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1  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Happy Rosh Hashanah! on: September 24, 2014, 05:44:41 PM
Happy Rosh Hashanah! Have a Sweet and Happy New Year!

Ha’azinu (5774) – The Leader’s Call to Responsibility

When words take wing, they modulate into song. That is what they do here in Haazinu as Moses, with the angel of death already in sight, prepares to take leave of this life. Never before had he spoken with such passion. His language is vivid, even violent. He wants his final words never to be forgotten. In a sense he has been articulating this truth for forty years but never before with such emotion. This is what he says:
Give ear, O heavens, that I may speak,
Earth, hear the sayings of my mouth ...
The Rock, His acts are perfect,
For all his ways are just.
A faithful God without wrong,
Right and straight is He.
He is not corrupt; the defect is in his children,
A warped and twisted generation.
Is this the way you repay God,
Ungrateful, unwise people?
Is he not your father, your Master.
He made you and established you. (Deut. 32: 1-6)
Don’t blame God when things go wrong. That is what Moses feels so passionately. Don’t believe, he says, that God is there to serve us. We are here to serve Him and through Him be a blessing to the world. God is straight; it is we who are complex and self-deceiving. God is not there to relieve us of responsibility. It is God who is calling us to responsibility.

With these words Moses brings to closure the drama that began in the beginning with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. When they sinned, Adam blamed the woman, the woman blamed the serpent. So it was in the beginning and so it still is in the twenty-first century secular time.

The story of humanity has been for the most part a flight from responsibility. The culprits change. Only the sense of victimhood remains. It wasn’t us. It was the politicians. Or the media. Or the bankers. Or our genes. Or our parents. Or the system, be it capitalism, communism or anything between. Most of all, it is the fault of the others, the ones not like us, infidels, sons of Satan, children of darkness, the unredeemed. The perpetrators of the greatest crime against humanity in all of history were convinced it wasn’t them. They were “only obeying orders.” When all else fails, blame God. And if you don’t believe in God, blame the people who do. To be human is to seek to escape from responsibility.

That is what makes Judaism different. It is what made some people admire Jews and others hate them. For Judaism is God’s call to human responsibility. From this call you can’t hide, as Adam and Eve discovered when they tried, and you can’t escape, as Jonah learnt in the belly of a fish.

What Moses was saying in his great farewell song can be paraphrased thus: “Beloved people, I have led you for forty years, and my time is coming to an end. For the last month, since I began these speeches, these Devarim, I have tried to tell you the most important things about your past and future. I beg you not to forget them.”

“Your parents were slaves. God brought them and you to freedom. But that was negative freedom, chofesh. It meant that there was no-one to order you about. That kind of freedom is not inconsequential, for its absence tastes like unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Eat them once a year so you never forget where you came from and who brought you out.”

“But don’t think that chofesh alone can sustain a free society. When everyone is free to do what they like, the result is anarchy, not freedom. A free society requires cherut, the positive freedom that only comes when people internalise the habits of self-restraint so that my freedom is not bought at the expense of yours, or yours at the cost of mine.”

“That is why I have taught you all these laws, judgments and statutes. None of them is arbitrary. None of them exists because God likes giving laws. God gave laws to the very structures of matter – laws that generated a vast, wondrous, almost unfathomable universe. If God were only interested in giving laws, He would have confined himself to the things that obey those laws, namely matter without mind and life-forms that know not liberty.”

“The laws God gave me and I gave you exist not for God’s sake but for ours. God gave us freedom – the most rare, precious, unfathomable thing of all other than life itself. But with freedom comes responsibility. That means that we must take the risk of action. God gave us the land but we must conquer it. God gave us the fields but we must plough, sow and reap them. God gave us bodies but we must tend and heal them. God is our father; He made us and established us. But parents cannot live their children’s lives. They can only show them by instruction and love how to live.”

“So when things go wrong, don’t blame God. He is not corrupt; we are. He is straight; it is we who are sometimes warped and twisted.” That is the Torah’s ethic of responsibility. No higher estimate has ever been given of the human condition. No higher vocation was ever entrusted to mortal creatures of flesh and blood.

Judaism does not see human beings, as some religions do, as irretrievably corrupt, stained by original sin, incapable of good without God’s grace. That is a form of faith but it is not ours. Nor do we see religion as a matter of blind submission to God’s will. That too is a form of faith but not ours.

We do not see human beings, as the pagans did, as the playthings of capricious gods. Nor do we see them, as some scientists do, as mere matter, a gene’s way of producing another gene, a collection of chemicals driven by electrical impulses in the brain, without any special dignity or sanctity, temporary residents in a universe devoid of meaning that came into existence for no reason and will one day, equally for no reason, cease to be.

We believe that we are God’s image, free as He is free, creative as He is creative, on an infinitely smaller and more limited scale to be sure, but still we are the one point in all the echoing expanse of space where the universe becomes conscious of itself, the one life form capable of shaping its own destiny: choosing, therefore free, therefore responsible. Judaism is God’s call to responsibility.

