Thursday, December 29, 2011

Lost in Translation

Sometimes, Hebrew phrases aren't accurately translated. The picture above is an indication of this phenomenon. Inaccurate translations appear not only on road signs in Israel, but also in English versions of the Torah. One such example can be found in the third of the Ten Commandments. The common translation reads, "Do not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain" (Exodus 20:7). This is generally understood as a prohibition against using God's name for no reason or with an expletive. However, the verse continues, "for the Lord will not absolve" someone who commits this sin - something which is not mentioned for breaking any of the other commandments. Is using God's name in poor taste truly unforgivable, or is something being lost in translation?

Dennis Prager points out that the Hebrew ("Tisa") actually means, "Do not carry the name of the Lord thy God in vain." In other words, we are not allowed to act inappropriately in God's name. This slight change in translation makes a big difference. While not taking God's name in vain can be derived from this commandment, it is not the essence of the prohibition. The clearest way of understanding this sin is through recent history. Although all terrorism is evil, terrorist acts committed in the name of God are particularly evil. This is why Islamic terrorism is so vile; they claim that God condones their behavior. Similarly, any Jew who does something false or evil in God's name has engaged in an unspeakable act.

One of the great burdens of being Jewish is that we are humanity's most direct representatives of God. As a result, our actions carry added weight. Whether we realize it or not, even the most mundane daily activity can turn into either a Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God's name) or a Chilul Hashem (desecration of God's name). We must always keep this in mind due to the significance of this commandment. In addition to God's warning in the Torah, it states in Pirkei Avot, "...unintentional or intentional, both are alike regarding the desecration of God's name" (Ethics of the Fathers 4:5). In other words, making God look foolish under any circumstances is a serious offense.

Unfortunately, events in the news reveal that this commandment is violated all too often. The harassment of a girl in Beit Shemesh for not dressing "modestly enough" is just one example. The more religious or outwardly apparent a Jew is, the greater the responsibility they have to avoid desecrating God's name. Furthermore, anyone who thinks that Bein Adam Lamakom (the relationship between man and God) is separate from Bein Adam Lachaveiro (the relationship between man and other people) forgets a simple bit of logic. What does a parent care about more: how people treat them or how people treat their children? Every loving parent would answer with the latter. Wouldn't God have a similar response? The next time we think a fellow Jew isn't "religious enough," remember that Bein Adam Lachaveiro is also part of Bein Adam Lamakom.

As God's chosen people, it's no wonder that we are commanded to take extra care in how we carry His name. From something as simple as a transaction at a grocery store to something as difficult as dealing with ideological opponents, we aren't just representing ourselves. Despite the arduous nature of this commandment, we can view it as not simply a burden but also an opportunity. Just as desecrating God's name through bad behavior is among the worst sins a Jew can commit, sanctifying God's name through good behavior is among the greatest deeds a Jew can perform.

Monday, December 19, 2011

"Therefore Was a Single Man Created"

"Therefore was a single man created, to teach us that whoever takes a single life it is as though he destroyed an entire world, and whoever saves a single life it is as though he saved an entire world. It is also meant to foster peace between people, because no one can boast to his neighbor: 'My ancestor was greater than your ancestor.'"
- Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5

Human nature can be quite ugly. One of its worst manifestations occurs when we focus on all the petty differences between each other instead of real good and evil. All one has to do is observe the behavior of children to know this is true. Kids will often go out of their way to pick on the child who is overweight, clumsy or a poor student, and ridicule them to almost no end. Even among adults, subjectively deciding whether to treat certain individuals decently can become a trend that is hard to break. However, this problem can be corrected if the proper perspective is kept in mind.

As opposed to many ideologies throughout history, Judaism emphasizes the importance of the individual. As the Mishnah above indicates, this can be deduced from the fact that God began the creation of human beings with one man. Had Adam died, the entire world would have perished with him. Therefore, the Sages conclude that each human being - created in the image of God and descended from Adam - is as valuable as an entire world. Later in the same Mishnah, we are taught that every individual is also unique. As opposed to coins that are minted exactly the same, God makes every individual with distinct qualities. Thus, every individual is important and unlike anyone else who was ever created.

Unfortunately, non-moral reasons are still used by some as a rationale for treating people differently: rich and poor, religious and secular, liberal and conservative, black and white. People can fall under any of these categories and be good, or can fall under any of these categories and be bad. This is why class, racial and religious warfare is both morally wrong and dangerous. It takes factors into account that have nothing to do with good and evil. If some individuals were considered more or less valuable, there would be be different ethical codes for different people. Yet, this is not the case. Everyone is accountable for their own behavior, regardless of any "category" they happen to fall under.

This Mishnaic excerpt provides the quintessential response to anyone who claims that certain types of people are superior or inferior to others. Since all people descend from the same person, we are all related. There is no moral justification for dividing people based upon race or prominence or wealth. All of creation can be traced back to one God, and all of humanity can be traced back to one person. The very word for people in Hebrew is bnei adam (lit. children of Adam) - a subtle reminder that we all descend from one man, the first human ever created by God.

While primary importance is to be placed on how we treat fellow Jews (because goodness, like charity, should start at home), it should obviously extend to others with whom we come into contact. After all, Abraham - not Adam - was the first Jew, and yet the Sages remind us that all humanity descended from Adam. All people (unless actively pursuing harm against other people) are invaluable. Given the difficult times in which we live, heeding this simple Mishnaic teaching is as important as ever. It would spare us all a lot of trouble and pave the way toward the kind of world God truly desires.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

When Telling the Truth is Wrong

It is widely known that lying is a character trait we should avoid. As the Torah states, "distance yourself from falsehood" (Exodus 23:7). This might lead one to conclude that it's always permissible to say something that is true. However, are there times when telling the truth should also be avoided? Rabbi Joseph Telushkin poses this question - as well as a challenge:

Do you think you can go an entire day without speaking negatively of another person - even when what you're saying is true? Of course, this is easier said than done (no pun intended), but it's something that has the capacity to improve a person's character. If you happen to fail in avoiding unfair speech all of the time, it only proves that you're human. But if you're not even successful in avoiding unfair speech some of the time, it doesn't reflect well on your character.

The most important part of this whole idea is to imagine ourselves on the receiving end of our own conduct (i.e. follow the golden rule). Unless there is an objectively constructive purpose for saying something negative about another person, it is better left unsaid. A red flag should always be raised when we begin to rationalize as to why it's okay to speak ill of others. After all, rationalizing is nothing more than rational lies - and we are compelled to distance ourselves from such behavior.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Tebow Effect

Tim Tebow is an anomaly - in more ways than one. Although he plays quarterback for the Denver Broncos, he seems to run as much as he passes. (For those of you not familiar with the National Football League, a quarterback traditionally throws the ball much more than he runs with it.) And when he does throw, he has an unorthodox throwing motion. As a result, many sports analysts dislike him as an NFL quarterback. But the criticism doesn't end there. You see, Tebow is also a religious Christian whose values influence his conduct both on and off the field. As a result, many people dislike him as a person.

