Where is God Nowadays?

There is a pattern in Jacob's life of doubt and Divine promise. God repeatedly reassures Jacob that He will be with him, protect him, and redeem his descendents. Jacob, nonetheless, appears constantly worried. In the Torah reading of this week, we read how Jacob has learned that his son Joseph is still alive. He excitedly prepares to go down to Egypt to see him, but he has a nagging fear. He is afraid that his children and grandchildren will become Egyptian, and will lose the tradition of the patriarchs. He knows how tempting that society can be, and fears that it will be the end of the Abrahamic mission.

God, accordingly, reassures Jacob that he should go to Egypt. "I will bring your descendents back up from there, and Joseph will put his hands upon your eyes." The first part of God's message indeed appears to reassure Jacob. But what does the second part mean? What is the significance of Joseph putting his hands on Jacob's eyes?

Based on the commentary of Rabbi Meir Simcha, I believe that it is a powerful lesson in faith. Jacob's concern is a real one. It makes sense, it is something to worry about. But God tells Jacob that he must trust Divine Providence. Even though the laws of nature make it almost impossible for the Israelites to not assimilate, Jacob must remember that God controls the laws of nature.

Take, for example, the story of Joseph. He became the second to the king, the prime minister of all Egypt. By the laws of nature, that could not happen. Joseph was an inconsequential prisoner in an Egyptian dungeon. To go from there to the pinnacle of power in the greatest empire of the ancient world in one day simply cannot happen. And yet it did. So, Jacob, do not fear the inevitable spiritual demise of the Jewish people in Egypt, because it is not inevitable. I, God, am watching, and will not allow that to happen. The proof is Joseph. You thought he was dead, but he was very much alive, miraculously so. When your time comes, he will be the one to close your eyes. He is the symbol of hope, and so you have nothing to fear.

But there is tension in our understanding of God's involvement. In the earlier generations, God was an active participant in human affairs. This was no more evident than in the exodus story, where God brought plagues and split seas. In fact, God tells us directly to Jacob. When he says, "I will bring your descendents out of Egypt," the sages in the Hagadah stress that God will do this Himself. There will be no angels involved, only direct Divine intervention.

But as time goes by, God's direct involvement decreases. At some point in Jewish history, prophecy ends. Today we no longer have someone getting direct, articulate messages from God. All we have is our Torah and our traditions.

There is, however, one mode of communication that remains open. The sages tell us that we still have what is called, "the Holy Spirit." What is that? In practical terms, it means Divine inspiration. It means that something of God is available to guide us when we need it. It's not the same as prophecy, we're not getting discernible words and instructions, but it comes from the same source. It moves our soul, it moves our heart.

The patriarchs also represent this historical development. Abraham's life was quite charmed. God was with him, he succeeded everywhere he went, he only had a minimum of stress. Isaac's life was a little less smooth. Jacob, however, only knew struggles and travails. Even though God promised him protection, he became afraid at every step of the way. Before reuniting with Esau, he feared the destruction of his entire family. Why? Didn't God's promise him a successful progeny?

When a child is born, his parents must do everything for him. His mother nurses him and warms him. His parents clothe him and clean him. They move him where he needs to be, and take complete care of him. As the baby grows, he begins to be able to do things for himself. At some point, the baby will protest when the parent tries to do something for him that he feels he can do himself. He will begin to proclaim his independence. Eventually, he will be completely independent in living his life. He will, however, always retain an emotional need and connection to his parents.

So it is with mankind. It is natural, it is necessary, that we grow up. In the beginning, God has to do everything for us. As history develops, we become more and more independent. No more massive miracles, no more prophecy. Indeed, with the exile, there was no more holy Temple with the ark of the covenant. We were on our own. That is, with the exception of that emotional connection and need for God, our Father in heaven.

There is a principal in Jewish thought called "The acts of the fathers are a signpost for the sons." This teaches us that the lives of the patriarchs for a paradigm for the future history of their descendents. Therefore, Abraham was the example of a divinely guided life. Isaac less so, and Jacob was the most independent. He felt his role was to live a life in this world, not relying on any divine intervention. Therefore, he looked at the laws of nature and was worried about how he would surmount them. Esau was stronger, and he was coming with 400 men! According to nature, Jacob was in trouble. Now his descendents were going to the most seductive society in the world. How will they ever retain their identity? According to the laws of nature, it can't happen.

Along comes God's promise, which will become the divine inspiration that will guide Jacob. You live your life, says God, and your soul will guide you in the right direction. Joseph will put his hands upon your eyes. God is now in your soul, trust that.

The final phase of the baby's growth is when the baby becomes an adult and has his own children. That is the mark of completed maturity. Now, the baby must do for another what was done for him. He now exchanges places with his parents, and takes responsibility for the next generation's well-being. Nonetheless, it is his parents inspiration in his soul that enables him to do so successfully.