Which means: thou shalt not see thyself as a victim. Do not believe as the Greeks did that fate is blind and inexorable, that our fate once disclosed by the Delphic oracle, has already been sealed before we were born, that like Laius and Oedipus we are fated, however hard we try to escape the bonds of fate. That is a tragic view of the human condition. To some extent it was shared in different ways by Spinoza, Marx and Freud, the great triumvirate of Jews-by-descent who rejected Judaism and all its works.

Instead like Viktor Frankl, survivor of Auschwitz, and Aaron T. Beck, co-founder of cognitive behavioural therapy, we believe we are not defined by what happens to us but rather by how we respond to what happens to us. That itself is determined by how we interpret what happens to us. If we change the way we think – which we can, because of the plasticity of the brain – then we can change the way we feel and the way we act. Fate is never final. There may be such a thing as an evil decree, but penitence, prayer and charity can avert it. And what we cannot do alone we can do together, for we believe “it is not good for man to be alone.”

So Jews developed a morality of guilt in place of what the Greeks had, a morality of shame. A morality of guilt makes a sharp distinction between the person and the act, between the sinner and the sin. Because we are not wholly defined by what we do, there is a core within us that remains intact – “My God, the soul you gave me is pure” – so that whatever wrong we may have done, we can repent and be forgiven. That creates a language of hope, the only force strong enough to defeat a culture of despair.

It is that power of hope, born whenever God’s love and forgiveness gives rise to human freedom and responsibility, that has made Judaism the moral force it has always been to those who minds and hearts are open. But that hope, says Moses with a passion that still sears us whenever we tread it afresh, does not just happen. It has to be worked for and won. The only way it is achieved is by not blaming God. He is not corrupt. The defect is in us, His children. If we seek a better world, we must make it. God teaches us, inspires us, forgives us when we fail and lifts us when we fall, but we must make it. It is not what God does for us that transforms us; it is what we do for God.

The first humans lost paradise when they sought to hide from responsibility. We will only ever regain it if we accept responsibility and become a nation of leaders, each respecting and making space for those not like us. People do not like people who remind them of their responsibility. That is one of the reasons (not the only one, to be sure) for Judeophobia through the ages. But we are not defined by those who do not like us. To be a Jew is to be defined by the One who loves us.

The deepest mystery of all is not our faith in God but God’s faith in us. May that faith sustain us as we heed the call to responsibility and take the risk of healing some of the needless wounds of an injured but still wondrous world.
2  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / In memoriam Eyal, Gilad and Naftali on: July 16, 2014, 10:25:48 PM
In memoriam Eyal, Gilad and Naftali
This past Shabbat we read the parsha of Chukkat with its almost incomprehensible commandment of the red heifer whose mixed with "living water" purified those who had been in contact with death so that they could enter the Mishkan, symbolic home of the glory of God. Almost incomprehensible but not entirely so.

The mitzvah of the parah adumah, the red heifer, was a protest against the religions of the ancient world that glorified death. Death for the Egyptians was the realm of the spirits and the gods. The pyramids were places where, it was believed, the spirit of the dead Pharaoh ascended to heaven and joined the immortals.

The single most striking thing about the Torah and Tanakh in general is its almost total silence on life after death. We believe in it profoundly. We believe in olam haba (the world to come), Gan Eden (paradise), and techiyat hametim (the resurrection of the dead). Yet Tanakh speaks about these things only sparingly and by allusion. Why so?

Because too intense a focus on heaven is capable of justifying every kind of evil on earth. There was a time when Jews were burned at the stake, so their murderers said, in order to save their immortal souls. Every injustice on earth, every act of violence, even suicide bombings, can be theoretically defended on the grounds that true justice is reserved for life after death.

Against this Judaism protests with every sinew of its soul, every fibre of its faith. Life is sacred. Death defiles. God is the God of life to be found only by consecrating life. Even King David was told by God that he would not be permitted to build the Temple because dam larov shafachta, “you have shed much blood.”

Judaism is supremely a religion of life. That is the logic of the Torah’s principle that those who have had even the slightest contact with death need purification before they may enter sacred space. The parah adumah, the rite of the red heifer, delivered this message in the most dramatic possible way. It said, in effect, that everything that lives – even a heifer that never bore the yoke, even red, the colour of blood which is the symbol of life – may one day turn to ash, but that ash must be dissolved in the waters of life. God lives in life. God must never be associated with death.

Eyal, Gilad and Naftali were killed by people who believed in death. Too often in the past Jews were victims of people who practised hate in the name of the God of love, cruelty in the name of the God of compassion, and murder in the name of the God of life. It is shocking to the very depths of humanity that this still continues to this day.

Never was there a more pointed contrast than, on the one hand, these young men who dedicated their lives to study and to peace, and on the other the revelation that other young men, even from Europe, have become radicalised into violence in the name of God and are now committing murder in His name. That is the difference between a culture of life and one of death, and this has become the battle of our time, not only in Israel but in Syria, in Iraq, in Nigeria and elsewhere. Whole societies are being torn to shreds by people practising violence in the name of God.

Against this we must never forget the simple truth that those who begin by practising violence against their enemies end by committing it against their fellow believers. The verdict of history is that cultures that worship death, die, while those that sanctify life, live on. That is why Judaism survives while the great empires that sought its destruction were themselves destroyed.

Our tears go out to the families of Eyal, Gilad and Naftali. We are with them in grief. We will neither forget the young victims nor what they lived for: the right that everyone on earth should enjoy, to live a life of faith without fear.

