Thursday, November 25, 2010

Never Forget

It has now been two years since radical Islamists committed a senseless massacre in Mumbai, India. In addition to the locations where they wounded and killed hundreds of innocent people, these terrorists made it a point to attack a nearby Chabad house. Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, Rivka Holtzberg (who was pregnant at the time), Rabbi Bentzion Kruman, Yocheved Orpaz, Norma Shvartzblat Rabinovich and Rabbi Aryeh Leibish Teitelbaum were all murdered. The reason? Because they were Jewish. The terrorists were told by their handlers in Pakistan that the lives of Jews were worth 50 times more than those of regular "infidels." Whether it's Nazi persecution from 1938 or Islamic terrorism from 2008, we must never forget what happened.

At full disclosure, I'm not Lubavitch and have some serious problems with the messianic elements of the movement. However, when I saw news of the attacks two Thanksgivings ago, my thoughts focused on how the victims were my (and all our) brothers and sisters - not on my personal disagreements with Lubavitchers. The people of that Chabad house were kind individuals who sought to help fellow Jews in a troubled part of the world. While my philosophical differences would continue, I realized that those differences weren't all that important in the scheme of things. I don't think it had to take such a horrific event to come to this realization, but it inevitably had that effect.

Luckily, not everything that happened during the attacks was evil. In the midst of the hell that had been created by the terrorists, a hero emerged in the form of a nanny named Sandra Samuel. She went out of her way to save Moshe Holtzberg, the orphaned son of Rabbi and Mrs. Holtzberg. In interviews that followed, Samuel expressed how it bothered her that she couldn't have saved more of the victims. An amazing woman like this demonstrates how important it is to judge people by their actions - not whether they are religious or secular, or even Jewish, for that matter. It also shows that even in the darkest hours we can find amazing light. Recently, Samuel received great news: she was awarded permanent resident status and honorary Israeli citizenship.

Whether it's Daniel Pearl or Rabbi and Mrs. Holtzberg or any other Jewish victim in recent memory, they were all targeted based on their Jewishness - regardless of any description that came before the word "Jew" (e.g. liberal, conservative, orthodox, reform, or any other term you wish to insert). If our enemies can figure this out, it's about time we all recognize the significance of our fellow Jews, no matter our personal disagreements. Although it's difficult to swallow our denominational and political pride from time to time, it's better that we do so in life than be forced to admit our lack of priorities in death. We can still rigorously debate issues that are important to us; we just can't allow our differences in thought or lifestyle to lead to indecent treatment of those with whom we disagree.

In the merit of preventing ourselves from harming fellow Jews, may God prevent attacks from those who wish to harm us.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Rachel - Gracious in Life and Death

When we think of famous biblical figures, the people who typically come to mind are Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses, to name a few. While all of these men are incredibly important to the Jewish people (and the rest of the world, for that matter), there is one person whose significance is often overlooked: Rachel. This Jewish matriarch rivals even the most important biblical figures because of the graciousness with which she treated other people - even when it came at great personal cost.

Rachel was loved by Jacob, who devoted seven years of physical labor in order to gain her hand in marriage. But her father, Laban, had a plan that would deceive him into marrying her older sister, Leah. Figuring that Laban would do this, Jacob and Rachel developed a secret signal before the wedding. On the night of the ceremony, the bride was veiled and Jacob didn't realize that Leah had been substituted for Rachel. In a moment that would change the course of the rest of her life, Rachel decided to give over the signal in order not to humiliate her sister. This meant that she would basically be forfeiting her own destiny in the process.

The lessons we can learn from Rachel are invaluable. Among them, we should always show concern for family members (i.e. fellow Jews), as well as be careful not to embarrass another person. While we are never required to do that which is beyond our abilities, we must always make a sincere effort to protect the dignity of other people. For example, if we accidentally fail to greet someone at a gathering - and they take it as a deliberate embarrassment - the onus is on them to give us the benefit of the doubt. However, if we go out of our way to defame someone in public, the onus is on us to ask them for forgiveness and cease engaging in such behavior.

