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The 10 Commandments – From Freedom From Slavery to Freedom From Envy

Thinking about it, the Aseret Hadibrot, the Ten Commandments, is one of the strangest passages in the Torah.

There is no readily apparent connection among each of the commandments, and it is almost impossible to figure out why these specific 10 are considered so emblematic of the rest of the mitzvot. For example, why is Shabbat one of the 10 and not Pesach? Why is not bearing false witness “in”, and the laws of, for example, tzitzit, “out”?

Moreover, aside from the content of the mitzvot, the structure of the wording is curious:

ב) אָנֹכִי יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים

Verse 2: I am the Lord your G-d, who took you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery.

Is that a commandment, or not? And why does the Aseret Hadibrot have to refer to slavery? What is the significance of the phrase “m’beit avadim” (from the house of slaves)?

And, at the other end of the text:

יד) לֹא תַחְמֹד בֵּית רֵעֶךָ לֹא תַחְמֹד אֵשֶׁת רֵעֶךָ וְעַבְדּוֹ וַאֲמָתוֹ וְשׁוֹרוֹ וַחֲמֹרוֹ וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר לְרֵעֶךָ:

Verse 14: You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet the wife of your neighbor, his slave, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

On an emotional level, this is a mitzvah almost impossible to keep. I understand I shouldn’t steal, but wanting things, desiring them, being envious – those are emotions. Am I really expected to control not just what I do but also what I feel – even involuntarily?

The more I think about the 10 commandments, the more I think they are really one unit, a process, a ladder or a step-by-step guide, a way of bringing a person from the “house of slavery” to the point where they can control even the pang of envy at somebody else’s possessions.

I want to state this slightly differently: the Ten Commandments are about freedom, the promise of freedom, and how to achieve it.

“I am Hashem, I took you out of Egypt” is the prelude. And, if you do these commandments, you will never again go back to the beit avadim, the house of slavery. You will achieve lives of freedom.

And the Ten Commandments are more than a just a list of mitzvot. They are – from Anochi to Lo Tachmod, from beginning to end, divine pathways to achieving liberty, self determination and authentic purpose in life.

Let me explain.

There is more than one way that people can have their freedom taken away. There are many ways of being slaves, and many ways of enslaving others.

Each one of the 10 commandments addresses an aspect of slavery in the human condition.

I will not address the aspect of freedom in each of the 10 commandments, but consider the following:

ג) לֹא יִהְיֶה לְךָ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים עַל פָּנָי:

Verse 3: (The second commandment) You shall have no other gods before me.

Idolatry has its roots in a world of terror and insecurity.  Mankind feels puny and vulnerable before the unconquerable forces of nature – famine, flood, natural disasters occur for no reason. Avoda zara (idolatry) is a desperate attempt to appease/bribe these uncontrollable forces. It is, the rabbis say, ultimately self-serving, because it is a form of worship based on appeasing the gods that they will give you what you think you need.

But to fall into avoda zara is to become a slave. The Torah teaches that the universe has a purpose, and we do the will of our creator as best we can. Avoda zara says that the world is anarchy, purposeless – all is blind fate and random coincidence, or a world run by greedy and unpredictable forces. All we can do is hope to bribe our way through. In doing so we surrender any notion of choice, moral determinism or meaning.

Next comes the commandment of Shabbat:

ט) שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים תַּעֲבֹד וְעָשִׂיתָ כָּל מְלַאכְתֶּךָ:

Verse 6: For six days you shall labor and do all your work.

For six days, not for seven. You were not born to be a slave. There is a need to work, but there is life beyond work. That is the difference between being a slave and not.

Next is to Honor One’s Parents. This is to make a statement not to cut yourself off from your origins. The gemara (talmud) in Brachot says that one is not allowed to call a slave Abba (father) or Imma (mother), even as a term of endearment. It seems that slavery robs a person of identity. It dehumanizes and makes origins and backgrounds irrelevant. When people disown their own roots, move away, lose touch, disrespect their parents and origins, it’s a step towards slavery.

And there are many similar examples. For example, the rabbis’ insistence that lo tignov (you shall not steal) in reality refers not to stealing money, but rather to kidnapping – taking someones liberty away. Adultery reduces a person to being a slave to their passion, false testimony, to a life of lies – reducing a person to being imprisoned by falsehood.

So I maintain that the point of the Aseret Hadibrot is to show us how lives of liberty on all levels –  personal, moral, sexual, financial, is possible. How every human being can be released from the beit avadim, the house of slavery, in which we would otherwise live.

But what about the last commandment? Lo tachmod – you shall not covet anything that belongs to someone else?

What does that have to do with freedom?

Is it even possible?

Jealousy has everything to do with freedom, because coveting other people’s possessions is not merely about what they own, but rather it’s about the life they lead. It’s about a powerful sense of dissatisfaction, rejection, regret of one’s own life and choices, because of the seemingly more successful life that someone else is living.

The Guardian newspaper recently reported on a new book, written by a nurse who has spent many years working with patients with terminal illness. The book is called “The Top Five Regrets of The Dying” and number one on the list is the following statement:

I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me

And the author, Bronnie Ware, explains:

“This was the most common regret of all. When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made”

When we decide what we want from life based on what others want, that our expectations of lifestyle, career, happiness, are what we read about in magazines or in the media, or we look at each other and say, “that’s success: that kind of house, that kind of job, that kind of car”, that’s bal tachmod, and that’s slavery.

You have given away your freedom, your right, your need to choose your values. Instead you have taken on other people’s. In this sense the contemporary Jewish world offers not so much freedom, as slavery.

Let me explain how I nearly allowed a good friend to ruin my life.

Over 20 years ago I was a single yeshiva student living in Efrat. A good friend from the UK was visiting Israel, so I invited him to be my guest for a Shabbat. I had recently decided to become a rabbi and he had decided to enter his family business.  The gulf in our respective directions and expectations from life had never seemed to matter as much as they did on that Shabbat.

In order to make a good impression, I had invited the two of us over to a wonderful young couple who had made aliya from the USA, and were living in a small, two bedroom apartment with their two young children. The husband has given up a successful business in America, and was planning on working half the day and learning Torah half the day – and they were loving every moment of their life.

Lunch was, as I recall, a regular Efrat Shabbat lunch … some chicken, challah, kugel and so on. Nothing terrible, nothing over the top.

After lunch we left the house, and my friend let rip.

Those people are criminal he said. How dare they throw everything away? What kind of life are they giving their children? Look what they have given up – a big house, cars, enough money not to have to worry – and for what?  A crammed house in the middle of nowhere?

And so we argued. What’s the point of life, I said? He’s living the dream – Israel, Torah, commitment,  what more is there?

“What more is there?” he retorted. “Let me tell you what more there is. There is travel, there is freedom, there is providing your family with the best of everything, every opportunity, every advantage you can. Surrounding yourself with beauty and comfort. That’s what there is.”

For an entire week I couldn’t learn Torah. I kept thinking to myself that I had made a terrible mistake. That, in truth, that what he wanted, I wanted, too – that it sounded so wonderful, so appealing, so much better.

I began thinking I was making a mistake becoming a rabbi, I should go in to business.