Just to be clear, this blog in no way endorses any theology other than that of Judaism, but it also focuses on common decency. One of the unique aspects of Judaism is that the Torah compels us to focus on this world - not on the afterlife, as well as on good behavior - not on ideological agreement. Therefore, it seems quite fitting to address the hatred directed at this young man as a way of learning how to behave more appropriately. As will be noted, the kind of hatred taking place here is nothing new, but it's also something that needs to be eliminated.

One of the most destructive character traits is to hate someone for who they are. In fact, this was precisely the kind of behavior that led to the destruction of ancient Jerusalem. It's called sinat chinam. While the common translation of sinat chinam is "baseless hatred," it can also mean "hatred of their grace." In other words, every individual is endowed with a certain "grace" (i.e. distinct personality traits that make them who they are). As long as that individual acts ethically, there's no justification to hate that which makes them unique - whether it's their level of religiosity or simply their choice of profession. Ultimately, this kind of hatred is an affront to God because He created the uniqueness of that individual.

With so much real evil to hate in the world, it's absurd to critique all the subjective differences that exist among people of goodwill. In this case, Tebow's theology may be wrong, but his behavior and values are right. In a day and age in which professional athletes tend to focus on themselves, here is a guy who wants to focus on God and others. For some reason, placing God and goodness at the forefront has become an anachronism. The personal hatred directed at Tebow isn't occurring because he's doing something wrong - it's occurring because he's doing something right.

It may seem odd that a Jew is writing favorably about a Christian, but it really shouldn't be that way. If we were to actually start making moral judgments of behavior rather than petty remarks about our differences, we will have taken a giant leap toward a better world. Theological disagreements have their place, but they are not the be all and end all. From the Jewish perspective, what God desires more than anything else is goodness. In order to achieve that end, we need to inculcate good values - the most important of which is to act decently toward one another. And while good interpersonal behavior should always start at home (i.e. between fellow Jews), it should never end there.

[By the way, if you ever wondered why orange and blue was the color scheme of this blog, here's your answer: GO BRONCOS!!!]

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

"And Everybody Hates the Jews"

Well, they never said that anti-Semites were smart. Apparently, the man in the picture above has a deep hatred for beverages - and spelling. In order to clarify his hatred, notice the word he added in parenthesis. But as Martin Luther King, Jr. said upon hearing a Harvard student launch a tirade against Zionists: "When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You're talking anti-Semitism." Of all the minority groups on earth, and of all the easy targets to use as scapegoats, it is virtually always the Jewish people who take the brunt of the world's wrath. Whenever there is economic, political or social turmoil (and for many in the Arab world, when there is a natural disaster), it is somehow our fault.

From ancient to modern times, anti-Semitism has been a constant. Every major villain in Tanach sought to rid the world of Jews; Hitler considered the extermination of Jewry as more important than victory in World War II; the United Nations has spent more time on resolutions against Israel than any other country on earth; the Occupy Wall Street movement (although consisting of some sincere protesters) has been endorsed by radical groups that shift the blame to Jews. The list goes on and on.

Consciously or subconsciously, when people go out of their way to pick on Jews and Israel, they're acknowledging that the Jews are God's chosen people. Although there are times when rational explanations for anti-Semitism may hold true, there has to be something much deeper to the world's obsession with a single group. The bottom line is that there is one God, He demands ethical behavior, and His chosen vehicle for this message is the Jewish people. Most people aren't comfortable accepting this, so they take it out on the messenger (even when many of the messengers don't care for the message either).

All this Jew-hatred can become quite frustrating, but it might be best to simply laugh about it. There's a satirical song from the 1960s that wittingly demonstrates the ubiquitous nature of anti-Semitism. In it, Tom Lehrer mocks something called National Brotherhood Week. Be sure to listen closely because there's a great line that sums up this whole subject:

Anti-Semitism is absurd, but so is intra-Jewish hatred. So the next time you have trouble with a fellow Jew, do your best to keep things civil - because we're all in this together, whether we like it or not. Don't wait for the next libel or event to unite us. Eventually, the day will come when God will bless the entire world with peace. In the meantime, just try to laugh at all the craziness taking place.

Note: This blog post has been brought to you by the International Zionist Conspiracy.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

What is Goodness?

Given that this blog focuses on increasing goodness between Jews, perhaps some clarity on goodness is warranted. Its importance is stressed throughout many of my posts, but there's usually not much elaboration. So what exactly is goodness? Obviously, a smile, kind word or helping hand would fall under this category. However, it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that anything that makes us feel good is goodness. Therefore, there has to be a more objective definition from a more reliable source.

People of different political ideologies and religious backgrounds have come up with very different ways of defining what is good. On the one hand, there are secular individuals who claim that goodness is about having certain political positions or protecting the environment. On the other hand, there are religious individuals who claim that goodness is about ritual observance or sexual purity. As a result, it's easy to be confused as to what goodness actually is. Yet, there is a very simple explanation offered by God via the prophet Micah:

"It has been told to you, O man, what is good, and what God requires of you: only to act justly, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8)

Here are the three characteristics mentioned in the verse, with some elaboration:

Justice - do what is right, regardless of whether it happens to benefit your "team"; we must be ethical people who judge behavior instead of socioeconomic status, political affiliation or level of religiosity.

Kindness - the Hebrew term used here is ahavat chesed, which means more than being merciful by doing kind deeds; we should train ourselves to love doing acts of kindness.

Humility - if we are certain that God is always on our side, it's easy to become arrogant and cruel; it's important not to look down upon others while striving to live righteously.

Notice that the common denominator among all of these attributes is how we treat other people. God is primarily concerned with interpersonal decency and character development. Also notice how the verse states "only" these three qualities. The prophets consistently affirm that while Bein Adam La'Makom (the relationship between man and God) is extremely significant, it is not as important as Bein Adam La'Chaveiro (the relationship between man and other people). Unfortunately, too many people haven't yet made God's top priority their top priority.

A good example of someone who embodied God's definition of goodness is Rabbi Aryeh Levin. Confidants of Rabbi Levin have explained that he viewed life's main purpose as helping others. If a few days passed without an opportunity to give someone advice, charity or just a kind word, he started to wonder if his existence on earth was no longer needed. Furthermore, Rabbi Levin never felt that the people he helped owed him anything. In fact, he felt indebted to them. Thus, he treated everyone fairly and mercifully without ever boasting about it.

So there you have it. Although fulfilling God-based goodness can be difficult, understanding what it entails is rather simple: act justly, love kindness and remain humble. If we all followed these three basic qualities, the world would be a better place.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Three Levels of Conversation

"Great minds discuss ideas;
Average minds discuss events;
Small minds discuss people."
- Author unknown (although it's often attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt)

Some people take this proverb to mean that there are gradations of intellect revealed through our topics of conversation. Yet, what this saying truly demonstrates isn't how smart someone is, but rather what kind of person they are. The things we talk about reveal a great deal about our character.

