Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Returning Lost Items - And Not Allowing People to Be Lost

Parshat Ki Tetze

by Rabbi Avi Billet

If one finds something that belongs to someone else, the Torah obligates the finder to return it. Beginning with an example of a wandering animal, the mitzvah becomes more specific and general in referring both to returning even a garment, while also “any lost item which {your brother) loses and you find it. You may not ignore it.” (Devarim 22:1-3)

To return a lost item is an important mitzvah we can all appreciate. After all, we can all relate to the feeling which accompanies either the inability to find something or the realization that something is lost. We also very much appreciate finding that lost item, and the shock of someone else finding it and returning it!

The Sefer HaChinukh describes these passages as being two separate mitzvoth, one positive and one negative – the first being to return that lost item, the second being to not ignore it. Using one combined explanation for the two mitzvoth, he says the purpose of returning lost items is for the betterment of society.

Noting how all of the Talmudic discussions on this subject are in Bava Metzia chapter 2, he also reminds us that there are circumstances under which it is impossible to return a lost item, and a person should do one’s best when possible.

This week, the United States observed 9/11, and that day was one in which this country suffered a tremendous loss. Beyond the national tragedy and the personal tragedy that affected so many thousands of people and extended families, the biggest halakhic questions which came in the aftermath of the terrorist attack was determining the status of wives whose husbands were missing after that day – how much time needed to pass for an agunah to be officially declared a widow?

That can certainly fit into the category of “You may not ignore.” “You must return” a clear status to this woman, so she may mourn and thus, after gathering the broken pieces of life, make every effort to continue living a purpose-filled life.

The Alshikh notes that the verse instructing not to ignore a lost item refers specifically to something “your brother had, but was lost from him. It does not apply to something he didn’t have,” but may have missed out on getting, such as a “y’fat to’ar,” the captive woman described at the beginning of the Torah portion. Furthermore, he notes how God wanted to give the Israelites merits in the mitzvah of “loving your neighbor as you love yourself.”

As he puts it, it’s hard to drop everything you are doing, your plans for the day, your schedule, etc., just to help someone with their problems. “And so the Torah tells us, ‘don’t watch that happen and ignore it, which is human nature, because if you make the effort to return, and especially if you are successful, you will feel so amazing you’ll do it again.’ When you will have trained yourself to conduct yourself the same way next time, it will be easy for you to do.”

So I think we can look outside of the box, beyond the lost item, to see what other things have been lost, and see how we can return them.

Every year, I read an article, usually from a parent in Brooklyn or Lakewood, decrying how most kids have a place in school, but some children were not placed by the time school started recently. I have heard the argument made that certain communities must band together and have all the schools not send out acceptance letters until all the children at least have one acceptance letter going to them.

How can a school year begin with some children sitting at home? If they were in school last year, the mitzvah of Talmud Torah, and the concern for the “Tinokot shel beit rabban’s” Torah study should override everything else! They should not become lost!

I will conclude with two stories about Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, the Rosh Yeshiva of many yeshivos from Bnei Brak, about his feelings of what should prevent children from going to school.

A fellow came to Rav Shteinman explaining why the children of a certain family who was (in this fellow’s opinion) “not yeshivish enough” for the school he represented should not be allowed in. He wanted Rav Shteinman to agree with him. Rav Shteinman asked a couple of questions and determined that the only reason people didn’t want this family in was “Gayvah!” (Thinking they are better than this family.) (skip to the 3:25 in the video to see his response)

Rav Aharon Leib went to the ends of the earth to avoid kicking students, even troublesome ones, out of school, until he at the very least found a new school for the student to study. He often would say that the only reason to have a child leave a school is if he is affecting others’ “Yiras Shamayim” (fear of heaven). Barring that, every child should have a place in a school or yeshiva. 

We cannot afford to lose the children! Just as our leadership went to the ends of the earth to not lose the 9/11 agunahs, our communities must move whatever mountains possible to see that neshamas are not lost because they are “not good enough” for our schools, or are finding themselves in learning institutions that do not inculcate religious instruction and Jewish values due to no other option being available – whether on account of finances, aptitude, attitude, academic ability, or whatever the reason.

Like the Sefer HaChinukh says, this attitude of not giving up on the lost children can only be for the betterment of our Jewish society. And like the Alshikh said, it is a tremendous demonstration of “Loving your neighbor as yourself” when you move the mountains you’d like moved for yourself in order to get someone else to find that which they seemed to have lost. We can not afford the lost souls of these children.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Zaken Mamre and Civil Discourse

Parshat Shoftim

by Rabbi Avi Billet

The source of Rabbinic commandments is in Devarim chapter 17, when Moshe sets the stage as such that the rabbis of the Sanhedrin, based at the place “God will have chosen,” will declare laws, “you must do as they tell you, carefully following their every decision.” 

This is a Sanhedrin, comprised of top-notch scholars, geniuses, who speak many languages, each of whose knowledge is widely accepted as authoritative along all spectrum of Jewish identification and experience. 

