Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Parshat Mishpatim - A Balanced Perspective

In this week’s Parsha, after the awesome moment in history when God reveals Himself through the giving of the Torah, the laws of the Torah are delineated, to be the cornerstone of a just society. These laws would not only guide the Jewish nation but also be a beacon of morality to the rest of the world.

Among the societal laws such as open pits in the public thoroughfare, bodily damages, and bearing false witness, we are told of another: “If you see the donkey of someone you hate crouching under its burden, would you refrain from helping him? You shall help repeatedly with him” (Shemot 23:5).

Who is this “someone you hate”? Surely it is forbidden to hate a fellow Jew! Rather, Chazal in Pesachim (113b) explain that this refers to someone who it is in fact permitted (even obligated) to hate, meaning someone who sins consistently, despite protestations and warnings, and is no longer considered part of the Jewish people. Yet even so, the Torah demands that we help him with his animal’s burden. Why? Is this not still considered showing love for a wicked person, by lending a helping hand?

I would like to suggest a reason for why this is so.

The Gemara in Bava Metzia (32b), in discussing whether the prohibition of צער בעלי חיים  (causing pain to animals) is Biblical or Rabbinic in origin, cites our verse as the source that it is from the Torah (and so rules the majority of the Rishonim). From here we see that despite the fact that the owner is wicked and is not considered part of the nation, nonetheless we still help with the burden. For although it may be a mitzvah to hate this wilful sinner, it is not a mitzvah to cause pain to the animal – it is prohibited.

We can learn a tremendous lesson from this: the importance of compartmentalization, and understanding where and when to apply our principles. Though it is a mitzvah to despise this particular person, that mitzvah is not a carte blanche allowance to ignore the pain of the animal. Principles should not lead to “tunnel vision” whereby one does not take heed of other issues as well. If certain principles override other aspects of civility, it is a reflection of the quality (or lack-thereof) of that principle within us. I recall hearing from the Rosh Yeshiva Rav Yechiel Perr Shlit”a in the name of the Vilna Gaon, that in order to determine if one's actions are in fact good, he must examine the after-effects. This, explains the Gaon, is the meaning of the Mishna in Avot (4:2): מצוה גוררת מצוה – one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah. If the consequence of one’s “mitzvah” is negative, it is usually a sign it is not the right path. And if the fruits of one’s actions are clearly positive, one may rest assured knowing it was indeed a mitzvah. So too here, when the person is applying the principle of hating this wicked man, he must apply it with a wide scope, utilizing heavy doses of שיקול הדעת and a keen eye for the possible repercussions. With that eye he can determine if it is in fact a mitzvah to demonstrate hate at that time, or not.

The ability to apply a principle appropriately can only come when one has clarity of perspective, takes in the whole of the scenario and is able to correctly prioritize competing values. He must be able to approach each case in a nuanced way. Thus, when one is faced with “someone you hate,” rather than be a proverbial bull in a china shop and rigidly push away any thought of helping, or not even stop to notice the animal’s pain, one must leave open a space in his mind and heart to notice the suffering of the animal as well. For he should know intuitively that his “mitzvah” cannot come at the expense of the animal.

This explanation could perhaps illuminate another part of the Parsha. After the law of relieving the burden of your enemy’s animal, the very next verse is a call to Judges: “You shall not pervert the judgement of your destitute person in his dispute” (ibid. 6). The Sforno explains: “You [the Judge] shall not be soft with this one, and difficult with this one during the court proceedings when each side presents their cases.” Why not? Is this person not destitute? Perhaps ruling against the poor man may be devastating for him financially! Furthermore, perhaps the other side is rich! Can he not spare a few dollars to help this poor man? The Mechilta (ibid.) even says that this verse refers a situation to where one litigant is wicked and the other is righteous. Would it not be appropriate to rule in favor of the righteous individual? Renowned economist Thomas Sowell calls this attitude of intervention and consideration of these elements “The Quest for Cosmic Justice.” Is this not justice? Isn’t this what G-d would want? No! The Torah calls this way of thinking a perversion of justice. By taking these foreign factors into account when rendering the Halacha, the Judge is perverting the system of law. Nothing other than the facts of the case, regardless of the economic or social status of the baalei dinim, may be taken into account.