So where is God? Why should we pray? Because we have matured and now it is our job to help God do His work. By praying, we invite God's inspiration into our souls. That inspiration will guide us to seek to do the divine work of fixing the world. We should not look at nature and see limitations, rather we should look at it and see challenges. When we pray, we become the agents of change. Where is God? In our souls. By praying, we gain the power to change the world.

Escaping the Past

The Torah tells us that Sarah was 127 years old when she died. Well, it doesn't exactly tell us that. It says, "And the lives of Sarah will be 100 years, and 20 years, and seven years." What a strange formulation! Our sages seize upon the seemingly unnecessary "ands" to expound a truth about Sarah. When she was 100, she had the beauty of a 20-year-old. When she was 20, she was as sinless as a seven-year-old. (Some versions have it that she was as sinless at 100 as she was at 20, and as beautiful at 20 as she was at seven.) We will come back to this.

The biblical commentator Or Hachaim picks up on the beginning of the phrase, "the lives of Sarah." He explains that Sarah had different phases of her life. Each phase was like a different lifetime. Her first hundred years were quite difficult! For example, until she was 90 years old, she had no child. This deprived her of joy and satisfaction. And even though she gave birth at 90, she knew no peace because of her concern about Ishmael. Abraham's other son was a bad influence on Isaac, and according to some commentaries, posed a mortal threat to him.

Only when Sarah insisted that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away did she begin to feel fully alive. When she made this request of Abraham, Abraham was reluctant. God came to him in a dream and told him to listen to Sarah, for Isaac was to be his true progeny. The commentaries point out that God was telling Abraham that Sarah's prophecy was on a higher level than his.

I find that interesting, because 10 years earlier, she seems to have a crisis in faith. When the angel informs her that she will give birth, she laughs and says, "after I became worn shall I rediscover my youth, and with my elderly husband?" The angel rebukes her to Abraham saying, "Is there anything that God cannot do?" If Sarah was a superior prophet, why was it so difficult for her to believe that she could have a child?

I believe that the Or Hachaim might say that Sarah became the superior prophet when she was 100. Prophecy requires joy and hope. Until Sarah was 100, she didn't feel those things strongly enough. And, perhaps it was the awareness of what she needed to do to protect Isaac that gave her that joy and hope. By finally freeing herself from this burden and requiring Abraham remove the threat of Ishmael, she discovered the power of prophecy.

Perhaps there is a hint to the Or Hachaim's explanation in the aforementioned commentary about Sarah being, at 100, as beautiful as at 20, etc.. She lived until 127. This explanation only takes us up to her 100th year. Perhaps, the last 27 years of her life were actually a new life.

Human psychology contains powerful forces that defy logic. One of those forces is the power of consistency. We hate to change our patterns. Once we have committed to something, we have a deep need to justify that commitment by consistently sticking to it, even if the commitment is illogical and harmful. A friend of mine once related that his parents, who were not observant, felt that they could never change their lifestyle. They told him that, "Even though we see that a Torah life is a good life, we cannot bring ourselves to make that change. To do so would be to admit that our entire previous life was in error."

In other words, even though they knew a better path was available, they refused to take it in order to retain consistency. The person who stays in an abusive relationship does so because of consistency. Appearing to be inconsistent, wishy-washy, unstable, scares us more than our known and established patterns, no matter how harmful they may be.

The Torah forbids us to cause distress to the convert by reminding them of who they were. Even if we intend to praise them, to contrast whom they used to be with whom they have become, it is forbidden. Why? Sarah teaches us. That was a previous life, perhaps even a different person. The person I am talking to now is not them. How does someone feel when being blamed for the misdeeds of an entirely different individual? That's how the convert feels when being told about his past misdeeds, even if the intent is to praise them.

Ecclesiastes is the book where King Solomon explores every possible way to achieve happiness in this world. Riches, wine, women, song are all given their chance. The book concludes with the exhortation, "At the end, everything is heard. Fear the Lord, observe His commandments, because this is the totality of man." A teacher at Yeshiva University, Rabbi Zebulun Charlop, gave a beautiful comment on this verse. Even if a person has wasted their time on riches, wine, women and song, those events need not define him. If his ending is full of fear of the Lord and observance of the commandments, "everything is heard." That becomes their totality. Whatever they did up to that point was simply process, not essence. The womanizer of the past is now a different person.

Sarah's age, the way it is presented, teaches us a very powerful lesson for life. We are not to be stuck in destructive patterns. We have the ability to say that that life belongs to another, and now I am a changed person in a new life. Those previous years and misdeeds were simply part of the birthing process for who I am now. It took Sarah 100 years to give birth to herself, in a sense.

And this applies equally to others! Someone who we disliked many years ago, who mistreated us, is quite capable of becoming a new person. The Torah commands us to never bear a grudge, because a grudge is based on a falsehood. The falsehood is that people cannot change. They can. Just as we must be open to our own ability to change, and identify destructive consistency when it hits, we must be open to new relationships with those who have caused us tension in a previous life. It's not always easy, but it enriches us tremendously.

