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Ari Shavit on Shekhem(?)

Ari Shavit adapted a chapter from his forthcoming book in the October 21, 2013 edition of The New Yorker (subscription required). The piece dealt with the displacement/expulsion of thousands of Arab residents of Lydda in July, 1948. As I wait for the book to be released, I am wondering what would have happened if an ancient Shavit assessed the story of Shimon, Levi, and Shekhem. Food for thought, or a bridge to far?


ImageShekhem is the black box of Abraham-ism. The truth is that Abraham-ism could not bear the Canaanite city of Shekhem. From the very beginning, there was a substantial contradiction between Abraham-ism and Shekhem. If Abraham-ism was to exist, Shekhem could not exist. If Shekhem was to exist, Abraham-ism could not exist. When Jacob arrived following his encounter with Esau, he should have seen that if a Hebrew state was to exist in Canaan, a Canaanite Shekhem could not exist at its center. He should have known that Shekhem was an obstacle blocking the road to a Hebrew state, and one day Abraham-ism would have to remove it.


ImageDo I wash my hands of Abraham-ism? Do I turn my back on the Hebrew national movement that carried out the destruction of Shekhem? No. Like Shimon, I am faced with something to immense to deal with. Like Levi, I see a reality I cannot contain. When one opens the black box, one understands that, whereas the massacre of the city could have been triggered by a misunderstanding brought about by a tragic chain of accidental events, the conquest of Shekhem and the annihilation of Shekhem’s population were no accident. Those events were a crucial phase of the Zionist revolution, and they laid the foundation for the Jewish state. Shekhem is an integral and essential part of the story. And, when I try to be honest about it, I see that the choice is stark: either reject Abraham-ism because of Shekhem or accept Abraham-ism along with Shekhem.

One thing is clear to me. Shimon and Levi were right to be angry with the critics of later years who condemned what they did in Shekhem but enjoyed the fruits of their deed. I will not damn the brothers. On the contrary. If need be, I’ll stand by the damned, because I know that if not for them, the State of Israel would not have been born. If not for them, I would not have been born. They did the filthy work that enables my people, my nation, my daughter, my sons, and me to live.

But, looking straight ahead at Shekhem, I wonder if peace is possible. Our side is clear: we had to come into Shekhem and we had to take Shekhem. There is no other home for us, and there was no other way. But the Shekhemites’ side is equally clear: they cannot forget Shekhem, and they cannot forgive us for Shekhem.


The Empowerment of Responsibility

We’re all a bit hungry right now (only 8 hours to go!), but, yesterday, most of us were not. Perhaps this is not a bad time to empathize with those who were. According to the most recent UJA-Federation report on the subject, over 200,000 Jewish households in the NY-Metro area live in or near poverty – that is over 560,000 people. What’s more, since 1991 the number of poor Jewish households has doubled. The trend does not look to be improving anytime soon. Jewish aid and social service agencies are struggling to stretch their resources, already strained by the 2008 recession and slow economy, to reach those who need relief so desperately, including, to a disturbingly large percentage, seniors, children, and immigrants – especially from the former Soviet Union.

With that context, I want you to consider the local news story of the summer. We read news reports of a major Jewish communal figure with a sterling reputation for integrity and honesty. A man respected across the Jewish and New York political worlds, leader of a world-class organization that provides food and critical services to over 100,000 people in our area. Apparently, this fellow was involved in financial misdealings, putting himself in position to get insurance kickbacks intended to shore up relations with the politicians upon whom he is so dependant for his budget. We were shocked at the news, and the ramifications for those in need may prove to be devastating.

A few people are allegedly guilty, and they are facing criminal prosecution.  However, as I reflected over the last month or so, I found myself thinking not of guilt, but of responsibility. Consider the choices before one man holding down the fort in the face of a growing crisis, a man who knows that life and death for thousands of people are literally in his hands, a man scrambling to do whatever it takes to ensure that he will have the support he needs to help the people depending on him, to travel in the sorts of circles that project the image and influence he felt he needed. He is, ultimately, responsible for the choices he made, but what does the context say about us and the world in which we live. What does it say about us, as Jews, as New Yorkers, to consider the very fact of a Jewish community where so many are so desperately needy. As a synagogue that is so engaged in reaching out to help those in need, what do we think about a world where the loss of one top-level leader to corruption creates such a gaping hole? What does it say about us as politically engaged New Yorkers or Americans to have been OK living with a system based on bribe-like campaign contributions, where the budgets of soup kitchens are determined by the number of leaflets a candidate can afford to print.