Even in death, Rachel's graciousness continued. There is a famous Midrash on Jeremiah 31:14-16 that speaks of her high stature. Upon seeing the Jews' suffering after the destruction of the First Holy Temple, all the major biblical heroes came before God and pleaded for it to stop - but to no avail. Then, Rachel approached God and cried out that He show mercy to His people on account of her interpersonal behavior. God was moved by her plea and went on to promise that the exile would eventually end and the Jews would return to their land. For this reason, Rachel was buried at a location that Jews would pass during their travels into exile; they could let out their cries, and she would be able to pray to God on their behalf.

Incidentally, a United Nations cultural organization recently declared Rachel's Tomb a mosque. Although it is commonplace for anti-Semitic groups to claim that Jews have no ties to Israel, historical evidence prevents them from gaining any serious credibility. Therefore, they often resort to revisionism, which much of the world is all too willing to accept. During these trying times, let's treat one another in a manner of which Rachel would be proud, and perhaps she will intercede with God once again. In particular, make sure never to intentionally humiliate another human being. Rachel gave up her entire destiny to avoid embarrassing someone else. All we have to do is give up some of our ego.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Greatest Among Us

In honor of Veterans Day, I would like to express my gratitude to all the brave men and women who have served in the American armed forces. From the mandatory military service of years ago to the volunteer army of today, extraordinary heroes have been produced. It is only because of these people who are willing to put their lives on the line that the rest of us are able to enjoy all the freedoms this country has to offer.

Since it can be difficult to express true appreciation through words alone, I recently came across a touching song that might do a little better. It's called Note to the Unknown Soldier by Five For Fighting:

Along this theme, there is a great story told of Rabbi Aryeh Levine. A man named Elazar Cohen was the commander in charge of the Israeli army's helicopter squad. During wartime, his job was to fly directly into hostile enemy fire in order to rescue wounded soldiers. Cohen once came to the greatest sage of the time, Rabbi Levine, and asked for a blessing. To Cohen's shock, Rabbi Levine refused. He then asked, "But why?" Rabbi Levine responded, "Who am I to bless you? I truly believe that your merit in Heaven is greater than mine."

We should always keep in mind that the very term for Jew in Hebrew, Yehudi, is derived from the word meaning "one who thanks." So, as both a proud American and Jew, it's only fitting to be grateful for all our veterans and their families. Thank you for your service and sacrifice. You are truly the greatest among us.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Middle East Problem

With all the evil going on in the world today, it's truly amazing to witness the inordinate amount of scrutiny placed upon a tiny, decent and democratic state called Israel. From graduate programs and think tanks to media reports and biased resolutions at the United Nations, major efforts are dedicated to analyzing the lack of peace in the Middle East. This might lead one to believe that the conflict between Israel and her neighbors is difficult to explain. But this is not so. Here's a great video that clarifies the root of the problem:

As mentioned in the video, it's actually quite easy to describe the Middle East problem. It's only difficult to solve it. A similar case can be made when it comes to the most significant problem going on within the Jewish world today: intramural hatred. Once again, it's pretty easy to describe the problem. It's just difficult to solve it.

The Talmud (Yoma 9b) provides explanations for why both the First and Second Temple eras resulted in destruction. The first exile was due to widespread idol worship, sexual immorality and murder. However, the second exile (which continues to this day) came as a result of sinat chinam. For a more detailed discussion of this vice, click here. As mentioned in that previous post, sinat chinam is much deeper than some generic dislike of other people. It has to do with hating fellow Jews for who they are.

There could actually be Middle East peace if Israel's enemies would simply recognize the legitimacy of a Jewish state. Similarly, there could actually be peace between Jews if we would simply recognize the legitimacy of each other's place among the Jewish people. Obviously, it's difficult to envision either of these scenarios coming to fruition. However, there's an important difference: in the first scenario, the onus is on our enemies; in the second scenario, the onus is on us. In other words, good interpersonal conduct is always within our power. The rest, of course, is in the hands of God.