values and Enlightenment values), this view is hard to uphold, since quite a lot of local diversity can be found within this civilization as well. The apparent similarities should not obscure the differences, especially the crucial differences. For example let’s take multiculturalism – this concept seems to mean the same everywhere; but its practical implementation and implications are different in California, in Western Europe or in Israel, so in practical terms this is not the same multiculturalism. We must be intellectually flexible in order to notice the differences, instead of being lazy, since it is intellectual laziness that is, unfortunately, the main reason for ignoring differences and focusing on superficial similarities, inappropriate analogies or overgeneralizations. So for example we should not automatically assume that the political solutions which we’ve implemented in one part of the world and which have proved effective in our situation will also be effective in another part of the world, in a different culture.
Therefore political solutions as well as remedies to challenges and problems such as for example anti-Semitism will vary in different parts of the world. That is why I would suggest caution in formulating definitive diagnoses, and especially in judging the convictions, decisions and actions of our brethren living in other parts of the world than we do. In a situation when we actually don’t know much about their every-day life and experiences it’s better to assume that they are completely aware of the reality which surrounds them and that they know what they are doing.
One of the challenges which all Jews face today is – especially in the Western world – the growing lack of recognition of the state of Israel as an integral part of Jewish life and Jewish identity. After 2000 years of a continuous spiritual connection with our ancestral homeland we are witnessing in our societies an increasingly widespread disappointment in this idea or permanent conflicts and antagonisms concerning this notion. As a result of this Diaspora Jews are more and more often distancing themselves from recognizing their ties with Israel, ties which are indispensable and in fact bear great significance.
Some of the reasons behind this state of affairs are – besides the tendencies I discussed above – our widespread quite schematic knowledge of history as well as – what often goes hand in hand with it – a proneness to form very simplified, one-dimensional, binary media narratives about the current political situation in Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In spite of the global rise in anti-Semitism, the negative rhetoric surrounding Israel and also some other difficult issues we are struggling with in this context, Israel remains an eternal and integral part of Jewish life and of our identity. As it was adequately expressed by Elana Yael Heideman, PhD:
We don’t all have to have the same background, political leanings or opinions. Yet we are all part of the story of Am Yisrael. No geographical or political divide can diminish the significance of that.
This is true whether or not we actively embrace this. The magical thing is that, when we do fully embrace this, we become stronger – as individuals and as a community.
Whether we like it or not, we must recognize the state of Israel as an important, if not fundamental, element of our Jewish life, since our fate as a Diaspora community also depends on its physical existence. If an independent and sovereign state of Israel had existed before World War II, then either there would have been no Holocaust at all or a significantly lower number of victims would have perished in it.
Of course this doesn’t mean that we have to speak unanimously (this would in fact be unimaginable, considering our tradition) or be uncritical when it comes to ideological or political matters. I personally believe in the enormous unifying power of our history; this is not an unsubstantiated belief, as from time to time I have a chance to observe how that unifying power works in practice. In my opinion it counteracts various radicalisms and all kinds of decentralist tendencies. Our stories and the narratives of our religion are not only a source of our identity – but also of our unity. By loving our tradition we learn to love other Jews. At the basis of our internal diversity and multiculturalism there is something which unifies us – namely our common history – thanks to which despite our many differences we remain a unity. Our internal multiculturalism can be – and perhaps even should be – a model for other multiculturalisms across the world. Since in order for multiculturalism to persist over time it must have at least one modest, but at the same time fundamental narrative which everyone can understand, which unifies people of different cultures and which expresses the general structure of our common human values.
Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka
This week’s Parasha Bechukotai concludes the so called “Holiness Code” – i.e. chapters 17-26 from the Book of Leviticus which describe the ritual and moral prohibitions aimed at making the people of Israel a nation aspiring to holiness. The beginning of our Parasha coincides with the summary of the Code in which we find the description of the blessings and curses which are to befell the Israelites if they will – or will not – keep the Eternal’s commandments after entering the Land of Israel. The reward shall be prosperity and peace, whereas the punishment will entail the devastation of the land of Israel, the exile of the Israelites, fear, hunger and humiliation suffered in a foreign land. However, the punishment will not last forever – the Eternal shall not forsake the remnant of His people and eventually He will remember the covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
A reference to the covenant with God can also be found in the Haftarah to our Parasha – that is in chapter 16 and 17 of Jeremiah’s prophecy. In the Haftarah we find the following statement:
אָרוּר הַגֶּבֶר אֲשֶׁר יִבְטַח בָּאָדָם
Cursed is he who trusts in man (Jr 17:5.)
Here is how Jeremiah describes such a person:
He shall be like a bush in the desert, which does not sense the coming of good: It is set in the scorched places of the wilderness, in a barren land without inhabitant (Jr 17:6.)
So where can we find hope? Jeremiah lets us know without a shadow of doubt, as he states:
בָּרוּךְ הַגֶּבֶר, אֲשֶׁר יִבְטַח בַּיהוָה; וְהָיָה יְהוָה, מִבְטַחוֹ
Blessed is he who trusts in the Eternal, whose trust is the Eternal alone (Jr 17:7.)