The Sanhedrin existed in a time and place in which God’s presence was more noticeable, what with the miracles of the Temple, as well as the function of the Urim V’Tumim of the Kohen Gadol’s vestments. Technically the Sanhedrin lasted several centuries after the destruction of the Temple, but its authority could certainly be traced back to its origins in the Temple Era. Since its disbanding, there hasn’t been a universally accepted authority in halacha, beyond certain codes of Jewish law which speak for themselves in the ways in which they are timeless, but they do not always address contemporary modernity – such as the many questions that electricity poses in the observance of Shabbos through the use of refrigerators, crock pots, timers, apps that run the home, etc.  
“[Besides this, in general,] you must keep the Torah as they interpret it for you, and follow the laws that they legislate for you. Do not stray to the right or left from the word that they declare to you. If there is any man who rebels and refuses to listen to the priest or other judge who is in charge of serving God your Lord there [as leader of the supreme court], then that man must be put to death, thus ridding yourselves of evil in Israel. When all the people hear about it, they will fear and will not rebel again.” (Devarim 17:11-13, “Living Torah” translation) 
This quote raises many questions, two of which I will address now. The first is “Do the ‘they’ of the verse still exist, and if yes, is their word always binding?” The second is, “Who is this rebellious man, and how does his death serve a purpose that isn’t simply an execution?” 

To the first question, it is a difficult reality that we face, but the fact is that different groups of Jews, even within the Orthodox world alone, would never accept the authority of every rabbinic group that might legislate. While there are certainly very many scholars and incredible poskim today, it is hard to argue that too many would fit the criteria of being on the Sanhedrin of yesteryear. 
“According to R. Jose b. Ḥalafta, the members of the Great Bet Din were required to possess the following qualifications: scholarship, modesty, and popularity among their fellow men (Tosef., Ḥag. ii. 9; Sanh. 88b). According to an interpretation in Sifre, Num. 92 (ed. Friedmann, p. 25b), they had also to be strong and courageous. Only such were eligible, moreover, as had filled three offices of gradually increasing dignity, namely, those of local judge, and member successively of two magistracies at Jerusalem (Jose b. Ḥalafta, l.c.). R. Johanan, a Palestinian amora of the third century, enumerates the qualifications of the members of the Sanhedrin as follows: they must be tall, of imposing appearance, and of advanced age; and they must be learned and must understand foreign languages as well as some of the arts of the necromancer (Sanh. 19a).” (
As such, while people can voluntarily pick their own authorities, and while some communal institutions might rule with an air of authority that goes unchallenged (think ‘kashrut organizations’), no individual rabbi or group of rabbis speaks for all of Judaism. 

This fact also makes us wonder what kind of arguments will transpire in the Messianic era over how the Beit Hamikdash will function, whose rule will be law, and which priests will be given full access, while others will be relegated to less prestigious or significant jobs. (Search for “Moshaich’s hat” on the internet to see a sad social commentary on this reality). 

To the second question, the individual of which the verse speaks is called in Rabbinic parlance a “zaken mamre” – a rebellious elder who is a scholar, who purposely throws a monkey wrench into the teachings of other scholars, ruling against their rules, subverting their authority, and instructing people to go against their positions. 

Haktav V’hakabbalah has a lengthy treatise of what criteria would need to be met in order to actually put this man to death. Suffice it to say, it is not as simple as the Torah seems to depict it. In fact, any kind of death penalty described in the Torah was never easy to actualize, and in contemporary times should be understood more as warning of us of the severity of a crime than of practical steps in how to deal with it. 

It is very easy to paint a person one disagrees with as “dangerous.” Whether such an appellation applies to one’s political opponent, or anyone with whom one disagrees about a whole host of issues, is certainly in the eye of the beholder. Calling someone “dangerous” without evidence, especially when the person has no power, limited to no authority, and is simply rendering a differing opinion, is only character-assassination not backed up by a valid argument. Even if the person is in a position of power or authority, in most cases checks and balances limit the person’s net impact, rendering the “dangerous” claim to be relatively insignificant. 

What does executing the ‘zaken mamre’ then accomplish? In ancient times, and with a Sanhedrin ruling on the case, maybe there is what to be said of a certain order to be followed when there is a central authority. I question the need for execution, however, as I’d like to think the greater society could simply ignore this individual when he is going against everyone else (unless what he's saying can't be ignored - in which case, one wonders why it can't be addressed by opponents of his ideas?). 

In the contemporary sense, however, perhaps one could argue that it demonstrates what a heartless and cruel society can do when it can’t articulate an opposing view in a convincing fashion. If the only way to stifle an opposing view is to shut it down through legislation or through character assassination or execution, perhaps it means that the view everyone would like to see go unchallenged doesn’t stand on its own merits! 

In this light, perhaps calling the elderly scholar “rebellious” can be viewed as a cop-out, an easy fix to a problem the community should really have the ability to address in an open and honest fashion. Some conversations are difficult! But maybe talking is better than simply sentencing a man to death because we can’t deal with what he has to say.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

What is the Connection Between Shmittah and...

