Hanukkah: How to Be Eternal

What is the basic requirement of Hanukkah? Just one candle per household. Thus says the Talmud. In the same section, we learn that the "Mehadrin", those who wish to do it in better style, will light one candle for each member of the family. They will do so each night. Then we meet the "Mehadrin min Hamehadrin", those who wish to do it in even greater fashion. They will light one candle more for each night of Hanukkah. Yes, today everyone does it like the Mehadrin min Hamehadrin. We all light one on the first night, two on the second and so forth.

There is a debate among the commentaries if the Mehadrin and the Mehadrin min Hamehadrin are exclusive or inclusive. In other words, do the Mehadrin min Hamehadrin light just one menorah and follow the days, or do they build on the Mehadrin and light for the whole family, and double that on the second night, triple it on the third and so forth. If a family of three is Mehadrin min Hamehadrin, do they light 1-2-3 .. or 3-6-9...?

I have a more basic question: If the lighting of the candles is to recall the Menora from the Temple, why don't we light seven candles every night? There is a practical answer, that the Bible forbids making a seven branched candelabra, as the one in the Temple needed to be a unique one. So maybe we should light 8 each night? Perhaps so, but the sages generally try to minimize the expenses of the citizenry, so they wouldn't make such an expensive requirement. As it is, the 36 candles required by the Mehadrin min Hamehadrin is enough expense.

I will suggest a different explanation as to what the candles symbolize, and it is NOT the candelabra in the Temple. It is, instead, the root cause of the Jewish victory, and of Jewish persistence and survival. There are a number of elements, but the most basic is the family. "Ner ish uvaito = a candle for each man and his home." The Jewish family is the bedrock of our survival. We teach traditions, we share holidays and every-days. It is a place of nurturing, of warmth, of eternity.

Thus, our first obligation on Hanukkah to ensure the continued existence of our people is to strengthen our families. Our homes should be bastions of Torah and Jewish tradition. There is no room for a Hanukkah bush or a Christmas tree. There is room for candles, for the singing of Maoz Tzur, for the telling of the story of the miracle of the candles. I find it inspiring that even the most assimilated Jews have Hanukkah in their homes.

What about the Mehadrins and the Mehadrin min Hamehadrins? Hillel, the Mishnaic sage, said the famous teaching, "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am for myself only, what am I? And if not now, when?"

This is how I explain the three levels of lighting, each with its message. "If I am not for me.." is one candle. It's the family unit. "If I am for myself only.." implies living for others. This is the Mehadrin, who lights for all the members of the family. Thus, our concern for each other is expressed, and our cohesiveness as a nation is strengthened.

"If not now, when?" Here we move, perhaps to the most powerful aspect. Growth! This is the basic difference between the Jewish nation and the rest of the world. Jews are obsessively future-oriented. Tomorrow is everything, today is just a way to get there. What we do today must be geared towards strengthening tomorrow. Hence, if not now, when will I prepare for tomorrow? It must be today.

By lighting an additional candle each day, instead of 8 every night, we express the centrality of growth in our faith. Each day must certainly have it's glow, it's accomplishments, but those accomplishments are not in a vacuum. They must lead to tomorrow. Each day builds on the previous. We are always building a greater future.

Therefore, the way we light candles, by including all the elements, expresses Hillel's dictum beautifully. Further, it is the essence of our survival: Our families, our concern for each other, and our constant building up to the future.

Happy Hanukkah!

Jewish Ownership of Israel

Abraham was granted ownership over the whole Land of Canaan, soon to be the Land of Israel, by God Himself. Thus, he had ownership over all the properties he could have needed. So when he needed a burial plot for his dear wife, Sarah, he just needed to ask.

And so he asked Efron, the Hittite, for the Cave of Machpela which was at the edge of his property. Efron and those with him insisted that Abraham can use any plot he wishes, but Abraham insists that Efron "Give it to me" and he will pay full price. In other words, Abraham wants to pay for a gift. He does not say "Sell it to me". That seems strange. Why ask for a gift, and then offer to pay for it? Why not just buy it outright, or accept the gift outright?