Bila hamavet lanetzach: “May He destroy death forever, and may the Lord God wipe away the tears from all faces.” May the God of life, in whose image we are, teach all humanity to serve Him by sanctifying life.

Copyright © 2014 The Office of Rabbi Sacks
3  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Bechukotei (5774) – “We The People” Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks on: May 14, 2014, 01:54:57 PM
Bechukotei (5774) – “We The People”  Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

You can also listen to the commentary here as well

In Bechukotai, in the midst of one of the most searing curses ever to have been uttered to a nation by way of warning, the sages found a fleck of pure gold.
Moses is describing a nation in flight from its enemies:

I will bring despair into the hearts of those of you who survive in enemy territory. Just the sound of a windblown leaf will put them to running, and they will run scared as if running from a sword! They will fall even when no one is chasing them! They will stumble over each other as they would before a sword, even though no one is chasing them! You will have no power to stand before your enemies. (Lev. 26: 36-37)

There is on the face of it nothing positive in this nightmare scenario. But the sages said: “They will stumble over each other” – read this as “stumble because of one another”: this teaches that all Israelites are sureties [i.e. responsible] for one another.”[1]

This is an exceedingly strange passage. Why locate this principle here? Surely the whole Torah testifies to it. When Moses speaks about the reward for keeping the covenant he does so collectively. There will be rain in its due season. You will have good harvests. And so on. The principle that Jews have collective responsibility, that their fate and destiny are interlinked: this could have been found in the Torah’s blessings. Why search for it among its curses?

The answer is that there is nothing unique to Judaism in the idea that we are all implicated in one another’s fate. That is true of the citizens of any nation. If the economy is booming, most people benefit. If there is a recession many people suffer. If a neighbourhood is scarred by crime, people are scared to walk the streets. If there is law and order, if people are polite to one another and come to one another’s aid, there is a general sense of well-being. We are social animals, and our horizons of possibility are shaped by the society and culture within which we live.

All of this applied to the Israelites so long as they were a nation in their own land. But what when they suffered defeat and exile and were eventually scattered across the earth? They no longer had any of the conventional lineaments of a nation. They were not living in the same place. They did not share the same language of everyday life. While Rashi and his family were living in Christian northern Europe and speaking French, Maimonides was living in Muslim Egypt, speaking and writing Arabic.

Nor did Jews share a fate. While those in northern Europe were suffering persecution and massacres during the Crusades, the Jews of Spain were enjoying their golden age. While the Jews of Spain were being expelled and compelled to wander round the world as refugees, the Jews of Poland were enjoying a rare sunlit moment of tolerance. In what sense therefore were they responsible for one another? What constituted them as a nation? How – as the author of Psalm 137 put it – could they sing God’s song in a strange land?

There are only two texts in the Torah that speak to this situation, namely the two sections of curses, one in our parsha, and the other in Deuteronomy in the parsha of Ki Tavo. Only these speak about a time when Israel is exiled and dispersed, scattered, as Moses later put it, “to the most distant lands under heaven.” There are three major differences between the two curses, however. The passage in Leviticus is in the plural, that in Deuteronomy in the singular. The curses in Leviticus are the words of God; in Deuteronomy they are the words of Moses. And the curses in Deuteronomy do not end in hope. They conclude in a vision of unrelieved bleakness:

You will try to sell yourselves as slaves—both male and female—but no one will want to buy you. (Deut. 28: 68)

Those in Leviticus end with a momentous hope:

But despite all that, when they are in enemy territory, I will not reject them or despise them to the point of totally destroying them, breaking my covenant with them by doing so, because I am the Lord their God. But for their sake I will remember the covenant with the first generation, the ones I brought out of Egypt’s land in the sight of all the nations, in order to be their God; I am the Lord. (Lev. 26: 44-45)

Even in their worst hours, according to Leviticus, the Jewish people would never be destroyed. Nor would God reject them. The covenant would still be in force and its terms still operative. That meant that Jews would still be linked to one another by the same ties of mutual responsibility that they had in the land – for it was the covenant that formed them as a nation and bound them to one another even as it bound them to God. Therefore, even when falling over one another in flight from their enemies they would still be bound by mutual responsibility. They would still be a nation with a shared fate and destiny.

This is a rare and special idea, and it is the distinctive feature of the politics of covenant. Covenant became a major element in the politics of the West following the Reformation. It shaped political discourse in Switzerland, Holland, Scotland and England in the seventeenth century as the invention of printing and the spread of literacy made people familiar for the first time with the Hebrew Bible (the “Old Testament” as they called it). There they learned that tyrants are to be resisted, that immoral orders should not be obeyed, and that kings did not rule by divine right but only by the consent of the governed.

The same convictions were held by the Pilgrim Fathers as they set sail for America, but with this difference, that they did not disappear over time as they did in Europe. The result is that the United States is the only country today whose political discourse is framed by the idea of covenant.

Two textbook examples of this are Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Inaugural of 1965, and Barack Obama’s Second Inaugural of 2013. Both use the biblical device of significant repetition (always an odd number, three or five or seven). Johnson invokes the idea of covenant five times. Obama five times begins paragraphs with a key phrase of covenant politics – words never used by British politicians – namely, “We the people.”