The ability to judge each person equally can only come when the judge has fashioned his mind and שכל to not allow outside factors to cloud his judgment, and instead is able to ignore and compartmentalize the “other” factors. Whether one side is destitute, a widower, or an orphan, this skill will allow him to filter out or properly weigh the factors that are needed to render a דין אמת.

Both of these instances – one who helps the burden of an animal, by ignoring his hate for the owner, and a judge who rules against the poor man, by ignoring his social status – result in a fair, just and kind society that is in tune with the needs of the people, yet at the same time creates the environment and enforcement of an equal system for justice.

This is the result of God-centered society: fairness, sensitivity for all of G-d’s creatures, and a proper application of morals and values. May we merit to implement these ideas and see this in our own society.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Parshat Yitro - Enduring Inspiration

In this week’s parsha, the Jews, as G-d’s chosen people, are officially established as a fearsome force among the nations. After decimating Egypt and defeating Amalek, they begin their journey through the desert. The Torah tells us of Yitro, the father-in-law of Moshe: “And Yitro, Priest of Midian, Moshe's father-in-law, heard about all that Hashem had done for Moshe and for His people Israel, when Hashem brought Israel out of Egypt” (Shemot 18:1). “Yitro came to Moshe with his sons and wife, to the Wilderness where he was encamped, by the Mountain of G-d” (ibid. 5).

Interestingly, the Torah finds it necessary to inform us that the Jews were encamped in the wilderness; don’t we already know? Rashi, of course, notes this and quotes the Mechilta which explains: "We, too, know that they were in the wilderness [is this not obvious?] Rather, in the praise of Yitro does Scripture speak: for he [Yitro] was living amidst worldwide honor, yet his heart inspired him to go out into the wilderness, a desolate place (מקום תהו), for the purpose of hearing words of Torah.”

Yitro, as Rashi explains, was overcome with so much emotion from hearing all the miracles that Hashem performed for the Nation, that although he was one of the most respected members of the world, he abandoned his life of luxury to go to a place of desolation, a “מקום תהו”. To get an image of the concept of “tohu,” we find in Bereishit that the same term is used to explain what the world was like before creation: “תוהו ובהו” – “unformed and desolate.” From this we see the extent to which the word can connote literally nothing, and yet still Yitro was willing to go there to hear words of Torah. This was the power of his inspiration; it allowed him to look past the impediments of the desert. It drove him out of a life of security and comfort to join the Jewish people in the wilderness, a place fraught with danger and discomfort. All this to become a part of Hashem’s chosen Nation.

However, further on in the parsha we are struck with a tremendous difficulty. When Yitro reaches the encampment of the Nation, Moshe comes to greet him. Moshe begins to tell him of all the miracles that Hashem performed for Klal Yisrael. Again Rashi (ibid. 8) quotes the Mechilta to explain why Moshe felt it important relate this to Yitro, as we already know that Yitro had heard of the miracles G-d did in Egypt for the nation (that is what brought him there). Moshe intended not to inform Yitro, but rather: “In order to draw his [Yitro’s] heart to bring him closer to the Torah.”

Why must Moshe draw him closer to Torah? We were just told that Yitro gave up everything he had and came to the Midbar to learn Torah and join the ranks of the Jewish people! What is Moshe trying to accomplish here?

The Mechilta describes the emotion which overcame Yitro as “ונדבו לבו – Inspiration of the Heart.” As we saw earlier, this inspiration was so powerful that it caused Yitro to change his entire life. To sacrifice wealth, honor and comfort in order to become part of the Jewish people. Clearly this was an overwhelming feeling. However, we are all familiar with the notion that even the strongest emotions can dissipate over time, and once the emotion is lost, we can be found bereft of motivation and direction.