Parshat Re'eh 

by Rabbi Avi Billet

One of the most well-known questions that Rashi asks in the Torah is at the beginning of Parshat Behar when he asks, “What is the matter of Shmittah’s connection to Har Sinai?” [Shmittah is the Torah-mandated 7th year during which the land of Israel is to remain untilled and fallow – and God promises that due to following this rule, the land will nevertheless produce food for all.]

It’s a decent question, when you examine the opening of Parshat Behar, Vayikra 25 verses 1-2. I personally prefer the question of Or HaChaim, "What is the connection between Mount Sinai and coming to the land?" because it is more reflective of the actual order of the words of the verse.

But if I were asking the question, I would actually go in a different direction, asking “What is the connection between Shmittah and… the poor person?”

In Vayikra 25:2 we are introduced to the Shmittah year. Later in the same chapter, Vayikra 25:25, we are introduced to the concept that poor people are to be cared for and not neglected.

In Devarim 15:1 we are introduced again to the concept of Shmittah. Once again, in the same chapter (15:7 & 12) we are introduced to other presentations of what happens when your Hebrew brother becomes impoverished.

As if that were not enough, the first time we saw both of these concepts in the Torah were in Parshat Mishpatim! “You may plant your land for six years and gather its crops. But during the seventh year, you must leave it alone and withdraw from it. The needy among you will then be able to eat [from your fields] just as you do, and whatever is left over can be eaten by wild animals. This also applies to your vineyard and your olive grove.” (23:10-11)

Once we’re in Mishpatim we find a fascinating connection between the poor person and Shmittah, and that is in the opening mitzvah of theTorah portion: the rules surrounding the “Eved Ivri” – the Hebrew servant.

Both of these mitzvoth have an instruction of “six years you shall work” and year seven is a year of freedom. For the servant, he goes free from his servitude. For the farmer, he is free from the need to labor. An additional connection is that the servant, in most cases, was sold into slavery simply because he was needy – a clear indication of the connections between being poor and the concept of Shmittah.

Ironically, it is Rashi in our parsha, who conveys to us the most simple message. “When you are doing the will of the divine, poor people will only exist in other [nations] but not in yours. But when you are not fulfilling the word of the divine, you will have poor people among you. The ‘evyon’ (אביון) is even more destitute than the ‘ani,’ (עני) because the ‘evyon’ is a ‘desire’ for everything [since he has nothing]” (The Hebrew word ‘evyon’ (destitute) and ‘ta’ev’ (תאב) (desire) are connected in their having the same letters.)

And herein lies our connection.

We have two very important commandments – the rebuke in Bechukotai (Vayikra 26:34) indicates that one of the most cardinal sins that will bring about the devastation of that rebuke is ignoring the Mitzvah of Shmittah.

And every time the poor, including the Eved Ivri, are mentioned, we are enjoined to not neglect our needy brother and sister. Our job, as it were, in a divine command, is to not neglect God’s children who can’t put food on the table, who can’t pay their bills, who can’t rejoice in a holiday without our assistance.

We are almost a month away from the High Holidays. Just like around Passover time, it is necessary for us to do our part to look out for our brothers and sisters who are in need, so that through fulfilling the easier mitzvah we have (tzedakah) we can demonstrate to God why we are worthy of the plenty we hope to enjoy.

Most of us are not farmers, and many of us don’t live in Israel. Shmittah is not our top concern (even if we are careful about the rules of Shmittah when it comes to produce from Israel during a Shmittah year). But we can take care of the needy.

May we be blessed to do so.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Do We Ever Have the Right To Glory Over Our Achievements?

Parshat Eikev

by Rabbi Avi Billet

In preparation for Tisha B’Av, I read through Artscroll’s “Eichah” and came across the following passage.
“The truth is far beneath the surface: ‘It is not the poisonous snake, but the sin that kills’ (Berachos 33a)
“Admittedly, it is enormously difficult for flesh and blood creatures in a cause-and-effect, material world to perceive that the pain, swelling, fever, and death were caused by the venom of sin rather than the venom of snake. But belief in God demands no less. Just as we know that the carpenter, not the hammer, drives in the nails, we must also know that it is God, not bacteria, Who punishes. The difficulty in first accepting this concept intellectually and then translating it into a formula of life is but a manifestation of God’s master plan: that His name be hidden, that His Guiding Hand be hidden – and that mortal man be charged with the task of discerning His presence and His will.” 

It came back to mind when reading verses in our parsha, selectively edited [by me] in the next paragraph, in order to ask the question which will follow (from 8:11-20)
“Be careful that you not forget Hashem your God …you will eat and be satisfied, build fine houses and live in them. Your herds may increase… you may amass much silver and gold - everything you own may increase… your heart may grow haughty, and you may forget God…[When you later have prosperity, be careful that you not] say to yourself, 'It was my own strength and personal power that brought me all this prosperity.' You must remember that it is God your Lord who gives you the power to become prosperous… If you ever forget God your Lord, and follow other gods, worshiping them and bowing to them, I bear witness to you today that you will be totally annihilated…” 
So here is the question: What may we credit to ourselves? Is everything from God? What happens if humans achieve something incredible, which comes from God, but then it turns out to be a failure? Did God fail? Or is it a human failure? Did the humans not, in fact, achieve a God-worthy achievement?