A further question about this section. This is the very first land acquisition of Abraham in the Land of Canaan. It is to be used as a burial plot. Why did Abraham not purchase any land previously, for more life-affirming purposes? Why start with a cemetery?

I believe this section is teaching the Jewish People how to relate to all the hatred coming our way from many corners in the world as it relates to our Land. The Palestinian Authority routinely denies any Jewish historical link to Jerusalem and the Land of Israel. They deny that any Jewish Temple stood on the Temple Mount, despite all the Biblical history and archeological evidence. And around the world are many, way too many, voices questioning the right of the Jewish People to a state in their Land.

Abraham teaches us to relate on two levels, for two different audiences. For those who simply don't know the facts, and would hold different opinions if they did, Abraham insisted on a completely above doubt acquisition of the Cave of Machpela. It should be a gift, so that the Hittites who give it do so with all their heart, and not simply as a matter of economic expediency. When Esau sold his birthright to Jacob, that sale was never properly internalized by Esau. He was bitter when Jacob took the blessing of Isaac that went with the birthright. After all, felt Esau, I only sold it to Jacob because I was hungry. I didn't really mean it. Abraham wanted to make sure that Efron and the Hittites really meant it.

Secondly, he wanted to pay full price to remove the possibility that Efron might later change his mind. If it would be only a gift, Efron would still feel the land was somewhat his, and he could retract his gift in the future. Abraham wanted to make sure that did not happen, so he paid the price.

Thus, the first approach is to incessantly combat the lies with evidence. Show the world that Jerusalem already had a Jewish majority more than a century ago. Tell how Jews have lived in this land uninterrupted since Biblical times. Prove our roots here through archeology, historical sources and Biblical sources.

Further, show how deceitful the "Palestinians" have been about it. Show how they have no history here as a national entity, and how they are, indeed, an invented people. Refute the lies about how Israel mistreats Arabs and spread the news about how Israel gives more opportunity to the Arabs than they get anywhere else in the Arab world. Tell the world the accurate truth. Someone is listening. Maybe not everyone, but someone.

The second approach is for those whom proof and argument are of no interest. It is the approach of actions, of facts on the ground. How so?

The Jewish faith teaches the principle of the Revival of the Dead at the end of the Messianic Era. In fact, the life we will experience after coming back will be much the richer. Judaism is a forward looking religion, and death is only a precursor to greater life.

The Talmud tells a story of a pagan Queen asking a Sage whether the dead who are revived will be naked or clothed? The sage responds, "clothed." He infers it from the planting of a seed, which is naked. When it grows as a flower, it has beautiful garments (petals, leaves). Thus, the dead who already have some garments will come back with full clothing.

The comparison to the seed is telling. Burial, death, is not an end, but a beginning. Our first round on this earth is to acquire reward for our good deeds, which will return to "clothe" us at the future Era of the Messiah.

Now, not every crop can grow in every type of soil. Corn would fail in the desert. We believe that the Land of Israel is a living, breathing thing, which has a unique spiritual "mineral content". It is uniquely suited for growing Israelites. Abraham "planted" the seed of the long future of his people by burying Sarah. His first purchase was to be viewed as a beginning of an eternal bond.

The Torah prophecies that, during the exile, the land would be "burned, not arable or crop-producing." And so it was for centuries. Read Mark Twain's account of his visit in the 1800s. The Land was desolate.

Until the Jewish People returned. Then, things began to blossom and bloom. Today, Israel is greener than ever. The naturalness of our presence here is visible to all. It's like the lost dog who naturally runs to its owner. You just know.

That's what Abraham taught us to do, to sink roots. To build, to plant, to believe. To respect the sanctity of the Land and live in harmony with it. The more we do that, the more it will naturally bond with us, and all enemies will simply not be able to break that bond. Put facts on the ground, have faith in a glorious future. That is the best way to combat the hatred.