This Sunday we are going to elect the Polish representatives to the European Parliament. Many of us feel that we are voting for the lesser evil. We do not feel that we can trust our politicians. And we don’t have to: Jeremiah teaches us that in fact we can truly trust only the Eternal. But this doesn’t mean that, full of mistrust, we should abstain from voting. On the contrary, we must vote, keeping in mind the subsequent words of Jeremiah:
עָקֹב הַלֵּב מִכֹּל, וְאָנֻשׁ הוּא; מִי, יֵדָעֶנּוּ. אֲנִי יְהוָה חֹקֵר לֵב, בֹּחֵן כְּלָיוֹת: וְלָתֵת לְאִישׁ כִּדְרָכָו, כִּפְרִי מַעֲלָלָיו.
Most devious is the heart (the source of human intellect); It is perverse — who can fathom it? I the Eternal, probe the heart, search the mind (one’s character) — to repay every man according to his ways, with the proper fruit of his deeds (Jr 17:9-10.)
Jeremiah teaches us that politicians make mistakes which stem from their human, imperfect nature. Ultimately it will be the Eternal who shall judge their mistakes and hold them accountable for them. But for now we must believe that by trusting the Eternal and His teachings we will be able to choose the best politicians that our society is capable of electing. May you all cast a well-thought-out vote on Sunday. And for now – may you have a peaceful Shabbat! Shabbat Shalom!
Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka
In this week’s Torah portion, Behar, we find the description of the laws of a jubilee year, a year in which property returns to its previous owners. The practise of a jubilee year is described as follows:
And you shall count seven sabbaths of years for yourself, seven times seven years; and there shall be to you the days of seven sabbaths of years, exactly forty and nine years. Then you shall make a proclamation with the blast of the horn on the tenth day of the seventh month; in the day of atonement you shall make proclamation with the horn throughout all your land. And you shall sanctify the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof; it shall be a jubilee for you; and you shall return every man to his possession, and you shall return every man to his family.
The description of the jubilee seems to suggest that every forty nine years Israelite society went through a social ‘reboot’, during which property which previously changed hands came back to its previous owner. This idea might make many of us deeply uncomfortable. After all, in the world of long lifespans, a jubilee every 50 years is an event that almost all of us would live through during their lifetime. I also believe that most of us would not be happy if, for instance, our flat, bought with the help of a mortgage for 35 years, returned to its previous owner just because the jubilee year has come.
This feeling of discomfort stems from our estrangement from biblical reality. We function in a skills-based economy, in which we earn our livelihood selling our skills and not the fruit of our land. In contrast, biblical society was mostly agricultural – most Israelites worked as shepherds and farmers. For them, selling their land to someone else meant a transformation into a hired labourer, a social class only one notch above slaves. When such hired labourers fell into debt, they sold their freedom, and became slaves. Both the act of selling one’s land and that of selling one’s freedom were made null and void during the jubilee year, when the land was returned to its original owner and the slave was freed and returned to his family. What was the reason for it? Why would Torah annul transactions that were part and parcel of economic life in the ancient Middle East?
Traditional commentaries gave differing answers to those questions. One explanation found in the Sifra, commentary on the book of Leviticus, stipulated that the return of lands to their original owners was supposed to maintain land ownership of Israelite tribes, thus securing peace between them. Sifra also states that Israelite slaves were released because being enslaved made it impossible to serve their ultimate master – God – with full, unrestricted devotion. Medieval Spanish commentator Abraham Ibn Ezra emphasised the importance of personal freedom by comparing a person deprived of freedom to a bird in a cage which, ultimately, loses its will to live.
It seems that the laws of the jubilee years were supposed to secure both individual freedom and societal harmony in the ancient Israelite society. But how are they relevant to our lives in the modern Western world, where slavery is a thing of the past? What do they mean in democratic society, which respects the inviolability of property rights?
I think we should look at the laws of the jubilee year through the prism of inequalities that threaten the stability of our world. One of them is the ever growing inequality between the global rich and the global poor of today. For instance, in 2018 the richest 1% of world’s population controlled 45% of global worth, while 64% of world’s population owned only 2% of world’s worth. This inequality is even more glaring if we look at the skyrocketing growth of the wealth of the world’s richest individuals. In 2009, the combined wealth of world’s 380 richest people matched the wealth of the bottom half of world’s population. In 2017, the wealth of only 42 richest individuals was enough to equal the value of the assets of the bottom half. The inequality has grown markedly.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t advocate a communist revolution as a cure to rising inequality. I only want to point out that today’s excessive inequality is as harmful to the society as it was in the biblical times. Nationally, it weakens social cohesion, antagonises different segments of society, and fosters the development of right-wing populist movements looking for a scapegoat. Globally, disproportionate wealth disparity leads to the growth of fundamentalism in societies that feel colonised, sparks civil wars, and motivates people to dramatic, often deadly, attempts to get to developed countries.
The consequences of income and opportunity inequality are acutely felt in our society, and result in its deep political division. This Shabbat, the Shabbat before the European Parliament Elections, I encourage you to look beyond mutual recriminations of our politicians and to ask yourself the following questions: which party, which policy can lead to a more equal, less divided society? What can I do to bring about a modern jubilee year so need today in this country, in Europe, in the world. Shabbat Shalom!
Our Sidra this week covers several themes but in Chapter 23 of Leviticus we have a listing of the festivals that are to be observed – and how they are to be observed. Which raises many questions, because we no longer do what is here described – bringing animal sacrifices or waving an 'Omer’, a sheaf. We count, but we don’t wave! But how should we celebrate our festivals, and what is there to celebrate?