How Abraham Could Change the World

One of the most puzzling stories involves Abraham's journey to Egypt with Sarah. They were traveling there in search of food, as a famine was raging in the land of Canaan. Abraham, conscious of Sarah's beauty, is concerned that the Egyptians might kill him in order to take Sarah for one of their own men. He urges her to, "Please say that you are my sister, so that I will benefit for you, and my life will be spared for your sake."

That, in and of itself, is difficult to comprehend. Was Abraham OK with abandoning Sarah to some Egyptian man? What is even more difficult to comprehend is Rashi's commentary on this verse. Rashi quotes the interpretation of the sages who say that when Abraham said "that I may benefit for you," he meant that the Egyptians would give him gifts. Gifts! Is that what Abraham wants? For this he is willing to abandon his wife to her fate? Impossible!

Some sages explain that Abraham told Sarah to tell whichever Egyptian threatened her that Abraham was her brother, but she was married to another man. She didn't know where he was, and she and her brother had come to Egypt to search for him. Thus, the Egyptians know she's a married woman, and, hopefully, will not take her. Well, it didn't work. And it does not explain Rashi's statement about Abraham wanting gifts.

I believe that this action of Abraham's is key to understanding his greatness. I believe that Abraham knew exactly what was going to happen, and he had a good reason for wanting it to happen. He knew that Sarah would be saved, and he knew that Pharaoh would reward him with great wealth. This fit into his overall plan for life.

Think about it. Abraham, until this point, was a nobody. He had just arrived in the land of Canaan, unknown and unrooted. And yet, his soul thirsted to spread the word about the One God. The problem was, nobody would listen to him. There are people in every train station claiming to be the Messiah. And even if Abraham had become a celebrity in his homeland (for having survived a fiery furnace -- according to a rabbinical legend), nobody knew him in Canaan. This was before instantaneous world communication was possible. He had no chance of being a YouTube phenomenon.

What gives a person influence? Wealth, and political connections. Sarah, by being taken to Pharaoh's palace, provided Abraham with both. Pharaoh compensated him with great wealth, and with the prestige of having a personal connection. Abraham can now boast that the ruler of Egypt is a supporter and an acquaintance. When Abraham returns to the land of Canaan, he is already a celebrity. People will listen to him, and that is exactly what he needs in order to spread his message.

His reputation will grow even further when he becomes a world player on the military stage. His defeat of the five kings who had kidnapped his nephew, Lot, made all of the rulers of Canaan eager to win his favor.

Abraham and Noah were, in a sense, direct opposite. I believe that Noah sought to preserve the world's childlike innocence. He himself sought to remain a child, as evidenced by his getting drunk and taking off his clothes in his tent shortly after the flood. Abraham, on the other hand, was the quintessential father. In fact, God gives him the name Abraham, "For I have made you the father of many nations."

There is nothing more important to a father than the welfare and future of his children. Abraham felt a deep responsibility for all of God's children, and saw his role as an assistant father. The name God gave him reflects his self chosen role in life. That explains everything he did throughout his career.

And that explains what he says to Sarah as they approach Egypt. "That I may benefit on your account," means that I may gain wealth and influence. "And my life will be spared for your sake," can also be translated as: "And my soul shall live because of you." In other words, my soul's purpose will be fulfilled and I shall live the life I was intended to because of you and your actions in dealing with the Egyptians.

Noah was a righteous man. Some sages, however, claim that had he lived in Abraham's time, he would not have been considered anything special. I agree, but don't see that as criticism. Noah wanted to be living in a pure world, the world of innocence and childhood. If he saw a leader like Abraham, fulfilling the role of civilization's father, they would happily live in the shadows. Abraham's righteousness was in dealing with even the most cynical aspects of the world, and turning them towards God and spirituality. It is spirituality that is the source of eternal youth. Both men thirsted for it, but pursued it in different ways.

It is Abraham's approach, however, that has withstood the test of time. We cannot run away from evil, but we can strive to enlighten every dark corner of the world. By doing that, we are faithful to Abraham's purpose and fulfill the deepest needs of our spirituality. That's how we can change the world.

For Whom Is This Curse?

The Ketav Sofer, in his commentary on the Torah, applies this to Jews who truly love Judaism, but reject the need to actually fulfill the commandments in their entirety. The focus is on the last part of the curse, "To do them." He describes a style of Jew that is quite common.

This person believes that the ethics and values in Judaism are wonderful. He, however, believes that many of the rituals and commandments are antiquated and, bluntly, often primitive. Of what value is refraining from driving on the Sabbath? What is the point of wrapping tefillin around my arm and head?

Ah, but social justice! That is important! This Jew claims to have internalized the ethics of Judaism, and reached the point where the actual fulfillment of rituals is unnecessary. He believes that Judaism came to civilize the world, and, therefore, we must fight for that social justice. This becomes his Torah, his commandment.