The Sacrifice of Isaac and Ishmael

Abraham, on the day he was to sacrifice Isaac, "Rose early in the morning." Interestingly, there is one other "early arising" in this very same Torah reading. On the day when Abraham was to expel Hagar and their son Ishmael, Abraham arose early in the morning to give her bread and water for the journey. Later on that journey, Hagar lost her way in the desert, and they ran out of water. She put young Ishmael under a bush so she should not see him die, and sat down to cry.

As she did so, an angel appeared and assured her that God had heard the child's crying "where he is," and would be with him. The angel pointed out a spring, and they were saved.

Significantly, the phrase "where he is," is interpreted to mean that, even though Ishmael would later become a violent person of bad character, he is now is an innocent and pure youth, worthy of saving. God judges people based on their current behavior, not what will become of them. (A discussion of the wayward son is beyond the scope of this post.)

Now, was Ishmael so pure at that moment? Sarah, who insisted he be expelled from their home with his mother, did so because of his character. She had seen him "mocking." The sages interpret that Hebrew word for mocking, "metzachek," to imply that Ishmael was already dabbling in idolatry, illicit sexual relations and bloodshed. Doesn't sound so pure to me!

Abraham is not thrilled to kick his son out, to be sure. Yet, according to Rashi, when he gives him just bread and water for the journey, and not any more significant gifts (jewels, money?), it is because he hates Ishmael for his misdeeds. He resents that his son has not followed in the path of God and has gone down a bad road in life. God confirms Sarah's contention that Ishmael could corrupt Isaac, and instructs Abraham to do as he is told by his wife. Apparently, when that message is internalized by Abraham, his mercy turns to bitterness towards his son.

Now, both the sending out of Ishmael and the binding of Isaac were acts that demonstrated a breaking of the bond between Abraham and his sons. In both cases, it nearly cost them their lives (Isaac, in the end, was not killed. Instead, the angel appeared and told Abraham to sacrifice a ram instead. The whole episode was to test Abraham's willingness, which he demonstrated.)

So how do we understand these two acts? What is the connection teaching us? How did things come to a state where such traumatic tests were necessary? And perhaps the biggest question for me is, how could Abraham have ever hated his son Ishmael? Abraham was the paradigm of kindness! It is so completely out of character for him to hate anyone, certainly his own child.

And that is the point. How many parents do we know who behave one way with the outside word, and another way with their family? Abraham had himself invested in Ishmael, and in Isaac as well. Those kids lived under a microscope, and Abraham, like so many fathers, could not forgive in his son what he could easily accept in others. Ishmael had to live a higher life, he could not "mock", could not be attracted to idolatry, lewdness or violence.

So I believe that, pardon the pun, it is all relative. I don't think Ishmael actually did all those terrible things in his youth, but he was tempted by them. He joked about them, talked about them. That, for Sarah, was dangerous spiritually for Isaac, who was younger and much more innocent. Talk like that could certainly corrupt, and Abraham was justified in sending them away.

But for Abraham to resent Ishmael for this, and to rise early in the morning and give him the basics and nothing more, was wrong. Abraham needed to sacrifice Ishmael, in the sense of no longer relating to him as a son, but as a stranger needing inspiration. He needed to treat him like all the people he brought close to God, who were certainly not tzadikim (righteous) before Abraham got to them. For this reason, God repeatedly refers to Ishmael as "the youth" or "the son of your maidservant", while pointedly not referring to him as Abraham's son.

For this very same reason, and to prevent the same thing from happening to Isaac, Abraham needed to sacrifice Isaac his son, in order to let Isaac the independent person live. The sages say that Isaac's ashes remained on the altar, and were used by the sages to locate the spot of the altar for the Holy Temple. What? Isaac was never sacrificed, so what ashes are they talking about?