Moshe understood this, and in “bringing Yitro’s heart closer to Torah” once again by discussing the miracles, he wanted to teach Yitro the importance of capitalizing on his feelings of inspiration, by thrusting them into something concrete. As is known, Yitro was coming from a lifestyle of Avodah Zarah and according to the Mechilta (ibid. 11), he had practiced every religion known to man; he moved from one form of worship to the next, never finding lasting satisfaction. He may have experienced exultation and intense inspiration, but once it dissipated, Yitro moved on to the next religion in search of lasting and fulfilling devotion. This is perhaps what brought him to the recognition of G-d. However, Moshe knew that the intense feelings Yitro experienced when finally finding Judaism were not enough, thus necessitating drawing him closer to Torah.

Judaism does not profess to be a “feel-good” religion and it does not claim to offer consistent ecstasy and ascendant euphoria. If one commits, thinking that he will feel constant elation, he may be sorely disappointed. Rather, he will find within it a perfect blend of dedication of mind and heart, a structure built for the ups and downs of everyday life. A commitment to Torah must be independent; it is obligatory even when we lose our original inspiration. Perhaps this is the explanation of the Mechilta: “In order to draw his heart to bring him closer to the Torah.” Not just the heart, but the person himself, so at that inevitable time when the initial inspiration leaves, the true whole person, with his commitment to Torah, will remain. By bringing Yitro closer, Moshe was ensuring that he would continue his upward progress and dedication to Hashem's Torah.

According to this explanation, we can now understand another difficulty: After Moshe retells of all the miracles in Egypt, the Midrash says that Yitro responded: “I was aware of Him in the past but, now, all the more so.” The question is: why now? Didn't Yitro come out to the wilderness with the recognition of Hashem already in mind? In light of what we have said above, while it is true that Yitro already came to the desert with belief in Hashem, his belief was rooted in that initial “fleeting” emotion. Although this inspired him to change his whole life around, it would not be enough to carry him through the long journey ahead. Now that Yitro has firmly established his belief, he can say that he is honestly “more aware of Hashem.”

This idea fits beautifully with an explanation I heard from HaRav Yecheskel Weinfeld Shlit”a of Jerusalem. As Moshe says “all that Hashem had done for them,” he also recounts “all the troubles that had befallen them until now – and that Hashem had refused them” (ibid. 9). Why does Moshe offer this as well? What is he trying to accomplish? Rav Weinfeld explains that Moshe did this in order to fulfill the injunction in Halacha to dissuade the Gentile from converting. The Gemara (Yevamot 47a-b) says, “Our Rabbis taught: If a [prospective] convert comes to convert nowadays, we say to him/her: ‘Why do you desire to convert? Do you not know that Israel at the present time is persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed and overcome by afflictions?’” Thus, by telling Yitro of the troubles that the Nation travailed, Moshe was testing his commitment to G-d, to ingrain in him that even when things will become difficult he is prepared to remain.

We see from Yitro the importance of taking our moments of inspiration and making them into a concrete reality in our lives. Motivation towards full belief in G-d may begin as a feeling, but unless one builds upon it to come to a consistent plateau, it will not carry him through life. Only once he does this essential work can he proclaim a deep and real belief in Hashem and His Torah.

Shabbat Shalom

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Parshat Beshalach - Journeying Forth

This week's parsha brings us to the release of the Jewish people from the bonds of servitude, finally free to serve their G-d. After hurrying to leave Egypt, the nation is pursued by Pharaoh and his army who are bent on bringing them back; they are virtually trapped, with the Egyptians behind them and the sea blocking them in front. The nation panics, crying out to Hashem to save them.

Moshe, hearing the people's fear, gives them words of encouragement saying: “Do not fear! Stand fast and see the salvation of Hashem that He will perform for you today…Hashem shall make war for you, and you shall remain silent.” (14:13-14)

Now Hashem speaks to Moshe saying, “Why do you cry out to Me? Speak to the people and let them journey forth!” (ibid. 15) Rashi comments that we see from G-d’s response that Moshe was praying to G-d. G-d criticizes Moshe for praying for help, as now was not the time for lengthy prayers, when the people are in peril.

