Is It Better To Be Alive?

Noah's ark is probably the most popular of the Genesis stories. Here was one man in a generation of evildoers who merited salvation. He builds an ark, saves himself, his immediate family and representatives of each family of the animal kingdom from the flood that destroys all land-living creatures. God then "remembered Noah and all of the animals in the ark" and the flood receded.

What exactly did God remember? After all, He had Noah build the ark in the first place, so what had He to suddenly remember in order to end the flood? And what did the animals do to be "remembered" as well? Finally, wherein lied Noah's goodness that saved him?

According to Rashi, the animals merited salvation because they did not conjugate during the entire time of the flood. Thus, these animals demonstrated self-control and merited saving. It is significant that Noah's merit is minimized in this Rashi.

Ramban has a fundamental problem with this approach. After all, he says, animals do not have free choice at all, so how can one speak of their performing a "good" deed by refraining from conjugating during the flood?

Rather, says the Ramban, God remembered the original reason He created the world, and decided to preserve it and save Noah and his shipmates. God saw the life on the vessel and remembered why He had created life in the first place.

Fair enough, but I would like to suggest a combination of the Ramban's and Rashi's approaches, I believe that Noah was saved because he was a thoroughly good man. He was untouched by the violence, promiscuity and evil abandon of every single other person. It was so bad, say the sages, that the animals were corrupted as well. Noah was the opposite, he walked with God.

But I will venture to guess that Noah was depressed. He was depressed because he felt powerless to change anything. He sighed when he read the news, he groaned when another outrage took place, but he felt unable to do anything to influence change. Thus, the source of his depression was a complete absence of hope. Example: Noah did not have children until he was 500 years old!!! The others of his time got around to it in 1/5 the time. Why so? Perhaps because of his depression and pessimism.

You see, depression's worst symptom is functional paralysis. The depressed person just wants to sleep, physically or energetically. This aspect of Noah never fully left him. It would neatly explain why, after the flood, he took to getting drunk. The depressed person may seek an escape. Without a sense of hope for a great future, life can be painful.

So much so that the sages make the following incredible observation: "It would have been easier for a man had he never been created in the first place. But now that he is created, he shall search his deeds." Pardon me, but is that not like an overly sarcastic "Thank you very much?" If it would have been easier for us to not be here, why do we thank God every day for creating us?

The answer is hinted at in the word "easier". Let's face it, life requires effort if you want to accomplish anything. And the only people who accomplish things are those who believe great things are possible. Depressed people do not accomplish, because they don't even try. They are not bad people! They are just, well, depressed. Noah was thoroughly good. His problem was depression-induced functional paralysis. This was a man who waited 500 years to have kids. God had to jump start him. So he told him to build an ark. Get going, get out there. Let your actions change your mood.

And thus, depressed Noah, built the most famous and important ship ever. I believe that's what God remembered. God's dilemma was whether there would be hope for the world if He saved it. He looked and he saw an astounding thing. A depressed, but good, man, broke out of his shell and did a brazen thing in order to save all the world. Noah could have said "Not me, God," but he didn't even peep. Moses, later on, tried to get out of his calling with excuse after excuse, but not Noah. He jumped. Yes, it took 100 years to build the thing, but one man making a cruise liner of that size would take some time!

When God looked at what Noah had made, at who and what he brought into the ark, at he had accomplished in order to save the world, God felt, as it were, tremendous hope. He immediately started the floods recession and the rebuilding of the world. Noah wasn't out of the woods, wasn't healed (as seen in the drunken episode after the flood), but with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, he hit that home run.

I might add that the animals were also part of this success story. At times we hear of dolphins saving a human from sharks, and of dogs sleeping on a baby who crawled out of the house in winter and keeping it warm. Animals, while they don't have free choice, can choose to save lives other than their own. I think that by refraining from procreating during the flood, this was at play. More pups and babies would have drained the food supply too much. The animals were determined to survive. Thus they, too, must have had that magic commodity, hope.