It is a parable. The altar was the spot where the sacrifices were brought, and where Israel reconciled with God. It was the place of ultimate mercy, where God overlooks sin and sees us "where we are" at that moment. We are in the Temple, the synagogue, praying, connecting to God. We are pure ones worthy of saving. Sometimes, a parent can't see that purity, because they are too connected, and have unfair and unrealistic expectations.

Thus, when Abraham was ready to slaughter his son, that was enough. Emotionally it had taken place, and now Isaac was free to be Isaac, and Abraham was free to love and respect him "where he was." Every parent needs to be able to see their children as independent people, worthy of respect and appreciation.

I contrast two types of parents. One I saw personally. His son was a 14 year old athletic prodigy, excelling in tennis and ranked 4th in the country for his age group. His father, at practices, would sit near the court and berate his kid for every mistake he made. It was painful to see. No wonder the kid have up tennis quickly. This father needed to "bind" his son and see him "where he was," not where he wanted him to be.

The other was Rav Moshe Soloveichik. He was the father of the great Rav Joseph Soloveichik. It is told that Rav Moshe had such respect for his son that he would stand up when he entered the room (a sign of respect for a Torah scholar). Normally, it is the opposite, that the son must stand for the father. In fact, Rav Joseph was uncomfortable with his father standing for him and would try to sneak in without being noticed (some say through the window!). Rav Moshe felt that the biological bond was secondary to the basic respect for the human being, and therefore, son or not, Rav Joseph was worthy of the honor of being stood for.

May all parents be able to see their children "where they are," and love and appreciate the good in them. And may that love nurture fine character in their children, so they should live lives of harmony and holiness.

Faith and Reality

I contrast this week's reading with the portion of "Lech Lecha", where Abraham is told to leave his birthplace and go to a land that God will show him. Abraham follows, not even knowing where he is going. His faith is strong enough to tell him that if God is guiding him, his destination can be nothing but successful.

The Israelites were promised the land of Canaan. This promise was given to Abraham and repeated to each of the patriarchs. It was repeated again to Moses and the people at Mount Sinai. There was no doubt, there was no question.

There was no need for spies. With our perfect hindsight, we can say that the people should have gone as Abraham went, with faith and confidence.

Why, then, did Moses agree to send the spies? The plot thickens when we consider that Moses had an inkling that the spies would not do good. He prays that Joshua be spared "the plotting of the spies". This happens before they are sent. If he had a gut feeling that something was amiss, why did he send them anyway?

One could answer that his prayer for Joshua was not that the spies were going to speak ill of the land. It was rather that they would be jealous of Joshua, who was Moses's protege. These spies were princes in their own right, and may have felt inclined to violence against Joshua in a sort of coup. There is an echo of the story of Joseph and his brothers, who were jealous of his status in his father's eyes and wanted to kill him before they sold them into slavery.

According to that answer, Moses didn't fear the spies as far as the land goes, only as far as Joshua goes.

I think, though, there is another explanation. According to Jewish law, a judge must be completely free of influenced by litigants. A litigant who gives a gift to a judge, even if it is to judge fairly, has eliminated that judge from eligibility in his case. Judges are human beings, and even though the gift was to be objective, they can no longer be objective.

So too with the spies. They needed to be objective, not with a personal agenda. I feel they have a personal agenda, perhaps against Joshua, perhaps a need to demonstrate their own independence and leadership. Maybe they needed to go against Moses in order to state their claim to leadership. Thus, Moses prays that Joshua maintain his objectivity. There is a lot more to say in this direction, which I hope to address in a future post.

With all that, the question is stronger. Why did Moses send them if it was so risky?

I believe it was because the people were hesitant. Moses knew they were afraid of the battles ahead. And he knew that psychologically, the best way to proceed is in small steps. Therefore, the first step would be to send advance scouts. He specifically gives them military and strategic instructions, including what roads to take, what the fruits are like so they will know how much provisions they will need and so forth. They are NOT to evaluate whether or not the project is worthwhile. They are only to give logistical details.