A critical moment of the Yom Kippur service that was performed in the Beit Hamikdash, which we will describe during mussaf, was the drawing of lots over two identical goats presented to the Kohen Gadol. One was chosen to go la-Hashem, towards God, and became the key sacrifice of the day, offered in the Kodesh Kodashim, the locus of God’s presence on earth. The other was chosen to go la-Azazel, to the cliffs. It became the scapegoat, upon which the Kohen confessed the sins of the entire Jewish nation. It was taken out to the desolate wilderness, where it was thrown off of a steep cliff.

There has been much said about how things in a previous time once seemed very clear, much more black and white. The sheriffs wore white hats and the outlaws wore black hats. We flew the Stars and Stripes, and they flew the hammer and sickle. One goat was la-Hashem, for God, the centerpiece of the most sacred service of the year, and the other was la-Azazel, the scapegoat sent off into the wilderness bearing the sins of a nation.

Yet we know that things are not necessarily that simple. The Ramban notes that, before the lots were drawn over the two goats, they were both placed “lifnei Hashem, before God.” This demonstrated God’s ultimate dominion over even what seems lawless and chaotic, even over what seemed even and sinful, even over Azazel. Rav Kook goes a step further, and explains that this teaches us that there is no evil without some good, and no good without the potential for evil. Each of the individual goats could just as easily have gone in either direction. Things are not necessarily black and white in our world. They are, more often than not, ambiguous, uncertain.

I think that we feel this more complicated uncertainty as we make our way through contemporary life, and I think that our culture reflects it as well. Not that I necessarily want to get into a detailed conversation about popular television on Yom Kippur, but we’ve come a long way since Rocky and Bullwinkle or Cowboy Westerns. It probably means something when today’s most discussed and watched shows (and I’m thinking of four in particular, two that no longer air on HBO and two that currently air on AMC) focus not on heroes, but on anti-heros. They resonate because they reinforce what we know from our own experience, that someone can be the hero of his own story and the villain of everyone else’s, and that it is possible to passionately root for and against someone, to identify with and be repulsed by someone, all at the same time. That there is sometimes honor among thieves, and that is also sometimes the only place to find any. That, but for the fall of the lots, the kohen gadol’s hand unknowingly moving this way as opposed to that way, the scapegoat heading off towards Azazel could have been the most sacred offering of the year, and vice versa.

It resonates because, we know, to our terror, that the same is often true for any of us as well. So often the line between right and wrong is very blurry. We make decisions that start chains of events and turn out differently – both positively and negatively – than we had hoped. We find ourselves in positions with pressures coming from places we did not expect, find ourselves doing things – again, positively or negatively – that we did not expect to be doing in response, things we did not even know we were capable of. Sometimes opportunities fall into our laps. Sometimes we face terrible, un-winnable choices.

Perhaps, then, after all of the intense introspection that we have been engaging in for this season of Teshuva, Yom Kippur is really teaching us to get over ourselves. Perhaps Yom Kippur is teaching us that the choices we make are not always the best indicators of who we really are, what we really want, what we really think. Instead, I’d like to propose that Yom Kippur is telling us that in order to truly find meaning in a world where the line for each of us between la-Hasham and la-Azazel is so tenuous, even almost random, we need to retrain our focus away from ourselves. We need to refocus outward, towards a sense of collective responsibility, towards an understanding that we can’t truly evaluate ourselves, or anyone else, in a vacuum. We need to understand that we are all reflections of the world in which we live – and also that we shape the world that everyone else lives in.

It is in this vein that Rav Aharon Lichtenstein has explained the meaning of the key blessing of Yom Kippur, where we acknowledge God as the Melekh mochel ve-sole’ach la-avonoteinu, ve-la-avonot ammo beit Yisrael – the King who forgives and pardons our sins, and the sins of his nation, the House of Israel. We are not just praying for ourselves, says Rav Aharon. We are praying for the entire Jewish people, for the collective. I would even take it a step further. We are not just praying for everyone’s sins to be forgiven, but we are actually accepting responsibility for those sins, for having played some part in the circumstances that led to them, in the culture that encouraged them. In the words of the liturgy, we do not ask forgiveness al chet shechatati, for the sin that I have committed, but, rather, al chet shetatanu, for the sin that we have committed. Or, in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, few are guilty, but all are responsible.

In this spirit, the Haftarah just read is a searing prophecy from Isaiah, that gets right at the root of what we should be thinking about today. God says,

Will such be the fast I will choose, a day of man’s afflicting his soul? Is it to bend his head like a fishhook and spread out sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast and an acceptable day to the Lord?”

Is this not the fast I will choose? To undo the fetters of wickedness, to untie the bands of perverseness, and to let out the oppressed free, and all perverseness you shall eliminate. Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and moaning poor you shall bring home; when you see a naked one, you shall clothe him, and from your flesh you shall not hide.

