Sunday, March 28, 2010

Eliyahu HaNavi and the Final Redemption

Toward the end of the Passover Seder, it is customary to pour a fifth cup of wine called Kos Shel Eliyahu, the Cup of Elijah. The first four cups correspond to the four verbs in the Torah which describe the different ways God took us out of Egypt:

1) V'Hotzeiti - Took us out
2) V'Hitzalti - Saved us
3) V'Ga'alti - Redeemed us
4) V'Lakachti - Took us as a people

However, there is a fifth verb that created a dispute among the Sages as to whether or not it refers to part of the redemptive process or if it is talking about the future journey to Israel:

5) V'Heiveiti - Will bring us

According to some, there should only be four cups; according to others, there should really be five cups. Therefore, a compromise was made in which four cups would be drank at the Seder, but a fifth would be poured and left untouched. When Mashiach (Messiah) comes, we will have many important ethical and ritual questions that need answers, including whether or not there should be a fifth cup at the Seder. Since Jewish tradition has it that Eliyahu HaNavi (Elijah the prophet) will precede the coming of Mashiach and announce his presence, he will be able to answer these questions. Hence, this cup symbolizes all the disputes throughout history that only Eliyahu HaNavi can resolve.

As long as the Kos Shel Eliyahu remains on our tables, we are reminded that there is still work to be done. Most specifically, we need to undo the vice that put us into our current exile: sinat chinam. As Jews, we are responsible for showing the rest of the world how to act, which includes teaching people to use their God-given talents for good. But to succeed in this mission, we first need to free ourselves from the "slavery" of hating fellow Jews who differ from us and embrace the "freedom" of recognizing the importance of every human being. The very fact we have not yet been redeemed is an indication that we need to work on our interpersonal behavior. Only then can we merit the God-given peace associated with the Messianic age.

From the emerging nuclear threat in Iran to the vying for control over Jerusalem - there are extraordinary events happening right now that were predicted to occur just before the Final Redemption. This may compel some people to wait for the world to change for the better without much personal effort. While it's fine to anticipate the great days ahead of us, it's important to remember that amazing things only happen as a result of hard work. Therefore, we should be proactive in supporting, defending, and praying for Israel in the macro, as well as becoming kinder, gentler, and more decent human beings in the micro. By improving ourselves and showing concern for others, we are participating in the betterment of the Jewish people.

Just as God kept his promise of redeeming us from Egyptian slavery, we can have faith that He will redeem us from our current exile as well. Although the redemption will only happen when God decides it is time, we can compel Him to bring that great day sooner by correcting our interpersonal flaws. One tradition states that just as our previous redemption occurred during the Hebrew month of Nissan, so too will the future redemption happen during this period. Following this approach, perhaps when we open our front doors during the Seder for Eliyahu HaNavi, he will actually be there - heralding the Messianic age and Final Redemption.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Are You One of the 36?

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 97b and Sukkah 45b) relates that the world will only continue to exist as long as there are at least thirty-six tzaddikim (fully righteous people). These individuals are often referred to as lamed-vavniks, because the Hebrew letters lamed and vav have the numerical value of thirty-six. Rabbi Aryeh Levin was once asked if he was one of these hidden tzaddikim. His answer was very warm and kind, just like his personality; he said, "sometimes." This answer provoked further interest. He elaborated that becoming one of these righteous people is not an appointed position. It's not like you are named a tzaddik and then take your seat on a panel (such as a United States Supreme Court Justice, for instance, who receives a lifetime appointment). It's not a job - it's a level - and anyone can achieve that status, even if only for an hour, a minute or a second. After that individual finishes their task, someone else takes their place through their good deeds.

Rabbi Levin's perspective provides an instructive understanding of what it means to be righteous. It gives hope for all us "simple" Jews. You could actually be that next person to reach the level of lamed-vavnik. Here are a few possible ways:

- Privately (so as not to embarrass the recipient) drop a check in the mailbox of someone you know needs help covering basic necessities. One of the key character traits associated with lamed-vavniks is performing acts of kindness anonymously whenever possible.

- Prepare a meal for someone who is sitting shiva, just gave birth to a child, or at any other time when a family typically has their hands full and can't cook for themselves.

- If you're not in the financial position to do the above, there are kind acts that don't require any money, such as speaking words of encouragement to someone going through a difficult time in their life.

Especially during this hectic period right before Passover, think of the myriad of virtuous deeds any one of us can do if we put our minds to it. There's a reason why the Talmud regards the need for righteousness as so crucial that it actually sustains the world: because a small candle can light up a dark room. When there are even a handful of people taking care of one another, it provides hope for a world plagued by hatred, narcissism and indecency.