If the people had been on the level of faith of Abraham, Moses would've never sent spies. He felt that the approach of reality was necessary here.

If Moses made such an error, what can we ever say? The best we can do is try to learn from what the Torah tells us. And what the Torah is telling us is to follow God's Word without hesitation and fear. If God is with us, we can proceed on faith. If God is not with us, no amount of reality action will help. The sequel of the spies episode is the story of the "ones who jumped the gun".

They decided, after God decreed 40 years in the desert as punishment for the spies, to go immediately into the land of Israel. Moses warns them that God will not be with them, and they have no chance of success. They go anyway, and are soundly defeated in their first military encounter.

If God is with us, we can proceed on faith. If God is not with us, no amount of reality action will help.

The Jewish people in the state of Israel is at a crisis of faith. We are being asked to follow the path of "reality" in our relations with the Palestinian Arabs, Iran and the other existential threats of our day. On the face of it, the state of Israel exists in defiance of the laws of nature and reality. If God is not with us, none of this could exist. If God is not with us, no amount of land-for-peace or other peace process concessions will make us more secure.

Our job is to bring God with us. "And it was when the Ark traveled, Moses said 'Rise up oh Lord and let Your enemies scatter before Thee...'". If God walks with us, we need do nothing more than show up. What is needed is an awakening of faith in the Jewish people, and in God's promise to Abraham, "to thee and thy seed will I give this Land".

The War of Gog and Magog, and the Messiah

This apparent prohibition of "calculating the End" seems to be contradicted by another Rabbinical saying. After a person has finished their Earthly life, they are asked three questions at Judgement: 1. Did you set aside daily Torah study time? 2. Did you do business faithfully and honestly? 3. Did you look forward to (anticipate) the Redemption?

The third question implies that we SHOULD be looking forward to the Redemption. So how is that different from calculating when it will be? I would think that making such calculations is an even greater fulfillment of anticipating the redemption!

I would like to suggest two answers. Firstly, to look forward to something and to predict it are not the same. Making predictions that don't pan out can be, at best, embarrassing, and at worst, catastrophic. The Messianic fervor of the mid-1600s peaked with the advent of Shabatei Zvi, who claimed to be it. When he failed, and was forced to convert to Islam, there was much trauma and many tragic repercussions within the fabric of Jewish life. A teacher of mine once quoted a teacher of his who said, "Those who tell, don't know, and those who know, don't tell."

The second answer is more personal. The most dramatic, graphic and, frankly, terrifying account of the pre-Messianic world is the battle of Gog and Magog in Ezekiel. The destruction described, the earthquake that will bring down every wall, the fires and plagues don't give on that warm and fuzzy feeling, to say the least.

And yet, there seems to be a silver lining here. That lining is implicit in what is blatantly absent in this whole account: the IDF. The US Army. NATO. Or whichever military serves the civilized world at that time, whenever it will be. (Yes, this could be hundreds of years away. Those who tell, don't know, etc...)

In other words, God is fighting this fight for us through the forces of nature (earthquakes, plagues). We are passive, unable to really influence the course of this history. I find that tremendously reassuring. After all, we have been waiting to see God do the righting in the world. Then we know it will last. Then the world will be changed forever. When man does it, it's temporary at best.

The phrase used for the third question of Judgement is "Tzipita", or, did you look forward to the Redemption. There are two words used for looking to the future in our liturgy. One is Mabit, which means to look. The other is tzofe, our word, which implies more. It implies seeing the future evolving from the present. A high overlook is called a tatzpit, a place where one is tzofe, is looking out from here to there.

In our daily services is a prayer called Kaddish. The theme of this prayer is the fixing of the world. It as inspired by a phrase from the story of Gog and Magog, "I will be exalted and sanctified." Thus, it begins "May His name be exalted and sanctified." Our sages add that when one responds to the Kaddish with the communal reply "May his Name be blessed, etc.." with all one's intention, they merit great reward. Why so?