According to this prophecy, the success or failure of our fast-day, of our personal spiritual experience, really depends on the state of the society that we come together to form. We can bow our heads in prayer or spread out sackcloth alone, but we can only free the oppressed and right systemic injustice as a group, as part of an empathetic and caring society. Yom Kippur is an opportunity to think about the choices we make as a collective, the quote-unquote “system” that we tend to accept uncritically over the course of the year.

I opened with a very large issue. Here is a more direct, much more local suggestion. This Yom Kippur, don’t think about ways by which you can make yourself better. We all know how most New Years resolutions turn out. We also know that our resolutions this year are basically the same as last years, Instead, think about things you can do to make someone else better, consider the steps you can take to make the environment around you a better environment, reflect on ways to improve the lives of those that you touch.

The end of the Haftorah took a sharp turn, as Isaiah praises those who do not discuss business on Shabbat. At first glance, this might seem as though this has little to do with the first part of the Haftorah that we already discussed. What does conducting business on Shabbat have to do with the true meaning of a fast day? In fact, discussing business matters on Shabbat is not even prohibited according to the Torah – it is only prohibited by Rabbinic enactment. I’d like to propose the following. Discussing business is unique among Shabbat restrictions in that one cannot do it alone. You need two people to have a conversation. In other words, the most effective way to ensure the sanctity of your own Shabbat experience is to protect your neighbor’s experience. The surest way to help ourselves is to reach out to help others, to recognize that we are part of a collective, an amkha. We know from our tradition that the best way to ensure that our prayers are answered is to pray for a friend. What I am arguing is that Yom Kippur teaches us that this is not magic – it says something about how interconnected we really are. True, this forces us to accept some responsibility for the larger failings around us, but it also empowers us to make a profound impact, a large-scale impact, as we move forward.

On Rosh Hashana, we each get our individual moment alone before God, v’khol ba’ei olam ya’avrun lifanekha kivnei marom. On Yom Kippur, let’s blend together. As we share each other’s hunger and thirst, as we forgo physical comforts together, as we even wear the same basic white, let us recognize that, on a very basic level, we are all in this together.

It is also in this spirit that we begin the Yizkor Memorial Service. Part of our own teshuva, our reflection on the lives and world that we have built for ourselves, is recognizing the lingering presence of those who are no longer here but gave us so much, both physically and spiritually, that continues to shape who and what we are. We reflect upon their legacy to inspire ourselves to follow in their footsteps, to assume responsibility for the world they bequeathed to us, and to understand how powerfully even one person’s influence can reverberate for generations to come. As we, both collectively and as individuals, reflect on our loved ones no longer here with us, may we resolve to shape a better world for those who are, and, in doing so, may we all be signed and sealed in the Book of Life.

Please rise for the Yizkor service.

From Moriah To Syria: Tekiyah Ideals In A Teruah World — Rosh Hashanah Sermon

Rosh Hashanah
Great Neck Synagogue, 2013/5774

From Moriah To Syria: Tekiyah Ideals In A Teruah World

In many synagogues around the world today, a special prayer was added to the service. It was written by Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, head of the Yeshivat Hesder of Petach Tikvah and a leader of the Religious Zionist community in Israel. It addresses the ongoing horror unfolding in Syria and, in part, it reads:

שלח בנו גם את התבונה לדעת מה לעשות בשעה הקשה הזו, בו שוב מתגלה הצד האפל שביצרם הרע של בני אדם, ואין אנו יודעים מה מוטל עלינו מול מציאות מרה זו

Grant us the wisdom to know how to act in this hour of distress, when the dark face of humanity’s evil inclination is once again fully exposed and we are unsure how to stand against it.”

Many of you must be familiar with the story of the Rabbi who was mediating a dispute between two members of his community. The first litigant made his case, and the Rabbi nodded and said, “You are correct.” His opponent then put forth his counter-argument, and, again, the Rabbi responded, “You are correct.” The Rabbi’s assistant was confused. “Surely they both can’t be correct,” he wondered.” The Rabbi pointed towards him and said, “You are correct as well!”

In life, some decisions that we make are between different positive outcomes. Those are the best kinds of choices because we can’t be wrong – every option is, in the end, a correct option. Conversely, though, we sometimes face terrible choices, where every option is wrong, where we know that the outcome will be negative no matter which way we decide.