But eventually I came to my senses. Why would I want to live someone else’s life? My point is not at all that my friend wanted the wrong things. Not at all. But those were not my choices. I had made my decision, I was proud, passionate committed to my choices – for the record, I still am – and yet I still remember that week as one of the most difficult of my life. I understood how envy, desire, can cause a person to live not life as they want to, but life as other people feel that we should.

Envy, at its root, is to do with a feeling of inadequacy, a feeling that a profound mistake has been made. There are many reasons to want to have a better standard of living. That’s not prohibited. But to measure yourself – and not your possessions, but your life, your worth in the light of what other people own – that is to fall prey to one of the darkest and dangerous of human emotions. It is the darkest form of slavery that there is, that I have to live my life by what other people think I should be doing.

The tenth commandment tells us that we can, and we must, live life according to our decisions, not other people’s. And that takes courage, wisdom and understanding.

It’s a long and difficult process. The journey from the first commandment – the promise of freedom – to learning through keeping and studying Torah – knowing our creator and knowing ourselves – to arrive at the point when we can be so secure in our thoughts and our values that we have achieved liberation from the pressure to want what others want.

 
 

Back of the Bus – is Gender Segregation Really Necessary?

This Shabbat at Lincoln Square Synagogue I will be devoting my afternoon class to examining the Halachic Literature and Jewish Sources behind an important story in the news. Please join me for a class titled Back of the Bus – is Gender Segregation Really Necessary?

Behind the Headlines:

Israelis Facing a Seismic Rift Over Role of Women: When a prominent Israeli professor of Pediatrics attended the ceremony where she was due to have an award conferred on her by the Israeli Ministry of Health, she was told that, for reasons of modesty, a male colleague would have to accept the award on her behalf. Read more

Jerusalem – New In Modiin Illit: Segregated Elevators: Recently, a new innovation was introduced to the town of Modi’in Illit. Going beyond the necessity for separate seating on buses, signs were posted announcing separate elevators for men and women. Read more

Does Halacha, indeed, demand ever increasing segregation between men and women? From where do these innovations come? What is actually required by Jewish Law, and what is not?

The class takes place in the Main Sanctuary, at 3.45pm and will be followed by Mincha at 4.30pm and Seudah Shlishit.

On Shabbat morning our Community Scholar, Elana Stein Hain, will be speaking after the main service on the topic of Family Therapy on the Nile. Services start at 9am and Elana will be speaking around 11:30am, followed by a communal kiddush.

I look forward to welcoming you to Lincoln Square Synagogue this Shabbat. Shabbat Shalom!

 

Recovering Our Sense, Recovering Our Unity …

I find the end of the book of Berishit (Genesis) incredibly moving. It’s an account of how, against the odds, a bitterly divided family became whole, and became a nation.

Yaakov Avinu (Jacob, our forefather) had two wives, two concubines and 13 children from those 4 different mothers. These children quarreled bitterly. There were rivalries, jealousies, suspicions, hatreds and vying for position that led to the most unimaginable acts.

When Yosef (Joseph) was sold to Egypt, it seemed that that was the end of the Jewish people. The brothers had stooped too low for words. They had lied to their father and covered up their sin. The shechina (divine presence of G-d) departed from Yaakov, Yehudah (Judah) left home, and things began to fall apart.

And yet, against all odds, a miracle happens. The family is made whole, the brothers are reunited, Yaakov sees Yosef again, old rivalries are put aside, and all talk of revenge, hatred or jealousies is brushed aside.

As Yaakov’s life is slipping away, the Torah is able to tell us:

כָּל-אֵלֶּה שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר; וְזֹאת אֲשֶׁר-דִּבֶּר לָהֶם אֲבִיהֶם, וַיְבָרֶךְ אוֹתָם–אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר כְּבִרְכָתוֹ, בֵּרַךְ אֹתָם.

All these are the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is it that their father spoke unto them and blessed them; every one according to his blessing he blessed them. 

How completely impossible that must have seemed a short while earlier.

So what happened? How could a family, a people, divided by hatred, violence, moral shortcoming, slander and rivalry become whole again? And, in our times, when these words so perfectly describe much of what is happening in the Jewish world, how can we make ourselves whole again?

Interestingly, the Torah leaves out so much of what we would love to know. Did the brothers ever tell Yaakov what had happened, or did he prefer not to know?  When Yosef reveals himself to his brothers he rushes to tell them that all that had happened was Hashem’s plan – but after Yaakov’s death there is great unease that Yosef might now take his revenge. Clearly uniting such a family was no easy task.

One can only assume that a tremendous amount of patience, courage, determination on the parts of all concerned was necessary.

But, on his death bed, as Yaakov turns to bless his children, and to name his successor (one of his children who will be considered the leader henceforth), he reveals so much of what was in his heart.

In a scene of intense drama – even suspense – Yaakov explains who will succeed him. He addresses each of his children in turn:

 רְאוּבֵן בְּכֹרִי אַתָּה, כֹּחִי וְרֵאשִׁית אוֹנִי–יֶתֶר שְׂאֵת, וְיֶתֶר עָז

Reuven, thou art my first-born, my might, and the first-fruits of my strength; the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power.

Reuven, you truly are the first born, it should have been you. You should have been my natural successor. You have so many talents and so many wonderful qualities – but that cannot be:

פַּחַז כַּמַּיִם אַל-תּוֹתַר, כִּי עָלִיתָ מִשְׁכְּבֵי אָבִיךָ;

Unstable as water, you will not lead; because you went up to your father’s bed;

Reuven you made terrible mistakes.

When Yaakov’s beloved wife Rochel (Rachel) died, the Torah tells us about Reuven (the first born of Leah) …

וַיֵּלֶךְ רְאוּבֵן וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֶת-בִּלְהָה פִּילֶגֶשׁ אָבִיו

Reuven went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine

Although Chazal (our sages) insist that what really happened was that he moved his father’s bed out of the tent of Bilhah (Rochel’s concubine), into Leah’s tent to show respect for his mother (whichever way you look at it), this was an act of tremendous disrespect.

Reuven was Leah’s oldest child. He felt it was his job to stand up for his mother, to be the leader – and it was. But – “pachaz kamayim” – he was unstable like water. He was impetuous, and rushed into leadership without thinking things through.

But there is even more to Reuven.

When the brothers saw Yosef coming to meet them that fateful day, they wished to kill him. It was Reuven who put a stop to that

וַיִּשְׁמַע רְאוּבֵן, וַיַּצִּלֵהוּ מִיָּדָם; וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא נַכֶּנּוּ נָפֶשׁ.

And Reuven heard it, and delivered him out of their hand; and said: ‘Let us not take his life.’

Reuven here is acting as leader. It’s his job, he is the one who considers himself born to lead, to end this madness. No killing, he tells his brothers. Instead, let’s put him into this pit, we can get rid of him without actually shedding blood.

Reuven leads – but his leadership is compromised. He won’t stand up to his brothers and their violence, and their evil plans. A true leader would have said, are you out of your minds? There will be no more of this talk – we may not like Yosef, but enough is enough.

But Reuven’s leadership is yet more flawed. His whole plan of putting Yosef in to the pit was …

לְמַעַן, הַצִּיל אֹתוֹ מִיָּדָם, לַהֲשִׁיבוֹ, אֶל-אָבִיו

He wanted to be a hero! He wanted to get the glory, the one to bring his brother home and receive the credit.