You may not always recognize them, but there are people achieving the level of lamed-vavnik all over the world right now. If we try to emulate the character traits associated with this lofty title, we might be able to reach that status, even if only for a moment. When we do so, the next time we're looking for the identities of these hidden tzaddikim, we'll be able to find at least one by looking in the mirror.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

We Need You

When it really comes down to it, human beings only need a handful of different things: food, shelter, and companionship typically come to mind. Yet, near the top of that list is one more thing: the need to be needed. When a man is needed to support a family, he feels very significant; when a woman is needed to raise children, she feels particularly vibrant; when a child is needed to play on the school team, they feel important. Luckily, as Jews, God has created a system in which every one of us is needed. Whether we like it or not (and sometimes it's difficult to acknowledge), we are responsible for one another; as the famous dictum goes, "kol yisrael arevim zeh la'zeh." In other words, if you're Jewish, you're needed.

What is most needed from every Jew? There are a variety of answers to that question as well: faith, prayer, and ritual observance, to name a few. However, above everything else, we need your behavior. When we focus on our different religious customs, political persuasions, or any other subjective area of life, divisiveness becomes inevitable. All you have to do is follow current events to know what happens when ethical behavior is replaced by what one religious or political leader thinks is best. While each one of us should maintain our individual uniqueness, we must also remember to treat those around us in a civilized manner. Otherwise, everything falls apart.

We need you - whether you're a student, employee, business owner, or stay-at-home mom (which, in my opinion, is the most noble profession). When each one of us works hard at what we do - and are kind to others along the way - we become the solution to interpersonal strife. We don't need to wait for someone higher up in social or economic status to lead the way. You are in charge of your own behavior. Most of us are not famous, but all of us can be significant. Have you ever noticed that virtually all our prayers - including the shemoneh esrei - are in the plural? This is because we have a value system that teaches us to be concerned about the plight of fellow Jews. We are one people in the eyes of God.

If you disagree with someone, attack their ideas - not them personally. In ancient times, after Rabbi Yochanan died, his chavrutah (study partner), Resh Lakish, was terribly depressed because there was no other scholar who could raise objections to his opinions. These challenges to Resh Lakish's ideas weren't personal - they were only meant to help him strive toward the truth of the matter being discussed. In modern times, the leaders of the two major American political parties used to have a civil relationship. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan and Speaker of the House Tip O'neill were fierce political opponents by day, but could have a beer together by night. Unfortunately, that kind of camaraderie seems to be a thing of the past.

There is political and religious divisiveness all around us, but don't let that be the standard of how you treat others. Rise above it and act in accordance with the highest level of ethical behavior possible. This is why we're called "a light unto the nations"; non-Jews should be able to look to us for guidance on how to act. But they are only able to do so when we show good behavior to each other first. At times, it can be difficult to engage in proper conduct. So here's one suggestion that might help: utilize the kind of determination Calev (Caleb) had thousands of years ago when he proclaimed, "We can surely do it!"

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Anti-Semitic Jews

The phrase "anti-Semitic Jews" is strange, but it accurately describes a small minority of people out there today. Among them are the Neturei Karta. This fringe Orthodox group believes there should not be a Jewish State of Israel until Mashiach personally establishes it. Since the modern State of Israel did not come into existence this way, they do not recognize Israel. However, anti-Zionism in theory becomes anti-Semitism in practice. They have proven this by supporting tyrannical leaders who not only hate Israel, but also seek its destruction. They also provide a poignant example of not judging people by how they look. Even their name is misleading; it means "guardians of the city," when in reality they are enemies of the state.

On the secular end of the spectrum are radical college professors, such as Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein. They have made atrocious claims over the years about both the Holocaust and Israel (in Finkelstein's case, it is particularly sad because he's the son of two Holocaust survivors). Although the reasoning behind their anti-Semitic positions differ, they have something in common with the Neturei Karta: hatred of Israel and support for genocidal regimes. This is another example of where the extreme religious and extreme secular meet. While there's nothing wrong with criticizing specific Israeli policies, there's everything wrong with singling it out from all places on earth for extermination. It's unfortunate these radical Jews think they're "morally enlightened," because an accurate historical account of Israel depicts an overwhelmingly decent country.

We desperately need Jewish unity, but that entails more decency; the highest form of indecency occurs when someone deliberately seeks to hurt innocent people - especially when those people happen to be millions of fellow Jews living in Israel. When an individual believes in a certain philosophical approach, they should stand up for it in the battleground of ideas - not stand next to terrorists who want to turn another country into a battleground. Part of improving intra-Jewish relations is accomplished through tolerating our ideological opponents, but we cannot tolerate our existential enemies. Thank-God, anti-Semitic Jews are very few in number (sometimes they just seem larger because of media attention).

If you've read through this blog before, it should become readily apparent that its primary message is concerned with Jewish interpersonal decency. In the vast majority of cases - even when we strongly disagree with fellow Jews - we should go out of our way to act in a kind manner toward one another. However, if someone is actively pursuing your destruction, you have to strongly oppose them. We should always be inclined toward impeccable treatment of other people, but that doesn't mean casting aside common sense. If you see Jews happily meeting with genocidal dictators or proudly denying the Holocaust, there is something seriously wrong that needs to be addressed.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Converts, Orphans, Widows and the Poor

Over the weekend, I had a Shabbat meal with a ger tzedek, a sincere and recent convert to Judaism. He had a fascinating story about how he came to the conclusion that our traditions were closest to the source. He also explained how he persevered through the difficult process of becoming Jewish and constantly being watched by rabbinical supervisors. However, there was one thing he mentioned that really upset me: many religious Jews keep their distance from him. After spending many years of proving his sincerity, they still do not invite him into their homes. This is appalling because the Torah explicitly states that we are to take extra care of how we treat converts.

