Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Secret about the End of Days

As we begin the three weeks between the 17th of Tammuz and Tisha B'Av (the period on the Jewish calendar when Jerusalem was besieged and the Beit Hamikdash destroyed), it's particularly important to focus on how we act toward other Jews. This is because the reason given by our Sages for why these terrible events were allowed to happen was sinat chinam, intramural hatred. We should always keep in mind that the difference between the words גולה, exile, and גאולה, redemption, is an "א", which represents אחדות, unity. Just as one letter can change the entire meaning of a word, we have the power to change the entire course of history if we improve our treatment of one another.

Although divisiveness among the Jewish people is nothing new, there have been many telling incidents as of late. Most notably, secular-religious tensions in Israel have reached a boiling point. From last summer's contention over state stipends for married students to this summer's current contention between rabbinic rulings and secular court decisions - there are plenty of Jews who are passionate on both sides. While each of us is free to hold our own opinions on these issues, we must nevertheless treat our ideological opponents with dignity and respect. Society starts to fall apart when people go out of their way to rile up more divisiveness.

How does this all tie into the End of Days? It is generally - and correctly - understood that there will be many surprising and world-changing events preceding the Final Redemption. While it's important to keep on top of the news and observe God's hand in current events, it's also important to keep on top of our own problems. In other words, instead of simply observing what's happening around us, we should think about - and act upon - what we can do to improve our predicament. Yet, as human nature dictates time and again, it's always easier to blame everything that happens on outside forces.

Are the Obama administration's positions against Israel problematic? Absolutely. Is the world basically allowing radical regimes, such as North Korea and Iran, to advance their nuclear programs? Of course. But will God ever allow the Jewish people to be annihilated or the State of Israel to be wiped off the map? Absolutely not. So what should be our primary concern? Removing sinat chinam from amongst ourselves. It might sound petty at first glance, but God's concern for how we treat one another runs much deeper than most people realize.

We have gone 1,940 years since the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed. And while it's totally understandable to point fingers at different local and world leaders, as well as various secular and religious figures, we are losing sight of how to correct this problem once and for all. How will we finally do so and merit the arrival of Mashiach Ben David, the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash and the God-given peace that will be enjoyed by everyone? By understanding a secret about the End of Days, in which there is both good news and bad news.

First, the bad news: We are our problem.

Now, the good news: We are our solution.

It's important to remember that the Talmud (Yoma 9b) goes out of its way to tell us that the Jews of the Second Temple era learned Torah - but destruction came anyway; they observed mitzvot - but destruction came anyway; they even engaged in acts of kindness - but destruction came anyway. So what was so bad? In the scheme of things, all of the above are worthless unless they are consistently accompanied by good treatment of fellow Jews (whether we ideologically agree with them or not, and whether we personally like them or not). Until we fix this, we cannot merit the Final Redemption. Perhaps the mystically-ordained date will come when God decides the redemption must take place, but we will not have earned it. With every day that passes, we are getting closer to that final date - at which time we can no longer merit the redemption under our own volition.

Let's make haste.

Let's earn it.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Unite, or Die

I bet that title got your attention. The phrase comes from a famous editorial cartoon by Benjamin Franklin that was published in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1754. It depicted a wood-carved snake broken into separate pieces, which represented the disunity among the early American colonies. Originally written as "Join, or Die," it called for uniting the colonies against the French during the French and Indian War. In 1765, it was changed to "Unite, or Die" as a rallying cry against the British.

Perhaps we can use this sort of sentiment to address the disunity among the Jewish people. Before we are liberal or conservative, religious or secular, we are all Jews. And whenever we decide to primarily focus on what divides us rather than what unites us, we are in serious trouble. Given the catastrophic results of what happens when we do not cooperate with each other, we have to learn from our history. Holding true to each of our individual customs and philosophies is fine, unless it leads to deliberately hurting fellow Jews.

It's interesting that the symbol used in the cartoon is a snake. While the snake is most notable for causing Adam and Eve to sin, it was also the symbol (nachash hanechoshet, the copper serpent) used to cure those who were injured in the wilderness. Like virtually everything else on earth, it has been used for both good and evil. Let's use it for good. In addition, let's look for the good in others instead of what they lack. Whether we like it or not, we are all different parts (Ashkenaz, Sephard, Chasidic, etc.) of the same whole (the Jewish people). Thus, when any part begins to separate from another segment, everyone suffers the consequences.