Because Redemption comes not from military force, nor from excessive passivity. It comes when we the people make the world ready for it, each fixing our own little corner. By reciting that verse with all our heart, we commit ourselves to that mission. We bring the Redemption a little bit closer by our daily good deeds, kindnesses, morality and faith. Whatever the Messianic era will be, we try to live it in our peaceful and kind relationships and our steadfast faith.

Thus, in order to answer the third question in the affirmative, we will have need to ascend to a height that enables us to see the world after Redemption has transformed it. What does climbing this height entail? What we just described, living a life of spirituality and dedication to fixing our corners of the world.

So calculating the End can lead to both pitfalls. If, by calculating, we mean someone trying to manipulate the Redemption through military might, as a strategic plan, Gog and Magog shows us that it is not so. It is God's doing, and perhaps the rotting bones the sages warn of are the result of the Gogian upheavals. On the other side, if the calculator is simply trying to see when it's going to happen but is not prepared to do anything to help it along, their bones will rot from waiting. We must anticipate the Redemption in our behavior and our commitment.

So let's all dedicate ourselves to improving the world on God's terms. Kindness, faith, morality. That's the way to go.

Praying in Hebrew or in English

This is both a question of Jewish law and of common sense. The sages have already made clear that one may pray in any language, as long as one understands that language. The exception to this rule is Hebrew, which has unique spiritual efficacy. One may pray in Hebrew even if they do not understand it. Hebrew is the language that the Torah is in, and which the sages composed the prayers. Everything else is a translation.

So Jewish law truly leaves it to the preference of the worshiper.

Enter common sense. A four hour prayer service spent being mystified by language that one does not understand can be a painful experience. Certainly one should preferably utter prayers in English that can be said with sincerity and clarity. On the other hand, to completely disconnect from the Hebrew prayers in progress is to be somewhat distanced from the community. There must be an appropriate formula for compromise.

I suggest the following: the recitation of the Shema, the Jewish proclamation of faith, should be read in Hebrew. All of the Congregational singing and responses should be done in Hebrew. One should join together with the congregation as much as possible.

The silent devotion can be done in English. It is, after all, the centerpiece of all prayer. I feel strongly that knowing what one is saying is the only way for a true religious experience. Similarly, some of the liturgical poems that the congregation recites silently should be said in English if one does not understand the Hebrew.

We must always keep the main goal in front of our eyes. That goal is to have an uplifting holiday, where the synagogue service is filled with beauty and meaning. Most synagogues will have a Cantor with a beautiful voice and a fine selection of melodies. People will be dressed well, the sanctuary will be decorated for the holiday. The congregation will be friendly and welcoming. All of the elements will be in place for a fantastic religious experience. Our goal must be to use that to transform ourselves for the better.

The best thing I can suggest beyond all this is preparation. Take some time to familiarize yourself with the holiday prayer book. Read through some of the prayers in advance. Learn their history, understand the structure of the synagogue service. Know what is happening in the silent devotion, in the Cantor's repetition, at the Torah reading, at the shofar service and in Musaf.

Saturday night we begin the high holiday season with the Selichot midnight service. It's a great opportunity to become accustomed to making prayer meaningful. I wish you all much success and happiness in the coming year.

The Last Redemption

Why, people ask, would anyone in their right mind want to go to Syria and join ISIS, or any other such group? Who would want to leave the "good life" in the West and run to a war zone, thrilling in the sight of dead soldiers, cutting off contact with the families who nurtured them? What's the draw?

There are many aspects to the ideology of ISIS, but I will limit myself to the part that specifically acts as a magnet to lure in susceptible young people, often from good homes, from the US, England and other Western democracies. What could attract them to a group that beheads fine, innocent, good people? Wouldn't that push them away?