Again, Reuven takes a stand – but his leadership is flawed. It’s not principled. It’s not moral and, ultimately, it’s self-serving.

So Reuven cannot be the leader.

The Ramban (Maimonides) says that, although Reuven was the first to offer to guarantee Binyamin’s (Benjamin’s) safe return from Egypt, he had lost credibility in the eyes of Yaakov – and that’s why he couldn’t succeed him.

And when I think of Reuven, so much of what is happening in Israel and the Jewish world seems to be relevant.

There are those whom we regard as natural leaders. We look to them for leadership – but the leadership is flawed.  Rather than saying, לֹא נַכֶּנּוּ נָפֶשׁ, now lets live together, they use crisis to their advantage. Their leadership is moral, not political. It’s an opportunity to make themselves look good, without really leading and taking a clear moral position.

This week in Israel, we have seen (aside from genuine moves to reconciliation that I will talk about shortly) more and deeper division. The sickening sight of Chasidim dressed up, and dressing their children up, as victims of the Nazis, shakes us all to the core. It’s an attempt to play the victim card, to use these terrible events to foster, not unity, but rather advantage.

And, as I said last week, and want to re-enforce, at the same time, the vast majority of the Charedi community have no part in this extremism, but rather have been made the objects of group defamation and attack by much of the hard line secularist leadership.

Sadly, hardliners on both sides are using these events as a way of gaining political advantage. The tragedy we see before our eyes is that the tremendous advances that have been made (with Charedim entering the army and the workplace), all stand in jeopardy because those who claim to be leaders, who feel entitled to lead, aren’t leading, they are using this crisis for their own ends

And next come Shimon and Levi.

שִׁמְעוֹן וְלֵוִי, אַחִים

Shimon and Levi are brothers.

What this means is, more than the fact that they are each other’s brothers (or even that they are unusually close) is that they are good brothers. They have an unduly developed sense of brotherhood, loyalty, and commitment to their entire family – more than anyone else.

When Dina was raped, it was Shimon and Levi, with their love of their siblings, who stood up for her.

And with that sense of family and commitment, Shimon or Levi would have been natural successors for Yaakov.

But that must never be, because …

כְּלֵי חָמָס מְכֵרֹתֵיהֶם

They are men of violence.

They committed unspeakable outrages (Chilul Hashem, desecration of G-d’s name) of mass proportions, and Yaakov utterly rejects them – unambiguously, strongly, in ways we long to hear from even more of our leadership.

אָרוּר אַפָּם

Accursed be their anger!

And here is one of the paradoxes of modern Jewish life. In some of the most extreme parts of the Jewish world you find the most incredible sense of achva (brotherhood) and chesed (kindness) for fellow Jews. It never fails to astound me that, for example, Satmar is known both for its utterly extreme derech (path/philosophy), that often leads, on the part of some of its followers, to verbal and physical violence of the worst kind, and it is also known for its outstanding chesed. Anyone who has ever spent time in hospital in New York City will have been amazed at the Satmar Bikur Cholim system who will bring food, often cooked to order, for any Jew.  They do this with an incredible sense of giving. There are many Satmar Chasidim who wouldn’t hesitate to give you the shirt of their back if you needed it, and at the same time are part of a sect associated with violence and extremism. The same is true of other Chasidic groups, too. It really is amazing.

Yet Yaakov was uncompromising. You may be achim, good brothers, to your family, but you are not our leaders, and you are not our role models. Your anger and violence is completely rejected.

(And the same is true, regrettably, for extreme parts of the religious Zionist movement which are descending into violence. And Rabbi Riskin has condemned this – utterly and absolutely.)

And so, at long last, we come to Yehudah.

יְהוּדָה, אַתָּה יוֹדוּךָ אַחֶיךָ–יָדְךָ, בְּעֹרֶף אֹיְבֶיךָ; יִשְׁתַּחֲווּ לְךָ, בְּנֵי אָבִיךָ.

Yehudah, it is you that your brethren praise…your father’s sons shall bow down before you.

Yehudah, all agree that you are right for leadership, in you all the people are bnei avicha, a united family.

Why Yehudah? Why the fourth born child? Why the one who left the home, the one responsible for selling Yosef? Why is he to be the leader?

Yehudah is an individual who lived by his name – hodah – to acknowledge. He confessed (vidui) when his daughter-in-law Tamar was pregnant and he had condemned her to death. She sent word, privately, that he was the father. How easy it would have been for him to deny all – his reputation would have been saved, nothing ever known about what he had done. Instead, he allowed himself to be shamed and humiliated. He admitted – tzadkah mimeni – she is more righteous than I am. He confessed, and she was spared.

Yehuda made no pretensions of being perfect – far from it. But he acknowledged his imperfections. He rose above them. Because he was humble, he could be accepting of others failures as well. He became a leader because he wasn’t arrogant, he was trustworthy.

People knew that, even if it was against his own interests – overwhelmingly so – he would do what was right.

That is why when he looked Yaakov in the eye and said – אָנֹכִי, אֶעֶרְבֶנּוּ – I will take responsibility for Binyamin, his father believed him.

And when the unknown stranger was tormenting the brothers, accusing them of theft and threatening revenge – Vyigash elav Yehudah – it was Yehudah who stepped forward to save the family. He had learned what he was capable of, and he felt compelled to save his people. Not for glory, but out of love

And so Yehudah becomes the king, the true successor of Yaakov, the ancestor of Mashiach (the messiah).

When I think about Yehudah, I think of a remarkable group of people. I think of the community, the growing beautiful daati leumi, modern orthodox community of Beit Shemesh, and many other towns. Religious Jews, idealists – a huge percentage of them olim (immigrants) – committed people who gave up so much material comfort to make aliyah.

And I think of their idealism – genuinely committed to achdus – to being a bridge, a link between all parts of the Jewish world. They are raising their children to learn Torah and to earn a living, to love the land and State of Israel, and to serve in the army, if necessary, chas veshalom (G-d  forbid), to pay a price beyond our imagination.

A community that all through this crisis has acted with dignity and love.

We should be proud of them – yodoocha achecha – your brothers will acknowledge you. They are committed to being a bridge, holding together all the parts of the Jewish world – we in the diaspora, those in Israel, secular, religious, Charedi.

I spoke to a friend yesterday, who has lived in Beit Shemesh for over 10 years. He described how Bnei Akiva meets with secular youth, how members of their community set up roundtable groups for the entire spectrum of the city to come together, how Charedi women come to the Orot school and give the kids cookies for Shabbat,  how they have even reached out to (and met with) people from the Edah Charedis. These Yehudahs are at the center, in the midst of hate, of repairing the Jewish people. They are working, not to take advantage of the crisis, but rather to heal the Jewish people.

It’s moving beyond words, and it actually gave me pause.

Whenever there is a tragedy in the Jewish world – a terror attack, the awful murder of Leiby Kletzky, a forest fire in Israel, someone, somewhere is going to start fundraising. (I am not saying that that is necessarily a bad thing – there are wonderful organizations, Magen David Adom, the JNF, etc, do incredible things, and they know that people want to help.)