One marvels at the Pyramids of Giza, Great Wall of China, Petra, the Colosseum, Chichen Itza, Machu Picchu, Taj Mahal, and a large statue in Brazil.

Are these the works of man? Or are they God’s handiwork? The wonders of the ancient world are mostly gone – were they the works of man or God?

Surely all of these items were put together, worked on for years and years by many humans.

Did the people who put these things together have the right to turn around and say, “Look what we did!”? (Never mind that slaves probably had a large role in each “wonder” being built.)

There is too much about the world that we do not understand for us to have the arrogance to say “We have done things God couldn’t do.” Sadly we see this kind of attitude a lot in the technology world, in the world of medicine, in aeronautics, in everything related to transportation and mobility.

We even see it in the world of Torah sometimes, when people speak of “my chiddush,” the “new idea I came up with,” or in certain areas of psak which take a very clear position, to the exclusion of all others, when the facts of any situation will typically be more complicated and involved than one particular viewpoint. There isn’t a “one size fits all” for anything in life. 

I recently asked some younger physicians “Do you ever get it wrong? For good, or for bad! Have you ever just given someone information that turned out to be completely incorrect – for the good or for the bad?”

They told me there is a world of a difference in how they were trained to relate to patients versus an older school method. They never tell anyone “You have this much time to live.” As one of them said to me, “Who am I to play God?”

Rather, they told me a few things of note. There is a difference between trying to diagnose someone based on symptoms versus diagnosing a pathology which is much more clear based on specific tests. Meaning, it is OK to say to someone “You have cancer” (God forbid), but it is not OK to say “and therefore this is what is going to happen.”

Another important difference between their approach and older-methods is that they give possibilities and statistics. “Your symptoms might be this, they might be that, or they might be something else. We can do more tests to try to ascertain with the closest thing to certainty we have as to what is going on with you.”

As far as statistics, “30 percent of people who have what you have go this route, 30 percent go this route, and 40 percent have this outcome. There is no way to know which percent you’re in, so I will keep it positive, believing you are in the best group, and we’ll move on from there.”

They told me of situations where their personal thoughts about a case (which they did not necessarily share with the patient) turned out to be wrong – the patient improved unexpectedly. But, to their credit, they had the humility to recognize that some things are beyond our comprehension. Being a doctor doesn’t mean “I am God” or “I replace God.” It means “God gives me the opportunity to do my best to help people.”

I think this is an important perspective that Moshe is sharing with us. When we contemplate human achievement on the global scale, or even our own achievements on a personal level, we must remember that the strength and abilities we have, possess and utilize come from God. 

Our errors? Are our errors. One who believes that God is perfect and that His works are perfect recognizes and understands that it is only human beings who can and have messed things up in this world through their arrogance, haughtiness and their forgetting God.

When we remember God and that He is the one who gives us strength and power to become prosperous and successful and achieve amazing things, only then can we fully achieve and appreciate the blessings promised to us in our parsha.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Moshe's non-entry to the Promised Land, in his own words

Parshat Va'etchanan

by Rabbi Avi Billet

Why did Moshe not enter the Promised Land?

If you ask Moshe, he blames the Jewish people. Several times.

First is in Parshat Devarim (which we read this past Shabbos) in 1:37 - “God also got angry at me because of you saying ‘You too will not go there.’” Here Moshe is clearly talking in the context of the spies story, suggesting that he too was included in the decree that “everyone over 20,” with the exception of Kalev and Yehoshua, would die in the wilderness.

Twice in our parsha he makes a similar claim: After recounting a request he made of God as to the possibility of crossing the Jordan, “God got angry at me on your account and He did not listen,” and he told me to drop it. (3:26)

In 4:21, in the context of telling the people of Revelation, and important rules surrounding not abandoning God, Moshe says, “God was angry at me on your words (possibly 'deeds'). And He swore I would not be crossing the Jordan and entering the land.”

Or HaChaim in Devarim 1 says it’s absolutely true that Moshe was prevented from going into the land on account of the spies. [He argues that Moshe also could not enter because had he entered the Land he’d have built the Holy Temple, and God would never have allowed Moshe’s Temple to be destroyed.]

The spies episode lowered the spiritual level of the Jewish people, and changed their DNA into a DNA of strife and negativity.

In Or HaChaim’s view, the sin at Mei Merivah (when Moshe hit the rock) was that he had the opportunity to sanctify God’s name, and bring the spiritual DNA of the Jewish people back to where it needed to be. The opportunity was lost, however, because Moshe felt the people needed a different message to be shared with them, in line with their complaints which indicated they were not ready to hear the proper message.

In our parsha (4:21), Moshe seems to be blaming his inability to enter the land on something that happened at the bottom of Sinai, at the time of Revelation, most specifically related to something the people said or did.