The news that has been coming out of Syria over the past 2 years, and in particular over the past 2 weeks, has been as riveting as it has been terrible, so tragic that we cannot even look away. It is hard to imagine that we, as a country, might decide to sit by and let the situation there play itself out after over 100,000 people have already died and after millions of lives have already been shattered, even though the future promises nothing more than more of the same. On a purely human level, many feel an urge to step in, to *do something,* whatever that might be, to alleviate the suffering happening there on such a massive scale. Yet we also are aware than many experts believe that involving ourselves in Syria might well threaten our own national interest.  Many experts believe that our involvement may create danger for our brethren in Israel. The images of Israelis lined up to purchase gas masks indicate that many of them agree. Indeed, action by the U.S. may not, ultimately, even help the very people that we want to help. So even as we feel a moral impulse to respond to the atrocities unfolding on the other sides of our television screens and our web browsers, our best course of action may be to do nothing.

So on this day that nation’s destinies are determined, eizo lacherev v’eizo lashalom – which for war and which for peace – our country’s fate may be accepting the implications and responsibility for our choice as innocent men, women, and children continue to die in numbers that, in the year 2013, 5774, should be unimaginable. It is truly a tragedy when, as Rabbi Cherlow put is, the evil that man is capable of is fully manifest and we do not even know how to stand against it.

As we take stock of our deeds and misdeeds, our actions and inactions, and when we consider the larger stage upon which the story of our lives plays itself out, this should give us reason to pause in introspection. What do we do when there are no good choices, when there is, seemingly, no way to bring about the positive outcome that we want?

Perhaps that is why the episode of Akeidat Yitzhak, the Binding of Isaac, occupies such a critical role in the symbolism and meaning of Rosh Hashanah, why we read the story from the Torah and then revisit it again and again in the liturgy. At its most basic, the Akeidah was the ultimate bad choice, it put everything that Abraham had ever hoped and dreamed for, everything he had worked so hard and sacrificed so for directly against God’s expressed will – and it forced him to choose one over the other. There was no good option. Whichever way Abraham chose, he lost.

Of course, at the critical moment, God stays Abraham’s hand. He tells Abraham not to harm Isaac, “ki ata yadati – for I now know – ki yirei Elokim ata, that you fear God, v’lo chasakhta et binkha, et yechidkha mimeni, and, to demonstrate that fear, you did not withhold your only son from Me.” That is the commonly accepted meaning of the verse. Indeed, according to Rabbi Soloveitchik, among many other commentators, both classic and modern, Abraham’s victory was in that he fully conquered both his internal desires and his moral understanding, that he had no guiding principle except the Will of God as it was revealed to him. Abraham did not know why sacrificing his son was the right thing to do, but, because God ordered him to do so, he never doubted it.

I believe that there is another way to read that key verse, with a message aimed at us, for the world that we face today. The phrase “ki ata yadati – for I now know” echoes an earlier verse, this one as God decides to inform Abraham before destroying the corrupted cities of Sodom and Gemorra. God asks Himself, as it were, “how can I not tell Abraham what I am planning to do?

ואברהם היה יהיה לגוי גדול, ועצום; ונברכו בו כול, גויי הארץ. כי ידעתיו, למען אשר יצווה את בניו ואת ביתו אחריו, ושמרו דרך יהוה, לעשות צדקה ומשפט

“Abraham shall surely become a great and powerful nations, through whom all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; ki yadativ – for I have known him, in order that he will command his children and his household after him to guard the way of the Lord, to do tzedakah u’mishpat, righteousness and justice.”

In other words, God did not elevate Abraham in the first place because of his loyalty. He did not choose him because he knew that he would unflinchingly, unquestioningly follow every order. Rather, God chose Abraham because of his finely calibrated moral compass, his finely honed sense of right and wrong, his ultimate fidelity to the principles of tzedakah u’mishpat, righteousness and justice. And, indeed, it is that independent sense of morality that prevents Abraham from quietly acquiescing to God’s verdict against Sodom and Gemorrah; he does not allow God to destroy them without justification. He asks, “HaShofet kol haaretz lo yaaseh mishpat – will the judge of the world not engage in justice?” Now, if justice was defined as the Will of the ultimate judge, Abraham’s argument would not make sense – God’s answer would be, simply, “yes, it is justice to destroy these cities, because I said so,” and Abraham would have no choice but to accept it. Instead, God responds to the challenge on Abraham’s terms.

Perhaps this is the deeper resonance of what God told Abraham on Mount Moriah following the Akeidah. Perhaps God was really saying to Abraham, “Ki Ata Yadati – for even now, following the ordeal I just put you through, I know that are STILL a yirei Elokim, that you still have a moral conscience, DESPITE the fact that you did not withhold your only son from Me.”

