The Five Words of The Jew

The rabbis often identify unnamed characters in the Bible with other, identifiable, characters. One of the strangest ones is the wife of Joseph, given to him by Pharaoh. Her name is Asenat, the daughter of Potiphera. Potiphera is the same as Potiphar, the Egyptian master to whom Joseph had been sold as a slave. It was his wife who tried to hit on Joseph, and ultimately caused his being thrown in jail. On the surface, it would seem that Joseph got the daughter of the woman instead of the woman herself.

But our rabbis say that Joseph's wife was not the daughter of Mrs. Potiphar! She was only the adopted daughter of Mr. Potiphar. Instead, she was actually a close relative of Joseph's: the daughter of his sister Dina! And, even more interestingly, that meant that she was the daughter of Schechem, the Prince of the city of the same name who had raped her. In the aftermath of that rape, the two brothers Simon and Levi annihilated all of the men of Schechem. Their father, Jacob, was displeased with them for this act of violence.

Without commenting on the historical accuracy of this identification, the rabbis clearly seem to be teaching us something by identifying Joseph's wife with that incident. What is it?

Jacob, on his deathbed, bequeaths the city of Shechem to Joseph. The city, Jacob continues, "that I took from the Amorite with my sword and my bow." The Aramaic translation of the verse says, "that I took from the Amorite with my prayer and my request." Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin questions the order of sword and bow. In battle, one uses the bow and arrow first since it shoots to the distance, and only when the enemy is in close quarters does one pull out the sword. Why are they reversed in this verse?

Rabbi Sorotzkin answers that "prayer," or the sword mentioned in the verse, is specifically referring to the recitation of the Shema. "Request," or bow and arrow, refers to the silent devotion which is comprised of requests. The order is important! First, we must strengthen for ourselves our core beliefs. These we do when we recite the Shema, the Jewish proclamation of faith. Only then are we ready to reach out to the distant world, with requests for the future for everybody. We need to know who we are before we can define what to ask for and what our vision for the world is.

There is a midrash that says the following: "Because he (Joseph) was early, and did not do as they did, he shall receive Shechem in his portion." What does this mean?

In truth it was Simon and Levi who conquered Shechem, so they should have been the ones to inherit it. Their act of cruelty and violence, however, was such a trauma for Jacob that he would not allow them to inherit that city. How did Simon and Levi come to behave in such a fashion? They didn't live according to the five words, and here they are:

"The Lord is our God, the Lord is one… And you shall love…" (I know, in English it's about 13 words, but in Hebrew it's five.)

Before a Jew interacts with the world, he must internalize these five words. Joseph did. When he went to Egypt, he showed his faith by resisting the temptations of Potiphar's wife, and he showed his love by serving and helping even the lowliest prisoner in the jails of Egypt. Perhaps, when the medrash refers to Joseph rising early, it is referring to these five words of the Shema. Because Joseph always read the Shema first, he did not act as others, specifically Simon and Levi, did. Their action was anything but an "And you shall love" kind of action.

Thus, I believe that Joseph's wife was part of a correcting and healing of the moral wound of the massacre at Shechem. Jacob recognizes that Joseph would never have behaved in such a fashion. Instead, Joseph's marriage choice brings some healing. His wife, after all, is the mother of Efraim, whose descendents will inherit that city. Through his daughter, Prince Shechem is brought back to life in terms of legacy and inheritance.

These words, "the Lord is our God, the Lord is one, And you shall love…" must guide us before we act, even before we pray.

Saturday and Shabbat

There are two warring ways of looking at Saturdays. The secular way uses the power of "diversion". The religious way uses the power of "amplification". That does not mean that religious Jews crank up the loudspeakers. And it does not mean that secular people make wrong turns. Both of these approaches are an attempt to achieve the most elusive goal, human happiness. Let's look at them one by one.

Diversion, simply put, keeps someone in a state of relative calm by diverting their attention from more distressing things. Most of the week, we are diverted from our existential questions by the practical necessities of daily life. We go to work, we go to school, we run errands and so forth. We don't have time to think about things of a deeper nature. We don't walk around asking ourselves, "what is the meaning of our lives?". We simply don't have time, since we get diverted from those questions.

Comes Saturday, and there is less to divert us. So we find other pleasant things, usually more pleasant than work and errands, to do the job. It could be those Saturday morning cartoons, or a hiking trip, or a concert or trip to the beach. All of these things are pleasant, and they divert our attention from the quiet gnawing questions about our lives.

Sometimes, diversion is extremely healthy and necessary. Too much stress, too little enjoyment, are extremely unhealthy. Everybody requires a vacation, everybody requires time to refuel, to laugh and enjoy. Sometimes, though, it is an avoidance technique to keep us from doing things that are very important for us. At an extreme, substance addictions are a form of unhealthy diversion. A person can't ask themselves hard questions if they are completely blasted. And by not asking those questions, their lives are not improved.