Sha"kh (R Mordechai HaKohen – 17th century) suggests that as Moshe is talking about Sinai, he is referring to their words at Sinai. And of course, their words at Sinai references either the Golden Calf incident or the hypocrisy of saying Naaseh V’Nishma (accepting the Torah unconditionally) and then whatever they said when they worshiped the Golden Calf.

Their role there would indicate that from that point Moshe, the individual, would not be going into the land on personal merits, but perhaps he still felt he could enter on his leader merits.

This makes no sense, however, when we consider that Moshe had nothing to do with the Golden Calf! He was on a mountain, while it was his brother Aharon – who at this point is already deceased – who dealt with the people and was somewhat behind the Golden Calf.

R Pinchas HaLevi Horowitz, in his Panim Yafot, explains it in the following way. Sinai and the giving of the Torah was a watershed moment in how the Jewish people were to relate to God. Up until that point, to help the people be weaned from idolatrous Egypt, where every miracle and special event was marked by a tribute to some physical act, statue, or divinity, for any event the Israelites experienced, they needed an action or a symbol to help them see and understand how God was playing a role in their lives.

Moshe used his staff to effect the plagues and to draw water from the rock in Refidim – as he was commanded to in Shmot 17, right before the war with Amalek. (Fascinatingly - he was told to remove his staff and use his hand to split the sea (see Kli Yakar on Bamidbar 20)

In the Amalek war, Moshe’s hands were held up as inspiration and as a symbol leading to victory.

And then Sinai happened.

All of a sudden, because God spoke, and they heard God and had no need to see Him, every similar miracle thereafter was to be accomplished through speech, without a symbol: the splitting of the Jordan – no action taken, at the “rock” incident at Mei Merivah, Moshe was told to speak to the rock, when Yehoshua fought a difficult battle in the Book of Yehoshua, he said “the sun should stay still in Givon,” a statement that was not accompanied by any symbolic action; when the people fought against Amalek in Parshat Chukat (Bamidbar 21:2-3), the Torah tells us “Israel made a vow” – allowing the outcome of the battle to be based on speech and prayer!

So how did their words/deeds cause God to get angry at Moshe, who was not involved in the Golden Calf incident? Because their words and subsequent deeds caused Moshe to get angry, and to lose faith in their worthiness to have a miracle happen based in speech. This happened at both episodes: at the bottom of Sinai, and at the rock incident. Moshe broke the tablets, Moshe struck the rock, even though he could have accomplished the same thing in both cases with words alone, had he only given the Israelites a chance to listen to the correct words.

The problem according to Panim Yafot, is that as Moshe tells them in our parsha how they are to avoid any image or symbol to help them connect with the Divine – referring to some king of idolatry – Moshe is showing how he did not do that! He reminds the people of a time when he broke the tablets on account of what they had been doing, and how he also denied their ability to connect with the Divine through speech alone: serving God is a spiritual endeavor of the highest level, in which an image has no place. His using the tablets instead of speech to rebuke the people angered God. (even as God felt his breaking the tablets had merit - BT Shabbat 87a)

Moshe had mistakenly believed Israel had fallen back to their previous status.

We should make no mistake about it. They had sinned. But just as we would never accuse someone who has converted to Judaism who is caught eating a cheeseburger of being a non-Jew (the person is a Jew despite the sin), Moshe had no right to assume that a sin reverted their status to what it had been before Revelation.

Sha"kh suggests this process even began when God admonished Moshe as he was still atop the mountain, before he even witnessed their sin, when He told Moshe “Go down for your nation has become corrupt.”

We are at a time when we must be ready to receive the word of God through hearing (ie Shema). Our world is increasingly training us to only believe things we see. If there’s no picture, it didn’t happen; if there’s no video, I don’t believe it. 

What does it take to trust in God? For Moshe, if we are still doing what the Israelites were doing in his day, being unworthy of understanding a message unless there's a symbol or image attached to it, neither we or he are worthy of the Promised Land. Far be it from us to continue to carry that blame.

We need to fix the flaws and faux pas of past generation Jews.

Na'aseh V'Nishma is the answer. Do mitzvot because God said so. Everything else is a distraction.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

The Vision of Chazon

Shabbat Chazon (Haftarah of Devarim)

by Rabbi Avi Billet

The Haftorah of Chazon, the opening chapter of Yeshayahu includes a message from God which is very hard to understand.
Of what use are your many sacrifices to Me? says the Lord. I am sated with the burnt-offerings of rams and the fat of fattened cattle; and the blood of bulls and sheep and hegoats I do not want. You shall no longer bring vain meal-offerings, it is smoke of abomination to Me; New Moons and Sabbaths… Your New Moons and your appointed seasons My soul hates, they are a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing [them]. And when you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you, even when you pray at length, I do not hear; your hands are full of blood. Wash, cleanse yourselves, remove the evil of your deeds from before My eyes, cease to do evil. Learn to do good, seek justice, strengthen the robbed, perform justice for the orphan, plead the case of the widow. (Yeshayahu 1:12-17) 

What does he mean? God doesn’t like sacrifices, or Rosh Chodesh, or Shabbos or holidays?

Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi) explains that what bothered the Almighty about the sacrifices is that they were being brought on Bamot – an unsanctioned form of service – whether to God, or especially in the form of Avodah Zara to a “different” god, and then the people would turn around and bring Korbanot at the Beit Hamikdash on Rosh Chodesh and holidays.

You can’t be unfaithful to a spouse and still profess your love to that same spouse! The same is true for one’s relationship with God. God's response to this contradictory behavior is, “I don’t need your gifts and apologies when you have completely disavowed our relationship. You’re certainly not fooling Me!”

Abravanel quotes a Midrash Tanchuma on Parshat Pinchas, in which Rabbi Akiva is asked by a non-Jew, “Why do you keep your holidays? Doesn’t God say here (in Yeshayahu 1) that he hates your Rosh Chodeshes and your Moadim?” Rabbi Akiva replied, “I’d agree with you if it said ‘I hate My Rosh Chodeshes and My Holidays! But God says its “your” Rosh Chodeshes and holidays that I despise. In the Torah God describes them as, “These are My holidays!” (אלה הם מועדי) Therefore the despised Rosh Chodeshes and holidays were holidays made up by Yerovam ben Nevat, to serve other entities."

In other words, these despised celebrations were not sanctioned, and were demonstrative of a people who were not following God’s ways. “When you come to appear before Me, who requested this of you, to trample My courts?” (1:12)

Yeshayahu noted how people were viewing the Mikdash as a curiosity, something to look at, an ancient relic of a different age. Maybe they saw it as something to do because it’s cool to say “This is something my ancestors did.”

Yeshayahu was conveying that ritual alone doesn’t cut it.
We can’t just show up seasonally and think that’s enough.
We can’t ignore the plight of the needy and destitute and lonely, and assume we’re doing fine in God’s eyes.

On “Learn to do good, seek justice, strengthen the robbed, perform justice for the orphan, plead the case of the widow” (1:17), Abravanel writes that doing good and seeking justice means actively looking to do good for others. "Not hurting people" is the opposite of this because not hurting people does nothing for them.

He quotes the Ibn Ezra who says that first of the words we’ve translated as “strengthen the robbed,” “Ishru Chamotz” (אשרו חמוץ) comes from the word Yashar, to do right for the robbed. Straighten things out – make things “yashar” for the person. Abravanel supports this view from the way Leah names Zilpah’s son Asher, “Because of my good fortune, for women have declared me fortunate" (באשרי כי אשרוני בנות)

Regarding the “soured person” (another translation of חמוץ) who is a victim of theft, others should “make it right.” And since the widow and orphan don’t typically have an advocate on their behalf, they are mentioned specifically as people for whom we must perform justice and plead on their behalf.

So let us remember that the holidays and Rosh Chodeshes we observe are God’s.

Let us remembers that we don’t only show up for proper holidays and Rosh Chodeshes, but that we try to make our attendance at shul more consistent.

Let us remember that lip service is not service. Tradition is wonderful, but it should be meaningful. If after a lifetime of davening with intent to catch a train a person does not know how to pray slowly and deliberately, what a missed opportunity. Unlike those who were chastised by Yeshayahu for bringing meaningless offerings, our offerings, which come in the form of our tefillah, must be meaningful. It means we have to understand what we are saying. And we must be sincere.

At the same time, the prophet says, even more important than how we serve God is how we relate to our fellow man. Especially those who need our help.

We have a lot more going for us if we treat our fellow man with kindness.

But if a Jew is square with the Almighty and is a disgusting human being towards other people, there’s really not much to say. By the way, our rules don’t say to only look out for the Jewish widow and orphan. Loving your fellow neighbor means to be kind to all good people. There might officially be an instruction to be more favorable towards your Jewish brother or sister, but there is also an official position about being kind to all decent people.

The prophet reminds us how we are to relate to the orphan and widow because sometimes we forget people who are literally alone, and some people who are perhaps socially on the outskirts. They may or may not be needy financially, but they can’t be ignored by the community.

And the same holds true for people who are in a similar kind of life situation – alone, socially on the outskirts, etc FOR WHATEVER REASON.

Ahavas Yisrael, the love of a fellow Jew, is supposed to be Ahavas Chinam, without pre-conditions or strings attached. It's a simple attitude or equation. "You’re a Jew. I love you. Even if I don’t know you. Even if I don’t agree with you. Even if we have nothing in common. Even if I don’t like you! I still love you!"

As one image I saw recently said “Love your neighbor even if (s)he is not just like yourself.”

Being just and righteous (last verse of Haftorah) doesn’t mean that everyone is right always. Nor does it mean that some people won’t be disappointed in disputes, or lose court cases. But it means we stand for something which is profound and meaningful. This helps define us collectively, both in terms of each of our personal relationships with God, and in terms of how we relate to others.

It means, for example, that even when there is disagreement, there is respect.

Respect is the key that the prophet asks for – both heavenward and to one’s fellow man. If our people could only respect each other all the time, this exile would end.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Those who have hatred for another Jew are guilty of Sinas Chinam

This was my sermon the first Shabbos of the Nine Days 5779

Does Sinas Chinam Still Exist? How can we move past it?