The Ketav Sofer applies this curse to that person. Had "Cursed is the one who shall not fulfill the words of this Torah," been the whole phrase, it might have implied that this man has merit. After all, he is fulfilling the words of the Torah in his heart, and in his pursuit of a better world. But the verse continues, "To do them," which includes the physical fulfillment of all of the commandments of the Torah. What this person fails to comprehend is that the physical fulfillment of the commandments is necessary to create that better world.

It can be compared to a person who has a problem with being overweight. To go into the clothing store, buy clothing a few sizes too small, and start behaving like a thin person will do nothing to solve the problem. Only diet and exercise. Why? Because excess weight is not a psychological or sociological problem. It is a physical one. We humans are a magical combination of the physical and spiritual being. Man requires control of his physical self, just as he requires control of the spiritual self. We need to accept the spiritual Torah together with the physical commandments.

Thus, the second aspect of our lives to strengthen in preparation for Rosh Hashanah is our physical fulfillment of the commandments, "to do them.". Here comes the third.

The Ramban, in his commentary on the Torah, quotes the Jerusalem Talmud in interpreting this curse quite literally. "It is the Sexton," according to the Jerusalem Talmud, who was being cursed. The Ramban explains that it refers to the person responsible for placing the Torah scrolls safely in their ark. Should they be placed carelessly, they might fall. Alternately, the Ramban suggests that it refers to one who refuses to fulfill the function of Hagbaha, or the lifting and showing of the Torah scroll to the congregation.

According to these applications, the proper translation of the verse is, "Cursed is the one who will not lift up (literally) the words of this Torah…" The Ramban, however, sees this explanation as a parable for a much deeper problem.

There have been many pious Jews who may have run afoul of this curse. How so? Because they failed to broadcast and influence others with their piety. One who has the ability to strengthen the Torah amongst the Jewish people and fails to do so, no matter how personally observant he is, has not lifted up or caused to be fulfilled the words of the Torah. When one lifts the Torah scroll to show it to the congregation, one is sharing that Torah with others. That is the imperative learned out from this curse.

Those Jews who disconnect from their nonobservant, partially observant or observant in non-Orthodox ways brethren, are missing the point of their Judaism. Perhaps the greatest commandment of our time is the commandment to help reconnect Jews to their tradition and to observance.

Thus, after listening and doing, comes the third preparation for the High Holidays: reach out and share your Judaism. Every synagogue must prepare to welcome worshipers who only show up at this season. Torah is on display, it is our task to lift it up as high as we can and show it to the whole world. Blessed is the one will lift up, fulfill, and inspire all of Israel with the words of this Torah, in order that they may be fulfilled both spiritually and physically.

This is as we say the daily prayers, "Put it in our hearts to understand, to getting knowledge of, to listen, learn and teach, guard, do, and sustain all words of Your Torah with love."

The Power of Anti-Semitism and The Response To It

Balaam, the Gentile prophet we read about in the book of Numbers, has been enticed to come curse the children of Israel on behalf of the king of Moab. The reputation of his powerful curses and blessings is worldwide. Thus, the king of Moab, who was terrified about the approach of Israel, hired Balaam to curse them, and remove them as a threat. Balaam has informed his employer that, despite whatever his personal wishes may be, he can not utter anything that God does not approve. He may not be able to curse as the king wishes.

Nonetheless, he goes. On the way, an angel holding a sword blocks his path. Balaam does not see the angel, however, his donkey does and stops in his tracks. No amount of beatings will get the animal to budge forward. Finally, God lets the donkey speak: "Why do you hit me? Behold, I am your donkey that you have ridden upon from your youth. Have I ever behaved like this with you before?"

At this point, God opens Balaam's eyes and he sees the angel with the sword. He says to him, "I did not know that you were there. If it is evil in your eyes, I shall return home." The angel answers, "You may go, but you must only speak that with God puts in your mouth." Balaam continues to the king of Moab, and is unable to curse Israel. Instead, he utters their blessings and praises.

The donkey speaking was truly a great miracle, but why was it necessary? All the donkey did was to complain about his treatment and nothing more What great goal was accomplished by this miracle? If it was kindness to the donkey, so he should be able to "vent", well I'm sure he was not the first animal to be beaten in history, so why don't all animals get the right to complain?

Secondly, how was it possible that such a tremendously gifted prophet as Balaam was unable to see the angel with the sword?

Thirdly, the sages teach that Balaam was receiving a lesson in humility. Here he was purporting to be able to uproot an entire people with his speech, while to destroy his donkey he would require a sword, as he says, "If I had a sword I would kill you!" The commentary Oznaim Latorah asks the powerful question, why indeed could he not destroy his donkey with his speech if it was so powerful?