Perhaps the test of the Akeida was only partly whether Abraham would actually go through with it. After all, God had directly commanded it to him, and, let’s face it – there was not very much wiggle room. It’s not as though Abraham really could have said no. Perhaps, though, the test was just as much about whether Abraham would retain his sense of morality through the experience, whether his internal convictions about right and wrong would remain unscathed, even as they were tested in the most challenging of crucibles, even as he was forced to witness their ultimate violation. He passed the test, not just by listening to God – any robot could have done that, or any cult member, for that matter. He passed the test by continuing to think and feel like Abraham, for continuing to believe in his vision of a world based on tzedakah u’mishat, even after he was forced to make the ultimate bad decision, a decision that, no matter which way he went, would have been contrary to that vision in the most profoundly way imaginable.

According to this interpretation, the Akeida is truly teaching us not to give into a world that breeds cynicism and cold pragmatism. It challenges us to first develop, and then retain a set of ideals, a vision of what we would like the the world to be, should be, even when we know that the world as it is cannot possibly live up to that vision. It challenges us to cultivate a sense of who we really are, what we are capable of being, even as every decision that we make seems to move us farther and farther from our ideal selves.

There are those whose solution to this tension is to retreat into religious observance. They use the walls of the Beit Midrash and the Beit Knesset to shield themselves from the moral challenges of the wider world. They do not become aware of or get involved in the many human struggles, the issues around the world that so deeply challenge our vision of what the world is and how people should be. They assume, as Rabbi Soloveichik assumes Abraham assumed, that God is working out the larger issues, and all we have to do is worry about the next mitzva that is right in front of us. That is certainly a legitimate path through life, and it represents one understanding of Rosh Hashana. It says that, in an often cruel and uncertain world, God just wants us to worry about what we can control. We cannot solve bring peace to the Middle East, but we can make it to Mincha this evening, and we should do that.

According to my second interpretation, though, Rosh Hashana is about us facing that conflict head-on. Today is our chance to reflect on our larger sense of tzedaka umishpat, of right and wrong in the world, and what it means to us when the world is imperfect, when life is simply unfair, and unbelievably so. The challenge of the Akeida, for us, is to really articulate what our values are, who we think we really are, even if we only have the opportunity to recognize them in the breach.

I think that it is this second interpretation that  is at the root of the mitzvah of tekiyat shofar, the sounding of the shofar that we will soon be performing. We will blow 100 separate blasts, but there are only actually two sounds in the Torah’s repertoire, two sounds that are discussed explicitly in the pesukim – the Tekiyah, and the Teruah.

The Tekiyah, the unbroken, triumphant sound, evokes the pageantry of a  coronation. It represents an idealized world, where everything is right, everything is as it should be. At the foot of Mount Sinai, as God revealed Himself to the Israelites in all of His glory and things were as close to perfect as they ever were, they heard the sounds of a shofar, holekh v’chazek – whose sound was ever increasing, ever more powerful – a Tekiyah for the ages. The Tekiyah corresponds to the blessing of Malchiyot that we will say in the mussaf amidah, of God’s Kingship, which focuses on the ultimate defeat of all corruption and evil, and the ultimate realization of creation’s potential.

By contrast, the Teruah is a broken, staccato sound. It is what the army would sound on its way into battle, where nothing is ideal, where nothing is certain, where moral ambiguity and sheer survival take center stage. It also, not coincidentally, evokes the sound of sobbing, of crying. The Teruah represents the broken, violent reality in which most of the world actually lives, it represents our failure, as individuals, as a nation, as a planet, to live up to the ideals of the Tekiyah. It corresponds to the blessing of Zichronot, of Remembrance, which focuses on God’s honest accounting, on the unvarnished truth of what our lives are really like, what we’ve actually done.

Now, the third and final core blessing of the mussaf amida, the blessing of Shofarot, focuses on the significance of the Shofar itself. We will soon recite the blessing, “lishmo’ah kol shofar,” to hear the voice of the shofar. Some commentators note that the language of the blessing is very similar to the verse, “vayishm’u et kol Hashem Elokim mithalaekh ba-gan.. – and Adam and Eve heard the voice of God traversing the Garden of Eden, following their eating the forbidden fruit.” As you may recall, following the first sin, God does not first ask Adam “mah ‘asita – what did you do?” Instead, he asks him, “ayeka – where are you?”

In a few moments, when we hear the Tekiyah and Teruah together, I would suggest that they come together to ask each of us ayeka, where are we? Adam and Eve ran and hid after they sinned. They could not face the reality of their shortcomings. The sound of the shofar asks us to step forward and to both fully hear the Tekiyah and the Teruah, and to understand what they, together, represent. Our response to the question of ayeka, that moment of honesty and clarity, is really the beginning of Teshuvah as well. It begins by thinking about the Tekiyah version of ourselves – who we really think we should be. That vision, hopefully, will be what sustains us, what inspires us forward as we make our way forward this year with meaning and purpose through a Teruah world.