Great people think for themselves, take the initiative when there's a problem, and aren't bothered by the negative things others say about them. Thus, they usually talk about ideas. Average people won't take the initiative to come up with new ideas, but will discuss subjects once they're already out there. Thus, they usually talk about events. Small people take the lowest road of all by talking about neither ideas nor events but other people. Consciously or not, they are using their energy to take others down instead of propping themselves up.

At one time or another, all of us have probably engaged in each type of conversation. After all, nobody is perfect and it's difficult to maintain lofty topics of discussion. Nevertheless, the more noble our conversations are, the less likely we will be to denigrate or otherwise harm someone else. As you climb higher up the levels of conversation, there tends to be an improvement in character and a deflation of ego; and the lower you go, the easier it becomes to be cruel and self-centered.

Throughout the Jewish calendar, there are all sorts of social gatherings that take place, from Shabbat and holiday meals to weddings and school dinners. During these get-togethers, it's important to remember how a single remark about another person can cause a great deal of trouble. Just as one positive comment can improve someone's reputation, one negative comment can ruin their future. So when in doubt, try to avoid talking about other people. It's a lowly activity at best and a destructive practice at worst.

That old mantra really does ring true: think before you speak. Not only should we consider our words carefully, but we should also consider the topics we talk about. If that sometimes means keeping quiet or overtly changing the subject, so be it. It's better to do what is right than to worry about self-image. And in case you happen to have been on the wrong end of someone else's conversation, don't sweat it. There is another instructive proverb (and it also happens to be attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt):

"You wouldn't worry so much about what others think of you if you realized how seldom they do."

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Israel, Apartheid and Unity

Throughout history, there have been many false allegations made against the Jewish people and the Jewish state. One of the most recent contends that Israel is a systematically racist country. The very accusation wreaks of ignorance and anti-Semitism. But since most of the world is either antagonistic toward Jews or doesn't know any better, a thoughtful response is necessary. Here is a good one:

From the old libel that Jews used blood in matzah to the modern libel that Israel is racist, we are compelled to defend our values and our people. Yet, if these malicious claims are a reminder of anything, it should be that Jewish unity can - and will - eventually happen. It's only a matter of whether we decide to do so under our own volition or if we will be forced to do so because of the tactics of our enemies. One way or another, our petty quarrels can easily be cast aside.

God has interesting ways of reminding us that we are all part of the same people. Despite the deep religious, political and personal divisions that have transpired over the years, all it takes is one extreme event (or libel) to bring us back together. As Herman Wouk writes in This Is My God (first edition (1959), page 265): "No matter how bitter the differences are over day-to-day method–and the bitterness now and then rises near the red line of civil commotion–the aim is one, and the people in extremity become one."

Jewish infighting is old, almost always counterproductive, and usually about a bunch of egoistic nonsense. Let's leave the strife and divisiveness to our enemies, and pursue interpersonal decency among ourselves. We can respectfully disagree over particular religious or political methods without forgetting the big picture (i.e. the survival of Jewry and ethical monotheism). There is no need to exacerbate our personal and national problems. Jews in general - and Israelis in particular - have enough to deal with.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Are You a Hero?

Last week, Dakota Meyer was awarded the Medal of Honor. He is the first living Marine to be given the distinction for actions in Iraq or Afghanistan. He saved 36 lives when he disregarded orders and put his life on the line to save others. Despite suffering a shrapnel wound in his arm, he repeatedly ran through heavy enemy fire to rescue both American and Afghan troops. Meyer's death-defying heroism puts him in a category of his own. However, according to Jewish wisdom, the definition of a hero is not limited to such incredible bravery.

In Pirkei Avot, Ben Zoma goes through a famous set of simple questions and answers. Among them is, "Who is a hero? He who subdues his personal inclination, as it is written (Proverbs 16:32), 'He who is slow to anger is better than a strong man, and a master of his passions is better than a conqueror of a city'" (Ethics of the Fathers 4:1). The Hebrew term he uses, gibor, can be translated as either "strong" or "hero." What truly separates the strong from the weak has nothing to do with physical power or professional prowess; it's all about strength of character.

In reality, a heroic act takes place whenever someone overcomes their inclination to do something wrong. This is especially the case with regard to interpersonal conduct. After all, ritual sins only require forgiveness from God, whereas interpersonal sins first require forgiveness from the person who was wronged. While it's always a good idea to try to control our yetzer hara (evil inclination) and treat other people well, it's particularly important to do so during this month of Elul as we get closer to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The world is upside down. People often look for heroes via politics and popular culture, but they will generally come up empty-handed. As Dennis Prager puts it, "the famous are rarely significant, and the significant are rarely famous." Yet, heroic individuals are all around; people just don't know where to look. It doesn't always have to entail some life-saving, out-of-this-world act, such as that of Dakota Meyer. And it certainly has nothing to do with fame.

Most of us lead quiet, unassuming lives. As a result, it's easy to think that our personal successes and failures have no ultimate meaning. But this could not be further from the truth. We learn from the story of Ruth - a woman who struggled to merely find her next meal - that an act as simple as modestly gathering food can have lasting purpose. In Ruth's case, the whole Davidic dynasty descended from her because of her righteous ways. God takes note of all our actions and recognizes the good we do in spite of many difficulties. Never think that your struggles go unrecognized.

When you succeed in subduing bad behavior, the next time you're searching for a hero, simply look in the mirror.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Red Bandana

It's hard to believe that ten years have already passed since the horrific events of September 11, 2001. That date is correctly remembered as a day in which unspeakable evil was committed. However, that date should also be remembered as a day in which extraordinary goodness was carried out. Perhaps this dichotomy can best be understood through something as simple as a red bandana.

Cell phone calls made by passengers on at least one of the hijacked planes revealed that terrorists donned red bandanas before taking over the flight. In radical Islamic circles, red bandanas had become a signature of some terrorists in their attacks against Westerners. The clothing represented pure evil.

Contrast those red bandanas with the one worn by a young man named Welles Crowther. His piece of clothing represented pure goodness. If you aren't familiar with his story, this video is well worth watching:

On a day in which terrorists used red bandanas as a symbol of the evil they were about to commit, there was a young man who used a red bandana as a symbol of the goodness he was about to carry out. These polar opposite reasons for wearing the same type of clothing demonstrate that what matters most isn't what we wear, but rather how we act. Although there are times when the clothing makes the man, it's usually the man who gives meaning to the clothing.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Beware of Bad Leaders

People have come to believe that a leader is simply someone who is charismatic and good-looking. While neither of these qualities disqualify a person from being a leader, they are not as important as they are made out to be. Most external elements - especially physical vanities - are not necessities for leadership. So what exactly do good leaders possess that distinguish them from bad leaders? Well, there are many characteristics, but here's a brief synopsis of the most important.

For one, true leaders don't let their egos get in the way. The less a person cares about their own self-interest and the more they care about God and service to others, the greater they will be. Another characteristic found among true leaders is little to no arrogance. They do something because it is right, and not because it will make them more popular or powerful. True leaders also tend to be people who are fully dedicated to a cause that is greater than themselves.