In covenant societies it is the people as a whole who are responsible, under God, for the fate of the nation. As Johnson put it, “Our fate as a nation and our future as a people rest not upon one citizen but upon all citizens.” In Obama’s words, “You and I, as citizens, have the power to set this country’s course.” That is the essence of covenant: we are all in this together. There is no division of the nation into rulers and ruled. We are conjointly responsible, under the sovereignty of God, for one another.
This is not open-ended responsibility. There is nothing in Judaism like the tendentious and ultimately meaningless idea set out by Jean-Paul Sartre in Being and Nothingness of ‘absolute responsibility’:

The essential consequence of our earlier remarks is that man, being condemned to be free, carries the weight of the whole world on his shoulders, he is responsible for the world and for himself as a way of being.[2]

In Judaism we are responsible only for what we could have prevented but did not. This is how the Talmud puts it:

Whoever can forbid his household [to commit a sin] but does not, is seized for [the sins of] his household. [If he can forbid] his fellow citizens [but does not] he is seized for [the sins of] his fellow citizens. [If he can forbid] the whole world [but does not] he is seized for [the sins of] the whole world.[3]

This remains however a powerful idea and an unusual one. What made it unique to Judaism is that it applied to a people scattered throughout the world united only by the terms of a covenant our ancestors made with God at Mount Sinai. But it continues, as I have argued, to drive American political discourse likewise even today. It tells us that we are all equal citizens in the republic of faith and that responsibility cannot be delegated away to governments or presidents but belongs inalienably to each of us. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper.

That is what I mean by the strange, seemingly self-contradictory idea I have argued throughout these essays: that we are all called on to be leaders. Surely this cannot be so: if everyone is a leader, then no one is. If everyone leads, who is left to follow?

The concept that resolves the contradiction is covenant. Leadership is, I have argued, the acceptance of responsibility. Therefore if we are all responsible for one another, we are all called on to be leaders, each within our sphere of influence, be it within the family, the community, the organisation or a larger grouping still.

This can sometimes make an enormous difference. In late summer of 1999 I was in Pristina making a BBC television programme about the aftermath of the Kosovo campaign. I interviewed General Sir Michael Jackson, then head of the NATO forces. To my surprise, he thanked me for what “my people” had done. The Jewish community had taken charge of the city’s twenty-three primary schools. It was, he said, the most valuable contribution to the city’s welfare. When 800, 000 people have become refugees and then return home, the most reassuring sign that life has returned to normal is that the schools open on time. That, he said, we owe to the Jewish people.

Meeting the head of the Jewish community later that day, I asked him how many Jews were there currently in Pristina. His answer? Eleven. The story, as I later uncovered it, was this. In the early days of the conflict, Israel had along with other international aid agencies sent a field medical team to work with the Kosovan Albanian refugees. They noticed that while other agencies were concentrating on the adults, there was no one working with the children. Traumatised by the conflict and far from home, they were running wild.

The team phoned back to Israel and asked for young volunteers. Every youth movement in Israel, from the most secular to the most religious, sent out teams of youth leaders at two-week intervals. They worked with the children, organising summer camps, sports competitions, drama and music events and whatever else they could think of to make their temporary exile less traumatic. The Kosovan Albanians were Muslims, and for many of the Israeli youth workers it was their first contact and friendship with children of another faith.

Their effort won high praise from UNICEF, the United Nations children’s organisation. It was in the wake of this that “the Jewish people” – Israel, the American-based “Joint” and other Jewish agencies – were asked to supervise the return to normality of the school system in Pristina.

That episode taught me the power of hessed, acts of kindness when extended across the borders of faith. It also showed the practical difference collective responsibility makes to the scope of the Jewish deed. World Jewry is small, but the invisible strands of mutual responsibility mean that even the smallest Jewish community can turn to the Jewish people worldwide for help and achieve things that would be exceptional for a nation many times its size. When the Jewish people join hands in collective responsibility they become a formidable force for good.
[1] Sifra ad loc., Sanhedrin 27b, Shavuot 39a.
[2]Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel Barnes, New York, Washington Square Press, 1966, 707.
[3] Shabbat 54b.
4  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / The Great Partnership: Science, Religion and the Search for Meaning- Book Review on: February 25, 2014, 10:44:18 AM
A Guide for the Perplexed
Britain's chief rabbi believes that the rhetorical war between "science" and "religion" is not just unnecessary but foolish.

"Rabbi Sacks draws an avowedly too-tidy contrast between "Greek" culture—science and philosophy—and "Hebraic" culture: religion, narrative and so on. In the Jewish tradition, Maimonides was the great synthesizer of these two, and Rabbi Sacks cites him frequently, though he presents the distinction in more contemporary terms: those of brain science. God, we are told, "lives in the right hemisphere of the brain, in empathy and interpersonal understanding, in relationships etched with the charisma of grace." Religious faith is not susceptible to definitive proof. It must be sought with a humble, listening ear and a willingness to live with ambiguity and doubt. The potential gains, however, are great: "The meaning of life," he writes, "is the realisation that you are held in the arms of a vast presence; that you are not abandoned; that you are here because you were meant to be." Proven or not, Rabbi Sacks is gripped by this realization—and what an enviable realization to rest in."
5  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Questions on: February 25, 2014, 10:38:08 AM
We are very lucky to live in a wold where the ability to learn about almost any topic is in our hands. It just takes time, effort and making it a priority.  That tone and the word choices of the article are irreligious but I don’t think asking questions is disrespectful .