One reason for this attitude may stem from an episode that happened here some years ago: Christian Missionary Infiltrates Denver Jewish Community. There was a married couple who posed as Jews, but were eventually exposed as Christian missionaries. It was a big mess that upset many people. As a result, some members of the community became overly guarded about "outsiders," including converts. However, this is comparable to non-Jews who have one bad experience with a Jew and then feel justified in being anti-Semitic. It's flawed logic that can lead to awful behavior.

Here is another disturbing story that completely undermines the decency we are supposed to show converts: Israel - Proposed Bill Would Bar Gerim from Aliyah Under the Law of Return. How much clearer can the Torah be? True "Jewishness" is not exclusively determined by ancestry. We must make sure that converts are not considered second-class citizens. They are just as Jewish as those of us who were born to a Jewish mother. Just think of where we would be today if not for two righteous converts to Judaism: Onkelos and Ruth. Onkelos wrote the main translation relied upon to interpret the Torah, and Ruth lived such a dignified life that the Davidic dynasty comes from her!

The Torah teaches us to treat all people well, but goes out of its way to command sensitivity toward converts, orphans, widows, and the poor. In the case of the convert, it states "v'ahavta lo kamocha" - to love him as yourself (Vayikra/Leviticus 19:34). If "v'ahavta l'rayacha kamocha" - to love your neighbor as yourself (Vayikra/Leviticus 19:18) is considered the major principle of the Torah, then this commandment is the major principle of the Torah with specificity. God does not take kindly to anyone taunting converts, or for that matter, orphans, widows, and the poor. We should emulate His special love for people in these circumstances.

Have you ever been the new kid at school, suffered the loss of a loved one, or gone through difficult economic circumstances? Think of how you felt, and then show people going through similar situations the abundant kindness that is commanded of us. There is enough suffering in the world today without placing unnecessary hardship on the most vulnerable. If Mashiach (Messiah) comes from a lineage that includes a convert to Judaism, just imagine the greatness other converts can achieve if given the opportunity. However, they'll never get that chance if we treat them indecently. In fact, the reason why Mashiach has not yet arrived is because of this kind of hatred toward fellow Jews.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Study In Order to Practice

In the closing verse of Megillat Esther, Mordechai is described as being "a great man among the Jews." However, the following words state that he was only popular "among the majority of his brethren." How is it possible that a man who did so much to save the Jewish people was only well-regarded by most - but not all - Jews? The Talmud in Megillah states that one reason for this is because some members of the Sanhedrin parted from him. Rashi explains that they did so because Mordechai was involved with governmental affairs, which gave the impression he was neglecting his study of Torah.

While those few members of the Sanhedrin had a reason for their rift with Mordechai, I believe Pirkei Avot 4:6 provides an explanation for why their analysis was wrong:

"Rabbi Yishmael bar Rabbi Yose said: One who studies [Torah] in order to teach is given the means to study and to teach; but one who studies [Torah] in order to practice is given the means to study and to teach, to observe and to practice."

Mordechai lived the Torah by virtue of his high-caliber character, raising of Esther, and service of his people. Learning is extremely important, but it is even more important to actually apply that which we learn into everyday life. If we simply use Torah study as an intellectual or religious exercise, that is all it will be. But if we have the mindset of studying in order to better ourselves - and allow it to positively influence our behavior - then it becomes the ultimate ethical exercise. Not only will we be able to study and teach, we will also be able to use our studies as the primary means through which to become more kind and decent human beings.

The Ramban, or Nahmanides, writes a very poignant letter to his son in which he lays out an approach to improving a myriad of character traits. This letter is famously known as the Igeret HaRamban. There are even some Jews who try to read it once a week, following the instructions Ramban gave to his son. Toward the end of the letter, he writes:

"When you rise from study, ponder carefully what you have learned; see what there is in it which you can put into practice."

There are many ethical lessons to be drawn from a variety of topics. For example, we are taught that the Mizbeach (Altar) had a ramp so that when a Kohen walked up to perform a sacrificial service, he would not expose himself; the ethical lesson we can take from this is that if we are to have respect for an inanimate object, how much more so should we have respect for living beings created in the image of God. When we do our best to ponder the practical application of religious study, we can often find lessons that will improve our character.

In this light, the Vilna Gaon makes an insightful observation: the Torah is like rain - it gives growth to both poisonous weeds and beautiful flowers. I believe he is trying to tell us that there is no magic formula for producing a good human being. A person's religious study or ritual observance will not automatically make them good; it will only make them good if they want it to. Ultimately, it's up to every individual Jew to decide whether to use the Torah as a source of technical, legal loopholes, or as an instrument for God-based goodness.