There is yet another characteristic that is often overlooked: true leaders don't try to turn people into automatons. Rather, they guide others in a way that helps each individual fulfill their unique role in the world. When someone starts to pit white against black, religious against secular, or rich against poor, a red flag should be raised. Such people are doing what is in their own best interest, and the only leading they do is lead people against one another. They fail to understand that everyone has been placed on earth by God for a reason.

As Pirkei Avot states: "Beware of rulers, for they befriend someone only for their own benefit; they act friendly when it benefits them, but they do not stand by someone in his time of need" (Ethics of the Fathers 2:3). This concept generally refers to politicians, but it can extend to anyone who takes advantage of other people for the sake of attaining power. These "leaders" are fickle and unreliable at best, and emulate the ways of some of the worst people who have ever lived.

Despite the fact that most leaders are anything but noble, we should not resign ourselves to the cynical belief that there are no good ones. While healthy skepticism of anyone in a position of authority is imperative, there are still a lot of good leaders out there. We just have to find them. Otherwise, try to be one yourself. As another Pirkei Avot passage states: "In a place where there are no leaders, strive to be the leader" (Ethics of the Fathers 2:6). Nevertheless, keep in mind that the greatest leaders throughout history were those who came to power reluctantly. From Moses to George Washington, the best are those who are humble and do not seek control over others.

It's both sad and upsetting to see people hurt by bad leaders. Perhaps they falsely believed in the person because they had a particular title before their name. Or perhaps they thought that the person was wise because they attended some prestigious school. Or maybe they just got too caught up in their own religious denomination or political affiliation to see what kind of person they were actually following. Whatever the reason, enough is enough. For leaders, like for everyone else, character matters most.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Is Technology Killing Civility?

The answer to the question above is both yes and no. It really all depends on the way in which people use it. For example, texting during a meal or having a ringtone go off in the middle of a wedding ceremony can be quite disruptive and inconsiderate. People have always found ways to be annoying and/or uncivil. Advances in technology have just made it easier and more common to do so. It's unfortunate that some people think that talking or texting or Tweeting is more important than preserving another person's dignity. People forget that neither they nor their digital devices are the center of the universe.

This particular problem seems to be the product of a powerful combination: technology and human nature. A BlackBerry or iPad is not really the primary culprit. Technology by itself is amoral; it all depends on how and when we use it. Take any advancement or technological progress in human history. A pen and paper are not innately bad, unless they are used to write unfairly about others; a phone is not innately bad, unless it's used to speak lashon hara or interrupt a solemn service.

It's quite ironic how people originally thought that advances in technology would make our lives so much easier. In many ways it has, but in many ways it has not. On the one hand, the speed and amount of information we can absorb at any given time is the highest it has ever been. On the other hand, it was supposed to help people communicate with each other, but miscommunication seems to be more common than ever.

Technological advances to which we have become accustomed are all means to some end; they are not ends in and of themselves. For example, the Internet has the power to connect people to one another, but it can also have the opposite effect. It all depends on whether our online activities help or harm the lives and reputations of other people. We simply have to prioritize our values and focus on the goodness (or lack thereof) that results from our actions.

God created the world in such a way that whatever can be used for good can also be used for evil. Fire and water are great examples; they can either sustain or destroy life. Technology is no different. We just have to remember that it is simply a means - albeit a powerful one - and use it for good. As long as we keep this in mind, our computers and phones will not become false gods, and incivility while using technology will become less commonplace.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The "Altar" Ego

There is a famous Talmudic excerpt that powerfully illustrates the importance of God-based ethics. The Talmud (Yoma 9b) explains that the destruction of the second Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple), which we mourn on and around Tisha B'Av, occurred because of sinat chinam (for further analysis of this concept, click here). On the surface, this type of interpersonal hatred was the cause. However, other ideas mentioned on the very same page provide a clearer insight into the root of the problem.

Rabbi Yochanan states, "Better were the fingernails of earlier generations than the intestines of our own generation . . . the Beit Hamikdash was rebuilt for them, and it has not been rebuilt for us." The Vilna Gaon explains that the "fingernails" refer to the external sins of earlier generations, and the "intestines" refer to the internal sins of later generations (including our own). As bad as the sins of the earlier generations may have been, their wrongdoings were transparent and they still acknowledged God's providence. Therefore, when their outward behavior began to go awry, they knew that if they eliminated the specific sins, all would be rectified.

On the other hand, our sins are hidden (i.e. we put our egos first), so there is something deeper we need to correct. While we may express outward displays of holiness, there is still an inward denial of God's omnipotence. In other words, we can make it appear as though we are worshiping God, when in reality we are worshiping ourselves. For example, when we study Torah or pray in synagogue, are these simply acts of self-aggrandizement to show off our intellect and protect our image? Oftentimes, there is something missing for which even a Beit Hamikdash cannot help.

When the Talmud describes that Jews would be "eating and drinking together and piercing each other with swords," it means that although they had meals together, they hated each other in their hearts. As soon as they left a social function, they would speak ill of one another. It was this kind of mentality that led to the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. All the sacrifices in the world do no good unless they are accompanied by a change of heart. Here is a small sampling of biblical passages, along with brief summaries, addressing this problem of the "altar" ego:

Amos 4:4 - God speaks sarcastically about bringing sacrifices, admonishing people who enjoy doing rituals for their own sake; He only cares for sacrifices if it helps change the person.

Hosea 6:6 - what matters most to God is ethical behavior, not sacrificial offerings.

Isaiah 1:11 - God poses a rhetorical question; He does not need our sacrifices, but rather wants justice and goodness based on faith in God.

Jeremiah 7:21-23 - to "listen to God's voice" means heeding the words of the prophets, who warn us not to rely exclusively on ritual activity to gain God's forgiveness; we will be forgiven only if we mend our ways and act decently.

Micah 6:6-8 - God's primary demands are not about fancy sacrifices, and it can all be summed up succinctly: do what's right, be kind and remain humble.

The rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash is indeed a worthy goal, but there's something that needs to be corrected first: our hearts. God desires an internal change of self even more than the external rituals of the Temple. This all ties in to the goal of Jewish unity. Forcing others to think a certain way, dress a certain way and observe Judaism a certain way is not real unity - it's our individual egos talking. Instead, each one of us should turn our own hearts toward God and strive for what He truly wants: less ego and more goodness. Then, Jewish unity will take care of itself, as it will be the natural result of heeding this divine call.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Differences in Clothing and Apparel

"If most of us are ashamed of shabby clothes and shoddy furniture, let us be more ashamed of shabby ideas and shoddy philosophies... It would be a sad situation if the wrapper were better than the meat wrapped inside it."
- Albert Einstein

Archaeologists in Israel recently made a fascinating discovery. During an excavation near the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, they found an ancient gold bell with a small loop at its top. The item dates back to the end of the Second Temple era, and is thought to have been sewn to the garment of a man of high authority. While archaeologists aren't certain who the bell originally belonged to, they aren't ruling out that it could have been part of the vestments of the Kohen Gadol (as described in Exodus 28:33). From ancient to modern times, and for both spiritual and practical purposes, different Jews have worn different types of clothing.