May this year be a year that comes closer to that Tekiyah ideal for ourselves and our loved ones, the Jewish people and the State of Israel, and greater humankind.

What Must a Jew Believe? Foundational Beliefs and Their Practical Implications, by Rabbi Michael Rosensweig

What Must a Jew Believe? Foundational Beliefs and Their Practical Implications, by Rabbi Michael Rosensweig

(Alan Brill-style bullet points.)

* Concept of obligatory emunah/required beliefs is an integral part of Yahadus.

* Rambam’s stature and prominence in Jewish Law, Jewish Thought, and the integration of the two is why that his list has been the default since formulation. Vast Rabbinic consensus is to embrace his 13 Principles.

* Fact that exceptions are always defined in opposition to the Rambam show that his list is the default. Even those disputants who do have more stature (halakhic relevance) to the point where we might say “eilu v’eilu” tend to argue on points, not on the list “wholesale.”

* According to the Rambam, category of tinok shenishba does not save a “nebech an apikorus” since entry into olam haba’ah is not part of sekhar v’onesh, but is “naturalistic” based on adoption of correct beliefs and perspectives. There are those who disagree and maintain that other aspects of love/service of God play a larger role. (Rambam himself does have certain flexibility when it comes to certain areas of practical halacha, such as zaken mamre, min, etc.)

* Having Ikarim does not mean that every word does NOT have intrinsic value. Different functions do not imply different value. Ikarim have a “linchpin function.” Rambam can point out Ikarei Emunah and then say not to stand for reading 10 commandements so as not to privilege them over the rest of the Torah.

* From Chazal on, everyone assumed there are mandatory Ikarei Emunah, up until Mendelssohn. Later thinkers extended his ideas to propose “dogmaless” Judaisms where only actions matter. Perhaps this can be seen in their desire to draw sharp distinctions to Christianity, where dogma is much more important than deed.

* Important of belief goes back to “emunah” being why  Abraham is chosen, why the nation of Israel is chosen by the Yam Suf (also extends idea to u’v’moshe avdo). Nevi’im critique empty shell of formalism. Strange that modernists go in that direction.

* Emunah translates into concrete mitzvot, which are expressions of the values and ideas of that Emunah. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch on ‘Anochi.

* Bahag does not count ‘Anochi as a mitzvah. Ramban explains that it would trivialize it. Rambam disagrees, because beliefs and actions are completely integrated.

* One doesn’t need to pasken in terms of parshanut, aggadah, broader hashkafic issues. We don’t necessarily accept Rambam when it comes to sheidim, philosophy, etc. The “linchpin issues” are of a different quality. Here, almost all of the Rishonim either endorse the Rambam, make more specific arguments, or remain quiet. The Rambam’s impact on halakhic issues having to do with ‘Ikari ‘Emunah and personal status (eidus, shechitah, etc.) reinforces that that his opinions are dominant and accepted.

* A Professor at a conference: Problem of “Orthodoxy” was first created by Rambam. He moderated this later in his book, but not much. (Shaprio? Kellner?) Yet Chazal contain many sources or references to the ‘Ikkarei ‘Emunah that the Rambam later expanded and systematized. Rambam’s methodology for ‘Ikarim is not fundamentally different than his methodology in deciding halakhah. He had a global view, integrating all the sources, and based on developing underlying principles.

The Inevitable Eikhah

I think that, in general, it is too easy to interpret sources locally, on the plane of personal, day-to-day behavior, when we should be using them to form larger structural critiques that are much harder to approach otherwise. Case in point is the triple-eikhah that looms over Shabbat Hazon and Tisha b’Av.

The word Eikhah generally translates into a “surprised How,” as in “How can it be?” or “How can this have happened?”

The first eikhah is Moses’, who exclaims that because the Israelites are so blessed and numerous (a good thing), “How can I alone bear your burdens, troubles and disputation?” To solve this (good) problem, he creates a structured, hierarchical judicial system. The second eikhah is Isaiah’s, who wonders, in reference to the corrupt judges and nobles of his time that are indifferent to the plight of the widow and orphan, “How has the trustworthy city become a harlot?” Finally, surveying the smoldering ruins of Jerusalem, Jeremiah laments, “How does the city of multitudes sit alone, having become like a widow?”