The religious approach of the Sabbath, amplification, starts inside the person. Instead of running away from meaning of life issues, we amplify them. Diversions are, by and large, forbidden on the Sabbath. No television, no trips to the beach. Instead, it is a synagogue service where the focus is a reading from the Bible. It is a Friday night meal where the whole family eats together and talks together. It is taking a walk with your spouse on a Saturday afternoon. It is meditating, it is singing, it is feeling at one with the world.

I tend to work a lot. I work until very late at night. I hate going to sleep without having finished what I had planned for the day. As a result, I do feel more stress at times. I can tell you that without Shabbat, I am sure my health would suffer. Shabbat forbids me to do all that work, it forces me to rejoice in my own existence. It forces me to rejoice in God's world. It forces me to amplify the important things in life, such as tradition, family, spirituality.

A couple of years ago I was preparing my first musical theater production. I had never imagined how much work and stress would go into it. I literally worked until a few minutes before Shabbat, and started again as soon as it was over. If not for those 25 hours of sanity, I really feel my health could have been compromised. Not only that, it was during those 25 hours that I was able to stop and enjoy life.

I guess that's the difference in approach. The approach of diversion is the approach of enjoying the Saturday morning cartoon. The approach of amplification is the approach of enjoying life.

Judaism wants us to make the Sabbath day holy, protected from all diversions, and discover the deep joy and peace of the Shabbat.

Politically Incorrect and Factually Correct

Nowadays the fashion is to avoid offending anybody's sensitivities. Therefore, stating positions that may not be in vogue can be hazardous to your career. Just ask Miss California.

But actually, a certain amount of political correctness is imperative to Judaism.

"Do not despise an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land." We are commanded to not oppress the stranger, not mistreat members of other nations. Imagine, even the Egyptians who enslaved us were not to be despised.

Certainly, then, we must show respect to other faiths and ethnicities, never causing them conscious insult. I have NO tolerance for those Jews who use racial slurs. Chanting against Arabs and so forth is against the rules of Judaism, and certainly against our spirit. Fortunately, it is only a few misguided souls, and not a real representation of the by-and-large respectful Jewish majority. Nonetheless, if it exists, it must be stamped out.

Furthermore, on a personal level, Jews are forbidden to insult one another. It is called "Onaat devarim" and it is a sin. It is even forbidden to use a nickname that may embarass the other person. To call them "pickles" as a term of endearment is OK if they don't mind, but to call the "bus" if they have a weight problem is really wrong. Any insulting nickname or racial slur is out of bounds.

Where I diverge from political correctness is when it comes to stifling one's legitimate views to avoid offending people who disagree. This isn't political correctness or sensitivity. It's "kissing up" and it's disgusting.

I say that anyone who is offended by a different point of view is at best a baby and at worst a fascist. Beware the thought police.

A prime example is the issue of settlements and Israel. It is eminently clear that the settlements are a convenient excuse for the Arabs to not make peace. True, they cause the Arabs some inconvenience in their traveling, but that isn't due to settlements. It's due to terrorism. If there were no terrorism, there'd be no need for those roadblocks to protect settlements.

But that's not the politically correct, so don't you dare say it. Otherwise, you'll be roundly condemned and not invited back. Don't blame the lack of peace on terrorists who blow up buses and make war every day. Don't blame war on the warriors, only on the "settlers," who happen to be ordinary people like you and me. They work for a living, give the kids piano lessons, and don't ever hurt anybody. What makes them settlers?

They live in the West Bank.

Oh, and here's another politically incorrect but factually correct tidbit. Mahmoud Abbas, the supposed moderate Palestinian president, earned his PhD with a thesis DENYING THE HOLOCAUST.

But I can't say he's not a sincere peace partner, because that would be politically incorrect. But factually...

Is Western Democracy a Jewish System of Government?


Should everybody have the right to vote?


Am I crazy? Yes, but that's not related to this issue. Am I a dictator? Yes, actually, because I'm writing this blog with voice dictation software. OK, I apologize for that pun. On second thought, I do not apologize for it. I live for the great pun. Back to serious matters.

Western democracy puts a premium on rights. Judaism puts a premium on responsibilities. Western democracy says, "what's in it for me?". Judaism says, "what's in it for God and His people?". There is a world of difference.

The Jewish people were always governed by a king and a Sanhedrin. The King part was not a very successful institution. Indeed, Samuel the Prophet had warned that it would become an abused institution. But the Sanhedrin, the great rabbinical court of the Jewish people, proved itself the most successful and enduring leadership institution. We are still governed by laws and rules enacted by Sanhedrins of millennia ago.

What was the secret of their success? Easy. Three things: responsibility, piety and scholarship.