Today, there is more variety in how we dress than perhaps ever before. Take, for example, something as simple as head coverings for men. Some wear black hats or knitted kippot, while others don a kippah only during prayers or prefer baseball caps. The bottom line is that good character can be found among all sorts of people wearing all sorts of clothing, just as bad character can be found among all sorts of people wearing all sorts of clothing. Even when it comes to one of the most visible acts of Jewish ritual, Tefillin, character is independent of wearing the physical item. Although putting on Tefillin has the potential to awaken a Jew to God, it does not magically make a man good.

Differences in women's clothing and apparel can be even more stark. Some wear the latest fashions, while others prefer to stay away from outfits that elicit too much attention. Dating back to ancient Israel, women's garments were about everything from modesty to style. For example, Tu B'Av (the 15th of Av) was a time when young women could go out into the fields and look for potential mates (contrary to the usual custom). Girls who happened to be poorer would be loaned beautiful dresses so that they wouldn't be embarrassed by going out in unattractive clothing (Taanit 26b). It's important to remember that the reasoning behind what people wear ranges from mood to principle to what they can afford. Therefore, it's worthwhile to give others the benefit of the doubt when we think that what they're wearing is inappropriate or just plain odd.

Some people tend to have a visceral reaction to those who dress a certain way. While it's certainly understandable to try to place others into a particular stereotype (after all, it's virtually impossible to know each person's uniqueness after a quick encounter), we must strive to judge others solely by their overall behavior. What's most important isn't what we wear - it's how we act. Nevertheless, the more apparent we make it to the world that we are identifiably Jewish, the more of a responsibility we have to act appropriately so as not to create a Chilul Hashem (desecration of God's name).

One of the classic cases of clothing being misleading can be found in the story of Joseph. When his brothers finally met up with him in Egypt, they couldn't recognize the person they had once sold. Joseph looked much different than anyone could have imagined, and not just because he grew older and had facial hair, but also due to the fact that he was wearing the royal garments of viceroy. A lesson we can take from an episode like this is to try our best to look beyond the surface and treat others like family, no matter how they dress. You never know who might be behind that suit and tie or jeans and t-shirt.

Our individual styles can either lead to unnecessary strife or demonstrate how pointless it is to argue over vain differences. If everyone dressed and thought alike, life would be very dull. One of the most beautiful sights you'll ever see is when Jews of all walks of life - and all dressed differently - peacefully pray together at the Western Wall. When we're able to treat each other well despite our most visible of differences, we step closer to the day when the Kohen Gadol returns to engage in his Temple service, donned in his unique vestments, golden bells and all.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Dealing with Tragedy

Unfortunately, Jews are no strangers to tragedy. Last week's horrific murder in New York was another terrible episode, especially due to the fact that the monster who admitted to the crime is Jewish himself. However, that fact is largely irrelevant. There are always going to be bad apples among a group; it is how others respond to those bad apples that defines the group. Through no fault of his own, little Leiby Kletzky asked the wrong guy for directions and landed up in the hands of evil. There is no logical explanation as to why that happened. It's almost reminiscent of the beginning of the Second Intifada when Vadim Nurzhitz and Yossi Avrahami took a wrong turn and also landed up in the hands of evil.

When tragedies like this occur, it's common for people to express their religious convictions by blaming all sorts of things as the root cause, from gossip to gay marriage to the Internet. Sometimes people want answers for unanswerable questions so badly that they're willing to believe almost anything. The bottom line is only God knows. While this may not be an emotionally satisfying response, it's the best we can do given our limited intellect. We must not succumb to playing the blame game. Blame should only be directed at the person who actually committed the crime and/or anyone who explicitly assisted them.

Nobody can know for certain why God allows a particular event to happen. It is all conjecture. Especially due to the fact that we no longer have prophets who can relay direct messages from God, every explanation given for why something occurs is simply a guess. As tempting as it is to provide some sort of divine reasoning, who are we to claim to know why God does something? Turning to God is an important element in dealing with tragedy, but it is also important to refrain from false explanations that can eventually reach the mourners and inflict additional emotional damage. In fact, one of the morals of Iyov (the Book of Job) is precisely about the inscrutability of God's ways.

We learn from Iyov to simply be there for mourners and keep quiet unless prompted to speak. As it states, "They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and none spoke a word to him, for they saw how very great was his suffering" (Job 2:13). Only after Job began to speak did his three friends also begin to talk - and that's when further problems ensued. Despite Job blaming God for his fate, the Talmud tells us that a person is not held responsible for what they say while in pain (Bava Batra 16b). But Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar all felt obligated to act as God's defender, and started to give presumptuous explanations as to why tragedies befell Job. God found all the condemnations of Job's friends to be inexcusable (Job 42:7). In fact, God said that He would only forgive them if they first received forgiveness from Job himself.

While divine explanations are beyond our grasp, there can still be practical lessons to come out of terrible events. In this case, if a child looks disoriented or lost, see to it that they contact their parents or the police. It's better to err on the side of caution than to assume a child is safe. If you're ever in such a position and having trouble taking action, think of Leiby. And although the details in this particular case are unclear, if it ever becomes known that a person within your community is violent or sexually abusive, you must speak up before an innocent person gets hurt. As it says in Tehillim (Psalms 97:10), "Ohavei Hashem Sinu Ra" - those who love God must hate evil. Standing on the sidelines when evil rears its ugly head is not an option. It must be confronted.

One of the positives that tends to come out of episodes like these are the displays of Jewish unity. But, hopefully, demonstrations of goodwill are not limited to such situations. We should be striving for good interpersonal relationships regardless of items in the news. It should never have to take some horrific event to unite us.

Monday, July 11, 2011

E Pluribus Unum

"E Pluribus Unum" is one of the official mottos of the United States. It's a Latin phrase meaning "From Many, One." While it originally suggested that from the many colonies there should emerge a single nation, it has also come to suggest that from the many races, ethnicities and cultures of individual Americans there should emerge a single people. Although this idea of a melting pot is uniquely American, I believe that it ties in quite nicely with Jewish values as well.

Just as the American motto alludes to the fact that it doesn't matter how famous your family was or what your current socioeconomic status is - we are all Americans - the Jewish approach is similar in that it doesn't matter what your family's customs were or what your current denomination is - we are all Jews. And just as it doesn't matter whether you are black or white or liberal or conservative - you are an American - so too, it doesn't matter whether you are Ashkenazi or Sephardic or religious or secular - you are part of the Jewish people.

Unfortunately, intolerance among Jews can be found in all directions. Shortly after Kristallnacht, a Reform synagogue in Rhode Island conducted a special service to which they invited recent Jewish refugees from Europe. Many of those refugees came to the service wearing hats or kippot, which at the time was against Reform practices. A prominent member of the congregation demanded that everyone remove their head coverings. Although the rabbi of the congregation was extremely upset by the man's behavior, he felt too intimidated to do anything.