Finally, Balaam is referred to as "the wicked one." Now, upon reading this chapter, he really didn't do anything wrong. He said what God told him to say, he blessed the children of Israel! Perhaps it was the desire to curse them that makes him evil, I'm not sure.

Perhaps this episode with the donkey is underrated by us. We focus on the wonderful blessings that Balaam gave to the Jewish people, but I don't believe they are the main aspect of this story. Indeed, the Oznaim Latorah explains, Balaam's blessing or curse would not have the effect on Israel that it might have on other nations. God specifically tells Israel that it is their own behavior that determines their fate.

I think that this section may actually be an insight into the soul of the anti-Semite, and a possible response to him. The blessings that Balaam gives all lack one crucial element: praise for what Israel contributes to the world. Instead, Balaam repeatedly stresses how successful, prosperous, and powerful the children of Israel will become. He does praise their attributes, but nowhere does he express any recognition of how humanity is richer for the existence of the Jewish people. No gratitude and appreciation for all the diseases we've helped cure, all the life-improving things we've invented, all the heroic rescue efforts after natural tragedies.

That is because he does not wish to see all that. This is at the core of the speaking donkey miracle. For starters, Balaam certainly should have seen the angel with the sword. He didn't see him because he didn't want to see him. And once he did, his conscience made him offer to return home. The angel responded in accordance with God's way of dealing with the world, namely, granting people free choice. "One who wishes to become impure, has the way opened before him," say the Jewish sages.

As for the content of the donkey's speech, in truth it is sublime. The donkey is putting into words what the Jewish people is all about. "I am your faithful donkey, upon whom you have ridden since your childhood. Have I ever caused you such trouble before?" In other words, have you ever stopped to think just how much good of the Jewish people does for you and the whole world? Have you ever stopped to think what the world would be like if the Jewish Messiah came?

Of course not. The anti-Semite needs to believe the worst about the Jewish people. Balaam was incapable of seeing the angel, was incapable of seeing the angelic potential of having the Jewish people in the world. However for a moment, when the donkey spoke of his care and concern for Balaam since his youth, he saw that angel and had a pang of regret. That was the critical moment of choice for him, when he should've turned heel and gone back to his land. But by choosing to proceed to Moab, he chose to live as an anti-Semite. For this he is called wicked.

The anti-semite needs to feel hatred. Perhaps that is why he wanted to kill the donkey with a sword, instead of a curse. It's more violent, and more satisfying for raw hatred to do it that way.

Sadly, anti-Semitism is back in fashion in many parts of the world. And I believe that the Jewish people must fight back against it, much in the fashion of Balaam's donkey. We need to remind the world just how much we love it, and how much we wish to give to it.

Will they listen? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. Perhaps long enough to avoid a tragedy, and perhaps some people may indeed be changed by that message. People have free choice, we don't control anyone else. What we do control is our own efforts, and that is what we should use as best we can. The rest will be left up to God. It might just happen that, at the end of the day, the anti-Semite will bless us just as Balaam did.

The Korach Test

In the Bible, Korach mounts a rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. "All of the congregation are holy," says Korach, "so why should you be elevated above God's congregation?" Korach is joined by Datan, Aviram, and 250 other people. Moses is very upset by this, and summons Korach, Dathan and Avirum to a negotiation. They refuse, and instead Korach mounts a massive rally. He spends the entire night campaigning to bring out the people.

When all is done, God creates a miracle and the earth swallows up Korach, Dathan, and Aviram.

The sages of the Mishna see this conflict as an example of an "argument that is not for the sake of heaven, which will not endure." An argument which is for the sake of heaven, such as those between the sages Hillel and Shammai, will endure forever. I would think, however, that it should be the opposite. An argument which is for the sake of heaven would be one which lends itself to peaceful resolution. An insincere argument should be the one to endure, because the parties are not arguing about the issue. If so, no resolution could be gained by discussing the complaint, because it is not the real issue.

What is an argument that is "not for the sake of heaven?" It is when one side argues from hatred of the other side, not because of a specific issue. The ostensible cause is not the root cause. An argument that is "for the sake of heaven," is when the two sides even like and trust each other, but disagree on the issue under discussion. It is this type of argument that will endure, because each side sincerely understands the issue differently, and, at the same time, respects the other party.

There are three elements in the Korach Test: 1. The person doing the arguing. 2. The topic under discussion. 3. The way in which the negotiation, or lack thereof, is carried out.

A person who is humble and kind is someone who can be trusted. The Talmudic sages Hillel and Shammai were both of exemplary character. They liked each other very much, and, despite their numerous disagreements in the Talmud, their children married into each other's families. When someone is humble, they will become wise. They never refuse a message because they don't like the messenger. Such a person will pass the Korach Test. An arrogant, egotistical or vindictive person will not. Do not deal with them.