Each member of the Sanhedrin had a supreme sense of responsibility. Their responsibility was to none other than God in heaven and His people on earth. They did not have to engage in popularity contests. They did not have to worry about what the polls said. They had to worry about what the Torah says, and what the spiritual and societal needs of the people are. Since they were not elected, they had the freedom to make unpopular decisions.

When decisionmaking became necessary, they had the tools with which to do it effectively. The requirements to be a member of the Sanhedrin were very demanding. They not only needed a fluent knowledge of all aspects of Torah and Jewish law, they also had to have command of all of the spoken languages in the region and knowledge of the natural world.

A governing body filled with scholars who are knowledgeable about Jewish law and the world, who are deeply pious and share a fundamental sense of responsibility is a governing body that is built for great success.

I once was with a youth group that met a respected politician. One of the students asked the politician how one got to be the fill-in-the-blank high office holder that he now was. He answered, quite directly, "get elected".

What a terrible answer! It is everything that is wrong with our governmental system. Think about it! A kindergarten teacher requires more job training than the leader of a Western nation! Now it is true, the kindergarten teacher is fulfilling perhaps the most important job in the world. But I don't think that having your finger on the nuclear button is too far behind.

Even more so, all one needs to do to get elected these days is to look good and sound good on camera. And, true, to have tons of money to throw at the people. With such a system in place, it is potluck if we get a good leader. The only consolation is that if the guy or gal is good enough to run an effective campaign, they probably have good administrative skills.

What's even more troubling is that people vote without the slightest idea who they are voting for. Many people don't even know the difference between Democrats and Republicans. They don't know the names of the candidates, or if they do, they can't tell you a single position that either has on any issue.

The Sanhedrin ruled through voting. In order for them to vote, they had to become members of the Sanhedrin. In other words, the ability to vote had to be earned. They had to demonstrate exceptional discernment to gain that responsibility.

And that's the sound byte. I believe that there should never be a right to vote, but rather a responsibility to vote. And voting should be dependent on demonstrating a basic competency about what one is voting on.

In other words, I believe there should be some test as part of the voting registration procedure. It should not be a test that lends itself to abuse, but rather a short test to indicate whether the prospective voter understands the office he is voting for. A voter should know what the president does, what a senator is, and so forth. A voter should also know who the candidates are and their positions on one or two critical issues of the day.

I have no intention to disenfranchise anyone. But I object to the concept of the right to vote. It is a responsibility, and everybody must be qualified to do it at least on a basic level. And here comes the next revolutionary idea: voting should be required. It should be no different than jury duty. The only way to get out of voting would be to demonstrate a lack of ability to vote responsibly.

We need leaders who are of the highest quality. The three qualifications should be an overwhelming sense of responsibility, a powerful moral grounding, and a thorough working knowledge of government and the issues of the day. We don't need rock stars, we need qualified leaders.

Moses was not a rock star, he had trouble speaking clearly. It was his responsibility, piety, and scholarship that made him the greatest leader the world has seen.

Bar Mitzvahs to Be Ashamed of, Bar Mitzvahs to Be Proud of

What makes for great bar mitzvah? Definitely not the food, nor the catering hall, nor the "theme", nor the knock-your-socks-off entertainment. It may or may not be the band. That depends on what the real essence of the bar mitzvah is. So how do you properly, and I mean properly, celebrate a bar mitzvah?

What does Judaism think?

The answer depends on what question you ask yourself. If you ask yourself "what will really make an impression on all the friends and family we are going to invite", you will have wasted your money on a meaningless bar mitzvah. I have been to too many such affairs. A bar mitzvah is not about showing off your wealth and taste.

But if you ask yourself, "what will make this day the most meaningful day for my child that he will carry with him for the rest of his life," then you are on the path to an incredible bar mitzvah. Let me say this as clearly and loudly as I can:


It is not a celebration of the end of childhood. It is not a celebration of the bar mitzvah child. It is a celebration of a new adult, a celebration that looks forward, not backward. It is a celebration of responsibility, and of membership in the Jewish people. The more those aspects are present in the bar mitzvah, the better.

The other day I attended a bar mitzvah in a synagogue that I happened to attend. I did not know the bar mitzvah child. But even I, a nonrelative and non-friend, walked away strangely impressed with this young man and his family. They didn't feed me, at least not beyond the obligatory cake and grape juice at kiddush. What impressed me?

The young man himself. He read the entire Torah reading, and read it perfectly. He had clearly worked hard to prepare for the day, and was clearly a talented child. His performance excelled that of many adults that I know.

Today's bar mitzvah is most often a mockery of what it is supposed to be. The kid is completely focused on the party, as are the parents. They feel that they need to be the classiest act in town, each family trying to outdo the other. As a result, the actual bar mitzvah ceremony is little more than an afterthought.