I must say here – I am gradually becoming more and more worried about my rabbinic colleagues in the United States. And this is not ’Schadenfreude’. For years I would receive mails and comments on the lines of ”How can you stay working in Europe? Isn’t it dangerous there? So much rising antisemitism and right wing populist politicians?” And now – they have to cope with living in a country ruled in a semi-dictatorial manner by a President who believes that he can just issue a decree – and it will be done; who can issue statements against refugees and immigrants, who can turn back the clock of political correctness and liberal values by twenty or thirty years – and still retain the support of a sizeable minority, even majority of the nation behind him; and they have to live with horrific armed, murderous attacks by madmen on synagogues in Pittsburgh and in California… (not counting so many other attacks, on civilians, on office workers in New York, on marathon runners in Boston, and others). For all the wrong reasons – and these are WRONG reasons – the tone of self-righteous complacency has vanished. Liberal values are under threat, and Jews are under threat. The comments from my American colleagues have dried up.
What makes this more noticeable is that for decades there were numerous colleagues who felt rather unhappy about the traditional Haggadah for Pesach – which has of course replaced the one-time traditional sacrifices. Now, it is a few weeks since we used a version of the Haggadah but I notice that this is still an issue for debate: Whether or not to incorporate traditional paragraphs which criticise non-Jews. ”After all,” goes the argument, ”Nowadays we have a much better relationship with our non-Jewish neighbours than before, in the Middle Ages (defined as the fifth to the fifteenth centuries) or the Later Middle Ages (defined as the first half of the twentieth century); Nowadays many of our members themselves began their lives as non-Jews and many have non-Jewish family members or non-Jewish partners, and we do not wish to insult these people.” These are interesting arguments, but they miss the point. The paragraphs most usually referred to – the ”Vehi She’amda” and the ”Shefoch Chamatcha” – are not prayers against Non-Jews as such, they are statements and prayers against Antisemites. NOT all Non-Jews are Antisemites and indeed many non-Jews share the values which Judaism introduced into the world, of monotheism and responsibility and respect for each other, of blessing and of the yearning for stability and peace. BUT – and it is a big 'But’ – there are some people who are driven only by Hatred: Hatred of Moslems, hatred of Christians, and hatred of Jews. Of course there are some Moslems who hate other Moslems for being the wrong sort of Moslem, and there have been many Christians who have hated other Christians for being the wrong sort of Christians, and European history and now Middle-East history has been stained red many times by the blood of Shiites and Sunnis and the Ahmadis, by Catholics and Protestants and Copts and Hussites and Albigensians and others, many others….. However, one common factor throughout all these bloody and bloodthirsty centuries has been the way in which the soil and the waters have been stained by the blood of Jews. Jews killed solely because they were Jews. For our enemies, there are no ”wrong kinds of Jews” – ALL Jews universally (and even former Jews who had converted, or baptised Jews, or descendants of Jews) were recognised as legitimate targets for their hatred. When we describe the murder or martyrdom of Jews we use the term ”Kiddush HaShem” – they ”sanctify the Name” – and this is a way of saying that their sacrifice, their loss, their suffering was due solely to the fact that they were Jews – not Germans, not Poles, not Russians, not even Israelis – but Jews. It was the Name – in this case, the name 'Jew’ – that counted.
And this is why I feel it is totally legitimate to recite during our celebration of liberation from slavery and oppression, that this was not just a one-off event. ”Vehi Sheamda” says ”In EVERY generation there are those who rise up against us and seek to destroy us. In EVERY generation, whatever we did or do, wherever we are. We cannot escape. But until now, the Holy One has always rescued at least some of us – otherwise we would not be here today to sing this.”
Which strikes me as a very reasonable summary of Jewish history and Jewish hope for the future. Until recently the Jews in the United States at least had felt that they had survived for several generations with only mild social antisemitism, the exclusion from certain clubs and maybe from certain political positions but essentially a near-total acceptance and a sense of safety and security. But not any more…..
The ”Shefoch Chamatcha’’, often traditionally recited standing while the door has been opened to show any lurking enemies outside that we had nothing to fear, nothing to hide, is an appeal to God to wreak divine vengeance on ”those nations who rise up to destroy us, to devour us” – not the others, who leave us alone, in peace. And why not? Where is it stated in the Tanach that we are duty bound to remain passive and pacifist and accept calmly and without anger the unjustified attacks upon us? Quite the reverse – starting with the defence against the Amalekites in Exodus Chapter 17. The prophets speak many times of JUSTIFIED attacks, when we have done something evil to annoy God and to deserve punishment – this is a difficult theological equation but it exists. However, when peoples attack us for no reason, then we have no reason to accept the blame upon ourselves falsely. That would be 'false modesty’, to say the least. We do not rise up and say that it is OUR duty to attack and punish these enemies, but we ask God to do it for us.