After a terror attack, G-d forbid, within an hour, I have usually received two or three emails from organizations raising money. I don’t think it would even occur to the idealistic, religious zionist community of Beit Shemesh to do that.

Who among us wouldn’t have written a check to the Orot School to help them after what they are going through? But just like the Biblical Yehudah who did not look to act out of self interest, so, too, this strong principled idealistic community is not interested in profiting from a crisis.

But the fact is, all Jews are named after the tribe of Yehudah – for all of us have this capacity.

Last week I spoke about how desperate I was to see condemnation from the Charedi leadership, at least for the violent extremists in their midst. And this week has seen incredible things. Hamodia, the ultra orthodox newspaper, and many important figures are speaking out.

The head of the Ponoveitsh Yeshiva issued a strong, heartfelt statement to the Ultra Orthodox community, telling people that it’s sinas chinam, baseless hatred, to blame the secular media for their attacks. Rather that this is a time for genuine soul searching on the part of Charedim, where we all have to look inwards.

The fact is that there are many different types of observant Jews. We all have our opinions, and our beliefs. And I hope we are passionate about them.

But beyond our group, is a people.

It is true that there are fanatics, and we have to speak out. And there are groups interested in tearing other groups down, or taking advantage of a crisis. But that’s not the way. And in Israel, I genuinely believe – and we all certainly have been davening (praying) for this these past weeks – that the spirit of od Avinu chai, our father Yaakov still lives, that Yaakov Avinu’s determination to leave behind one people – defined by a sense of unity and led by people who care for each other as much as for themselves – lives on.

Let us all strive to be Yehudahs. Let us reach out to Jews who are different from ourselves, learn to respect and love even those from whom we differ, and let us make sure that Am Yisrael (the people of Israel) remains a nation of Yehudim (Yehudahs), people who see greatness in each other.

 

Recovering Our Sense, Recovering Our Unity (preview) …

As the Patriarch Jacob lay on his death bed, he saw something that had once seemed impossible. The family that had ripped itself apart through violence, near murder, betrayal and slander was once again whole. The pain and separation were forgotten. Truly, it was his life’s achievement. But how did he accomplish that – and how can we?

This Shabbat, I will be addressing this topic in my sermon at Lincoln Square Synagogue. Services start at 9am, please join me.

 
Comments Off on Recovering Our Sense, Recovering Our Unity (preview) …

Posted by on January 5, 2012 in parsha, Rabbi Shaul Robinson

 

The Curse of Violent Extremism – from the 10th of Tevet to Bet Shemesh

I want to address the terrible scenes we have seen in Israel this past week – indeed these past years. Horrifying scenes of violence, of extremism. The nauseating sight of grown men, extremists, shouting, hitting, spitting at and chasing school girls. And all of the other problems that we have become so used to – of violence, and extremism, from a small (very small) section of the Ultra Orthodox community.

I want to make a few things clear.

First of all, I have huge sympathies, and personally identify with, what is known as the “Charedi world”. Thank G-d, I find myself quite able to live without labels, but I am just as at home – sometimes more at home – in what we might call right wing orthodoxy, than many other parts of the Orthodox world.

Secondly, more to the point, I have tremendous sympathy for the Charedi world and its feeling of being embattled and attacked. The Ultra Orthodox community has tremendous pluses to it, and is often the victim of terrible prejudice.

I was once in the car of a Kol Yisrael reporter. He was someone I had made the acquaintance of when I was a student leader in the UK. This was well over 20 years ago, but we were driving through the streets of Jerusalem, through an Ultra Orthodox area one Friday morning. As we were stuck in traffic and surrounded by black coated, hatted, bearded men, he began gripping the steering wheel with immense pressure and he started saying “these people – ani soneh otam, I detest them…” over and over again. I was appalled.

A few years later, when I was the rabbi at Cambridge University, a well known secular Israeli politician came to address the students. At question time, I asked about the issues of religious and secular politics. He addressed the issue for a few moments, and concluded by saying “… and as for the Charedim, I don’t hate them, they just have to remember that it’s our country not theirs.”

So I understand that, with all of the recent negative publicity (especially as many have used recent events as an opportunity to attack the entire Charedi community), what many Charedim are feeling. They are feeling what we feel when we see Israel or Jews being attacked by the media – angry, outraged, discriminated against, and with a tendency to circle the wagons.

I understand. But I don’t agree.

Because I don’t believe that the Orthodox world can say “these people are nothing to do with us”.

It’s not credible any longer.

The recent events concern the opening of Orot, a Dati Leumi (Modern Orthodox) girls school in Bet Shemesh. Bet Shemesh used to be a poor, mainly Sephardic town in Israel. Over the years it has greatly expanded, attracting many Anglo immigrants, to the town itself and to the surrounding area of Ramat Bet Shemesh. Parts of the new neighborhoods are designated Charedi, and many people from Jerusalem, some of them members of extreme, anti-zionist Chasidic sects have moved to Bet Shemesh. And they have sought to impose their standards and way of life on the surrounding neighborhoods.

For years now we have been reading about violence by members of this community – attacking a Yom Haatzamaut (Independence Day) concert in a park, pelting eggs at the participants, threatening people with violence, and so on.

The new school is situated not in, but close to, a Charedi neighborhood. When it opened in September violent demonstrations began. These have continued, on and off, through this week, which have seen young girls afraid to walk to school. There have been shouts of “pritzus” (immodesty) and “prostitute” at girls.

The Modern Orthodox community – many of them olim (immigrants), many of them people like us, who have followed the dream of going to live in Israel to live religious lives – has, quite simply, had enough of this. The issue has now attracted major media attention, not just in Israel, but also throughout the world.

It is a Chilul Hashem (desecration of G-d’s name) of major proportions.

Much hostility has been addressed at the fanatics, but some also at of the wider Charedi population.

But that is a problem that the leaders of that community have to address. Yes, of course, it is true that, at least in America, rabbinic organizations, including the Ultra-Orthodox Agudah have condemned these violent thugs – not to do so is unthinkable. We are talking about the worst sort of violence, in the name of religion, directed at little girls. It’s inexcusable.

But press releases in America – and in Israel, where, sadly, it has been more muted – don’t begin to address the real problem.

These people are fanatics, they are extremists, criminals – call them what you like – but they are a product of Orthodox Judaism and we have to take ownership of the problem. As well as the fact that parts of the Orthodox world are spinning out of control – growing more extreme, more insane, day by day.

It’s happening in the Modern Orthodox, religious Zionist community in Israel, with the so-called “price tag attacks” on mosques and army bases, and it’s happening in the Charedi community with more and more violent demonstrations, more and more attempts to coerce people into following a way of life that they do not want to.

When did violence become acceptable in Judaism?

When did the admirable concern for Halachic high personal standards become an excuse for intolerance of others?

When did the concept (as my friend Rabbi Adlerstein of Los Angeles so eloquently puts it) that every human being was created in the image of G-d, the concept of ahavas yisrael (love of Israel) and the concept of bein adam lachavero (mitzvahs of interpersonal relationships) all get forgotten?