How often have I been in synagogue and heard a child, for a bar mitzvah, completely embarrass themselves. They can barely read even the three or four verses of the maftir, the short final aliya at the end of the Torah reading. Never mind reading the entire section, they can even get through something that should take a few hours to prepare. I won't even begin to describe the anguish I feel when such a child is clearly so unprepared and UNDISTURBED about not being able to demonstrate the most fundamental Jewish literacy.

I studied for my bar mitzvah for at least nine months, and only read the first two aliyas and the maftir and the haftara. It wasn't everything, and to this day I regret that I didn't do more. Because, you see, I have almost no recollection of the menu at the party. I don't know what songs the band played, or even their names. I remember the catering hall, and that the party was on Super Bowl Sunday. I remember trying to dance the "hustle" with my sister, and that there were standard party games. It's all sketchy, but it hasn't disappeared altogether.

But every year, when the chapter of Shemot comes around, I not only read the entire chapter, but I vividly remember EXACTLY how I learned it. This is my Torah reading, it is part of my essence, my identity. It symbolizes the moment I became a full-fledged member of the Jewish community. That inspires me every single year.

So how do you make a great bar mitzvah? Forget about the "bar", and put all your energy into the "Mitzvah". Resist the temptation to hire the incredible musician, magician, sports hero, multimedia mind-blowing spectacle, dancing girls, whatever. Forget about the over-the-top catering hall, don't have it on a cruise ship. It's really not important. Don't try to make the neighbors jealous, don't make your own other kids jealous. Keep it simple.

Put the emphasis on the aspect of responsibility and membership in the Jewish people. Make sure your kid not only reads the Torah beautifully, but gives a bar mitzvah speech that will be talked about for years. Literally, bar mitzvah means "he has reached the age when the Commandments are incumbent upon him." That should be the only theme of a bar mitzvah. I'm not saying it shouldn't be fun, I'm not saying that there isn't any aspect of birthday party in it. Such an occasion requires a festive meal and song and dance.

But what song and dance? Ever consider going klezmer? Having something really really Jewish? I have trouble with the bands at some religious weddings. They're playing all this Hebrew stuff to this disco and trance rhythm. It's Jewish in that it's Hebrew, but it sure doesn't feel like it. At my wedding, we decided to hire a klezmer band, and that decision made for a wedding that was a home run.

Do the same for your bar mitzvah. Make it as Jewish an event as you possibly can. That's what it's all about, the Mitzvah. It's about being part of the Jewish people, so put that on proud display!

Converts and Judaism

Shavuot is the festival most relevent to converts to Judaism, as the Book of Ruth indicates. She is the most famous convert, and indeed is the ancestor of King David and, by extension, the Messiah. In truth, all Jews "converted" on Shavuot by accepting the Torah.

So many religions proselytize, and actively seek out converts. Some do it at the edge of the sword. What does Judaism think?

Easy. We love converts, and do not encourage them to do so. A convert is very holy, having freely decided to accept 613 commandments. They did not have to in order to gain entry to The World To Come. Any human being living in accordance with the rules of morality finds great favor in God's eyes. This spiritual person could have become a "Noachide", an observer of the Seven Laws of the Sons of Noah. Yet they chose full-blown Judaism. Inspiring.

In the quality versus qualntity argument, Judaism chooses quality. Once in history did Jews actually force the conversion of a people. Back in the days of John Hyrcanus, more than 2000 years ago, Judea offered the Edomites the choice of conversion or exile. Many chose exile, and many chose conversion. Among the descendants of those converts was Herod, the monumental - and bloody - king of Judea.

Was it the right thing to do? Who knows. On the one hand, Hyrcanus immediately neutralized the security threat posed by the Edomite enclaves in Judea's side. Maybe Israel should offer the same deal to the Palestinians! And in the long term, most of those conversions seem to have stuck.

On the other hand, it is an affront to Judaism's belief in the value of all nations to force conversion. We do not regard "Lions converts", ie, converts from fear or coercion, highly.

That really is the bottom line, but not to be taken to the extreme. Some wish to eliminate conversion altogether, and others restrict it where it is really needed.

I believe that in cases of some Jewish lineage, or doubtful lineage, conversion should be ACTIVELY encouraged. In cases where the conversion is for marriage, it should not be encouraged. If the marriage is already in place, then it can be encouraged.

Why? Because conversion for marriage is often insincere. It is done to alleviate the guilt of the families. If, however, the couple is already married, the reason for the conversion is no longer to please the families, but to reconcile the home. That is more sincere, and I belive the rabbis should examine these cases with a favorable inclination.

We need not fear conversion. In many situations today, a new, welcoming approach is called for.

But there is one type of proselytizing we MUST do. We must encourage ALL humans to live by the 7 Noahide laws of basic morality. That may be done even by force. After all, the purpose of the Jewish people in the world is "to fix the world under God's Kingdom."