Similarly, there are some Orthodox Jews who too easily brand their less observant coreligionists as "heretics" or "non-believers." Yet, prominent sages such as Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and the Chazon Ish have ruled that we live in a time of God's concealment and therefore cannot apply the religious laws concerning heresy to modern-day Jews who question their faith. Furthermore, it is wrong to harm those who deny even Judaism's most basic beliefs. Not only should we not hurt such people, we should help them if the situation ever presents itself.

It takes a considerable amount of humility and tolerance to refrain from forcing our beliefs upon others, but that's exactly what we should strive for. To do so, objective ethical standards must be upheld, while the more subjective areas of life can be left to the individual. It's ironic that people tend to focus so much on the subjective when it is really the objective that matters most. For example, some regard those with whom they disagree politically or religiously as bad people, instead of simply judging their overall behavior to determine what kind of person they are. This needs to change if we are to produce a better world.

One of the unique aspects of Judaism is learning about all the different roads people take that lead them to God and a life of goodness. While this is certainly a fascinating phenomenon, it can also be a great impediment to how we treat one another. Therefore, our goal in life should not be to turn all our fellow Jews into ideological and/or religious replicas of ourselves. Rather, it should be to guide - not force - others into a life of serving God and His children in a way that best matches their individual personality. Then, we will truly represent a motto as great as "E Pluribus Unum."

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Questions of the Matchmaker

There is a story told of Rabbi Shmuel Rozovsky, the legendary head of the Ponevezh Yeshiva. One day a Jew from Jerusalem traveled to Bnei Brak to inquire about a student in the yeshiva as a potential mate for his daughter. The man proceeded to ask Rabbi Rozovsky some questions about the young man: "How many hours a day does he study? Does he follow the yeshiva's study schedule and participate during classes? Does he arrive to prayer services on time? How well does he understand the Talmudic discourses?"

After receiving favorable responses to these questions, he thanked Rabbi Rozovsky and began to leave. Rabbi Rozovsky politely stopped the man and said, "Please allow me to ask you a few questions as well. I see that you are content with the answers you have received because you apparently believe this is all your daughter needs to know. However, I think that your daughter would be very interested in knowing if this student is a decent human being."

Rabbi Rozovsky continued, "It would have been fitting if you had asked me: Are his clothes clean? Is it pleasant to sit next to him? How does he behave in the dining room? Does he thank the kitchen staff for preparing the meals? You've reached the conclusion that he is a great student, but you should ask how he behaves when he enters the dormitory while others are asleep. Does he enter quietly so as not to wake up his roommates? And in the morning, does he make his bed or leave the room a mess?"

"I think," said Rabbi Rozovsky, "that these things would very much interest your daughter. He could turn out to be a spoiled person who doesn't care about his surroundings. What will happen when he comes home in the evening and scoffs at the meal your daughter had worked all afternoon preparing? Will she be consoled by my words in praise of how well he understands the complexities of a Talmudic tractate?"

The matchmaking approach of Rabbi Rozovsky can be utilized in other walks of Jewish life as well. Simply substitute whatever is considered "most desirable" in different Jewish circles, and the same problem arises. For example, some regard a Harvard graduate degree or being a partner in a law firm with the utmost significance. When people start looking for potential spouses based solely on external factors - instead of the person's overall character - something is seriously wrong. While things such as money, looks and success can play a role in the decision, it shouldn't be the primary consideration.

A woman is certainly free to marry a man for his technical knowledge, just as a man can marry a woman for her bank account. But it would be best if they prioritized their values first. So before going out on a date or setting up someone else, it might be worthwhile to ask a simple question:

Is he/she a good person?

Or, more specifically:

How does he/she treat other people?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Perfect Game

With all the problems facing the world today, it seems like a good time for an inspirational story that might just help us realize what is most important in life. Namely, it's a reminder of being more cognizant of God's primary demand to act decently toward one another. I recently came across a video that illustrates this point, where a group of boys playing baseball truly had the perfect ending to a game.

Although it's not mentioned in the video below, this story is attributed to Rabbi Paysach Krohn, who personally knows the boy's father and verified the details for accuracy. As a side note, this is not an endorsement of Dr. Wayne Dyer (also, don't mind his mispronunciation of the name of the school). He just happens to be the one retelling the story.

This was a simple act of kindness by a group of boys playing baseball. We should strive to emulate such behavior when we encounter a similar situation. It doesn't always have to involve a learning-disabled child or a baseball game. It can be in any instance where we overcome our personal wants in order to fulfill another person's needs.

Amidst the chaos that is the daily news, people of all walks of life are looking for God. While some think that He cannot be found, they just don't know where to look. God is always present; He's just hidden. It's up to each one of us to act in such a kind and dignified manner that God is invariably revealed to others (and perhaps to ourselves as well).

Monday, June 13, 2011

Silence is Golden

There is a poignant story told of Rabbi Aryeh Levin. He was once attending prayer services alongside members of the Neturei Karta (a religious anti-Zionist group). When one of those followers noticed Rabbi Levin (who was an admirer and confidant of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, an ideological opponent of the Neturei Karta), the man tore the tefillin off Rabbi Levin's head and told him to leave. Rabbi Levin humbly gathered his belongings and left - without saying a word. One of the people who witnessed the event ran after Rabbi Levin and told him how impressed everyone was at how he handled such a public humiliation. He told the man to go back and tell the congregants that he learned how to respond like that from Rabbi Kook.

The Chofetz Chaim quotes a midrash which states that every time a person refrains from engaging in forbidden speech, they merit a hidden light that no angel can fathom. And that midrash is talking about a single moment; one can only imagine what lies in store for a person who can hold back from speaking ill of others on a consistent basis. Obviously, we should strive for good behavior simply because it's the right thing to do. But if you need a little incentive, that's a pretty good one.

Remaining silent has divine origins. The Talmud (Gittin 56b) evokes the praise of God following the Second Temple's destruction as "mi kamocha ba'ilmim Hashem" - "Who is like You among the mute ones O God" (this is a play on words of the phrase "mi kamocha ba'eilim Hashem" - "Who is like You among the mighty ones, O God"). It is referencing how God remained silent in the face of the profane conduct of Titus. This is the Creator of the Universe we're talking about - and it's concerning the destruction of His home on earth - and yet He's willing to exercise restraint! All we have to do is let go of our egos a little bit and try in our own small way to emulate God's characteristics when someone happens to say or do something that personally offends us.

Making our displeasure known with those with whom we disagree is often not worth it. Do we really have to get in our two cents every time we come across some subjective difference with a fellow Jew? Even when someone has objectively hurt us in some way, we have to make sure that our subsequent behavior is constructive. Unless we're fairly certain that rebuking them would have a positive effect, it's best to maintain our composure and simply keep quiet. All we can do is make the best decision based on the information we have at the time. Sometimes we'll still make a poor choice despite thinking before speaking, but at least we'll be more cognizant of our behavior and less likely to hurt someone else.