There are many who claim that they are acting in the name of God when they blow up churches or murder worshippers in churches, synagogues and mosques, or when they threaten to wipe out the Jewish state with its inhabitants – but this is a vile blasphemy. There is nowhere stated in any of the monotheistic scriptures that God, under any name, has actually asked or commanded them to do this. They are misusing God’s name, they are abusing it, to justify their own human weakness and hatred. If they truly believed in God, they would ask God to punish those with whom they do not agree – and then wait for God to do so. And if God did not do so – then this should indicate to them that maybe their wishes were unjustified and their beliefs misguided. So let us be clear that we do not have to believe or accept those who claim to be acting out of Belief; they are actually acting out of a LACK of Belief. They do NOT believe that God will act, and so they do so themselves. A total twisting by 180 degrees of any truth, of any faith.
There have been times and places where we felt more secure, more accepted than elsewhere and until now the USA, partially established by a persecuted sect of British Puritans who demanded a separation of Church and State, was perhaps one of them. Maybe less so now. This does not, of course, make things any easier for us here, in Europe where we face plenty of evidence for human stupidity. But it makes us understand better those anonymous geniuses who composed the two paragraphs of the Haggadah shel Pessach which – I feel – are an important part of the ritual and of the way we approach our history and our identity. They incorporate uncomfortable but deep truths.
Chukat Olam leDorotechem – ”it is an eternal law for all your generations” – this is the term the Torah uses for something which should continue; alas we must use it also to describe things which should NOT continue, but somehow do……
We will begin today’s drasha by analyzing several subsequent verses from the Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) which are part of the Torah portion read on the Shabbat which falls on the 8th day of Pesach:
There shall be no needy among you — since the [Eternal] your God will bless you in the land that the [Eternal] your God is giving you as a hereditary portion— if only you heed the [Eternal] your God and take care to keep all this Instruction that I enjoin upon you this day.
If, however, there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that the [Eternal] your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman.
For there will never cease to be needy ones in your land, which is why I command you: open your hand to the poor and needy kinsman in your land.
Could it be that the verses quoted above are logically incoherent? In the Hebrew text this seems to be even more evident – in verse 15:4 we have לֹא יִהְיֶה־בְּךָ אֶבְיוֹן – (lo jihje beha evyon) – which could be translated literally as, “There shall be no needy among you”; then, in verse 15:7 we have
כִּי־יִהְיֶה בְךָ אֶבְיוֹן (ki jihje beha evyon), that is: “If (or because) there is a needy person among you”, and finally we have כִּי לֹא־יֶחְדַּל אֶבְיוֹן (ki lo yehdal evyon), that is: “For there will never cease to be needy ones….” Of course all these sentences are formulated in the imperfective aspect (since in the Biblical Hebrew there is strictly speaking no past and future tense, but only imperfective/perfective aspects), and this mode is used to describe not only events in the future tense, but also in the conditional, modal and “commending” mode, due to which the above quoted translation of these verses is appropriate.
Fine, but how is it exactly with the poor and needy ones? Will they exist in a society whose functioning is based on Divine law or will they not? The explanation of this seeming incoherence seems to be simple: namely, it all comes down to the words: “If only you heed the voice of the Eternal…” from verse 15:5. Everything seems to suggest that God, as he speaks through the lips of Moses, is assuming from the very beginning that the system of His laws will not function ideally due to the human component which is the key element of the whole system. Thus we have a full spectrum of possibilities here, in which the number of needy persons in a given society depends on the extent to which the Divine Law is being followed in it, on the level of social sensitivity and on the way in which that society is being ruled.
Of course this topic still remains valid, since in this world there is no society without the poor and the needy, there are only differences with regards to their proportions. But why is caring for the needy important at all times and everywhere? Because the absence of such care in the longer run leads to the increase of the level of social frustration and to resentment, and this in turn creates the grounds for the eruption of all kinds of negative, hateful and fanatic stances. This in consequence leads to the disintegration of social bonds, especially when it creates a sharp social polarization between different groups, no matter if that polarization is real or only invented by politicians-demagogues whose aim is to take over power – the effect will be more or less the same. The greatest danger appears when class divisions start to coincide with racial, national or religious divisions in a given society.
How should we help the needy? I won’t go into political and systemic issues here, since none of the political systems invented so far have been really able to deal with this problem, and that is also why we are forced to shoulder a greater responsibility. In addition, the most effective help can take place only between individuals, and not groups of people – in the latter case we very often open up the space to all kinds of violations. So how should we help? The Torah commands us two things: not to shut our hearts and not to shut our hands against the needy. Not to shut our heart means to be sensible towards the fate of the more vulnerable and needy ones. To listen to them, to dedicate a little bit of time to them, to become familiar with their problems, their story etc. This can be – and very often is – a good lesson for all of us, especially for all those who prosper in their lives. Whereas not to shut our hand does not have to necessarily mean financial help, it can be understood more broadly, as active help by means of the actions we undertake.
First of all we have to know the reasons why a given person has find themselves in a difficult situation, since there are no rules here, as human fates can stem from a wide spectrum of events. On one end of this spectrum there are people who found themselves in a difficult situation as a result of unfortunate events, such as the death of a close one, an accident or disaster etc.; these are people who used to function well within the society before that misfortune happened to them. On the other end of the spectrum we have people who are responsible for their own difficult situation, who never truly functioned properly among other people. In each case we should provide a different kind of help. When it comes to people who function well within the society, the necessary help is usually temporary and short-term and it doesn’t require great sacrifices on our side, we also don’t need to take special responsibility for these people. In the case of people who do not function well the situation is much more complicated. The first thing that should be done is to help them change whatever leads to their inadequate functioning, which could be caused by very different reasons, so that our aid will not lead to a situation wherein by helping them we are actually “encouraging” them to remain in a bad situation. Then, depending on the scale of the problem, we must assess the extent of responsibility that a given situation requires us to take. If this responsibility turns out to be too great for us, to the extent that it poses a threat to our life’s order, we have the right to deny that help with a clear conscience.