          Many of us have an easy time relating to Shabbos. There is more written about Shabbos than we can ever imagine. And our world increasingly recognizes the need to take time off. To take a break from all the noise.

We can also appreciate finding meaning in holidays. The Yamim Noraim are two months away. Those days are extremely important to us.

         But this time of year - The Nine Days leading up to Tisha B’Av… it’s a challenge. This is the topic of this afternoon’s class, “How can we relate to the Nine Days?”

          It’s very difficult to feel the mourning, the aveilus, that we are supposed to feel for the loss of the Beis HaMikdash.

          This morning I want to focus on one component of Churban. Because, sadly, it is very relatable.

          Our rabbis teach us that the 2nd Beis Hamikdash was destroyed because of Sinas Chinam.

          It’s a strange equation. Baseless hatred, therefore destroy the Holy Temple?

          It gets even more complicated when we consider the following passage in the Talmud, Yoma 9b.
אבל מקדש שני, שהיו עוסקין בתורה ובמצות וגמילות חסדים מפני מה חרב? מפני שהיתה בו שנאת חנם. ללמדך ששקולה שנאת חנם כנגד שלש עבירות: עבודה זרה, גלוי עריות, ושפיכות דמים. רשעים היו, אלא שתלו בטחונם בהקדוש ברוך הוא.

          In the time of the second Beis Hamikdash, people were frum! Look what they were good at! Torah, mitzvos, acts of kindness! BUT THEY HATED EACH OTHER.

          To this the Gemara concludes that Sinas Chinam is a sin on par with the 3 cardinal sins of idolatry, sexual immorality and murder. They were רשעים! the Talmud says. But they had faith in God.

          Nowadays, I would question their faith in God. I would say They were frum! And they believed that their being judgmental of others was justified in the name of what they thought was God.

          But I have sad news. Those who justify their poor treatment of others in the name of what they think is God are actually guilty of at least 2 of the big 3. They murder other people through destroying their lives and reputations.

          They worship an idea of God that is completely foreign, because they view themselves as holier than others, in their own “more pure” version of what they think is Judaism.

          And these people do not deserve a Beis HaMikdash.
תלמוד ירושלמי (וילנא) מסכת יומא פרק א הלכה א
אבל בשני מכירין אנו אותם שהיו יגיעין בתורה וזהירין במצות ובמעשרות וכל ווסת טובה היתה בהן אלא שהיו אוהבין את הממון ושונאין אלו לאלו שנאת חנם
The Yerushalmi adds that “People loved money and hated one another.”

          I will address how we can get rid of Sinas Chinam in a moment. But before that, I have to tell you. In preparation for today two passages from Shakespeare passed through my mind. One is from As You Like It, when the character Jaques gives his “All the World’s a Stage” monologue.  I won’t read the whole thing to you, but it begins

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
·       At first the infant,
·       And then the whining school-boy
·       And then the lover,
·       Then a soldier,
·       And then the justice,
·       The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
·       Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion;

I don’t care much for his depiction of the last stage. But “As You Like It” is a comedy, so I’ll take it in stride. Comedy is funnier when people understand it is meant to be humorous.

But the insight in human nature – that everyone has a role to play at different stages of life, each with their exits and entrances – was perhaps Shakespeare’s way of saying, Hey. We are all in this together. We are all part of the human condition. There are stages in life that we all go through, and our job is to worry about ourselves and our own responsibilities and life challenges and stop worrying about how others are going about their responsibilities and challenges.

Should we be concerned for others? Absolutely! That’s what Chesed is! But Chesed is a one way street. When you don’t judge, and you don’t expect anything in return.

Remember, Chesed means I care and I don’t keep score.  It’s not about whether you fit into my picture of reality. It’s about how can I love you and look out for you
  • despite our differences,
  • even though we are different,
  • BECAUSE we are different

Because difference is good. We are not robots.
If and when we churn out robots, we are doing something wrong.  

The second passage that I thought of is from “the Merchant of Venice.” And while Shylock’s obsession with a pound of flesh is the subtext of much of the play, the first time I was exposed to the profundity of his most famous speech was in an article one of my teachers in high school shared, that had been written by Rabbi Aharon Soloveichik, who quoted the entire speech. I probably have the article in a file somewhere, I can’t find it. But the title I remember – “Et tu, Jewish leaders?” It was a critique of Jewish leadership who were requiring a conformity that Judaism does NOT require, which was bringing about a critique of the Jewish people which was unsubstantiated. Beyond that, I don’t remember the details.

And so Rav Aharon quoted Shylock.

Shylock was asked
Why, I am sure… if he forfeit thou wilt not take his flesh.
What’s that good for (anyway) ?

And SHYLOCK answered
To bait fish withal. If it will feed nothing else, it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me and hindered me half a million, laughed at my losses, mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine enemies—and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?

I believe Rav Aharon stopped his quoting there. But Shylock does continue.