The commentators ask: Why is G-d upset with Moshe’s praying for salvation? Is that not the most natural and proper response one should have when one finds himself in danger? There is a famous dispute between the Rambam and the Ramban (ספר המצוות - מצוה ה׳) regarding the obligatory nature of prayer; whether the daily obligation is a Torah injunction or a Rabbinic one. The Ramban (who in fact asked the above question) is of the opinion that although daily tefillah is Rabbinic, it is a Torah obligation when one is בשעת צרה – in a state of distress. So seemingly, according to this opinion, it is not just the natural response to a calamity, but a Torah obligation!

Furthermore, the words of encouragement that of Moshe offers are seemingly circumspect. Moshe is assuaging their doubts in G-d, for the nation cried out complaining, “Were there no graves in Egypt that you took us to die in the wilderness? What is this that you have done to us to take us out of Egypt?” (ibid. 12) While the nation is clearly showing their fears, they are expressing thoughts and ideas which border on heresy! They are accusing Hashem of taking them out to kill them in the wilderness – the same G-d Who just smote the Egyptians with devastating plagues is now sadistically planning to destroy them for no reason?! Clearly their situation is very grave, and Moshe, having heard this, would have been quite right to pray on their behalf! So again, why is G-d upset with Moshe's prayer?

The Sforno gives an interesting explanation which shows the connection between Moshe’s encouragement of the people and his praying to Hashem. The Sforno tells us that Moshe prayed and cried out to G-d, not in fear of the impending army of Pharaoh, but rather due to witnessing a lack of faith in the people. After hearing them express their fears, Moshe thought the people would not trust in G-d’s salvation. He was concerned that they would not obey the command to enter into the Sea. In regards to this did G-d reply to Moshe saying: “Why do you cry out to me! Do not falsely accuse this nation! Do not lose faith in them! Tell them to journey forth, and you will see that they will listen!” G-d, the Sforno explains, was not pleased with Moshe having doubted the Jewish people – that even though they expressed such extreme fears, Moshe should have believed in the nation that they would obey the command, a demonstration of their ultimate trust in G-d.

There is much to be gleaned from this Sforno, but what is most powerful for me is the message that Hashem is sending us: life is not static, we can find ourselves fluctuating between feelings of confidence, and those of stagnation and uncertainty. We can even begin to doubt ourselves and our commitments. Yet we must remain steadfast in the constant belief and knowledge that we are capable of anything – but not because we believe in ourselves, rather because G-d Himself believes in us! Despite what doubts we have expressed and difficulties we have encountered, we are still always beloved to Him. Even at the darkest of moments when we may have given up and unfortunately resorted to lashing out at G-d, He has not given up on us. For He knows that when given the chance, we will rise to the occasion and “Journey forth.”

This is a powerful and inspiring message for anyone, be they a teacher, a student, a parent, a child, or a spouse. We can never lose hope or give up on ourselves or anyone else, because Hashem Himself does not allow it. This message should strengthen us in our weaker moments, and shine for us in our strongest moments, for we are capable of anything.

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Parshat Bo - Now is the Time

In this week’s Parsha, G-d prepares for the final three plagues against Egypt which will pave the way for the redemption of the Jewish People. These will be the final blows to knockout to Egypt. The country is currently in desolation after having been struck in some of the most devastating ways. At this crucial moment, Hashem tells Moshe that He is bringing these plagues upon the Egyptians “so that I can put these signs of Mine in his midst; and so that you may relate in the ears of your son and your son’s son that I made a mockery of Egypt…that you may know that I am Hashem” (10:1-2). G-d commands us to relate the story of the plagues and His domination over Egypt, because in seeing the power of the plagues, we will have a greater recognition of Hashem.