And since I believe that everyone deserves help (or at least a chance to receive it, since ultimately it’s true that fortune is fickle and none of us can predict the situation in which we may find ourselves in the future), before we decide to help someone, let’s always get to know the reasons why they found themselves in such a situation, let’s get to know their story. I believe it is exactly for this reason that the Torah first speaks about not shutting the heart, and only then about not shutting the hand, and not the other way around. By acting this way, in this order, we will be able to realistically assess if and in what way we can help that person, and as a consequence we’ll be able to live with a clear conscience if we decide not to help someone.
Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka
In this week’s Torah portion (Leviticus/Vajikra 9:1-11:47) Aaron and his sons begin to fulfill the duties of kohanim (priests). God sends a fire which consumes the sacrifices on the altar; thereby the Divine presence begins to live in the Tent of Meeting, in Hebrew also called the Mishkan.
Moses and Aaron then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of the [Eternal] appeared to all the people. Fire came forth from before the [Eternal] and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces.
However, soon after that moment, after a time of great joy and euphoria, a tragedy takes place:
Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the [Eternal] alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the [Eternal] and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the [Eternal]. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the [Eternal] meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people.” And Aaron was silent.
The above mentioned events have drawn the attention of many commentators and often times they posed a challenge for theologians. Quite a lot has been written on this topic, but this is not what I’d like to focus on here; I’d rather focus on the sheer chronology of the events: a moment of euphoria, happiness, joy, and then suddenly a tragedy.
Sounds familiar? Of course, perhaps even too familiar; probably almost every one of us could recall a similar turn of events, about which they have either heard about or directly witnessed it themselves. In the latter case we often remember such events until the end of our lives; such experiences are often traumatic and they leave us with a number of dramatic questions, such as: could this have been prevented, what was really the cause of this tragedy, why did it have to happen and so on.
One mistake, one moment of inattention can lead to a catastrophe. Could we organize the world in such a way as to ensure that such situations never take place? In my opinion this is a utopian idea, first of all because as human beings we do not have the necessary means nor minds to rule over the entire reality which surrounds us. Therefore the best thing is to be aware of this and accept our own limitations. The world is still too large and too complex and we still don’t know enough about the processes which occur in it, although of course we know much more than our grandparents and great-grandparents. And while we should pay special attention to ensuring our safety, we must make sure we do it in an appropriate way.
The need for safety is one of the most fundamental and biological of human needs, along with others such as the need for nutrition, procreation etc. However, concern about safety, especially when it comes to our close ones, can easily turn into patronizing, which could potentially be even more dangerous for the people for whose safety we are concerned, such as our children. Why? Because if we arrange for someone to live in permanent comfort, they will never learn how to keep themselves safe on their own. That’s why as we bring up our children we should not strive to keep them safe at all cost and in all circumstances – and many experts in the field of psychology and pedagogy would agree with me here – but instead we should teach them how to ensure their own safety and how to be cautious in their everyday conduct and in their lives in general. Therefore we should gradually, in a way that’s suitable for their age, expose them to the real world, with all the problems, difficulties, failures or pain it entails. Otherwise, if we decide to keep them in a “safety bubble”, after a while reality will ruthlessly correct our mistakes and teach our children a lesson, sometimes in a very brutal way. Being overly cautious about someone else’s safety infantilizes them and as a result of it people never grow up and avoid taking responsibility for themselves, not to mention taking responsibility for others. A world in which humanity would consist of only such individuals would be one possible version of hell on earth.
And while there is nothing fundamentally wrong in wanting to control the world which surrounds us (provided that our rule does not entail brutal or even senseless exploitation) and this is in fact necessary for our survival, we must nevertheless renounce the idea that we could ever have control over everything. No, that is impossible, and that’s why we have to learn how to distinguish between that which we can control and those things over which we have no control and which perhaps we will never be able to control. Just like it’s not possible to “take care of” and fully fulfill our need for safety (or any other of our needs) once and for all. Chaos will always burst into our orderly surroundings, regardless of whether it’s an order that we established ourselves or a natural one. And there is nothing we can do about it, since that is simply the nature of the world that we live in, to put it in very traditional terms. So what can we do about it?
The answer is: We can try to live in a reasonable way. What does this mean? It means to continuously deal with that chaos, to live in opposition to it and at the same time to try to organize that chaos, both in our external and internal life. With regards to this second aspect, and to a certain extent also the first one, the system which is best suited to fight with chaos is, I dare say, our religion – Judaism. If we live according to its rules, then almost every aspect of our life becomes meaningful and well-organized. Of course there are practical matters which extend beyond our religious life, but also in this case a reasonable way of organizing them is necessary, and here the wisdom of our tradition can also lend us a hand, since Judaism teaches how to live according to rules and in moderation, with a permanently implemented, regular obligation to rest, which in the longer run protects human life, since it is subordinated to it. In order to save a life on Shabbat one is allowed to break all of its rules and essentially to do everything except for that which we know will lead us to worship idols, to prohibited sexual relations or to bloodshed.