“Three prophesied with the expression eikahah: Moshe, Isaiah and Jeremiah. Moshe saw Israel in its glory and tranquility, Isaiah saw them in their impetuosity, Jeremiah saw them in their disgrace.” (Midrash Rabbah)

The key to the passage, I think, is Moses’ eikhah. It is easy enough to get from Isaiah to Jeremiah, but it is harder to get from Moses to Isaiah. One stream of interpretation has it that Moshe already recognized a litigious contentiousness in the people. Over time, that contentiousness and in-fighting matured into the gross miscarriages of justice that Isaiah denounced. This interpretation is palatable because it assigns a specific sin to the people who lived a long time ago, who, by their own shortcomings, destroyed what would have been an ideal system. We can rectify their mistakes, become less internally quarrelsome, and solve the problem. We can look at our own society and assume that we’re generally OK, even if we can stand to be a bit nicer to each other, and, once we achieve that, we win.

I am wondering if we shouldn’t take the Midrash at its word, assume that Moses only meant his eikhah in a positive way, that the people were not especially contentious, but that it still bore the seeds of future corruption and destruction. Perhaps the point is that creating any sort of social hierarchy, whether aristocracy, meritocracy, or any other, also sets into motion the processes that will inevitably lead to its collapse. Institutions stagnate as positions become entrenched. Future generations of leaders are not as skilled as their ancestors, even as social mobility slows to prevent necessary turnover. Institutions and social systems take on lives of their own and become ends in and of themselves, rather than a means to a higher purpose. In the end, the entire structure becomes rotten and collapses.

Seeing the progression as systematic rather than personal also allows us to understand Isaiah in a new light. Traditionally, we take him at face value and imagine an entire judiciary full of bribe-taking, widow-oppressing, justice-miscarrying malicious evil-doers. It is hard to imagine, if that were the case, that Isaiah would be the only person to find that problematic. Instead, Isaiah could be saying that the system is failing those who are most vulnerable despite most people’s *best* intentions because it is no longer a just system. The judges and notables might be wonderful people with only the best motives at heart, but they do not even realize that they are cogs in a machine that has already gone off its tracks, one that cares more about its own survival and interests than those it was created to serve.

Perhaps on Tisha b’Av we are really lamenting over more than a specific historical failure, a particular shortcoming we need to “work on” and rectify. Perhaps Tisha b’Av is a day to reflect on the tragically inevitable reality that meets all societies and institutions, the painful destruction that necessarily comes before rebirth and revitalization, and those innocent people who will always suffer as the story constantly and inexorably plays out in all generations.

On Founders and Failings

On July 4, 1936, President FDR visited Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s estate in Virginia. In his address to the nation from that place, he said, referring to the Founding Fathers, but in particular to Jefferson, “Their gods were not the gods of things as they were, but the gods of things as they ought to be.

FDR surely knew how Monticello embodied so much of Jefferson’s ideal vision for America. It was a place of agriculture, industry, and prosperity. It thrived with natural beauty. It was never complete, never complacent; indeed, it was always under construction, being expanded and enhanced until the last days of Jefferson’s life.

On the other hand, Monticello was built and maintained by slave labor. In that way, it illustrated, and was complicit, in the great moral failing of their times. Even as the Founders, and Jefferson in particular, spoke of the natural rights of all human beings, large portions of the country they established were built on the backs of human beings that they bought, sold, and owned. When we consider their legacy, when we visit Monticello, we see it in all of its troubling complexity. When we build on that legacy, we do not condone or mitigate their failings. Rather, with the lessons of the past we further their larger purpose. We imagine America not as it was, but as it ought to be.

This week, history began to judge the legacy of Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, who formally retired from Yeshiva University. Rabbi Lamm’s career as a visionary institutional head and revered public face of the American Jewish community spanned over 60 years of incredible growth achievement, often in the face of adversity. History will remember him as an intellectual giant, a philosopher-leader of our community, a prolific, profound and inspiring writer and orator, an effective and dedicated ambassador of the Jewish community to the world at large. In many ways, he was our Jefferson.

And yet, his legacy is marred by revelations of inappropriate, even criminal behavior, at Yeshiva’s High Schools during his tenure. As President, his response was tragically consistent with the times and insufficient. To his credit, he has not shied away from the criticism and has movingly apologized, though that provided little comfort to the victims. Rabbi Lamm’s legacy, in all if its fullness, challenges us to live up to its highest ideals, to shape vibrant Modern Orthodox communities and institutions, not as they were, but as they ought to be.

