Thursday, July 29, 2010

Eikev: Field Trip

Once again, the controversy surrounding “Who Is A Jew” has raised its ugly head and elicited the ususal noise about splitting Jewry as it always has done. This at the same time that the legitimacy of the Jewish state is under a renewed a reinvigorated attack in the wake of the terrorist-supported and –supporting flotilli to Gaza.

“…lest the beast of the field multiply upon you” appears twice in Chumash, once in this week’s parsha [7:22] and in Parshas Mishpatim [Shemos 23:29]. There are many different explanations, some spiritual [Rashi here: only if we sin will we be subject to animal attacks], some almost environmental [Rashi there: you don’t have enough people to fill up the land and it will remain desolate].

Historically, there has been the choice of “having a state without all the land” or “having all the land without the state”; the obvious and unfortunately conscious choice made in 1948 was the former. While there may have been viable chances to actually effect the Jewish state’s rule over all of Yesha after 1967, for some reasons—likely mostly prudent ones—this was never done.

Meanwhile, several demographic issues arose. The first is the possible demographic “time bomb” that will ostensibly force Israel to choose between being a democracy and a herrenvolk state—o verblown, to be sure, and certainly less shayach since the departure from Gaza, but still definitely an issue to some extent. The second involved the myriads of Russian and other immigrants who were not halachically Jewish. This compounded what might have been once a smaller problem of PR when the state was dealing with just a few people who had “questionable” conversions. The controversy has also led to renewed calls for either the abolishment of the rabbinate, separation of “shul” and state, or both.

One might say that—without drawing absolutely clear analogies –that the “chayas hasadeh” could be anyone; could be us as much as anyone else. [Lest anyone think I am trying to be perjorative, check out the analogy to “chayos hasadeh” in Shemos 1:19 and Rashi ad loc. Different context, to be certain, but obviously I’m not the first.] And, bearing the predicate clauses to each of the aforementioned “chayas hasadeh” pesukim—“You cannot conquer them too fast” here in Eikev and “Lest the land become desolate” in Mishpatim—and, re-examining the history of the State—there are loose parallels, but parallels just the same, with the historical progression.

What should we be prepared for? A herrenvolk Jewish state? A bi-national state [which will esseitally be a Muslim-run state?] A democracy that will allow for a possible Jewish minority as long as the Arab and/or Muslim population isn’t the majority? A new definition of Israeli citizenship?

As oblique as any of this is, the only way to be optimistic about all this is to quote the “Gaon” [probably R’Hai or R’ Saadia] as brought down by Ibn Ezra [who disagrees with said “Gaon”, but no matter], who says that this statement—“pen tirbeh alecha”/”lest [they] multiply—indicates the “one day they will be victorious”. Obviously he means bnei yisrael will be victorious; but how? Over whom? When?

It might be that all that matters is that, ultimately, the right side will win.


Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Vaetchanan/Nachamu: Consolation Prizes

It’s possible that Moshe Rabbeinu receives the ultimate consolation prize at the beginning of this weeks’ parsha.

According to Rashi in Vezos haBracha [34:1-3] , Moshe was zocheh to see all the way into the future, in addition to being granted the ability to see the entire Land from his mountaintop vantage point.

An analogous type of consolotation prize was offered around the time of shabbas nachamu in days past. I refer to the original “singles scene”, the dance of the women in white referred to in the last mishnah in Taanis and the Gemara at the end of the masechta [also appearing in Baba Basra], where everybody borrow each other’s clothing---which was all the same color. This may qualify as an early example of affirmative action in dating…

…because as the Gemara illustrates in great detail, the women proceeded to shatter whatever ceiling—glass or otherwise—was supposed to level the playing field. “The attractive ones: ‘A woman is aught but for beauty’…the meyuchasin: ‘A woman is aught but for children’…the ugly ones [or however one defines “mechuaros”, which, in no case, is a flattering description]: ‘Charm is false and beauty is a lie’”…

[Even the Gemara Kesuvos 17b which takes issue with lying about a kalah na’ah vehchasuda who isn’t so na’ah vechasuda takes issue with this AT THE WEDDING, but concludes there are salient reasons to lie at the wedding--but not before. Someone better be telling the truth.]