We have to pick our fights in life. There are times when speaking up is extremely important. For example, when it comes to fighting evil - especially something as serious as radical Islamic terrorism - good people of all stripes must speak out and act. But in the micro realm of life, keeping quiet is usually the best way to go. For example, when it comes to relationships between individuals - especially people we see day in and day out - letting things go is often a wise choice. Routinely following this mode of behavior is a great way to keep the peace. We don't have to be passive; we just have to use some self-restraint.

Our generation greatly values people who speak their minds. In many respects, this has been a positive development. However, a better world will only be achieved when silence is valued just as much - if not more. As the proverbial saying goes, "speech is silver; silence is golden."

Thursday, June 2, 2011

In the Service of Others

Shortly before his death in 1790, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to Ezra Stiles, president of Yale University. Stiles had asked this founding father of the United States about his personal views on religion. Franklin graciously responded:

"Here is my Creed: I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing Good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another life respecting its Conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion, and I regard them as you do, in whatever Sect I meet with them."

The origin of these ideas date back to Abraham, the original monotheist, as well as Hillel and Rabbi Akiva, who elucidated that the primary principle of the Torah is to be good to other people. His words form the essence of what we are on earth to do. Namely, to act decently toward one another. Although Benjamin Franklin was not Jewish, the guiding principles of his life were rooted in Jewish wisdom. Similarly, the founding of the United States is often described as Judeo-Christian. While there is no such thing as Judeo-Christian theology (e.g. Jews don't believe in the divinity of human beings and Christians don't keep kosher), there is such a thing as Judeo-Christian values (i.e. Jewish ideas that have been spread predominately by Christians).

Ironically, Franklin's image is used on the one hundred-dollar bill and often symbolizes our materialistic culture. However, if people were to more closely follow Franklin's creed, there would be far less greed. While there's nothing wrong with pursuing a good economic life (as long as it's done ethically), it can easily be taken to an extreme and destroy us. This is one of the difficult lessons the world in general, and America in particular, is learning during the current economic crisis. We were not created solely to amass wealth; we are here to emulate God's characteristics of bestowal. And each person according to their abilities can do so.

Earlier this week, America celebrated Memorial Day, and Israel recently observed Yom Hazikaron. The service of the men and women in the American and Israeli armed forces has helped spread freedom to millions of people, Jew and non-Jew alike. Those who put their lives on the line - and especially those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice - represent the epitome of service to others. I am humbled to know that some readers of this blog are actively serving overseas or have served in the American or Israeli military. Whether fellow Jews or fellow Americans (or both), thank you for your service.

It's truly inspirational to know people whose lifestyle is modeled to help others, from the soldier abroad to the caring neighbor at home. While it's only human to think of ourselves first, self-centeredness will not lead to a fulfilling life. There's a reason why it feels good to come through for someone else - because that's what God wants from us. At the very least, we must not hurt one another. And at best, we must try to actively help each other. As Albert Einstein put it: "Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile."

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Real Peace Process

On this blog, I try my best to steer clear of politics. However, the defense of Israel is an existential issue - not a political one (or at least it shouldn't be). Following their recent meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu explained to President Barack Obama why Israel cannot accept some of his administration's demands. Whether it's the return to the 1967 borders or dealing with the Palestinian refugee problem, Israel cannot be forced to commit suicide.

The "peace process" that is often imposed on Israel is completely disingenuous. There can't be peace if one side in the conflict remains committed to destroying the other side. While this continues to be the central impediment to Israeli-Arab relations, there's a different peace process that has nothing to do with Arabs. It should go without saying, but we can't pit ourselves against fellow Jews to the point where we are out to destroy one another. Otherwise, peace among Jews will be just as impossible as peace with our enemies. Luckily, life and goodness are central to Jewish culture, so the building blocks are there. We just have to cultivate those values.

During each of Israel's wars of survival, individual Jews figured out a way to overcome their differences for the sake of the Jewish people. In 1948, then in 1967, then again in 1973, and yet again during other perilous times, we came together purely for the sake of our brothers and sisters. Religious and political differences were irrelevant. Personal gripes and grudges were cast aside. And then the unity ended . . . until the next war reared its ugly head. There's a pattern here.

It appears as though we're heading for yet another difficult predicament. It's only a matter of time. Most of the world remains against Israel, and some radical groups are actively pursuing the destruction of the Jewish people. So what exactly are we waiting for? Our own peace process should begin long before circumstances on the ground put us in a position where we have no choice. And this time around, our character has to be strong enough to sustain the peace long after the most recent threat to our existence subsides.

The importance of peace is not only logically compelling, but can also be found throughout Jewish literature. Shalom, the Hebrew term for peace, is ubiquitous in Jewish life. Every major prayer ends with it. Every decent person yearns for it. Among other things, shalom is used:

- to conclude the Oral Law

- in the final blessing of Shemoneh Esrei

- to end Birkat Kohanim (Priestly Blessing)

- to end Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals)

- as the essential word in our greetings to one another (e.g. "Shalom Aleichem")

- as the last description for the different times of the season (Ecclesiastes 3:8)

Peace must be more than a word. It must be a value we try to inculcate into our lives. It means striving for tranquil interactions with each other - even those with whom we strongly disagree. Differences of opinion are not the primary obstacle; acting indecently because of those differences is. If you happen to find it difficult to overcome a particular disagreement with another Jew, you don't have to force yourself to love them. First, avoid hostility by exercising some self-restraint. Then, over time, work on a more positive attitude. It's a peace process.

Our tradition has it that every nation on earth is designated with a guardian angel - except for Israel. God Himself is the guardian of the Jewish people. While members of the Israel Defense Forces deserve tremendous credit and gratitude, Israel exists "not by might nor by power" (nor by the generous support of the United States), but "by the spirit of God" (Zechariah 4:6). Peace in the Middle East is certainly a laudable goal, but it remains a task that is beyond the scope of any particular government or human being. So what are we, as Jews, to focus on instead? Aim to please an audience of One. And nothing pleases God more than seeing His children at peace with one another.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Halacha is Not Enough

One of the reasons for the destruction of ancient Jerusalem was that fellow Jews held to the letter of the law. Furthermore, they tried to get whatever they could out of each other legally. As the Talmud states (Bava Metzia 30b), we were exiled because fellow Jews failed to raise their standard of behavior lifnim mishurat hadin - beyond the letter of the law. In other words, people wouldn't cut each other any slack. This is something that God cannot tolerate among His children for very long. Focusing on technical legalisms can destroy a society. Adherence to halacha (Jewish law) is extremely significant, but it cannot become the be all and end all. Something can be legally justifiable and not morally correct.

I know a man who helped bring a secular Jewish woman back to the faith. When they bumped into each other some time later, she told him that she was no longer ritually observant. Surprised, he asked her what had happened. She explained that shortly after becoming Orthodox, she was attending synagogue on Shabbat with her young child, who happens to be mentally handicapped. After the services were over, she walked outside with her son in her arms. A rabbi who passed by told her that there was no eruv in the neighborhood and that she could not lift her child. She was deeply offended by his lack of sensitivity. Was the rabbi halachically right in his observation? Yes. But was he morally right in his conduct? Absolutely not.