No, it actually attracts them, because the people doing this broadcast a deep, deep human weakness. It is, basically, the need to feel Superiority. These groups have such a virulent triumphalism about them that it is infectious to those who crave that same feeling. They quickly subdue normal human emotions of love for family, respect for human life and revulsion at cruelty, in order to feel a part of "Allah's Chosen". There is an "Either you are with us or against us, and we will prevail because Allah is on ouw side" mentality. Basically, people love to look down at the rest of society, and no one is as good at looking down on others as are these Jihadis.

In the Torah, there are two sections of Rebuke, where God lays out the horrifying consequences of abandoning the Torah. The first one, at the end of Leviticus, ends with some uplifting verses. "I will remember the covenant of Jacob, and of Isaac and of Abraham.." The Rebuke in the middle of Deuteronomy, however, simply ends on a sour note: "You shall be returned to Egypt in ships, etc..". That's it, it just ends. No hopeful verses. No remembering the Covenant. Why thus? And why do I think this is actually the happier ending?

The commentary Kli Yakar, in the section of Nitzavim, notes that the verses there outlining the ultimate redemption of the people will come about after they have "put it to their hearts" to consider all that has befallen them. Then, they will be motivated to love God. Indeed, the love of God permeates that section, to the exclusion of the other relationship to God we find in the Torah, that of Awe. Why is just love stressed, and not Awe of God?

Further, notes Kli Yakar, the Torah then states that God will put these curses (of the Rebuke from the previous section) on all His people's enemies. He asks, why is this necessary? Isn't it sufficient that the Jewish people have achieved peace and respite from their troubles? His answer is a powerful one. It is that if Israel remains threatened by external enemies, their service of God may be from Fear and Awe more than from Love. And the Love relationship is far more important.

My teacher, Rav Ahron Soloveichik Zatz"al, explained why King Solomon's book of morality and Fear-Awe of the Lord, the Book of Ecclesiastes, is introduced by the author's name and his father's name, "Kohelet ben (son of) David", as opposed to his book of Love of God, the Song of Songs, which is simply attributed to "Shlomo (Solomon)". Basically, said Rav Ahron, Fear-Awe of the Lord one learns from one's ancestors and teachers. Love of God must be developed from within.

Now we can answer our questions. The first Rebuke, commonly assumed to refer to the first exile in the Babylonian era, concludes with the Covenant of the Patriarchs being remembered by God. This is to say that the people were not sufficiently meritorious on their own to be redeemed, They needed a little help, and it came in the form of that Covenant. What were they lacking? Love of God. They did repent in Babylonia and Persia, but mostly on the level of Fear-Awe. Therefore, as Fear-Awe is learned from ancestors and teachers, the Covenant of the Patriarchs was activated.

At the end of the second exile (the one we are still in), something more glorious will take place. The people will "Put it to their hearts," will look at the world and the cruelties thay have just endured. They will contemplate the consequences of such societies as ISIS and their equivalents throughout the ages. They will realize that this is not a world any decent person should want to live in. They will realize that the society built by the Torah is the ultimate fulfillment of humanity and humaneness.

In other words, they will repent from love. It is, actually, the unending cruelty of a Godless world, reflected by the dire prediction of the Rebuke that this evil will never end until this realization is had, that motivates the people to truly and genuinely embrace God's Torah as the way of life. That's a good thing.

We hope that sanity will prevail, and know that the world is looking to the People of Israel, the people of the Torah, to shine the light of life and guide the lost souls home to God.

Judaism and the Arts

In one word, it is "blessing." Blessing implies increase, it implies positive energy, it implies building and growing. Curse implies destruction, negativity, harm. We mus choose blessing over cursing. We must build ourselves and each other up, instead of tearing each other down.

Thus, anything which makes the world more livable, more lovable, more beautiful, is a blessing, and is a choice of life. Those who worship death, who dispatch suicide bombers, etc.. worship the curse.

It is a paramount Jewish value to fill the world with all manner of blessing, including art, music, morals and kindness. End of discussion.