Hillel and Shammai argued about practical Jewish law. They were seeking the best way to fulfill the mitzvot, the commandments. Korach, on the other hand, was arguing about positions of power and influence. There was no deeper principle motivating his rebellion beyond a desire to replace the current leadership with his own. Of course, that doesn't sound good to the general public, so Korach couched it in highly idealistic language: "The entire congregation is holy, and the Lord is in their midst. Why should you (Moses and Aaron) therefore be elevated above the congregation of the Lord?"

When someone's core argument involves an "us versus them" situation, beware. This person has failed the Korach Test. Even if they find the most elevated justification for their argument, if its core is divisive, it is a dangerous argument. In the business world, there is a strong rule for negotiations. The best kind of approach is, "Win-win or no deal." Korach's argument was a win-lose one. This is a sure sign of an insincere argument and an untrustworthy negotiating partner.

The third test is the way in which negotiations are held. To pass the Korach Test, one must prefer quiet and substantive negotiations. That is what Moses offered Korach, but he refused to come. Instead, he organized a demonstration against Moses and Aaron. He waged his campaign in the media, as it were. He was not interested in solving the problem, he was interested in scoring points against his adversary. When someone publicly attacks the other party, they are failing the Korach Test. They are not interested in a solution, they are interested in victory.

Let us apply this test to current events. The conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs lends itself to this important evaluation. Specifically, let us look at the head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas.

  1. The test of character: Abbas is as corrupt as the day is long. He is in the 11th year of a four-year term. The large sums of money the international community gives to his Palestinian Authority has made him and his cronies very wealthy. He publicly praises terrorists, and names streets and squares in their honor. Just a couple of days ago, a 17 year old terrorist murdered a 13 year old girl in her bed. Abbas' Palestinian authority web site published a picture of the killer, not to condemn him, but to honor him as a "martyr." This is par for the course. He oversees giving thousands of dollars to terrorists and their families. Some of the most brutal and disgusting killers have met with him and been honored by him. FAIL.

  2. The test of topic: Abbas constantly poses an "us versus them" argument. He misses no opportunity to accuse Israel of the most disgusting crimes. A couple of weeks ago, he accused a group of rabbis (that does not exist) of demanding that the Israeli government poison the Palestinian water supply in order to perpetrate a genocide. This was simply a blood libel, and even Abbas was forced to retract a week later. But he had made this claim at a meeting of the European Parliament, and received a warm applause for it. If he would be a sincere negotiating partner, he would be interested in improving the lives of his constituents. Instead, he seeks to delegitimize Israel in every possible forum. FAIL.

  3. The test of negotiating style: While Israel repeats its willingness to negotiate directly ad nauseum, Abbas' Palestinian Authority refuses to show up. Instead, they do exactly what Korach did. They organize demonstrations, BDS movements, lawsuits at the international Court of Justice and endless anti-Israel UN resolutions. If someone is unwilling to negotiate real issues in a direct and quiet manner, they are an insincere negotiating partner, and must be avoided. The poisonous incitement that Abbas continues to spew has caused much loss of life and misery. The educational system in his Palestinian Authority refuses to tone down the anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli messages of hate. FAIL.

When someone fails the Korach test so spectacularly, why would anyone in their right mind want to negotiate with him? Instead, we should follow the approach of Moses himself. Moses did reach out to Korach, Dathan and Aviram. When they refused to come negotiate, Moses knew that they had failed the test and were not interested in reconciliation. What did he do in that situation?

He called on God to unmask the truth of the argument. What was important was that people know that Moses's choices of leadership came straight from On High. Therefore, God obliged by opening the earth to swallow up Korach and his followers. We don't have the ability to have God perform an open miracle like this in our day and age, so what can we do?

Expose. Expose their hypocrisy, make their corruption well known. Most importantly, expose them for being the Jew haters that they are. Expose them for being the terrorist huggers that they are. Let the world know how the most vile murders are praised and financially rewarded by the Palestinian Authority. Shine the light brightly on the dangerous hatred that Palestinian Arab children are taught on a daily basis. That is the first step in fighting back.

At the same time, we must become more and more like Hillel and Shammai. Israel must be humble, must be kind, and must be devoted to God. A humble and kind people, loyal to God's morality, can not enable evil. We must treat the stranger with love, but not be confused by evil people spouting elevated nonsense. We must take responsibility for all the residents of the land, and do that which is right in God's eyes. And we must know that you can't negotiate with people who fail the Korach Test.

I believe we must wage a relentless war against hatred and racism. This is a communications war, and it is crucial. The Palestinian Arabs must be attacked by messaging that contradicts their violent perceptions. The real moderate Palestinian Arabs, those who pass the Korach Test, should be found and engaged. If we do not wage this spiritual war quickly, we may find ourselves fighting another type of war. Let us pray that this doesn't happen, and that hearts will change. It actually happened in the Korach story to a man named On Ben Pelet, whose wife talked him out of continuing to rebel with Korach, thus saving his life. May many lives be saved, may none be lost, and may peace finally come.