So when the sages say it would have been "easier" for a human to never have been created, they mean easier, not better. The Hebrew word for easier is, not coincidentally, "Noah". Thus, the phrase might imply that Noah was among those who would have preferred to never be born. "Noah is to those who would have never been born." But now that a man has been born, he must give thanks to God. Why? Because if we thank God for being born, if we value being alive, it is only because we have hope. And if we have hope, we will do things to fix the world.

Thus, the conclusion of the saying, "Now that he has been created, let him search his deeds." In other words, DO. Create, and you will develop hope. Motion creates emotion.

So to borrow the Ramban's idea, by giving thanks, or better, by admitting that God created us, we acknowledge WHY He created us, and that is to fix the world and do great things. Once we have that hope and that commitment to do, to accomplish, to never give up, it is clear to us what a blessing life is.

As the song from Damn Yankees goes, "Ya gotta have hope!"

Judging and Voting "Present"

It seems that the Torah is simply prohibiting lighting a fire on the Sabbath. The question is, though, why is that necessary? All of the 39 categories of labor forbidden on Shabbat are learned out from the 39 categories of labor required to construct the Sanctuary. The use of fire in cooking the dyes that would be used is one of those 39 categories. There does not seem to be an additional need for this verse, since we already know that it is forbidden to light a fire on the Sabbath.

In truth, there are some reasons why a special verse is required for fire. On holidays, for example, fire is permitted in the service of cooking. So the Torah must specifically prohibit it. Secondly, the creation of fire was the first work done by Adam at the conclusion of the Sabbath. Therefore lighting a fire has a special significance.

But the sages extract a surprising law from this verse. A court is not allowed to impose a corporal punishment on the Sabbath. The explanation is that one of the methods available to the court of capital punishment is Burning. This, therefore, is explicitly prohibited. I might think it should be allowed, because by carrying out such a punishment we are removing an evildoer from the world. Nonetheless, the verse tells us that Burning, and by extension, all other forms of capital or corporal punishment which cause physical injury, are prohibited on the Sabbath.

The commentary Minchat Hinuch, written by Rabbi Joseph Babad who lived about 200 years ago, raises an interesting question. If the Torah's intention was simply to counteract a mistaken idea that capital punishments may be carried out on the Sabbath, why does it create a separate commandment to that effect? We have many examples of limitations on commandments that are learned from Biblical verses that do not rise to the level of a special commandment. Why is this one different?

I would like to add an even more basic question. If the intent was to teach us that capital punishments may not be carried out on the Sabbath, let the Torah say it explicitly. Why phrase it in the context of burning a fire – one of the capital punishments – and then having us extrapolate from there to the other types of capital punishment?

And, of course, why is this located at the beginning of the section describing the construction of the Sanctuary?

My teacher, Rabbi Aaron Soloveichik, of blessed memory, often said that the "true fire of Sinai sheds warmth and sheds light and does not destroy anybody." He was referring to the burning bush which "was not consumed."

Many rabbis see a hint in this prohibition of fire to a warning to avoid fighting and arguing on the Sabbath. "Do not fan the flames of argument on the Sabbath day!" I believe that judgment and argument are intrinsically connected. When people begin to judge each other, the flames of discord are not far away.

A Mishna in the tractate of Negaim (leprosies) : "A person can see all of the cases of leprosy except for his own." Technically, this means that a person cannot decide if their own leprosy is pure or impure. It must be seen by someone else, even if he is a scholar himself. But this Mishna has been expanded by the ethical teachers to mean that a person is quick to spot the deficiencies in the other, but not his own deficiencies. The Vilna Gaon explain this in a clever way. A person's right side is considered the side of his merits, where his left side represents his flaws. Further, it is the nature of the right hand to pull things close and of the left hand to push things away. Thus, when a person stands opposite another person, they are right side is opposite the other's left. Thus, they will pull into themselves the other's flaws. Conversely, they will push away the other one's merits with their left.