People who have a goal in their lives and who follow a regular schedule are statistically less prone to depression, addictions and other destructive tendencies. So, we should set goals, follow a regular schedule (with regards to meal times, sleep, work, study, entertainment etc.) and have a well-ordered personal life. For some people this could already be a goal in and of itself. Only then will we be able to plan and achieve all that which we want to achieve. Are we going to face failures? Of course, they will always happen from time to time, but we must simply come to terms with them and get on with our lives. It’s very possible that already the next day we will discover their meaning and significance, thanks to which we will for example discover and implement in our lives certain rules which will help us avoid potentially even much greater misfortunes in the future.
Of course there is still the question of the role of spontaneity in our lives – and indeed there is room for it as well. A conflict between our plans and our life as it is here and now is something that we’ve all experienced many times. This being said, there is nothing bad or stupid in planning and this statement absolutely does not contradict the old, funny Yiddish saying: Der Mentsh tracht un Got lacht – humans plan and God laughs – which is first of all an expression of an ability to laugh at oneself and a healthy reaction to our own failures. Having too many plans and goals also doesn’t have to be stupid at all. The more of them we have, the more of them we carry out (provided that we do not simply have millions of ideas per minute or that for example we don’t have a certain constant, pathological element in our lives which thwarts everything, such as for example an addiction, although fighting with an addiction also entails implementing order in our life or expanding its extent). We will carry out more, though of course we will never carry out all of our plans, but this often turns out not to be a serious problem in the long term. And the same could be said about the commandments and rules in our religion: the more of them we honestly decide to fulfill, the more of them we will actually fulfill and as a result our life will change for the better. That’s why the allegedly “common sense” tendency to reduce the number of rules in our lives is actually not good for us – the less rules and principles we respect in theory, the less of them we fulfill in practice, and then our life can slowly start to drift towards chaos, although this can end up affecting especially the lives of our children.
This could be one of the answers to the question why Judaism entails so many commandments, rules and norms, regarding essentially everything. This is presumably also one of the answers to the question why as a community with a continuous identity and tradition we’ve been able to survive for already over 3 millennia, whereas many other nations and religious groups simply ceased to exist.
A life which is purposeful, meaningful and filled with responsibility is not some kind of pie in the sky made up by “religious lunatics”, as some, allegedly rational, modernist and postmodernist “sages” would want it. What’s the point of doing anything, since in a million years we won’t be here anyways – this argument is simply a trick played by the nihilistic mind. Yes, our mind is capable of this and we can always imagine a certain time perspective in which none of our actions will make any sense. And it doesn’t even have to be a time-frame of a thousand or million years – a hundred is enough. However, such reasoning is a logical-metaphysical trap, and the stance that stems from it amounts to simply giving up the fight with chaos, the fight for life, to losing it by default. There is nothing lofty about this, nothing valuable, nothing worth emulating and finally – nothing wise.
If we renounce the belief in the meaningfulness and purposefulness of human life, then nihilism, chaos, and ultimately destruction creep in. The notion of meaning and the purposefulness of human life, in any shape and form – be it religious, lay, collective or individual, is not something “irrational” – on the contrary – it is the highest form of human rationality.
Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka
 According to some linguists the Polish word “mieszkać” (to reside somewhere) comes exactly from the Hebrew mishkan.
Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild
The Torah portion for this week contains a lot of ritual instructions for the different sacrifices. On the surface these instructions are, for many readers, rather boring, certainly repetitive and essentially irrelevant. I can understand this point of view, but I do not wholly share it. For me they hold an importance and that importance is: That they are written down and available for the public to see, to read, to learn, to copy. They are not kept secret and mysterious, locked away, written in code in a different script, for the initiated few. The sacrifices in the Sanctuary and later in the Temple were not part of some conspiracy plot, for the Illuminati only; on the contrary, everyone could see what it was the Cohen, the priest had to do, and how much he got paid for it. We talk a lot about Transparency in modern political life but of course we do very little to ensure it happens.
So often in life or in the Torah you have to look carefully at context and sequence and look for clues as to what is going on. Sometimes the clues are hidden between the lines, sometimes the clues are staring at you in black and white and you just to take a step back to see them better. In Judaism, the Priests were downgraded in importance. This is vital. They were not allowed any own initiative. God tells Moses – a lay leader – to tell them what their instructions are. For a Full Burnt Offering, for a Flour Offering….. So Moses as lay leader is also not God but only a mouthpiece for God, an intermediary. God does not talk to the Priests direct! How amazing is that! But God gives firm and clear and systematic instructions as to how the Israelites are to approach God, what they are to give under certain specific circumstances, what parts of their sacrifices they are allowed to eat themselves, what share the priests are entitled to as their professional fee.
I do not want to pretend that the details of the sacrifices are so fascinating – but it IS relevant to look at the language and the structure. How often do we hear a politician – of any country, of any party – use words like ”We are going to GIVE so-and-so many-millions to Education or to Health or to Social Welfare”? And they expect praise and gratitude for such statements. Whereas in fact the Government as such is actually giving Nothing at All – it is only ALLOCATING a certain sum from the annual budget for a certain cause… it is not their personal money, it is the money raised by taxation, direct and indirect. So when the Priests bring a routine sacrifice this is from the donations made, collectively or individually, by the Israelites who come to the temple. They represent the People to God in the way a lawyer represents a client to a judge in a court – everyone knows that they are paid to do their job, to say good things about their client, to plead for a good judgement or at least for a mild punishment; Everyone knows they did not know their client before the client came to their office and everyone knows they will never see the client again afterwards – with luck! – or become a close family friend, and yet they speak of their client as though they had known them intimately all their lives and are close personal friends….