“A brittle faith fears questions; a robust faith welcomes them.”   “ Asking questions of another is not only a sign of relationship, it is a means of establishing  relationships.  Rabbi Wolpe

There are at least 12 questions  here and  I don’t think is the best use of my time  to answer them all  when there are better more insightful and educated  resources available. 

If you are Jewish, You can get a free study partner with Partners in Torah   I have been working with a  extremely helpful and kind  study partner from this organization for over 10 years.

If you are Christian, I’m assuming your local church would have a bible study group that could discuss these issues. 

I highly recommend the books

Why Faith Matters by Rabbi David Wolpe

The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning by Rabbi Jonathan Sachs

Jews are supposed to read the story of the Binding of Isaac every morning.   I don’t think it a story meant to calm and comfort you. It is a story that wakes you  and makes you question your life.

Thanks to a moderately classical education, I have had the luxury to read the New Testament, the books or lengthly excerpts of Augustine, Anslem, Aquinas and Martin Luther.   The reboot did not speak to me but I’m grateful to be Jewish and we selfishly like to keep our religion to ourselves. 
6  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / A Life Not with Standing on: January 14, 2014, 11:36:22 AM

A Life Not with Standing
Invisible, inaudible, inanimate: my adventures in a wheelchair.
by Chava Willig Levy

I was raised in a joy-filled home. One of its most joy-filled days was April 12, 1955, when Dr. Jonas Salk announced that his polio vaccine worked. Four months later, at the age of three, I contracted polio.

Years of hospitalizations and surgeries had me hungering for home. But with each hospital discharge, one destination had me chomping at the bit to fly the coop. My ninth birthday long behind me, I had yet to attend school. Except for my synagogue’s afternoon program, home and hospital instruction was all I knew. The only advantage to this lonely segregation was its tight quarters. They afforded me the chance to minimize wheelchair use; at home, for example, a few steps from bed to kitchen table, my ersatz school desk, were well within my ambulatory range.
7  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / US run by Nazi space aliens, Iran claims on: January 14, 2014, 11:29:15 AM

US run by Nazi space aliens, Iran claims

Alien Space Nazi Caricature Photo: Roz Mundo

WASHINGTON -  Confirming the suspicions of many, the United States has been secretly run by a shadow government of German Nazi space aliens since 1945, Fars News Agency, Iran's semi-official news agency, reported on Sunday.

8  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / The Far Horizon By Rabbi Jonathan Sacks on: December 31, 2013, 03:38:10 PM
The Far Horizon
By Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

To gain insight into the unique leadership lesson of this week’s Parshah, I often ask an audience to perform a thought experiment. Imagine you are the leader of a people that has suffered exile for more than two centuries, and has been enslaved and oppressed. Now, after a series of miracles, it is about to go free. You assemble them and rise to address them. They are waiting expectantly for your words. This is a defining moment they will never forget. What will you speak about?

Most people answer: freedom. That was Abraham Lincoln’s decision in the Gettysburg Address, when he invoked the memory of “a new nation, conceived in liberty,” and looked forward to “a new birth of freedom.” Some suggest that they would inspire the people by talking about the destination that lay ahead, the “land flowing with milk and honey.” Yet others say they would warn the people of the dangers and What will you speak about?challenges that they would encounter on what Nelson Mandela called “the long walk to freedom.”

Any of these would have been the great speech of a great leader. Guided by G‑d, Moses did none of these things. That is what made him a unique leader. If you examine the text in Parshat Bo, you will see that three times he reverted to the same theme: children, education, and the distant future.

When your children ask you, “What do you mean by this rite?” you shall say, “It is the Passover sacrifice to the L‑rd, because He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when he smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.”1

You shall explain to your child on that day, “It is because of what the L‑rd did for me when I went free from Egypt.”2

When in time to come your child asks you, saying, “What does this mean?” you shall say to him, “It was with a mighty hand that the L‑rd brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage.”3

It is one of the most counterintuitive acts in the history of leadership. Moses did not speak about today or tomorrow. He spoke about the distant future and the duty of parents to educate their children. He even hinted—as Jewish tradition understood—that we should encourage our children to ask questions, so that the handing down of the Jewish heritage would be not a matter of rote learning but of active dialogue between parents and children.

So, Jews became the only people in history to predicate their very survival on education. The most sacred duty of parents was to teach their children. Pesach itself became an ongoing seminar in the handing on of memory. Judaism became the religion whose heroes were teachers and whose passion was study and the life of the mind. The Mesopotamians built ziggurats. The Egyptians built pyramids. The Greeks built the Parthenon. The Romans built the Coliseum. Jews built schools. That is why they alone, of all the civilizations of the ancient world, are still alive and strong, still continuing their ancestors’ vocation, their heritage intact and undiminished.