So we see, that, like the Upper West Side or the characterization thereof, there was always the possibility of “something better”—and it seems that the gemara was encouraging this attitude to a point [if not simply confusing the guys who were watching, which may have been another possibility].

What would this all mean for us singles and our scenes? Dating is messy. Always was. It seems as if, even within rather draconian Talmudically promulgated strictures of tsnius, there was ample leeway given to a] as a friends grandmother put it, “let go and let G-d”: the prospective can be trusted to handle things on their own and b] levels of attractiveness are a fact of life, as are the use of selling points that don’t involve out and out lying.

Too often the “shidduch system” set up to prevent unnecessary emotional obscuring of the “true goal” [e.g. that everyone must operate on the level of “Sheker ha-chen ve’evel hayofi”] loses sight of itself to the point that shadchanim can say things like “Bums need to get married too” or “You didn’t ask the right questions”. But R’ Chananya Wasserman has dealt with that at length. More to the point here, as I’ve described in previous posts about the subject, most of the time we can do a better job by ourselves.

Even if it means we wait to marry, even if it means we might not be “100% shomer” [gasp!] 100% of the time, even if it leads to the occasional ruffled feathers, even if we are trying to avoid “consolation prizes” and are looking for “the next best thing”.

The West Side is just fine.

Friday, July 16, 2010


Parshos Maasei and Devarim both sport travelogues, of a sort.

Maasei details a stop-by-stop geographic itinerary from the very beginning of yitzias mitzrayim nall the way to the last stop—Abel Shittim in Moav. Rashi counts 42 stops in all, 28 of them in the 38 years of the gezeras meraglim, to explain that the portrayal of Hash-m’s kindness is the purpose if the travelogue and the raison d’etre of the Parsha, if not its name.

Contrast that with the quasi-travelogue detailed at the beginning of Devarim, where the Torah introduces Moshe Rabbeinu’s sefer-long mussar schmooze as an 9-stop shiur, naming places that Rashi points out didn’t even exist under the names delineated. Rather, they were euphemistic references to the commission of a certain monumental communal sin and/or its place of commission [e.g., “Di Zahav”, a nonexistent locale that refers to the chet ha-egel.]

Further highlighting the seeming contrast between the midas ha-rachamim Maasei travelog and the Midas HaDin Devarim travelog is what follows in each parsha: Maasei is a lot more positive, dealing with most of the laws that involve the bordering and governance of Eretz Yisrael; Devarim starts off dealing with why Bnei Yisrael were so delayed in getting there in the first place [see the retelling of the chet hameraglim in 1:22-2:16].

In a sense, one can view the difference in delivery styles: Maasei is G-d’s travelogue, Devarim is Moshe’s. And, theoretically, Sefer Bamidbar [and parshas Maasei] ends with what might be the ultimate inverse of the chet hameraglim: the desire of the benos tzelphcahd for their share in Eretz Yisrael; Sefer Devarim theoretically ends with either a] Moshe telling Bnei Yisrael that “Youre gonna mess up big time” at the end of Parshas Vayeilech, b] Hashem’s rather bloody revenge at the end of the Ha’azinu shira, or c] Moshe’s petira [and Rashi’s reference to “le’enei kol yisrael” as indicative of Moshe’s breaking of the luchos]. All in all—the Maasei travelog is a lot more positive than the Devarim travelog.

I would suggest that the approaches might stem simply from the very names of the sefarim, albeit in an almost counterintuituve manner. Much has been said about the dor hamidbar, specifically in this case how they were able to do [almost] nothing but learn for almost 40 years in the desert where the Eibishter really did provide. Everything. Hence, Bamidbar.

Devarim is a reality check of sorts, as the entrance in the land is about to commence and the direct provenance is about to come to an end. Moshe starts off the proceeding by saying, in effect, you guys has it so arguably easy for all this time, and see what kind of mistakes you made; what’s going to happen when you are not only responsible for a] your own provenance but b] each others behavior [becoming “arevin zeh lazeh” with the crossing of the Yarden? Boy, are you in trouble.

I would also suggest that the undercurrent of the Devarim versus Bamidbar approach is that life is a lot more like Devarim than Bamidbar, for two specific reasons. One, that real spiritual growth and challenge is less dependent on a 100% “Eibishter-will-provide” lifestyle [draw your own conclusions; and two, that despite appearances, it isn’t necessarily the better of the two; hence Moshe’s admonition of how things weren’t necessarily so great when they ostensibly were so good.