And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be - by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute—and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

Not a great example of a Jew – after all, written by Shakespeare. He may be flawed, and certainly demanding a pound of flesh as collateral for a lone is insane… but is he entirely wrong in the way he describes how he and other Jews have been treated? Is his hatred of Antonio baseless? Is it Sinas Chinam? No. But he takes it to a degree which is unwarranted. Antonio owes the money! So try to find a way to get him and his friends to repay it. But enough about Shylock.

Is revenge the proper way? Our parsha speaks of revenge against Midian, but Midian caused the deaths of 24,000. God declared the revenge should take place!

And what happens if a Jew wrongs a Jew?

I know families who have been wronged. One woman – not in this community – wrote an email to me this year.

I’m at the point where I just feel like I don’t want to be part of Orthodoxy in general. I don’t want to be part of this group. I believe in Gd and the Torah and I want to remain Torah observant, but I don’t want to be part of any Jewish community. I’m not sure what to do, how to move on and find my place.
          I would hate to see revenge against those who have destroyed this family. But what gave those people the right to hate them and destroy them? SINAS CHINAM. And it is so clear where, if we did not have level heads, plus live in a civil society, where this could lead.

             Come on, Rabbi. No one hates for no reason. There’s always a reason!

             That is true. Sinas Chinam is often translated to mean “baseless” – but of course there’s always something that triggers it.

          But what makes it Sinas Chinam is that the party that hates has no interest in moving past the hatred. And it’s not even necessarily because they were wronged. In some cases they merely look askance at others, judge them and then hate them.

          On the Talmudic passage, the Maharsha writes:
          The people in the 2nd temple period had Sinas Chinam in their hearts. To their faces they acted like they were friends. Would even dine together. But in truth, one side hated the other. Which is worse than having a hatred out in the open.

He compares this to the difference between the ganav, the nighttime burgler, and the Gazlan, the day time robber. Halakha is more strict with the Ganav. Why? Rav Yochanan Ben Zakkai explained that the Gazlan fears God and man equally. He steals in the daytime. But the Ganav fears man more than God, and so steals at night.

Similarly, the one who hates openly treats God and man equally. He hates the person, and doesn’t care that he hates God’s child. The one who hates in secret fears the repercussions of hating in public, so he fears social impact more than what God really knows to be true.

Your fear of man is greater than your fear of God? In God’s eyes you are a sinner, worthy of having the Beis Hamikdash destroyed.

In his Meromei Sadeh, the Netziv describes Sinas Chinam. He quotes the Tosefta in menachos who blames Sinas Chinam on loving money more than needed.

Maybe he’s suggesting that Sinas Chinam is rooted in jealousy?

But he argues that murder was actually rampant during Bayis Sheni! Look in Josephus! Look in Gittin 57! Look in Avodah Zarah 8b!

It wasn’t physical murder. It was character assassination. Sadducee! Apikores! Fill in any name calling or label that is attached to hatred of the other!

        In the 16th century in Eastern Europe it was “Nadler.” I gave a class on that subject in June, and would happily give it again for those who missed it. A fascinatingly sad tale of decades of people destroying the lives of families in Volhynia in Eastern Poland, Bohemia, Moravia, Ostrow, which is now in the Czech Republic,  Prague.

Because that happens today. That is what triggered that email I shared with you earlier. I won’t share all of them. But here are some. Heretic! Goy! Open Orthodox! Vegan! Meat-eater! Murderer!

Jew against Jew.

ומשו"ה כשראה את חבירו עובר עבירה, לא שפט אותו שהוא עשה רק משום תאוה וכדומה, אלא משום שהוא אפיקורס ורשאי ומצוה להורגו.

What is Sinas Chinam? It is looking at someone doing something wrong, not being Dan l”kaf zechus, and jumping to a conclusion that this person is a heretic or a Rodef, and we are therefore halakhically allowed to kill them. This is SINAS CHINAM, because it is judgmental without knowing the whole story.

And even if we don’t actually resort to physically killing someone, there are plenty of things we can still do to destroy another person. Social ostracization or ostricism.

It is assuming I am right and the other person is wrong. There are no two ways of seeing things. Only my way.

So what’s the solution?

Don’t make assumptions. Talk to them. Ask questions. Learn a story? Don’t judge. Have an open mind and an open heart. Don’t be holier than thou. Don’t think we know better than God knows.

          For her bat mitzvah, our daughter read books of incredible Jewish women. My wife read most of them as well. I read the book about Henny Machlis.  An incredible book. I highly recommend it. "Emunah with Love and Chicken Soup."

          She had the antidote for Sinas Chinam. It was Ahavas Chinam. They had the dregs of society come through their door. Drug addicts. Homeless people. People with the worst hygiene and worst health you can imagine.

          But they fed them, they let them sleep on their couch or in their van, and they hugged them. They saved people. Many people. Some people they tried to save either died or were killed by the miserable company those individuals kept.

          But Henny Machlis loved them all – always telling her children, you don’t know what they’ve been through. You don’t know their back story.

          So that’s what we must do. Stop judging. Be champions of Ahavas Chinam. It’s the only true antidote to Sinas Chinam.