Moses’ insight was profound. He knew that you cannot change the world by externalities alone, by monumental architecture, or armies and empires, or the use of force and power. How many You cannot change the world by externalities aloneempires have come and gone while the human condition remains untransformed and unredeemed?

There is only one way to change the world, and that is by education. You have to teach children the importance of justice, righteousness, kindness and compassion. You have to teach them that freedom can be sustained only by the laws and habits of self-restraint. You have continually to remind them of the lessons of history, “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt,” because those who forget the bitterness of slavery eventually lose the commitment and courage to fight for freedom. And you have to empower children to ask, challenge and argue. You have to respect them, if they are to respect the values you wish them to embrace.

This is a lesson most cultures still have not learned after more than three thousand years. Revolutions, protests and civil wars still take place, encouraging people to think that removing a tyrant or having a democratic election will end corruption, create freedom, and lead to justice and the rule of law—and still people are surprised and disappointed when it does not happen. All that happens is a change of faces in the corridors of power.

In one of the great speeches of the twentieth century, a distinguished American justice, Judge Learned Hand, said:

I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it.4

What G‑d taught Moses was that the real challenge does not lie in gaining freedom; it lies in sustaining it, keeping the spirit of liberty alive in the hearts of successive generations. That can be done only through a sustained process of education. Nor is this something that can be delegated away to teachers and schools. Some of it has to take place within the family, at home, and with the sacred obligation that comes from religious duty. No one ever saw this more clearly than Moses, and only because of his teachings have Jews and Judaism survived.

What makes leaders great is that they think ahead, worrying not about tomorrow but about next year, or the next decade, or the next generation. In one of his finest speeches, Robert F. Kennedy spoke of the power of leaders to transform the world when they have a clear vision of a possible future:

Some believe there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world’s ills—against misery, against ignorance, or injustice and violence. Yet many of the world’s great movements, of thought and action, have flowed from the work of a single person. A young monk began the Protestant reformation, a young general extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the earth, and a young woman reclaimed the territory of France. It was a young Italian explorer who discovered the New World, and 32-year-old Thomas Jefferson who proclaimed that all men are created equal. “Give me a place to stand,” said Archimedes, “and I will move the world.” These men moved the world, and so can we all.5

Visionary leadership forms the text and texture of Judaism. It was the book of Proverbs Visionary leadership forms the text and texture of Judaismthat said, “Without a vision [chazon], the people perish.”6 That vision in the minds of the prophets was always of a long-term future. G‑d told Ezekiel that a prophet is a watchman, one who climbs to a high vantage point and so can see the danger in the distance, before anyone else is aware of it at ground level.7 The sages said, “Who is wise? One who sees the long-term consequences [ha-nolad].”8 Two of the greatest leaders of the twentieth century, Churchill and Ben Gurion, were also distinguished historians. Knowing the past, they could anticipate the future. They were like chess masters who, because they have studied thousands of games, recognize almost immediately the dangers and possibilities in any configuration of the pieces on the board. They know what will happen if you make this move or that.

If you want to be a great leader in any field, from prime minister to parent, it is essential to think long-term. Never choose the easy option because it is simple or fast or yields immediate satisfaction. You will pay a high price in the end.

Moses was the greatest leader because he thought further ahead than anyone else. He knew that real change in human behavior is the work of many generations. Therefore we must place as our highest priority educating our children in our ideals, so that what we begin they will continue, until the world changes because we have changed. He knew that if you plan for a year, plant rice. If you plan for a decade, plant a tree. If you plan for posterity, educate a child.9 Moses’ lesson, thirty-three centuries old, is still compelling today.

1.   Exodus 12:26–27.
2.   Exodus 13:8.
3.   Exodus 13:14.
4.   “The Spirit of Liberty”—speech at “I Am an American Day” ceremony, Central Park, New York City (21 May 1944).
5.   The Kennedys: America’s Front-Page Family, p. 112.
6.   Proverbs 29:18.
7.   Ezekiel 33:1–6.
8.   Talmud, Tamid 32a.
9.   A statement attributed to Confucius.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the British Commonwealth. To read more writings and teachings by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, or to join his e‑mail list, please visit
Photo by Oneinfocus. Oneinfocus is committed to educating and inspiring people on a global scale, using photography and other forms of visual technology to spread Torah, Chassidus and positive life values.
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9  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Re: The Politics of Health Care on: December 24, 2013, 03:46:41 PM

I have not followed  this thread  or any others in any detail—  it has been a  very busy few months.  However, here are some things I noticed. 

This is a very small sample size of a little less than 20.   
The vast majority of my new health insurance clients this month  could not have purchased  health insurance on the individual market  last year because of diabetes or other medical problems.    Currently about half  of my clients are getting subsidies and  about half aren’t.   Both of those may look different in a few months.  The older you are the more impressive the subsidies.   Subsides are the best deal for Small Business Owners who are able to  write off most of their income.    Most  people who aren’t working with an agent have no idea what they are buying and will be in for a rude awaking when they  find out their out of pocket costs and the size of their network.
10  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Gratitude/ 4 Ways to Find Inner Joy on: December 24, 2013, 03:06:31 PM
A few weeks ago I received the best birthday gift ever.   Several EMTs, paramedics and doctors in LA saved the life and the ability to walk of my best friend.   Her neck was broken  in a bad car accident on a curvy road in the rain on the way to work.  She should actually be more or less back to normal in few months.  I unfortunately have not been able to visit her for personal reasons but we have gotten to  have a lot  philosophical conversations on the phone about gratitude and what do with the gifts we have been given.