How often do politicians and officials say ”We” when they mean ”I – but I am dragging you along and down with me”? ”We in our party…” ”We in our government…” ”We in our country…” or even ”We in our nation.”
The word ”kadosh”, translated as ”holy”, means just ”special, separate, out of the ordinary”. It is so easy, when you are working for a special cause, to feel that you yourself are special. What does this mean? That you expect special rewards, that normal rules and restrictions no longer apply to you, that you are entitled to privileges, not just because of your status but because of you yourself. It is a standard and common temptation. You feel you can speak for everybody – even for those not yet born, even for those who have already died. You might tell yourself you feel ”closer to God” but actually you are just as distant as everyone else and subject to just the same human failings and weaknesses.
In recent months – I don’t want to get too 'political’ here but I do want to illustrate my argument with some current examples – we have seen the major impact in the Church of the awareness that just because a man puts on a robe and makes certain commitments, this does not mean that his sexuality simply evaporates; It may merely be channelled in other directions which then, almost by definition, become destructive one, destructive for themselves, for their victims and for the system they serve. We have seen political leaders deny historical tendencies and facts, seeking to make of their nation in its history, three quarters of a century ago, a nation purely of victims, of innocents, a nation in which Nobody collaborated with evil or supported evil or was possibly even aware of evil…. an innocent fluffy Lamb that lay down with the Lion without becoming corrupted. And anyone who denies this is accused of being a heretic, a slanderer, a blasphemer, who should be punished. An entire nation of innocents! It really makes one wonder what some people believe, and what they think they can persuade others to believe..
A further important issue is that of 'Closure’. If a person, a Jew, has performed a certain sin or has a certain request, it is laid down clearly and systematically what has to be done to resolve this need. Rather than years of counselling and therapy, a Sin Offering can be brought. I recently had to counsel a man – not Jewish – who had been carrying for almost the whole of his life the guilt for a tragedy in which he was involved as a teenager. How different things might have been for him, over decades, if he had been able to 'put things right with God” in a certain way – admitting his guilt and his shame, admitting the impossibility of putting right what had happened – a man had been killed in an accident – but at least repairing the relationship to God and getting on with his life. The price list given in the Torah is fairly simple, there are occasional discounts for the very poor but no punitive extra costs for the wealthier – but it is clear, it is published just like the prices on a menu outside the restaurant. As a human before God, it is not so important what one has, but what one is prepared to give. A sacrifice is not necessary for God to remain well-nourished, a sacrifice is necessary so that a human can say ”I can do without this, I can afford to donate this, I won’t need this for ever” and give it away – can distance themselves from material things, can watch as it all goes up in smoke anyway or is shared with others. The word for a sacrifice – Korban – is derived from the word for ”getting close” to God. The Rabbis said we can get close to God through Prayer, as an alternative, as a substitute.
So – we read these chapters of Leviticus – we do not need to stick to the strict interpretation and fulfilment of the regulations and commands, and I am certainly not one of those Jews who argues that the sacrificial cult in Jerusalem should be restored – but we can and should ask ourselves : Why have almost all religions in world history demanded something from their adherents? Why have there been priests and altars and sacrifices (in various forms, with various names, even whether a matter of money or incense sticks to images or donations to the priests or monks) from Thailand through India to Peru? What effect did these forms of worship have on the worshippers?; and what do we use today to take their place, when we want to approach God?
…Indifference to evil is worse than evil itself…, in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.
Abraham Joshua Heschel
If it is the anointed priest who has incurred guilt, so that blame falls upon the people, he shall offer for the sin of which he is guilty a bull of the herd without blemish as a sin offering to the [Eternal].
(Leviticus/Vayikra 4, 3)
When a priest, a rabbi or another religious authority commits a sin or a crime, their guilt is not only their own – at least part of that guilt falls upon the society which they are ruling over and which they represent. There is nothing metaphysical about it, it’s a simple sociological fact: people form their opinions about religious groups or political parties based on the conduct of their leaders. Therefore we must make sure that we choose as our leaders people who are first of all responsible. The higher is the position someone holds within a given society (i.e. in the decision-making hierarchical structures of that society), the greater is that person’s responsibility. All this may seem very simple, maybe even trivial, but as experience shows all too often this is actually not the case. People elected to hold high functions within a given society do not always want to take upon themselves the greater responsibility which comes with their position. Sometimes they are not even aware that the level of their responsibility has just increased. Often they focus on carrying out their visions and on relishing the power and privileges that they’ve been granted.
For many years the racist statements of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, such as, “Goyim were born only to serve us. Without that, they have no place in the world – only to serve the People of Israel.” (Weekly Saturday night sermon in October 2010; source www.timesofisrael.com) have been grist to the mill for all the anti-Semites and supporters of the claim that Jews are inherently racists. The recent anti-Semitic statements of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar have had a negative impact on the image of the Democratic Party, not only in the USA, but all across the world. Words matter – and their significance is directly proportional to their author’s position within the social hierarchy. This is why all leaders, both religious and political, must be very careful about what they say. In addition, they have to make sure to express themselves in a precise manner. And if they must be careful with their words, then even more so with their decisions, their actions and their consequences. Private wars waged by religious leaders can destroy many religious communities.