But put the same person in front of a mirror, and then his right side is opposite his right side and his left is opposite his left. He will pull close his own merits, and push away his own flaws. When one does this, one judges the other. And, as we see, that judgment will in all likelihood be condemnatory.

Perhaps this is why the Torah uses the imagery of fire to prohibit condemnatory judgment. It is not the ideal fire of Sinai, but it is a necessary phase through which the world must pass. There do have to be judges, and there do have to be judgments. Just not on the Sabbath, because the Sabbath represents the ideal state of the world where there is no judgment. The Sabbath is evocative of the revelation at Mount Sinai. Indeed, our prayer service, which puts the focus on the Torah reading, is constructed as a reenactment of the revelation. Thus, the Sabbath and the Torah are united. As Rabbi Soloveitchik said, "The true fire of Sinai sheds warmth and sheds light and does not destroy anybody."

If there is no judgment on the Sabbath, then what is there? Simply being present. If a person stands in front of another person without pulling their flaws to them and pushing their merits away, they are just being present to that other person. This is very holy. It creates an identification, a bond. The Sanctuary served this purpose. It was a place of the Divine Presence. All human beings, wherever they were in life, could go to the sanctuary and be present to God and each other.

So, perhaps, the lesson to learn for us is to make the Sabbath a day of being present. Being present to ourselves, to our loved ones, and to God. We do not judge, we do not condemn, we do not fight. We just open ourselves up to all of God's creation.

Hating Israel


Israel is the Jewish state. If you are anti-Israel, you are opposed to the Jews. Included are those super-orthodox sinners who went to Tehran to cavort with Ahmadinejad. Being Jewish doesn't make one immune from self-hatred. Just ask Karl Marx.

Does this mean we must support the policies of the Israeli nation? Noooooo. It means we must support the existence of, security of and prosperity of the Jewish nation of Israel. It means we must be fair and balanced, to borrow a foxy phrase. It means we must cease the demonization and baseless condemnation.

In a recent article in a local paper in the Berkshires, the writer casually mentions that he is "aware that friends on the left who perceive Israel as a dark eminence -- a murderous pariah state -- view my position as soft, sentimental, and wrongheaded."

With all due respect, ANYONE who considers Israel a murderous pariah state is willfully ignorant of reality, in order to justify an explicitly racist stance. Call the Jews murderers, you are a racist. Call the Hamas terror leaders murderers, you have been reading the news.

Those are the facts. It is up to everybody to learn them, internalize them and have them at their command to form correct opinions and inform those who hold incorrect ones. We can argue on land for peace, how the army should respond to the UNPROVOKED rockets fired at civilians in Sderot and elsewhere, what to negotiate and so forth. All that is legitimate. And if Israel chooses a path other than the one you would have her choose, so you can say you think they are wrong.

But you may never slander Israel. A murderous pariah state intentionally targets and kills civilians and espouses genocide or fatal force against anyone deemed an enemy. Murder is the killing of someone who poses no lethal threat to your life. Standing idly by while others commit murder is to be an accessory to it. The only moral option is to prevent it. Targeting and killing the rocket launchers is self-defense, and is not an option. It is a requirement.

I shouldn't have to explain this, but since there is such willful ignorance in the world, I feel I must.

This is included in "Remember what Amalek did to you". I'm sure the Amalekites, like the Palestinians, read and reread Mein Kampf (or thought similar thoughts relevant to the time) before they were motivated to try o annihilate all the Jews. We are commanded to never forget to "blot out the memory of Amalek". I believe that blotting out their memory means to blot out their slander, to refute their lies and proudly proclaim the truth of our mission and morals.

Healing the Former Believer

Avraham (still called Avram in this section of the Torah) had a nephew by the name of Lot. Lot was the one family member who accompanied Avram on his pilgrimage to follow God's word and go the "Land that I will show you." He stayed with Avram and Sarah (called Sarai at this point) as they fled to Egypt during a famine and returned with them to the Land of Canaan.