Living Life at the First Level

The book of Exodus is not written in the proper order. We would expect it to follow chronological sequence, but in one extraordinary case, it is completely out of sequence. According to some commentaries, the commandment to build the Tabernacle was given as a reaction to the sin of the Golden calf. If so, the section called Terumah, which outlines all of these laws, should be written after the section of Ki Tisa, where the tragedy of the Golden Calf is retold. And yet it is written before. Why?

One explanation is that the commandment was, indeed, given before the Golden Calf sin, but Moses did not tell it to the people until afterwards. The Torah is written according to when God spoke to Moses, and not when Moses spoke to the people. By this explanation, everything is in proper sequence.

But another explanation occurs to me. If the command to build the Tabernacle was, as stated, a reaction to the sin of the Golden calf, for the Tabernacle would forever be compromised. If God gave the people the Tabernacle as an atonement and correction for the sin of the calf, the Tabernacle becomes a permanent reminder of that sin.

This is why it is not written after the story of the Golden calf. A powerful life message is delivered to us through this positioning of the chapters. By writing the section of Terumah before the Golden calf, the Torah is treating it as if this is life as it should be lived. The Tabernacle is not a compromise, is the fulfilled center of the Jewish people. True, had they not sinned it would not have been necessary to build a Tabernacle. Nonetheless, now that they sinned, THIS IS THE IDEAL WAY OF LIFE.

In other words, we are where we are, and yesterday cannot be erased. Whatever life choices we make become the completely fulfilled life. Regrets must be thrown out the door.

In a similar vein, there is a Medrash, a rabbinical commentary which embellishes this thought. When God said to Moses, "build me a sanctuary that I may dwell therein," Moses wondered how human beings could ever build such a large structure. After all, "even the heavens cannot contain" God's Glory. God responds to Moses, I am only asking you to construct a structure with 20 boards on the north, 20 boards on the south, and eight boards on the west.

The commentary continues, when God asked Moses to bring a sacrifice there, Moses wondered how humans could ever bring an adequate sacrifice? God answers that all they need to bring is the daily offering in the morning, and the daily offering of the afternoon.

The great Chofetz Chaim explains the underlying message here. God wants man do the best he can with the limitations that he has. The athlete who was injured must find a new way of life that will allow him to be the best that he can, and he must never look back. The people need to accept that the world changed when they worshiped the Golden calf, and do the most glorious thing that they can: build a beautiful Tabernacle.

So instead of looking back at our promising youth, and regretting that the dreams we had then have become impossible, we should discover what new, glorious Tabernacle we can each create in our lives. Only look forward, only find the most fulfilling new dreams to guide us in our lives.

Theft and Jewish Slavery

A slave becomes so by either selling himself or being sold by the court. In all cases, it is an economic necessity that forces the sale. Once enslaved, the person has many rights, and the owner has many responsibilities. He may not maltreat his slave, and he is held responsible to fully provide for him and his family.

Without going into detail, I will allow the following Talmudic quote to suffice: He who buys a slave has acquired a master for himself.

And yet, the Torah indicates that this institution, even in the humane and relatively dignified form of the Bible, is a negative one. Where do we see this? With regard to the ear-piercing ceremony.

The what?

You see, by Biblical law, all slaves are freed at the Sabbatical year. A slave may choose to NOT go free, and remain a slave. This makes sense, after all, since Bible slavery isn't a bad deal. The only responsibilities are to work for the master, and then he has to provide food, health, everything. Some may prefer that kind of life, especially if the master is a nice guy.

So when a slave chooses to remain so, he is taken to the court and they then pierce his ear. What is the meaning of this strange ceremony? Rashi, the Midieval Bible commentator, sees a rebuke to the slave in this: "The ear which heard 'You are all slaves to Me - God' yet has chosen a human master, deserves to be pierced."

In other words, God does not want us to be slaves. He wants us to be independent, responsible human beings. We must take care of our own world.

In stronger terms, what Rashi is telling us is that we are working for the Divine Master, at his business. What is his business? Fixing the world. He doesn't want us working for anyone with a lesser mission than that.