The Temple in Your Heart

The Torah section of Naso contains seemingly disconnected sections. First, we read about a thief who wishes to return what he is stolen, but his victim is no longer alive and does not have any heirs. He must return the money to the priests of the Holy Temple. Then there is one who fails to give the required tithes to the priests of the Temple.

Then there is the remarkable section about the test of the unfaithful wife, who was brought into the temple after reasonable suspicion, and forced to drink a potion that will determine her guilt or innocence.

Then, there is the section of the nazarite, who vows to abstain from wine, haircuts, and coming in contact with the dead. At the end of his period as a Nazir, the offering he must bring in the temple is described. And finally, wrapping this part up, is the priestly benediction to the people.

What is the connection of all of these things? I believe it is an imbalance of faith and trust. And the corrective of this imbalance can only be achieved in the Holy Temple. Let me explain.

Why, in the first section, should the priests of the Temple receive that which was stolen from a private individual who left no heirs? The sages explain that the only logical person who could leave no heirs to receive returned stolen funds would be a convert. I would like to suggest that the convert does indeed have an heir, and that air is none other than God Himself. Gifts to the Temple are gifts to Him. The convert have established a deep love relationship with God, and so God is his Heir.

I would like to add a different idea to this. A convert is to be welcomed by the people of Israel with great love and respect. The convert is not only joining a theological community, he or she is joining a living, breathing people. He has been inspired by the people of Israel, and the people of Israel are commanded to love him. Instead, somebody betrayed that trust by stealing or cheating this person. Perhaps damage was done to their spiritual connection as a result. When trust has been betrayed, faith is weakened. The cure for this is to return to the Temple, and once again the purified by connecting to the Divine Presence therein.

Failure to give the required portions of one's produce to the Cohen and the Levi similarly evinces a betrayal of trust. They depend upon the people to support them, so they can represent the people in God's Temple on a full-time basis. A betrayal of that trust also displays a lack of faith in the importance of their mission. The person has disconnected from the source of faith, from the Temple.

A woman who has been seen concluding herself with a man other than her husband has also betrayed her husband's trust. When trust is betrayed, faith is weakened. The Hebrew words for man and woman share two Hebrew letters: shin and aleph. The word for man also has a yod in it, and the word for woman also has a heh. A yod and a heh together a spell one of the names of God. Without those two letters, the aleph and shin spell the word "esh", which means fire. The lesson is, if God's name is not part of the marriage, it will be consumed by fire. In other words, without faith, there is no trust.

The solution for the damaged relationship is for the couple to come to the Temple. There, God's Name will be erased by the very potion of the woman will drink. Thus, resolutions will be achieved, and, if the woman did not have an affair, her marriage and trust will be re-created. Again, the Temple heals the breach of faith and trust.

In some cases, a person is motivated to do more than is required. They wish to run away from all of the illnesses of society, and create their own religious purity. There is a danger in this, as it can lead to extremism and intolerance. Thus, the Nazir must also remain connected to the Temple. You must bring a sacrifice at the conclusion of his vow, and rebalance his trust and faith. Often, a person may choose such about because their trust in their own character is weakened. They are afraid that they, too, shall fall. So they build up walls of protective religious extremism. It is not ideal, and, if disconnected from the Temple and from true faith, can lead to destruction. If connected, it can indeed strengthen a tottering person.

Finally, the blessing that the priests give to the people is, in truth, the antidote for all of the ills previously mentioned in this. If we have strong faith in our hearts, if we take the Divine Presence into our daily lives, that our trust in ourselves and our faith in God will be balanced. We will be connected to the Temple, and the Temple will inspire our confidence work in this world.

Just How Religious?

A "character" in this week's Torah reading is none other than the earth itself. According to the Midrash, when God gave the Torah to Israel, Earth was concerned. "If they observe the laws, all is good. But if not, I will be the one to pay the price, just as happened when I was cursed for Adam and Eve eating from the tree of knowledge."

In other words, the Earth was concerned that she would pay the price for any sin that Israel would commit. So God reassured Earth. "Already in the time of Noah, I promised that day and night, hot and cold, winter and summer will not be suspended anymore." In other words, the Earth shall continue to follow its regular cycles without interference.

Thus, Earth was placated. It seems to me that this evolved to the point where God defends the Earth's right to a sabbatical rest by punishing the people. We have come full circle.

What changed? King Solomon said, "One sinner can cause great good to be lost." The Medrash applies this to the sabbatical year. They if the people fail to preserve the sanctity of this year, the consequence is the loss of the land as the people go into exile.

Why is this mitzvah different from all other mitzvot?

The secret is Order. Our sages tell us of the phases of world history. The first 2000 years are chaos. The next 2000 are Torah. The final 2000 are the days of the Messiah. We see from this that there is, indeed, a form of evolution from chaos to order to redemption.

