Tuesday, July 25, 2023

Generations of Tears Quench Baseless Hatred

See this article on my Times of Israel Blog page here.

“Tears shed in vain are established for generations.  For it was brought about by the Lord.  On this night my children weep and wail.”  These are words from B’leil zeh Yivkayun, “On this Night Weep,” one of the kinnot, dirges, which we will recite Wednesday evening for the Fast of Tisha b’Av.

We could start saying it today.  The new law passed today limiting judicial oversight in Israel is not just a reason to weep, but like countless Israelis have shown us, it is a reason to march, to yell, to protest.  While Israelis do believe there are aspects of the court system needing reform, it is hard to justify a law such as this one bent on curbing justice.  Look, when one last-surviving-first-joining members of the Palmach, 98 year-old Maj. Gen. Amos Horev comes out against what your doing, maybe your actions aren’t in Israel’s best interests.

It would be easy, because it would be right, to tie the actions of the ruling coaltion to the holiday of Tisha b’Av with the concept of sinat chinam, “baseless hatred.”  We are taught it was such contempt between Jews that brought about the Temple’s destruction.  It is the worst kind of sin because it negates everything about the other person.  If possible, it is even worse when that other person is part of your own family, another Jew – another Israeli.

Another chinam also applies. It comes from our opening verse which mentions, b’chi chinam, “tears shed in vain [baselessly].”  The situation in Israel now seems dire.  While I pray some solution will arise that can reverse this decision, bring together the government and opposition to negotiate, and save Israel and Israelis from further unrest, I am afraid that may not be on the horizon.  That will call tears to flow.  And it is scary there may be no end in sight for the crying of such tears.

Tisha b’Av is a holiday whose themes can be difficult to feel a visceral connection to.  It won’t be so hard this year.  The chaos and upheaval in the streets of ancient Israel will find ready parallels in the protests of today.

There will be one more connection, too.

Our verse refers to “tears established for generations.”  Jews know history isn’t kind to them.  Jews have faced hopeless situations but they never give up hope.  Sometimes, Jewish history can change in seven days or forty.  But sometimes it takes forty years or even two thousand.  The current challenge to law and justice in Israel may not end after days or even months more of protests.  Yet, Tisha b’Av, with all its tears, is hard to relate to.  Because we do live in a world once again with a Jewish State.  It is an imperfect country, to be sure.  It became just a little more imperfect today.  Yet it is still a miracle.  It was a miracle that a generation of heroes like Amos Horev made happen.  It is a miracle that has been perpetuated by countless more heroes of both the famous and unknown kind.  They may not be in sight now, but our history, our holidays, our tears all teach me that new heroes are coming.  Maybe they even include you and me.

Friday, July 14, 2023

Know the Stops - Matot Masei


No doubt many of you have been or will be on vacation sometime this summer.  These family times together often produce the fondest of family memories – even when things don’t go perfectly.  When we look back, the pictures and souvenirs from such trips strengthen our memories. 

This is important and mirrors a lesson from out of our double parshah this week.  The Torah gives all the place Jews stopped in 40 years in the desert from Egypt to Israel.  Why were they in the desert 40 years?  Why was it important to know places they stopped?

The Bible commentator - Rabbeinu Bechayeh explains God wanted to strengthen the faith of the Jews and so mentions places to remind them of miracles during those years: manna, the water well of Miriam, and the clouds of glory that protected them from dangers. 

Remembering & reviewing helped them to remember and to have faith in God.

We can do the same thing in our own lives. Looking back, we can sometimes piece together events and see God's hand guiding us along the way. Something may have looked very bad at the time it happened. Later, when we have time to look back and reflect, we see that the event was not bad at all, but a step on the way to something very good. Reviewing these acts of kindness that God has done for us in our lives will strengthen our own faith.

So – just like you would do with a family vacation, do with your life as a whole -– you can do this personally, by keeping a journal, or talking about important things with your family, or you can use the tools that Judaism has for keeping track of important things – like all of our holidays and rituals – those things help remind you about being good and about God, just like pictures of vacation would remind you!