Hopefully, a call such as "Unite, or Die" can serve a stark reminder to get our priorities straight. As long as the descriptive word that comes before "Jew" (e.g. Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, etc.) doesn't lead us to treat that person any less decently, we will be alright. For our enemies, simply mentioning the word "Jew" has the ability to galvanize evil, but it should have that same kind of capacity to unite us for good. We have it within our power to end intramural hatred and the indecent behavior that often accompanies it. We just need to give it our best effort. Allowing this kind of hatred to foster is an option we can't afford to take.

As former President Ronald Reagan once said:

"I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing."

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Laughter is the Best Medicine

There is way too much pain, suffering, death and destruction in the world today. While it's easy to become incredibly frustrated when hearing about all these sad stories in the news, it's also important to develop an ability to laugh at current events. From the mass condemnation over Israel's flotilla response to the unbelievable amount of appeasement directed toward Islamic terrorists, many things going on in the world today are truly absurd. The clever satirists from Latma have taken this to heart, producing some great sketches that have been making the rounds lately. In case you haven't seen two of their best, they're well worth watching.

"We Con The World":



"The Three Terrors":



May we find the courage to fight our enemies - and laugh at them - until evil is vanquished and goodness reigns on earth.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Does It Matter What Other People Think?

As a general rule, we should not concern ourselves with what other people think of us. However, it depends on the situation. In the micro (i.e. our personal interactions), we should do our best to not incur a marat ayin - putting ourselves in circumstances where our actions could easily be misconstrued as engaging in something ethically or ritually wrong. For example, if you need to use a restroom and the closest one available is at a non-kosher restaurant, you can use those facilities. But it should still remain a last resort because of the easy misunderstanding that you're going there for a meal.

In the macro (i.e. our worldly interactions), we should keep the same principle in mind - but only to a point. There is an obvious double-standard when it comes to how Jews in general, and Israel in particular, are treated by the "international community." For example, the United Nations has a long history of biased resolutions against Israel. Whether they're condemning the flotilla response or just using the old "occupation" critique, the only true occupation is the world's preoccupation with Israel. Therefore, it would be counterproductive at best - and suicidal at worst - for Israel to overly concern itself with what the world wants. Although it can be difficult at times, Israel must do its best to ignore the incredible amount of scrutiny placed upon it and simply protect itself.

In ancient times, when Moses sent spies to scout the land, the spies reported back that the people who inhabited it were giants. Furthermore, they claimed to be like grasshoppers in their eyes (Numbers 13:33). According to the Rebbe of Kotzk, the spies' inordinate amount of concern for how others viewed them was the root of their sin. Instead of concerning themselves solely with their divine mission, they cared about how they were perceived by the giants. The lesson we can draw from this is that while we must always be ethical, law-abiding individuals, there must also be a keen awareness that we don't ultimately answer to a government institution or the United Nations. We are accountable for all our actions to God alone.

Whenever possible, we must uphold both the highest ethical standards and clearly display what we are doing to others. However, as long as what we are doing is just and right, we can't care about what other people think. As mentioned above, this is especially the case with regard to Israel's security. If it were up to the world-at-large to determine the best course of defense for Israel, there would be no more Israel. Therefore, while it's enticing to care about good publicity, it's more important to care about good deeds.

As the famous Psalm goes, "wisdom begins with fear of God" (Psalms 111:10); notice how it doesn't talk about fearing human beings. We simply have to find the delicate balance between being a good example in public and, at the same time, not drive ourselves crazy with how others might misinterpret what we are doing. Popularity is fine, but it can't be the highest value. God-based goodness must always be of greater concern.

In other words, whenever there is a conflict between what other people think of you and what God thinks of you, choose God.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Difference Between Tolerance and Acceptance

In our day and age, the terms "tolerance" and "acceptance" have become interchangeable. This is a terrible development because it has led to different groups imposing their way of life on others under the guise of tolerance. Here is the basic difference that has been lost:

Tolerance - the capacity to disagree with someone or something, but put up with it anyway

Acceptance - the act of approving someone or something

While we must be able to tolerate those who differ with us, it doesn't mean we have to accept their opinions or way of life. The only exception to this is when it comes to basic ethical standards. For example, tolerating murder, theft, or physical abuse will lead to the moral dissolution of society. However, we have to allow others the freedom to form their own views on the more subjective areas of life. Overall, tolerance is a virtue - and perhaps the most difficult to inculcate.