4 Ways to Find Inner Joy
by Slovie Jungreis-Wolff

‘Tis the season to battle a touch of the blues.

It’s the season of office parties, family vacations and too many selfies popping up on Instagram and your facebook page. It sometimes feels as if everyone else is in a better place and having more fun. Many find themselves feeling down, unsettled, and battling a touch of the blues.

What can we do to find our personal joy?

Joy is not the same as fun. You can spend the day having a great time in the city with friends but when you walk through your door, you are not feeling joy. Or you can search spa finder, book the most lux treatments and then partake in gourmet meals but somehow a void remains. At the end of the day joyfulness eludes you.

Inner joy, genuine “I-feel-good-about-my-life” emotions takes work. It requires creating a positive inner core which can be a strenuous workout for the soul.

We need to stop comparing our lives and digital images with others. By focusing on the happiness of everyone else we forget how to zoom in on our own blessings. Once we are determined to seek out our inner joy and decide to stop sizing up the vacations, romantic life and wallets of our friends and family, we are ready for the first step.

1. Get Into the Gratitude Mode

Joyfulness begins with a sense of gratitude. Show me a positive, happy person and I will show you a grateful person. Appreciation doesn’t only happen when things are going perfectly. Our mission is to cultivate this sensation of thankfulness as our constant guiding spirit. How?

Customize your outlook to see the good. In Judaism we call this an ‘ayin tov,’ a positive eye. Instead of focusing on what’s wrong, train your eye to see what’s right. Pay attention to the number of times a day you have a negative reaction, criticism or complaint. When someone does something for you, do you find where they fall short instead of saying thank you? When you’re eating out in a restaurant, do you end up griping about the service or the food?  Work on quieting that negative side and building the positive. You will find yourself more pleasant to be around, more thankful and evolving into a happier person.


11  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Four Ways to Manage Fear on: December 12, 2013, 08:56:44 PM
Four Ways to Manage Fear
Don’t let your fear hold you back.

by Sara Debbie Gutfreund

Danny Forster, the host of Discovery Channel’s Build It Bigger, a show about constructing enormous skyscrapers and towering bridges, is terrified of heights. On his first scouting trip as host, Forster's acrophobia almost cost him his job. He had flown with the show's producers to Glendale, Arizona to assess the show's first target: the University of Phoenix Stadium, the new $455 million dollar home of the Arizona Cardinals. The plan was to have Forster start off the show by working on the stadium's 240-foot-tall fabric-lined roof, but when they asked him to climb the ladder, he at first refused. Had they hired the wrong guy?
Forster's passion to build pushed him to start climbing. He rode hundreds of feet up in man lifts and climbed onto roofs, not because he had overcome his fear of heights but because he was willing to be afraid and build anyway.

12  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Inside/Outside on: December 01, 2013, 05:28:27 PM

The Candles of Chanukah, Shabbat, and Havdalah
By Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
There is more than one command in Judaism to light lights. There are three. There are the Shabbat candles. There is the havdalah candle. And there are the Chanukah candles.

The difference between them is that Shabbat candles represent shalom bayit, peace in the home. They are lit indoors. They are, if you like, Judaism’s inner light, the light of the sanctity of marriage and the holiness of home.

The Chanukah candles used to be lit outside — outside the front door. It was only fear of persecution that took the Chanukah candles back inside, and in recent times the Lubavitcher Rebbe introduced the custom of lighting giant menorahs in public places to bring back the original spirit of the day. Chanukah candles are the light Judaism brings to the world when we are unafraid to announce our identity in public, live by our principles and fight, if necessary, for our freedom.

As for the havdalah candle, which is always made up of several wicks woven together, it represents the fusion of the two, the inner light of Shabbat, joined to the outer light we make during the six days of the week when we go out into the world and live our faith in public.

When we live as Jews in private, filling our homes with the light of the Shekhina, when we live as Jews in public, bringing the light of hope to others, and when we live both together, then we bring light to the world. There always were two ways to live in a world that is often dark and full of tears. We can curse the darkness or we can light a light, and as the Chassidim say, a little light drives out much darkness. May we all help light up the world.
By Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is the former Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the British Commonwealth. To read more writings and teachings by Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, or to join his e‑mail list, please visit
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13  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / You Are What Your Bacteria Eat: The Importance of Feeding Your Microbiome on: November 24, 2013, 08:18:13 PM
You Are What Your Bacteria Eat: The Importance of Feeding Your Microbiome – With Jeff Leach

Podcast with a transcript

 "We’re more microbe than mammal.  That really wasn’t well understood a decade ago, and so the new DNA techniques are allowing that.  And what’s really remarkable is that not since Darwin’s concept of natural selection has something had such a profound impact on our understanding of “self.”  In our anthropocentric world, we think we’re the center of it all, but at the end of the day, the microbes are actually pulling the levers on a lot of what’s going on when you consider that at the gene level they outnumber us 150 to 300 to 1.  We’re born with genes that mom and dad gave us, and we’re pretty much stuck with those, but the genes in our gut – again, the bacteria are called the microbiota, and when you add their genes in as well, that’s our microbiome.  Of course, a biome is just an ecosystem, so we have this inner ecosystem.  So, depending on how we treat them, they can make life OK or they can make it problematic, and when they get out of balance, it’s now thought that that may be the root or the cause of a lot of disease.  The problem is working out causality versus correlation."
14  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Thanksgivukkah on: November 24, 2013, 08:08:07 PM
by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

The similarities – and essential differences – between Thanksgiving and Hanukkah.