Years ago a spokesman for Agudas Yisrael created a fury when he wrote that Reform Jews are, of course, part of the Jewish people, Reform Judaism is not Judaism. Well let’s ask a question. The Rambam says that the Jewish people are defined, marked as being rachmanim, bayshanim, and gomlei chassadim (merciful, humble and kind. What then of these people? It may not be acceptable to call them non-Jews. But will the Agudah please say what they said about Reform, i.e., that these extreme sects of Chasidim are not practicing a recognizable form of Judaism.

And while they are at it, can we please address the wider issue – that these extremisms are growing and infecting the wider orthodox world?

A few weeks ago, in a terrible tragedy in Brooklyn, a Chasidic man was hit by a car and killed on a Friday night.

Days later, posters went up around his neighborhood, Williamsburg, entitled “michaleleh mot yamot”, those who desecrate it will die, announcing that the victim died (and deserved to die) because he used the local Eruv to carry on the sabbath.

Please, can we hear a statement that this is not a legitimate Jewish movement?

And that the people that dressed their children up in concentration camp clothes and claiming they are the victims of a new Holocaust (a sight that sickens us to the core) are not part of Orthodoxy?

These weeks, the rabbinic leadership of the Orthodox world has rushed to distance itself from these attacks. (I suppose we have to be grateful to the New York Times for ensuring that something was said.) However, the main response is that these people are but a tiny bunch of fanatics who represent no one.

But that is inadequate, because they have supporters.

In every online article or blog about these incidents, a significant percentage of people will write in support of the extremists, saying things like  – “these Modern Orthodox girls dress like sluts – they have it coming to them.” Or “if they want to dress like this – let them move to Tel Aviv” – forgetting that Bet Shemesh is not a Charedi town and this school is not in a Charedi neighborhood. Why should they move?

Moreover, it’s not enough simply to disassociate from just the demonstrators. The violence may be limited – but what leads to the violence – a rising tide of extremism –  is taking over the Jewish world.

When did separate seating on buses become an obsession?

Decades ago, Rav Moshe Feinstein wrote a teshuva (answer) about how there is no problem whatsoever in men and women travelling together in a subway car.

What changed?

When did the laws of modesty (which are important laws) mean that you cannot print a picture of women in a newspaper? (It recently emerged that the Jerusalem municipality had adopted a policy of not printing pictures of women in any advertisements for fear of offending the Ultra-Orthodox community.)

Jewish life in this day is undergoing a tragic disfigurement – more extreme, more strict. All sense of moderation, of tradition, is being pushed out.

Chumras, stringencies, are supposed to be just that – stringencies that you take on as an individual, not something to be pushed onto other people.

If your interpretation of the laws of modesty mean that you don’t want to sit on a bus with a women, then get off and walk.

Don’t push an entire gender to the back – and don’t impose that with threats of violence and spitting (as has been happening recently).

There is a beautiful story about the late great Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Issur Zalman Meltzer. One day, he was walking home with some of his students. As he climbed the steps to his front door, he stopped suddenly, turned around, and began strolling up and down outside of his house. The Rabbi was famous for never wasting time so his puzzled students asked him why he wasn’t entering his house?

He explained: “As I walked up the steps, I heard my maid singing. The prohibition of Kol Isha (voice of a woman) applies to me, not to her. She is allowed to sing, but I am not allowed to listen. If I walked into the house she would immediately stop singing out fo respect for me. But she loves to sing, so I will wait here a while until she finishes work.’’ 

That’s a true understanding of the laws of modesty.

But, as well as extremism, there is a root of intolerance and superiority that enables, and tolerates, this violence. It’s not just the few hundred protesters who think that the Orot School isn’t really Orthodox, that the Dati Leumi community isn’t really religious. There are yeshivot in Israel (where our own children study) where rebbeim say about the secular Israelis, Zionists, Modern Orthodox Jews, that we are the “Eirev Rav” – Non-Jews.

The fact is that the Orthodox world is being overtaken by extremism. And that the leaders of that world are reluctant, or unable, to speak up.

But speak up they must. For too much is at stake.

First of all, we are all, all of us, horribly threatened by this violence and extremism. We may not think of ourselves as anything like these people – but others do.

A member of the shul – and I mean no disrespect when I say he probably wouldn’t define himself as Ultra- Orthodox – called me the other day. As he had been calling round friends and relatives to wish them a happy year ahead, many of his cousins – secular, barely affiliated Jews – had asked him how he could possibly justify these goings on in Bet Shemesh, and how could he practice such a religion?

We are all tarnished by this. And Israel and Judaism are weakened by this.

We used to be able to say: Judaism is not like Islam, and Israel is not like Afghanistan, and there is no Jewish Taliban. When we cannot say that any longer, we are all incredibly weakened.

So what must be done?

First of all, we must ask for those who proclaim themselves the leaders of the religious world, here and in Israel, to condemn this. The rabbis, the roshei yeshiva, the rebbes.

Condemnation is not a press release.

A few weeks ago Rabbi Riskin wrote a powerful op-ed piece in Haaretz condemning the extremists in the settler movement who had attacked an army base. He wrote “You did not throw stones at me, and still you have mortally wounded me.” Let one Rebbe, one Gadol, write such an article, in Haaretz.

People will say: “It’s beneath their dignity”. But the Gemara tells us: Kol makom she’yesh chilul Hashem, ein cholkin kavod l’rav – there is no kavod (honor) when chilul Hashem is in question.

For decades, we in the Modern Orthodox world have been challenged: “where are your Gedolim, where are your leaders? After all, we Ultra Orthodox do nothing without our Torah leaders.”

Now is the time for leadership.

Let the greatest Rabbis in the Jewish world go to Bet Shemesh. Let each walk a little second grader to school. Let their rebbetzins hold a girl’s hand and say, “Come my dear, don’t be afraid, I will walk you to school.” Let them, our Gedolim, our Torah giants, look in the face of the Chasidim yelling “Nazi” at little girls and Jewish policemen and tell them to be silent.

Show your love for kal yisarel! (The people of Israel)

That’s condemnation – not a press release – but tochacha, rebuke.

But that’s not all we need.

Let the voice of moderation be heard again. Anyone who has ever studied one page of Talmud knows about the value of debate, diversity, disagreement, respect – “Elu v’elu“, “these and these” are the words of the living G-d.

And let them clarify the difference between halacha and extremism.

And for all the rebuke (much of it deserved) at modern innovations that depart from accepted traditions, which has been directed at Modern Orthodoxy, let us now hear a word against the craziness of modern chumras, unknown in previous generations, that are just as new, just as damaging.

Let us hear again Torah leaders, like the Gedolim of recent generations – the Rav Moshe Feinsteins, the Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbachs – who hated extremism and insisted that Judaism was a perfectly normal, peace loving religion. Let’s hear those voices again.

And lastly, we demand action, of the most draconian kind. Because the future of Israel is at stake.

When all is said and done, we are one people. Secular and modern Jews have a deal with the Ultra Orthodox world. I’ts unstated but we sense it. It’s the basis of the status quo arrangement between the Chazon Ish and David Be-Gurion:

You are our shaliach (representative). We help pay your way – taxes in Israel, charity dollars in the US. And you keep Israel spiritual. (Should there be others models? Perhaps, yes – but that’s the way it works.) And that’s the reason for the army exemption. That Torah is pure, and it’s a shemirah, it protects all of us. As a nation we have a collective interest in people devoting themselves to Torah. I firmly believe that.