Stop. Think. Put things together. See the big picture, it’s a good way to become a better person and grow closer to God.

Friday, July 7, 2023

Pinchas and Tevye


Pinchas is probably my favorite character in the Torah.  If I could have gotten away with it, one of my boys would have been Phineas in English and Pinchas in Hebrew.  The Hebrew would have been okay, but I think Phineas might not have been the name of the most popular kid on the playground, if you catch my drift.  Yet something about the Pinchas’ decisiveness is appealing to me, something about his ability to see that occasionally, the only answer to a problem is a violent one – and that his ability to know when it is called for, and when it isn’t, is rewarded with God’s Brit Shalom – covenant of peace – that is just such a powerful lesson.

You’ll recall, I’m sure, the scene in Fiddler on the Roof in which Tevye responds to an argument two of his friends are having, “he’s right and he’s right.”  He is challenged, “they can’t both be right!” to which he responds – you’re right!” 

Seeing the “other side” as Tevye can, is an important trait for a Jew – we aren’t meant to just accept blindly.  Pinchas must have been expert at this for he knew that while killing is an extreme response, it is not inherently, universally evil.  For many of us, knowing “who’s right” when it comes to such consequential decisions isn’t as easy. 

Like with Pinchas – I’m sure Zimri and Cozbi would have had a justification for their behavior, but whatever it would have been, it would have been wrong.

There are certainly times when the decisiveness of Pinchas is desirable and even required, but I think, most of the time, we need to have a little more of the Tevye in us than the Pinchas – particularly when we are not dealing with Midianites Princesses or Moabite Wizards or even Islamic Extremists as Israel has had to do in recent days – those are all times to bring on the Pinchas. 

But when it comes to our own lives, and when it comes to our own Jewish communities – then I think we need the Tevye. 

Let me express this as a little challenge, a little test:  I want you to think of the last time that you stood up for, or defended, the opinions or actions of someone with whom you disagreed.  When was it?  Was it ever?

It needn’t be something dramatic – I’m saying, when was the last time you said, “I’ll defend your right to be, as I see it, wrong on this issue, because respect for each other, the worth of each person, is a principle far greater.”

Two things are true regarding this:  1) we don’t consciously do this anywhere near enough, and 2) we all know inherently we should.

You disagree?  Let me ask you, who is married?  Who has ever had an argument in your marriage or a long-standing annoyance/pet-peeve about your spouse? 

If your spouse changed their behavior or attitude or whatever it was, - tell me what you did to make that happen, I’d like to know. 

But if after 40 years, it’s still the same – I’m betting that you’ve accepted how they load the dishwasher, because your love, friendship, and family, are far more important.  And if you can do that with one person, you can apply the same thinking to many others.  Does a different political opinion mean a person isn’t still a human?  Someone have a lifestyle different from your own - are they not a creature of God deserving even the slightest interest in understanding them better?  I think so. 

And even more when we speak about our own Jewish communities.  We’re part of the same family as well!  We mustn’t let even significant differences of opinion, practice, or belief, alienate us from our fellow Jews. 

I’m not saying you need to join causes you hate, and I’m not saying that you should stop trying to convince the person with whom you disagree to change his or her mind. 

Nor am I saying that there aren’t times when one must fight like a Pinchas for what you believe.  Even Tevye, as we know, could reach a point past which he couldn’t bend without breaking. 

Still, we can never forget that every human, is made b’tzelem Elohim, in the Image of God, and thus deserving of some amount of respect – respect which we show when we think just a little about why that other person thinks or does whatever they do.

So next time your up against some moron who just doesn’t get it – before you “bring it” before you escalate the argument – try and see what comes about from really trying to see it from their side… and then keep going.

It seems to me that if we can do that, whether its Pinchas’ Covenant of Peace, or its Tevye’s Tradition – whatever we call it, we will be honoring God’s Will through acting so thoughtfully about God’s creatures, our fellow human beings.