Now I can understand why the Earth could be punished in the early generations, but be promised Order after the flood. Initially, the world was impulsive. Just as the physical creation proceeded from chaos to order, so too mankind. Man was impulsive. He was capable of great spiritual and intellectual accomplishments, and repulsive behavior at the same time. There was no order, there was no stability.

As the world approached the Epoch of Torah, order and stability began to be present. God's world was created to be one of order and stability. Thus, the more orderly the world, the more in line with God's intention it is, and the more enduring it will be. Noah represented the end of chaos, and the beginning of stability. Hence, God's promise to Earth that order and sequence will now reign.

Another Medrash tells us about Abraham's journey to the holy land. Outside of Israel, he saw people "eating and drinking and behaving impulsively." He did not wish to live in such places.

But when he passed The Ladder of Tyre, and entered the Land of Israel, he saw people clearing their fields at the right time, plowing the fields at the right time, harvesting at the right time, etc. He said, "May my portion be with the people who live in this Land."

Abraham saw a land of order and stability. The Land of Israel, for the Jewish people, is where our order and stability are based. Violating the sanctity of the land, in a fashion that does violence to order, is a grave sin. The sabbatical year symbolizes that order, as it shows structure to the years. King Solomon said, "for everything there is an appropriate time." Violating the sabbatical year is an attack on order and stability, and causes "great good," the continued presence of Israel and her land, to be lost.

For this reason, the sabbatical year is not obligatory outside the land of Israel. For, as Abraham saw, those are lands ruled by impulse.

The prophet Isaiah (Chapter 26) is critical of those people whose approach to the word of God is, "a commandment here, a commandment there, a line here, a line there, a little here, a little there." These are people who keep Judaism impulsively. They are not consistent. It is not ordered or structured, it is whatever they feel at the moment.

The defining text of Jewish law is called the Shulchan Aruch, which means "The Set Table." This name screams out the importance of structure and order! Our Judaism must be structured and organized. Our days, our weeks, our years, our lives require structure. When they have it, they are in harmony with Creation and, especially, the most ordered and structured land in the world – The Land of Israel!

Let us reevaluate the way we keep Judaism. Let us not pick and choose, jump from inspiration and neglect from boredom. Let us make it part of our daily order and routine, our weekly rhythms, and our life plan.

The Clothing and the Man

At the beginning of the service of the Tabernacle, on the joyous day of its dedication, tragedy struck. "And Nadav and Avihu took a fire that was not commanded of them .. and a fire came forth from the Lord and they were consumed." Nadav and Avihu were Aaron's two elder sons. They perished on that day for the unclear sin of bringing a "fire that was not commanded of them." What did they do wrong?

There are many different explanations, but one sticks out as being seemingly completely irrelevant: That they remained unmarried. Since when is being single a mortal sin? And what does that have to do with the uncommanded fire on the day of the Tabernacle's dedication? Very strange.

One commentary gives more depth to this by explaining WHY they were unmarried. They reasoned that, since their father was Aaron, their mother was the sister of the Prince of Judah (Nachshon), and their uncle was Moses, no woman would be of high enough stature for them. Thus, their singlehood was a sin of pride. But still, what does this have to do with the fire?

Actually, I never really understood the question to begin with, since the scripture says that they brought an unwarranted fire to the altar. I'm sure we can imagine how that is possible. So why all the different explanations (e.g. they made legal decisions without consulting Moses, they were intoxicated, etc..)?

Rather, I think that the sin was the fire, but that was the RESULT of all the other theories. So with our explanation, we can say that because they were not married, and for status reasons, they were tempted to bring this uncommanded fire. And I think there is a small detail in the story that supports my theory. What detail, Sherlock?

After they had died, their bodies were removed "in their garments." In other words, even though they were burned to death, their garments were untouched. That, indeed, is a miracle. Rashi tells us this explicitly, describing how two beams of fire entered their nostrils and took their souls, without any external burning. The fact that the garments were spared tells us a lot. In other words, they allowed themselves to define themselves by their garments, ie., by their external status.

The first humans were naked, and they were not ashamed. Adam and Eve, before the sin, had no need for clothing. I do not think that the "were not ashamed" aspect refers to sexuality at all. I believe it is more fundamental. They had not clothing, no external status. All they had was closeness to God, and that was enough. Once they sinned, they felt ashamed about who they were, and had a need to lift themselves up through externalities, through clothing.

To a certain extent, as we said, that is normal, and even required. Honor and dignity are part of human life. Modesty does not mean that I think I'm nothing. it means I do not think I am any more than I am. Moses was the most humble human ever, and yet he certainly knew that he was the leader, and he stepped up to the plate.

But when the person is so insecure as to believe that they ARE their status, that it is their identity and not just their job, as it were, then they have a problem. Nadav and Avihu fell into this trap. They felt that their priestly garments made them more than they were. No woman was good enough, and even the commanded sacrifices on the day of Dedication weren't enough. They were special, they had to bring their own fire, a fire that was not commanded.