But theres a limit.

Because this violent extremism is not part of the deal.

And silence isn’t part of the deal.

If the religious world is serious about stopping this extremism, then let the religious parties in Israel (who are seemingly obsessed with power and money) let them make a kiddush Hashem (honor of Hashem).

Let them write a bill, and lobby to pass it, that says that every single violent demonstrator, every single person who intimidates, spits, shouts at little girls, who yells “Nazi” at soldiers should be sent to the army.

Not because to serve in the army is a punishment – quite the opposite – and not because the army necessarily wants these thugs, but rather to make it clear that they are not considered part of the frum (religious) world. They don’t have the privilege of being considered Torah scholars. That all of the arrangements between secular and charedi societies simply don’t apply to these groups who have placed themselves beyond the pale.

Because, if we love the Torah, and we believe in its purity (and we do) then we have to protect it – all of us – from the insanity of extremism.

This coming week will see Asarah B’tevet (10th of Tevet), one of the fast days for the Temple, the day the siege of Jerusalem began.

Rav Baruch Simons writes of an ancient tradition: The 10th of Tevet commemorates the first tragedy of sinas chinam (baseless hatred) to affect the Jewish people – the sale of Yosef (Joseph) which happened on that day. From that day to this, the Jewish people will never be whole, never repaired. The Moshiach (Messiah) cannot possibly come while we are plagued by hatred.

May the Ribono Shel Olam (Hashem) give us, and our leaders, courage to eradicate the hatred and evil that is threatening to destroy the country we love, and the religion we hold dear. May we merit to see the coming of the Moshiach, bimheyra biyameynu (soon, in our lifetime).

 

Why are the Jewish people so reluctant to dream Jewish dreams?

You can tell a lot about people because of the dreams they dream. Even in ancient times it was understood that dreams were somehow a reflection of the dreamer – that dreams are never entirely from the outside, they are a reflection of what is on the inside.

So when Yaakov (Jacob) rebukes Yosef (Joseph) for his dreams –

מָה הַחֲלוֹם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר חָלָמְתָּ

What is this dream that you have dreamed?

What he is saying (according to the great commentator the Ramban, Nachmanides) is; “how dare you dream these dreams?”

Yosef is responsible for these dreams – if they aren’t exactly an explicit choice on his part, they are certainly a window into his soul.

Yosef’s dreams are fascinating because they leave behind a trail of jealousy and hatred, bloodshed, violence, emotional pain and unbearable suffering.

But what are these dreams?

Why are they so threatening?

Of course, on one level, they are about the brothers bowing down to Yosef . They are about position, authority, and leadership – and there is enough there to alienate his family. Without question Yosef erred in being so non-diplomatic in telling his dreams – but Yosef knew that his dreams mattered, and that they contained a message that could not be suppressed.

Yosef dreamt, first, about sheaves of wheat.  About the brothers farming in the field, and about how all the sheaves of wheat belonging to the other brothers bowed down to his.

Many symbolic meanings have been suggested for this dream.

In a famous address delivered in 1962, The Rav, Rabbi Yosef Ber Solovetchik, explained why he had joined Mizrachi, the religious Zionist camp, and had left the more conservative Aguda, the ultra orthodox camp in which his family had its roots.

And he used the dreams of Yosef to explain his move. Yosef understood, deep in his soul, that the Jewish people, his family, was going to have to prepare itself for new realities – that the old ways, being shepherds in the land of Israel, weren’t going to last forever. G-d had already told Avraham (Abraham) that his children would go into exile. Yosef dreamt about his family as farmers, growing food, not shepherds, because he was deeply concerned about how his family and way of life would survive in exile. And he knew the old way of life would have to change.

But his brothers were outraged by this dream.

“We should be farmers?  G-d forbid! We are shepherds – our father Yaakov is a shepherd, indeed, great grandfather Avraham himself was a shepherd! That we should ever conceive of a different path, even if it might save us in the future, is unthinkable.”

And so the brothers were scandalized. They were challenged by that dream. Tthey hated that dream and the one who dreamt it. They could not conceive of ever changing. “Shepherds we are, and shepherds we will stay – if we have faith, the world will stay the same, progress will pass us by and leave us unscathed” they declared.

But I want, with the greatest respect, to pose a question on the Rav’s analysis, and, based on his words, offer a different insight.

Its true that Yaakov and his sons were shepherds, and its true that Avraham had been a shepherd, but not Yitzchak (isaac). Yitzchak had been a farmer.

When a famine occurred in the land of Israel, and Hashem told Yitzchak to dwell in the land and not go to Egypt. Instead, he planted a crop and, despite the famine, he realized a huge yield and became fabulously wealthy as a result.

So Yosef isn’t dreaming about something new at all – sheaves of wheat, farming the land – that’s not foreign territory, it was already in his family.

So why were the brothers so threatened? Why was this such a threatening image, as the Rav says?

Let me try to explain.

When Yaakov stole the blessing from his brother Esav, when he dressed up and tricked Yitzchak, it was  a very specific bracha that he received.

וְיִתֶּן-לְךָ, הָאֱלֹהִים, מִטַּל הַשָּׁמַיִם, וּמִשְׁמַנֵּי הָאָרֶץ–וְרֹב דָּגָן, וְתִירֹשׁ.

So God give thee of the dew of heaven, and of the fat places of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine.

Yitzchak’s blessing was that his chosen son should be a farmer, and should enjoy the blessings of the land of Israel. Yitzchak knew the fulfillment of the Jewish destiny was to dwell in the land of Israel, not as nomads or shepherds, moving from place to place, but as farmers, to dig, to plant and to grow.

And that’s the blessing he handed over, the blessing that Yaakov stole.

When Yaakov came back to the land, after more than 20 years of exile, he does not become a farmer. He becomes a shepherd.

And, moreover, when he seeks to appease his brother, Esav (Esau), from whom he has taken the blessing, he tells him –

עִם-לָבָן גַּרְתִּי, וָאֵחַר עַד-עָתָּה.

וַיְהִי-לִי שׁוֹר וַחֲמוֹר, צֹאן וְעֶבֶד וְשִׁפְחָה;

I have dwelt with Lavan and delayed until now, and I have cattle and donkeys, flocks and servants.

The Kedushat Levi, Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchiv, explains:  Yaakov is saying to Esav “Please don’t hurt me. It’s true I took your blessing, but I haven’t used it. I have lived in exile from that day to this, and even now I am back in the land, I have shor v’chamor, animals. I am going to be shepherd, not a farmer. I took the blessing but I will not use it. Don’t hate me, don’t be angry with me. I promise I will stick to shepherding, I will not use the bracha, I will not become a farmer.”

Yaakov was afraid, he wanted to avoid confrontation. In fact, the Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel Ben Meir) says that Yaakov tried to run away from Esav. He didn’t want to stand his ground, that’s why G-d sent an angel to wrestle with him.

Yaakov remained a shepherd. And when our parsha opens “Vayeishev Yaakov” (And Yaakov dwelt), the Sages criticize him: Beekesh Yaakov leyshev bishalvah  (Yaakov wished to dwell in peace). Truly he did – so he shepherded. He moved from place to place, he didn’t want to take possession of his land.