However, one could ask: Why now? Still three more plagues have yet to come, yet the Torah is now telling us of the obligation to recount the plagues. Wouldn’t it make more sense to tell us of this obligation after all the plagues have finished? It seems logical that at the conclusion of the plagues, we would have a clearer perspective of Hashem's Power, which would then result in a greater recounting of the story of redemption. Yet we are told to pass on the miracles to the next generation in the middle of the story! Why?

The Gemara in Yevamot (79a) says:
שלשה סימנים יש באומה זו, הרחמנים והביישנין וגומלי חסדים
There are three attributes to this [Jewish] nation: Mercy, Modesty, and Charitable

It’s in our nation's D.N.A is to be merciful. While mercy can be a praiseworthy quality, it can act as a double-edged sword. Sometimes it causes us to be too trusting of others in a situation that does not call for mercy. One only need look at the entirety of the State of Israel's history and the many attempted (and one-sided) overtures for peace, resulting in nothing but more violence. This desire for peace, even to one’s own detriment, stems from our attribute of mercy – a heartfelt concern for others. (This is why it is also no surprise that Jews generally tend to lean left in politics, seemingly always siding with the underdogs; as is evident by the numerous NGO’s which support the Palestinians over the Jewish State.) Interestingly, Former Prime Minster of Israel Golda Meir once remarked that “there will only be peace between Israel and the Palestinians when the Palestinians love their children more than they hate us.” To anyone thinking critically, it is evident that hate, not peace, is their intention. Yet due to undirected Jewish mercy, the truth cannot be recognized.

With this in mind, we can now answer our initial question: The most appropriate time for the instruction to recount the episode of the plagues was specifically in the middle of plagues, to prevent “misplaced mercy.” Egypt was in-effect desolate, literally standing on one crippled foot, about to crumble. For anyone with a semblance of a heart, it would be impossible not to feel some sort of mercy at this point, even with Egypt’s long history of abuse of the Jews. A modern-day example can be found in the sport of boxing. While one may root for one boxer over the other, we all grimace when your favored boxer has clearly won, yet still continues to brutally and savagely beat his opponent beyond necessity. And if the referee is a bit late in stopping the fight, he is condemned in the papers and media the next day as irresponsible and careless. Why? Did we not previously cheer for our fighter to vanquish his opponent? Did we not only a moment ago root for the “enemy” to be in this very position? Yes, because we are not completely cruel, we inherently do not want wish for a person to be knocked out past a certain point. This is a natural response from any human, but all-the-more so for the Jewish people.

In order to forestall this innate emotional response, Hashem chose a time in the midst of the punishment to state the obligation to recount the plagues. For through recounting the story, we remind ourselves of the reasons why Hashem is doing this to Egypt – the pain they caused, and the evil decrees they enacted upon us. To feel sorry for Egypt would have detracted from the message that G-d wanted to ingrain in us and the world. The response of mercy would have been wrong here, רחמנות במקום אכזריות. Now was the time for Hashem to glorify Himself for all generations and for this, our nerves needed to be steeled. This was a time when we couldn’t allow ourselves to feel their pain.

This does not mean that we should never have any mercy for the Egyptians. On the contrary; on Seder night, when we recount the story of the redemption, we spill wine and detract from our own happiness in recognition of the fallen Egyptians. However, this act only comes at a time when we can look back as free people, from the perch of history, where we can see everything come together to form the beauty of the redemption. This is not misplaced, for here the mercy is not stemming from an automatic emotional response. Instead, on this most joyous of nights, when we are free men of royalty, despite our feelings of supremacy we still relate to the pain others, even our enemies. In this way, we do not detract from the message of the Exodus and the recognition of Hashem’s Sovereignty, and we show that we are masters over our own mercy, a sign of true freedom.

Through this we can see how a Jew is to utilize to use his emotions. Feelings should not be simply a reaction to external stimuli; rather they can be controlled and felt at the appropriate times. There is a time to be merciful and a time to be harsh, a time to be happy and a time to be sad. Hashem wants us to be masters over our feelings and use them properly.

Shabbat Shalom

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