So far, so good. A faithful, in-the-fold nephew.

But things turn sour after they return from Egypt laden with new wealth. They have large flocks, lots of servants. Lot's began to act unethically, grazing their animals in other people's fields. This, claimed Avram's people, was theft! And the servants began to fight. It seemed that "This town ain't big enough for the two of us." They had too much wealth and too many livestock to be able to share the same pastures.

Avram senses a crisis, and preempts it. "Let there not be a fight between us, for we are brothers. Separate from me. If you go left, I will go right. If you go right, I will go left." And so it was, Lot goes and settles in the fertile plain of Sodom - which would remain fertile only a short while longer.

This seemingly simple episode provides deep psychological insight into mind of Avram and of Lot. We can see the source of Lot's corruption: wealth. We can see the evidence of it: he moves to Sodom, a city of sin if ever there was one. And we can see Avram's deep concern for his nephew: He does everything to avoid a fight. Let's look at each in turn.

Sodom, say the sages, was a place where everyone said "What's mine is mine, and what's your is yours." On the surface, that seems ok, except that one thing is missing: charity. Sodom is the ultimate selfish society, the gated community to the extreme. A social contract protects the rights of all to keep their wealth, but they must never share that wealth. I protect your riches, so that you will protect mine. Together we keep the outsider out, and live our lives of luxury in the fertile plain.

Lot was corrupted by wealth. It started with him tacitly accepting his servants acts of theft by grazing in other people's fields. It grew more extreme by him moving to, and becoming a leader in, the ultimate sin city of Sodom. In the next section, when the people of Sodom wish to "sodomize" the angels who came to rescue Lot, he offers the wild mob his own daughters instead! How far he had fallen!

But what about Avram? Did he just let this happen? Why did he avoid that fight, if his nephew really needed a talking to? Maybe he could have prevented Lot's descent.

Or maybe not. I believe that Avram knew quite well what was happening to Lot, and he knew that if he did put up a fight, Lot would probably never return. Now Avram was to be the deed holder to the Land, and yet when he separates from Lot, he let's Lot do all the choosing as to where they will go. Lot was quite the junior partner here, yet Avram gave him that choice. Add that to the seemingly odd fear Avram has of ruffling Lot's feathers and we can gain a glimpse into his thinking, and an answer for the tough situations we described above.

You see, Avram understood that Lot's rebellion had nothing to do with God or theology. It had to do with interpersonal relationships. Indeed, almost all cases of people leaving the faith involve an emotional scarring from a person or people involved with religion. In the case of Lot, it was Avram, and Avram knew that.

How was it Avram? I will venture a guess that Lot felt that Avram was holding him back. Perhaps he was at the stage when he needed the freedom to expand, to "Eat, drink and be merry." Perhaps he had developed such greed that he resented any limits put on him. Avram's servants had done just that, and Avram saw that the fight with the servants would quickly spread to the masters.

Thus, Avram did not discuss the grazing, not did he discuss any hot-button topics. No fight. He put full emphasis on his relationship with his nephew, and did the only thing he could to avoid the fatal poison of an interpersonal break. Yes, without any opposition, he sent Lot on his way. But was he abandoning Lot to destruction?

Not at all. He was making sure that Lot never lost his phone number. He was making sure that some bond, invisible and stretched, but still there, existed. When the time would come for Lot to realize what he had done, he should never feel embarassed, or worse, resentful, towards Avram. Avram, in Lot's mind, was religion, was the representative of God. Sooner or later, as long as that relationship was intact, Lot could return.

So to all parents, spiritual leaders, teachers and influencers, there is a clear message. It is not as much what you teach, as how you teach and care. It is not as much when you discipline as it is how you discipline. If someone has made a choice to leave religion, no amount of screaming will help. The opposite, it will probably hurt. Telling your son or daughter that your Shabbat table is always open to them will keep the potential for return alive. You are the representative of God, of Judaism or whatever spiritual heritage you have. Therefore, you must balance teaching and guiding with love and caring.