And it’s that moment that Yosef dreams. A bold dream. A dangerous dream.

Lets stop being afraid! We should farm the land. This is our land. We don’t have to be afraid and we don’t have to be apologetic. G-d gave us this land. It is our land, we have every right to it. And its time we stopped apologizing for that fact, and pretending that if we don’t farm it, we won’t bother anyone.

Yosef’s dreams come at a critical moment for the Jewish people. G-d has stopped speaking to Yaakov and never speaks to his children. Nor do the children continue the past of building alters, calling out the name of G-d. The Jewish project seems to have stopped – it has got stuck. What are they supposed to do now?

And its at that moment that Yosef dreams dreams of a bold, unapologetic Jewish future – building the land, living the blessing.

But the brothers rejected those dreams. Because they were too “in your face”, too ambitious, too assertive … too Jewish.

And, sadly, we can say bi’yamim hahem b’zamn hazeh (in those days, in this time) – how true this is of our own jewish world.

So much effort is expended in the “Jewish Organization World” looking for the big Jewish idea. But we have the big idea. Its called Judaism. We just have to stop being afraid to dream our own Jewish dreams.

This past week, I read about how one of the largest Federations in the country ran a task force on outreach to intermarried families. This is, itself, a very important initiative – but the leader of the taskforce was quoted as saying: “We are not endorsing interfaith marriage or condemning it” which the eminent Professor Jack Wertheimer of JTS called a:

“devastating commentary on our times … In the name of “welcoming,” the Federation no longer asserts what Jews have understood for millennia: that leaving aside cases of conversion … intermarriage is bad for the Jewish people and for the perpetuation of Judaism.”

And, in an article about Tim Tebow and his tendency to pray, a rabbi in the Jewish Week column, wrote that he hopes that Tebow’s team doesn’t win the Super Bowl, because it will:

“… buoy his faithful, and emboldened faithful can do insane things, like burning mosques and bashing gays.”

To its credit, the paper removed this from the website because it was perceived as an attack on Christian groups, but it’s really an attack on religion and I find myself wondering: if a rabbi is instinctively hostile to religiosity and religious people, what does that say about our times?

And, without commenting on politics and candidates, and without necessarily agreeing with every word of his statement, why is it left to a non-Jewish politician to assert powerfully, clearly and proudly Israel’s right to exist far more assertively than our own Jewish leaders?

Who is leading our community? Yosef – with dreams not of extremism, but of pride of engagement, of eagerness to see Judaism flourish – or the brothers – embarrassed, cowed, awkward with all of this enthusiasm?

Why the embarrassment? To fit in with society?

As Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks remarks, in his experience, non-Jews are embarrassed by Jews who are embarrassed about Judaism.

I recently finished reading the monumental history of the Soviet Jewry movement – “When they come for us we will be gone.”  The author recounts the fact that in the 1970s two non-Jewish congressmen were determined to link America’s foreign trade with progress on human rights, and passed the famous “Jackson Vanik” amendment.  This was done explicitly to help Soviet Jewry, but much of the Jewish establishment was firmly opposed, and, indeed, horrified by the proposal – fearing that it was too assertive, too demanding, too high profile for Jewish tastes.

I mention this case, in particular, because this Shabbat we celebrate the bar mitzvah of a very special young man form a very special family. A family where the parents were raised in the dark days of Soviet oppression of the Jewish people. The grandfather was imprisoned, twice, for Jewish and Zionist activities – for dreaming Jewish dreams of going to Israel, and was only saved from execution by a miracle. The grandmother scrupulously kept kosher, despite the danger and the hardship. The father would covertly eat matza at university on Pesach (Passover). Proud Jews, Jews who dreamed of freedom, of Jewish life, even in the darkest days.

There is nothing wrong with Jewish dreams. Indeed, there are no dreams more beautiful.

 

Elder Abuse – Distorting Judaism and Shaming the Avos

There is a shameful form of Tzedakah (charity) growing in today’s Jewish world that should sicken us all. Individuals and organizations prey on people’s fears and troubles, and “guarantee” miracles in return for donations.

I had considered calling this week’s Sermon “Prostituting the Avos (Forefathers)”, but I felt that that would be too disrespectful.  However, a charity flyer I received recently leads me to think that that is exactly what is being done. It’s a fabrication and an outrage.

I recently received a glossy 16-page magazine that was published to encourage people to donate money to a particular religious institution.

It tells the story of a particular religious Jew (whom we will call “Reb Weinman”), an impeccably observant Jew who maintains close ties with a prominent Israeli Rabbi (whom we will call “Rav Stein”). Here is an excerpt from the story.

“One time, he called Rav Stein with a seemingly overwhelming problem – he had become entangled with the IRS, America’s Internal Revenue Service, and was under criminal investigation. The most optimistic experts informed him that, if he were lucky, he’d end up spending “only” several years behind bars. The IRS had succeeded in infiltrating his staff. These talented undercover policemen wormed their way up to prominent positions in the company, where they had access to sensitive information, and then used that information to put together a seemingly clear-cut criminal case.

Reb Weinman’s world had caved in on him. He felt that there was no hope for the future. All was lost – his family would be destitute and he’d end up behind prison bars. Rav Stein listened carefully as Reb Weinman described his predicament. As was his custom, he paused for a few moments to think and then said, “Mama Rochel [Rachel our foremother] can help – she always helps, in every situation!” Reb Weinman, sitting at his desk in New York, was totally confused.

What was the Rav trying to telling him? “The government has issued a restraining order, making it impossible for me to leave the borders of the United States,” he pointed out. “It’s impossible for me to come to Israel, so how can I possibly daven at Kever Rochel [cave/burial place of Rachel]?”

“You don’t have to go personally,” the Rav responded. “There’s a tzaddik who will go for you. He’s a talmid chacham with tremendous self-sacrifice for Mama Rochel. Helping him in his holy work for Mama Rochel is a sure investment, even when everything appears hopeless.”

The Rav paused for a few seconds and then continued, “This tzaddik’s name is Rav Hirsh. He has arranged for groups of tzaddikim to daven at Kever Rochel around the clock. I suggest that you cover the expenses of the minyan that learns there each night at midnight. If you do, I am sure that you will have a yeshua [salvation]. I know from experience that it works.”

So Reb Weinman called Reb Hirsh and arranged the donation. The story continues…

As Reb Weinman told us the following part of the story, his face became flushed with emotion and he had to pause for a few moments to compose himself. The very next morning, he received a phone call from the IRS, requesting his presence at the main office in Manhattan. Reb Weinman was petrified. What did they want from him? Were they going to send him straight to prison, without even the benefit of a trial? Instead, the unbelievable happened. The clerk smiled (yes, he smiled!) and informed Reb Weinman that the office had decided not to take the case to court. Instead, he was asked to pay a fine and then his case would be closed.

Reb Weinman’s accountant was astounded. Such behavior was unprecedented; in his several decades of working with the tax authorities, he had never seen them close a case of this magnitude before.

At this point, the relieved Reb Weinman takes the first flight to Israel, where he met with his Rabbi.