All this by way of illustration of a key passage in this morning’s parsha. Parshat Masei begins, Sefer Bamidbar concludes, with a listing of the Israelites’ itinerary through their forty years of wandering through the wilderness. Encoded in the 42 place-names are an account of the Israelites’ triumphs and tragedies, achievements and shortcomings, advances and retreats. At the end, it is the story of remarkable progress, of a nation of hopeless slaves transforming itself into a people who forged a covenant with God, who stood poised at the banks of the Jordan with its national destiny waiting on the other side.

However, the story ends incomplete, with the Israelites so close, but not yet at their destination. The ultimate message of this passage is that success is an ongoing process, never completed in any one generation. The river is crossed by those who come later and advance the story further, those who look back with perspective at the legacies of their predecessors in all of their complexity, and then forge ahead to achieve what ought to be.

The past few generations have seen a great resurgence of the American Jewish community and the miraculous growth of the State of Israel. This week we begin the period of the nine days, our annual time to contemplate the tragedies of our national past and the key failings and shortcomings that caused them. Some of them remain unrectified until today. As we reflect on where we’ve been, let us keep our focus, as individuals and as a community, on where we ought to be.

Sermon – Pinchas (Activism And Eikhah) past Monday, NYU Law School hosted an international conference dedicated to discussion of solutions to the plight of agunot, the women trapped in failed marriages by recalcitrant husbands who abuse their legal position and withhold gittin, often for the purposes of extortion or even fot the sheer maliciousness.

Participants included judges, rabbis, politicians, advocates, and activists from all across the spectrum – from Tzipi Livni to Alan Dershowitz to Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, and everyone in between. If you missed the coverage in the Jewish media – and it was extensive – you have your homework for the rest of the weekend. It is not often that our wider Jewish community comes together, across political and even denominational lines to discuss an overarching matter of concern, and, when that happens, it deserves our attention and response.

To me, one of the most striking aspects of the all-day conference is that almost nothing was new. The discussions were important in terms of negotiating communal support, raising morale, and bringing together different people who are leaders in different parts of the issue, but the strong sense was that everything that can be said has already been said. The “solutions” to the issue, whether halakhic, social, or legal, have already been proposed and debated. The only question, the point of the conference, was whether the community is collectively ready to act on them – who would take the lead, in what form, and who would lend the critical support?

This morning, we read the story of the B’not Tzlaphchad, the five women who petitioned Moshe for their late father’s share in the land of Israel. They did not want to see their family name literally wiped off of the map because of the technicality, that their father died without a son to inherit his estate. Moshe brings their question to God, who rules in their favor – the five daughters are to inherit their father’s portion in the land.

The Midrash offers a remarkable reading of this story. The way the story is written in the Torah, it sounds like the question the daughters asked Moshe was new, unanticipated, which is why he had to ask God, who came back with a new ruling. According to the Midrash, though, Moshe had been taught the law for this situation – but he had forgotten it in the moment. God was not telling him anything new, but was reminding him of what he should have known to respond from the beginning.

In other words, the Midrash is saying that the injustice that the daughters felt had already been addressed by the system as it was conceived, but two things had to happen to bring that built-in solution to the fore. The daughters had to take the initiative, and confront what they felt was unfair. They might well have simply, unhappily, accepted the law as they understood it, and learned to accept the loss of their family’s share in the land of Israel. It took a measure of moral certainty to stand before Moshe and say, essentially, “The law, as we know it, is not on our side, but shouldn’t it be?” Moshe could easily have responded to them that, as far as he knew, they had no recourse, there was no legal option available to them. It took humility and courage on Moshe’s part as well, humility to realize that, morally, the daughters of Tzlaphchad were correct, and the courage to turn to God Himself to see if there was anything that could be done. And, amazingly, it turned out that the answer he was looking for was there the entire time.

We are beginning the period of the Three Weeks, a time of reflection on churban, of national tragedy, of failure that culminates with Jeremiah’s lamenting cry of “Eikhah – why did this happen, how could this have happened?” Over the next several weeks, we apply that question both to our national failings, and also to our individual and communal failings. Eikhah – why have we fallen short of our expectations for ourselves, and why have things degenerated to where they are – in other words, where are the churbanot in our own worlds?

At the same time, this period begins, not with the question of Eikhah, with the question of the daughters of Tzlaphchad, “Lama yigara – why should our father lose his legacy for no reason?.” Theirs is a question not of lamenting past failure, but of looking for a better future. Their question challenges the status quo, and challenges us as well. Like the famous Robert Kennedy quotation, it is one thing to look at the world as it is, with its failings and shortcomings, and ask why – Eikhah. We need to also be looking at what is not yet, and asking, “Why not – lama yigara.” When we look at our own lives like the daughters of Tzlaphchad, we will likely find, like Moshe, that the answers we are looking for are not only accessible, but have been there the whole time, just waiting for us to ask the right question.

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