The Hebrew word for tolerance is sovlanut, which is derived from the word sevel, meaning to suffer. Since Hebrew is known as Lashon Hakodesh, the holiest of languages, the words have deeper meaning. In this case, the message is pretty straightforward: we must be able to endure a certain amount of discomfort in order to tolerate views with which we disagree. There is a similar Hebrew word, savlanut, which means patience. This may be providing us with another suggestion: we must be patient when dealing with people whose views we believe are wrong.

A rather trivial example of how we can put this into practice comes by way of how we each pronounce Hebrew. Those who use the Asheknazi custom will pronounce the Hebrew word for Sabbath as Shabbos, while those who use the Sephardi custom will pronounce the same word as Shabbat. Although you might personally believe that only one variation is correct, this would be a classic case of where we must tolerate those who hold a different view.

On a more serious note, there are some very significant political stories unfolding. Just recently, Helen Thomas decided to retire after being caught on video making blatantly anti-Semitic comments. In case you have been under a rock the past few days, here's the video:



Apparently, she would rather force everyone to accept Arabs living in "Palestine" than tolerate any Jews living in their biblical homeland of Israel. The implication, of course, is that we should all go back to the ovens. In response, both Lanny Davis (a liberal, and former White House Counsel for President Bill Clinton) and Ari Fleischer (a conservative, and former White House Press Secretary for President George W. Bush) were united in strong opposition to the anti-Semitic sentiments of Thomas. Unfortunately, this provides a case in point that if we don't unite under our own volition, we will be forced to do so by those who wish us ill. Let's hope and pray we only have to deal with more verbal attacks - not terrorist attacks.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Now on Facebook

I've decided to take the advice of my readers and created a page on Facebook. Here it is: Lev Echad.

I'm still pretty new to all this, so please bear with me as I try to make the page more dynamic. However, if you like what this blog is trying to accomplish, you can help by drawing more people to this issue. Whether you are religious, secular, liberal, conservative, Ashkenaz, Sephard, or any other type of Jew - we need you. Remember, the dream of Jewish unity (i.e. treating each other as decently as possible) can only happen if we want it to. Goodness begins at the individual level, but if enough people see fellow Jews working on their interpersonal relationships, the trend will grow.

While it's easy to get caught up in the enormity of the task, focus instead on this quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson:

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Is God Sending Us a Message?

A few days ago, I saw a news headline about some ships setting sail to get past a Gaza blockade. I didn't have to read any further to know that Israel would be blamed, no matter what would eventually happen. A few days later, the world response to the flotilla attack came: completely insane, but also completely predictable. What is Israel supposed to do, let Hamas rearm? The flotilla was used as a tactic of the poorly named "Free Gaza Movement," but how about freeing Gaza from terrorist control, first?

With all the evil taking place on earth - including genocides in the Congo and Sudan - the world still focuses on every slight detail regarding Israel's affairs! The flotilla incident is only the most recent example. When Israel decides to build 1,600 apartments in east Jerusalem, the world can't contain their fury. But when there is a systematic killing of millions of innocent Congolese or Sudanese, the world is silent. Why? Because the world wants to focus on Jews - not good and evil. The world has been, currently is, and always will be fixated on us. We didn't ask for this role, but we find ourselves in this position nonetheless.

Although God doesn't speak to us with words, God does speak to us through events. The tough part, however, is deciphering what those events mean. While nobody knows exactly why God allows certain events to happen, I thought of something we might be able to learn from this episode (and others like it): Just as these activists went out of their way to provoke Israel in order to get a sympathetic response from the world, we can learn from this that we should never go out of our way to provoke fellow Jews just to get a sympathetic response from those with whom we agree. If we personally believe that someone possesses erroneous political or religious views, the wrongness of their positions will be revealed over the natural course of time. Using backhanded tactics to deliberately make someone else look bad reflects more on the person using them than on the object of their attacks.

In other words, if we stop provoking and hurting each other (via sinat chinam, lashon hara, and other bad character traits), God will bring about circumstances in which our enemies will stop provoking and hurting us (via flotillas, rocket attacks, and other terrorist-related plots). It's as simple and as complicated as that. In the best case scenario, we will become better people and merit God-given peace. In the worst case scenario, we may not merit God-given peace, but will still become better people.

Either way, it's worth a try.