These are the best of times.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Matos/Maasei: Proportional Responses

Last week I discussed a possible perspective on left-leaning Jews and Jewish organizations [counting Neturei Karta as “leftist”] who were ostensibly hostile to Jewish and Israeli concerns, and expressed their hostility as a genuine “Jewish” response to the issues, on their terms.

Is there such a thing as a “right-wing”response that would be equivalently deserving of opprobrium?

In nine of every ten cases, no. The major difference between left-wing and right wing “zealotry” is that, at least bi’techila, right-wing zealotry is about protecting Jews; left-wing zealotry is about protecting an idea of universalism while trying to force it into a perceived Jewish framework.

[However, the recent revelation that two Rabbanim from Yeshivas Od Yosef Chai have published a sefer extolling the virtues of killing non-Jewish children because they are potential rodfim indicates, at the very least, that there are some discussions that are not to be had outside the bes medrash, and that the right wing sometimes has a habit of squandering its ostensible monopoly on common sense and ability to handle the truth. Chachamim hizaharu be’divreichem, indeed.]

We learn in Matos that military revenge responses—even if they result in the death of civilians [as the women who seduced the Jews to Peor were, in a religious sense, knowing what the direct consequence would be]—are not necessarily out of bounds, and neither is despoiliation. No, selecting women and children nowadays would not be a legitimate response. [This means you, Rabbis Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur.] But it was then; G-d was not about to force the Jews to abide by different rules of engagement than the enemy had [which, in the case of Avel Shittim, was tantamount to a form of enemy combatants out of uniform engaging in a religious terrorism. Again, unique to the time.]

There are, in classical Jewish history, probably four instances where an overly “Right” responses hurt more than it helped: the Ma’apilim, Yoshiyahu, the biryonim/zealots, and Bar Kochba.

The Ma’apilim were a reflexive, too-little-too-late reaction to the gezera following the chet hameraglim. Despite the manifestation of Divine presence even in this case—cf. Rashi on Devarim 1:44 “ka’asher ta’asena ha’devorim”—they smote you like bees, dying when they touched you—the ensuing rebellion of Korach and resulting plague from the accusation that “You have slaughtered the nation of G-d” [Bamidbar 17:6] was likely indicative of this "spiritual moment"’s staying power.

Yoshiyahu’s insistence of showing strength by not allowing passage to Pharaoh Necho despite is the first instance of what might have been, in a moment of spiritual hubris, an overly aggressive response from a religious perspective. As the gemara in Taanis 22 details, Pharaoh Necho had no designs on Israel, but Yoshiyahu thought he had been more successful at rooting out idolatry than he had really been. Yoshiyahu paid for the miscalculation with his life, which was tragic enough; but as we will see, there were graver miscalculations.

The biryonim--as detailed on what one might call the “Tisha B’Av” gemara in Gitin—actually may have been directly responsible for the starvation in the Jerusalem under siege from Vespasian and Titus, as they burnt all the extra stores of food to force the populace not to entertain any notions of a “peace process”. We all know what resulted. Even their leader—Abba Sikra—wanted to “defect” [and did, in a way, by helping sneak out Rabbi Yochanan], but as he said, he was in fear for his life from his own minions.

Finally, there’s Bar Kochba, who was charismatic and initially successful enough that Rabbi Akiva thought he was Mashiach. However, his spiritual makeup was probably not what the Tanna thought it was; his catchphrase klapei maa’la was believed to be “Don’t help me, don’t get in my way”. [Again, the times were definitely different, so any comparison to ostensibly similar attitudes among those responsible for protecting Jews nowadays would be a stretch, to say the least.]

[I would venture that Shapira and Elitzur’s responsa places them somewhere in between bar Kochba and the biryonim.]

The point is that its not WAR that isn’t the Jewish response. There is something in between Rav Aryeh Kaplan’s [misunderstood] notion that Judaism is essentially pacifist {from an essay in his “Encounters”] and Rav Shach’s assertion that “Wars are good…”. [Not to mention, again, Rabbis Shapira and Elitzur.] There also are—within limits—definite doctrines of just pre-emption and reprisal, even when civilians die. Its knowing the tenor of the time and the populace… and making sure we WIN.