There is a famous rabbinic teaching which states "Derech Eretz Kadma La'Torah" - the commandment of good manners preceded the Torah. One interpretation of this phrase is that while the revelation of the Torah occurred at Mount Sinai after the Exodus, the obligation to act with courtesy and civility toward other people dates back to the dawn of humanity. Furthermore, the Ramban comments on the verse "You Shall Be Holy" (Leviticus 19:2) that it's possible to be a Naval Birshut HaTorah - a degenerate within the confines of the Torah. The letter of the law alone is not enough; the spirit of the law must also be considered. As Jews, we are supposed to strive for the highest standard of behavior. Doing what is right often means upholding the values of the Torah beyond its explicit laws, thus sanctifying ourselves and being a blessing to those with whom we come into contact.

Judging other Jews solely by how much they adhere to halacha will only tell you how much they observe halacha. However, reserving judgment solely for the ethical behavior of fellow Jews will tell you a great deal about their character. We can feel passionately one way or the other about halachic observance without regarding with contempt those who don't do so to our satisfaction. Bein Adam La'Makom (the relationship between man and God) is extremely significant, but one's level of ritual observance is the choice of the individual. On the other hand, Bein Adam La'Chaveiro (the relationship between man and other people) must follow a more universal ethical code.

While following halacha is certainly prudent, it does not magically make a Jew a good human being. So what is one to do? In This Is My God (first edition (1959), page 45), Herman Wouk provides some words of wisdom:

"The sensible thing is to use hard thinking to find the right way to live and then to live that way, whether many other people do or few do. If a Jew concludes to enter upon his heritage and make it part of his life, he does an obviously reasonable thing. The chances are that–at least today–he will seem a mighty freakish non-conformist in some neighborhoods; but that is changing too, and anyway, what does it matter? What matters is living with dignity, with decency, and without fear, in the way that best honors one's intelligence and one's birth."

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Zionism and Jewish Unity

I hope the rendition of Hatikvah in the video above was as inspiring for you as it was for me. Yet, not all Jews are inspired by the Jewish State, let alone its national anthem. For an outsider, this seems absolutely preposterous. But for Jews, it's all part of being an opinionated family.

As Israel begins its 63rd year of modern existence, the debates of the founders still echo in the hearts and minds of Jews worldwide. Jews of all persuasions continue to argue over everything from domestic policy to whether Zionism itself should be allowed. For the sake of clarity, Zionism is a term meaning that Jews have the right to live in their ancestral homeland of Israel along with the resumption of Jewish sovereignty. This idea should unite us unlike anything else, but so often it does not. For both political and religious reasons, certain factions of Jews have rendered Zionism a bad word.

Many secular Jews who get their history solely from college are completely inundated with anti-Israel sentiment. Over time, this has had a disastrous effect. When they start believing all their professors' attempts to delegitimize the Jewish State, they inevitably overlook the fact that Israel has been a beacon of freedom among a sea of tyrannies. Similarly, there are many religious Jews who are not fond of Israel's largely secular founding, and a small number vehemently oppose any Jewish sovereignty in Israel until the Messianic era. This has inevitably led to a lack of gratitude for the modern state, despite the fact that Torah learning in yeshivot and seminaries has thrived in the country.

Israel's creation and continued existence is a miracle that is all too often taken for granted. It needs to be better appreciated. While there will always be religious and secular purists who stand against the state for one reason or another, those voices don't speak for the vast majority of Jews. As imperfect as Israel may be, it was, is, and always will be the Jewish homeland. It's neither a secular nor religious utopia, but it has produced great benefits for Jews of all stripes. Perhaps some of its citizens lack in spirituality or appreciation of its founders, but that will come in time.

I'm sure there are some readers who disagree with parts of this post, but that demonstrates the beauty of Judaism in general and of Israel in particular. From religion to politics to family life, there are significant disagreements among different Jews of goodwill. But the very fact that we feel so comfortable expressing our individual points of view shows just how much of a family we are. Two siblings at the dinner table might shout at each other during a conversation, but in the end, the family unit is one. In fact, a native-born Israeli is often referred to as a Sabra (a "prickly pear" - hard on the outside, soft on the inside). They might be in-your-face and opinionated, but when push comes to shove, they'll save your life.

The irony, of course, is that when we stop dividing each other so much, the land will stop being divided and return to its highest spiritual state. Then the rebuilding of the final Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple) can ensue - what religious Jews most want, along with world peace - what secular Jews most want. The fulfillment of the Messianic era is a process, often taking longer than we would like, but a process nonetheless. Major historical events don't happen by accident, let alone in the holiest place on earth.

Rashi's commentary on the very first verse of the Torah explains that the account of creation set the moral basis for the Jewish inheritance of Israel. God has the ultimate authority over every claim of land, and He will vouch for Israel's legitimacy. Thus, it can be argued that God was the original Zionist. This all leads to my theory about the founding of Israel: God allowed mostly (though not exclusively) secular Jews to establish the modern state as a way of telling us that we are all important in His eyes. It is God's land, and He decides who can prosper within it. He chose the Jewish people - all the Jewish people - charedi (religious), chiloni (secular), and everything in between.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Fight Against Evil

Thank God, the world's most renowned terrorist, Osama bin Laden, has been killed. This man was directly responsible for the murders of thousands of innocent people, including fellow Americans and Jews. As important as it was to kill him, this is not the end of evil by any means. The radical Islamic ideology he preached continues to thrive. Just ask any Israeli affected by Palestinian terror. As important - and correct - as it was for Israel to take out terrorist leaders who targeted their civilians, it did not end the threat; it was simply transferred to other people. The very fact that Hamas has rendered bin Laden an "Arab holy warrior" shows how deep this problem is. From before Hitler to after bin Laden, neither anti-Semitism nor mass murder ended when these figures died. And it won't end until the Messianic era.

One of the first entries I ever posted on this blog was about the two great evils all good people must combat at this time. The first kind was mentioned in the previous paragraph; the second kind will be dealt with now. It's about fighting the evil inclination - the yetzer hara - in our individual lives, especially with regard to interpersonal conduct. It's great to take pride in any personal triumphs over our yetzer hara. However, as important as it is to overcome the inclination to act indecently toward each other in a particular situation, the battle does not end there. Similar scenarios will continue to arise, and we have to stay on our toes if we are to win the war.

Here's the bottom line: evil in all its forms will continue to affect us until the day God obliterates it from earth. As bothersome as it is to constantly stand against it, we must find the moral courage to do so. Remember, "Ohavei Hashem Sinu Ra" (Psalms 97:10) - those who love God must hate evil. Both radical Islamic terrorists and the yetzer hara do not give up in their fight; neither should we. It's frustrating to deal with, but we must persevere. With every day that passes, we inch closer to the day all people of goodwill hope for - the Final Redemption, along with its reign of true peace on earth. Until then, the fight continues.