In the modern Western world many institutions have been democratized, since democracy is viewed as the best ruling system we’ve been able to invent so far. Democracy comes in different shapes and forms, but we won’t go into details here. However, it is a well-known fact that our mechanisms for the democratic election of our representatives do not guarantee that we will elect individuals with outstanding leadership, intellectual or moral attributes. In other words, nothing can guarantee that the representatives we elect won’t make any mistakes or commit any sins, the burden of which will ultimately fall upon those who elected them. The members of our parliaments are essentially a “statistical cross section” of that part of the society which participates in the elections. As George Bernard Shaw put it:
Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve.
Joseph de Maistre spoke in the exact same spirit:
Democracy is the most just of all systems, since it guarantees that every society gets what it deserves.
These quotes may sound quite cynical, but many other thinkers and philosophers who were by no means opponents of democracy, for example Bertrand Russell, also spoke in a similar fashion about democracy:
Democracy has at least one merit, namely that a Member of Parliament cannot be stupider than his constituents, for the more stupid he is, the more stupid they were to elect him.
In a democracy the fools have a right to vote. In a dictatorship the fools have a right to rule.
And while it is obvious that democracy does not guarantee that we won’t be ruled by irresponsible or simply stupid people, this cannot be guaranteed and has never been guaranteed by any other way of anointing people for public office. Every power tends to lead to degeneration, to recall John Acton’s famous quote:
Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Someone who has been granted power, privileges and responsibilities must be able to find the appropriate balance between all of them. Only then will they be able to rule for a long time and in a just way. In my opinion being appointed as a leader should automatically entail the following message: From now on your own ego will have to repeatedly give way to the responsibility that you’ve been entrusted with. In ancient Israel the prophets were the ones who acted as the conscience of those in power, who had a deep understanding of the nature of power as well as insightful, normative visions regarding the way it should be wielded. Let’s conclude by recalling once more the words of Rabbi Heschel:
The more deeply immersed I became in the thinking of the prophets, the more powerfully it became clear to me what the lives of the Prophets sought to convey: that morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings, that indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, that in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.
Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka
In this week’s Torah portion Moses assembles the Israelites and reminds them of the commandment to observe Shabbat. Then he announces the instructions which he received from God regarding the construction of the Mishkan. The people donate the required materials in abundance, bringing gold, silver and copper; blue-, purple- and red-dyed wool; goat hair, linen yarn, animal skins, wood, olive oil, herbs and precious stones…. At a certain moment Moses orders the Israelites to stop bringing their gifts.
The issue we face here is one which not only Judaism, but all religions as such always wrestle with: the materials and resources necessary to build and maintain religious institutions. And since all these resources are the fruit of human work, sometimes hard work, we have the right to ask the following question: since we are offering the results of our hard work to our religion and its institutions (one could say that these are gifts for God Himself; but this makes sense only as a metaphor, since God does not actually need any material resources, since He actually possesses nothing and everything at the same time), then what does religion actually offer us in return?
This seems to be a very broad issue, but it can be summarized in quite a concise way. In order to do this I will make use of the concept created by the Polish psychologist of religion and professor of social sciences Adam Zych, who claims that religions fulfill various functions in our lives, such as for example a compensatory function, which entails some form of compensation for human helplessness or weakness. Religious beliefs compensate for the individual’s unfortunate fate, they help them overcome numerous difficulties and resolve their internal conflicts. Another function fulfilled by religion is the worldview function – which essentially means that religions create their own worldviews. In addition, religion as a form of social awareness tries to interpret and explain phenomena and processes taking place in the universe, in nature and in the society, as well as in human beings themselves. It is exactly with regards to this role that a conflict between religion and science often emerges; however, this conflict is not universal – not all religions are subject to it. Some religions (and their denominations) are more flexible, whereas others are less flexible in this regard.
We can point to several other equally important functions fulfilled by religion, such as the pedagogical-regulatory function – which means that by announcing specific orders and prohibitions religions try to shape the personality of individuals and the life of entire societies; they provide humans with moral support and stable rules of conduct. Another example is its therapeutic function – while people pray specific emotional processes take place, such us the replacement of negative feelings with positive ones or the increase of emotional tension followed by its relief. Another important function fulfilled by religion is its existential function – the American psychologist of religion J.M. Yinger described religion as “a system of beliefs and actions by means of which the community tries to resolve the most important problems of human life”, and also its social and pro-integration function, which can be viewed as a series of processes (dependent on all the above mentioned functions) which promote and strengthen unity between people.
In view of all the above, before we answer the question “what can religion and its institutions offer us in exchange?” (assuming that we ourselves are “investing” in them), it would be useful to analyze our religion from the standpoint of the above mentioned functions, which describe the roles it should be fulfilling. May the result of such an analysis always turn out to be satisfactory and favorable to us; but if this isn’t quite the case, then let’s discuss this in our synagogues and let’s not hesitate to express our innermost expectations towards religion, our leaders or even God Himself.
Translated from Polish by: Marzena Szymańska-Błotnicka