Rav Stein turned to him and asked, “And what about your daughters?” He was referring to Reb Weinman’s three unmarried daughters – the youngest was already twenty-eight. “Take advantage of this opportunity,” the Rav urged him. Reb Weinman grasped the significance of the Rav’s words, and immediately made out a check to the Kever Rochel Foundation, to cover an additional three months of support for the Midnight Minyan – one month for each of his three unmarried daughters. Three weeks later, Reb Weinman celebrated the engagement of his oldest daughter. Eight weeks later, the second daughter became a kallah [bride]. And one day before the end of the three months, the Weinman’s youngest daughter also got engaged.

In the zechus [merit] of Mama Rochel, and of tzedakah given to Mosdos Kever Rochel, Reb Weinman was saved from prison, and, as a bonus, each of his three daughters found their b’shert [intended soul mates].

Where does one even begin?

This is nauseating. This is selling the holy avos and imahos (forefathers and foremothers), like cheap, grubby [I don’t even want to write the word] … ready to bail out any old ganav (thief) for the right price.

Chalilah! (G-d forbid!). We should cry when we read this, because this isn’t reverence. There is nothing holy about this. Torah study and davening may, or may not, be more effective when done at Kever Rochel than other places, but the notion that supporting it guarantees immunity from prosecution from the IRS is too vulgar for words.

I have no problem with Tzedakah – the opposite – Tzedakah tatzil mimavet (Charity saves from death). I have no problem with Kever Rochel, no problem with seeking blessings.  If I faced personal difficulties of these, or any other, I would try anything I could to find help.

And that’s the problem.

There are people who are ready to try anything. And there are people ready to sell them salvation.

This is not about segulos, per se – the notion that by doing a particular action on a particular day, e.g., saying a specific chapter of Tehilim (Psalms) on a specific day of the week, that help may be given to you. Segulos are complicated. This is about something much worse.

This is about people who are trying to tell us that salvation can always be guaranteed … for the right price, to the right cause.

The fact is that the example I gave above is one that I find most offensive – because I cannot imagine that Rochel Imaynu, whom we meet in this morning’s parsha, is on call 24/7 to arrange bail for anyone prepared to slip her kollel a few dollars. But it is far from unique.

It has almost become a standard approach in fundraising in the orthodox world.

Perhaps you missed the advertisement that appeared in certain frum (religious) publications for the silver “segulah ring”? This is a ring that, when made in a certain way, out of pure silver, engraved with certain verses and names of Hashem, is held to be effective for helping  people in all sorts of situations.

Now to be honest I am skeptical about these kinds of segulos, but I accept that there is an approach to Judaism that finds room for them. Perhaps, nowadays, that’s even the mainstream approach. Maybe.

But here’s the thing. I checked out the source for the ring, in one of the books of the great mystic the Chida. And, indeed, he mentions it. But he doesn’t go so far as the advertisement that appeared in the Jewish media last year.

After claiming that it is successful in, at least, 90% of cases, the advertisement goes on to warn that:

“Additionally, it should come to your attention that [name] was granted the patent to manufacture this segulah ring; no one else in the world is allowed to manufacture it at this point in time. Copying it would be against secular, as well as religious Jewish, law and legal and/or rabbinical action will be taken in the event someone is caught committing such a transgression. Nor could any help from the segulah be expected when doing something of that nature against it.”

And finally:

“Also, importantly, despite being mentioned after everything else, the ring cannot be lent to anyone else other than a very immediately close relative – wife, husband, and children. It is certainly to be kept in mind that no help could be expected from a ring that has been borrowed from a non-immediately close relative – cousin, uncle, and aunt – or from a friend.”

So there you have it. This segulah will work. But only if you pay me.

The naked self-interest is, at least, refreshing as it is not dressed up in the pious cloak of tzedakah.

You know what this is. It’s a scam.

And it’s disgusting.

And the advertisement brings what it claims are testimonials from people attesting to having been helped by this ring in every imaginable area for shiduchim (marriages), health, parnasah (livelihood) – you name it.

Oh – and just one thing – there is a warning that if you are one of the unlucky 10% – you are not getting your money back.

These are just two examples of people – perhaps for worthy goals, perhaps not, preying on people’s darkest moments’ worst fears.

When the doctors have given up hope, the experts given up hope, when it seems that your davening is hopeless – someone will sell you hope.

Commenting on one organization that stated in its promotional literature:

“… all who contribute to [this charity] merit to see open miracles.”

The great Mashgiach of the Lakewood Yeshiva, Rav Mattisyahu Salomon, was reported as describing it as “nothing short of gezel gamur, of pure theft.”

Why this matters, and matters to us (perhaps a more skeptical crowd, although not totally) is as follows:

We are all looking for shortcuts. Sell me an app to get my prayers answered and I’ll take it. Show me the way round the hard work, the effort, the uncertainty, and I’ll pay any price.

But, at its root, that idea is heresy.

Do you really think there is a shortcut? That if illness or tragedy strikes your life, G-d forbid, that if Hashem has decreed an outcome for us, that you can break the system.

We know about prayer, tzedakah, teshuvah (repentance). We know that an evil decree can be averted. But it’s not magic and it’s certainly never ever guaranteed, and I can guarantee no one can sell it to you.

Beyond a laziness, a looking for shortcuts, a workaround, is a perverse scale of value systems that says, somehow, the Almighty can be tricked by the right incantation into giving you what you want. And that’s not Judaism, but it’s what many frum Jews have come to believe.

In this week’s parsha we meet Yaakov Avinu (our forefather Jacob), fleeing from home. Alone, and afraid his world has come crashing down. He has no money, no home, he has nothing. He dreams a dream and Hashem promised him: “Jacob I will guard you wherever you go, I will bless you, I will never abandon you, I will bring you home.”

And Yaakov woke up and he prayed to G-d and made an oath, and beseeched Hashem, for bread and clothing.

אִם-יִהְיֶה אֱלִֹקים עִמָּדִי, וּשְׁמָרַנִי בַּדֶּרֶךְ הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי הוֹלֵךְ, וְנָתַן-לִי לֶחֶם לֶאֱכֹל, וּבֶגֶד לִלְבֹּשׁ.

Hashem just promised him every type of bracha (blessing) and now he’s asking for the basics of human existence. What’s the matter?  Has he lost his silver segulah ring? Why is he worried about not having bread to eat?

Because, as chazal explain, in life there are no guarantees. The Torah promises nobody an easy life. S’char mitzvah bu hay almal leka, there is no reward for Mitzvos (good deeds) in this world. No one, even the most righteous, are ever guaranteed that things will go easy for them in this world.

That’s what Hashem wants from us in this world – loyalty, devotion, work, but most of all faith. Faith that even when things don’t go well, that He is with us even as we suffer, and that we are not alone.

To imply otherwise – worse, to claim you have a shortcut that exempts you from what Hashem wants of all of us – is wrong. To seek to cash in on people suffering is a perversion.

Kever Rochel is, indeed, a beautiful place. Made all the more resonant by the fact that she lies buried at the side of the road, in order, as the prophet Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) tells us:

רָחֵל, מְבַכָּה עַל-בָּנֶיהָ

Rachel is crying for her children, begging the Almighty to bring redemption.

Perhaps if we spent less time asking Rochel Imaynu to keep tax cheats out of jail, and more time davening that Hashem should hear her cries, we would merit to see speedily the true and final salvation.

 
 
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