It will never again happen in our lifetimes – unless you are somehow still alive 70,000 years from now.

This year the first night of Hanukkah will coincide with the American holiday of Thanksgiving. The latkes will share their prominent place at the festive meal with the turkey. Small wonder that some have already humorously decided that this year we ought to call the day by a new name – Thanksgivukkah.

In all seriousness, a “coincidence” of this magnitude requires some reflection. This is a perfect time to give some thought to the essential difference between the motivation for the American day of expressing gratitude to God and the Jewish rationale for our Festival of Lights. Because although thankfulness is the theme behind both of these holidays, they are significantly unlike each other in their emphasis on the particular reason that calls forth our response of appreciation to the Almighty.

As human beings we have two basic needs. One is physical. Because we are flesh and blood we require food to sustain us. Without sustenance we could not live. That is why there is a biblical obligation to bless God at the conclusion of every full meal, defined as one in which we have partaken of bread, the biblical staff of life. “And you shall eat, and you should be satiated, and you shall bless the Lord your God” (Deut. 9:7).

That is one of only two biblically mandated blessings. The other? The blessing over the study of Torah. Food is essential for our bodies but Torah is at least just as important for the preservation of our souls. Food allows us to live; Torah gives us a reason for living. Food satisfies our physical cravings; Torah responds to our deeper need for purpose and meaning to our existence.

We are a duality going back to the story of the creation of Adam who was formed from the dust of the earth and the breath of the divine. We need our bodies to house our souls; we need our souls to validate our presence in the world.

All other blessings in Jewish tradition come by way of rabbinic obligation. They are post-biblical efforts on the part of the rabbis to ensure greater awareness of God in our daily lives. But the Torah is primarily concerned with human recognition of the two major mainstays of our existence. We need to acknowledge the great gifts that make possible our physical as well as our spiritual survival – our daily bread and our opportunity to peruse the words of God’s Torah.

It is no coincidence then that holidays reflect sensitivity to these two different divine favors that we have found bestowed upon us in special moments of history.
The First Thanksgiving

One need not be Jewish to grasp the concept of gratitude as it applies to God’s wondrous role in providing for the needs of our bodies. That indeed was what prompted the pilgrims to proclaim a special day of Thanksgiving. The "First Thanksgiving" was celebrated by the Pilgrims after their first harvest in the New World in 1621. They based it, they wrote, on the biblical holiday of Sukkot, the festival of the harvest. It was a feast that lasted three days, and was attended by about 53 Pilgrims and 90 American Indians. The New England colonists became accustomed to regularly celebrating "thanksgivings”, thanking God for the blessings of the end of a drought as well as of abundant crops and material blessings.

Thanksgiving became a national holiday in the United States by way of proclamation of the 16th President, Abraham Lincoln. In the middle of the American Civil War, President Lincoln, proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day, to be celebrated on the final Thursday in November 1863. The document, written by Secretary of State William Seward, reads as follows:

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.

To this day, Thanksgiving remains as a powerful reminder of America’s recognition of God’s role in our national prosperity. Our tables overflow with the traditional Thanksgiving dinner, testimony to heavenly blessings bestowed upon us that grant our bodies the sustenance they require. In biblical terms, Thanksgiving is a sequel to the biblically mandated Birkat Ha-mazon, the Grace after Meals in which we express gratitude to the One Above “who feeds the world in his goodness with grace, with kindness and with mercy.”
Spiritual Blessing

But Thanksgiving does not address another kind of thankfulness we owe to God. Its emphasis on material blessings requires another component that has its source in the second blessing demanded of us by the Bible. It is the blessing for the spiritual part of our lives. It is the thanks we need to recite before the study of Torah, a blessing that alerts us to the hunger of our souls and our yearning to be nourished by the sacred.

On the Jewish calendar that blessing has a historic source in the story of Hanukkah. To speak of Hanukkah as a military victory of the Maccabees is to totally misunderstand its meaning. There have been many moments in our past when we have survived the threat of physical destruction. They are not Hanukkah. The Jews in the Seleucid Empire did not need to fear physical death. Antiochus was not bothered by the survival of Jews; what he wanted at all costs to prevent was the survival of Judaism. His decrees were against the observance of Torah. Jews could readily find their lives spared if they would be willing to forfeit their faith.

Hanukkah is a holiday whose story is perhaps most relevant to our own days. Its threat was not to our bodies, but our souls. The danger was not death but disappearance by way of assimilation.

How appropriate, the Sages note, that the ritual of Hanukkah emphasizes the use of oil. For eight nights it is the source of the light that fills our homes and our synagogues. Oil has a unique and distinct property. All other liquids, when mixed, lose their individual identity and become unrecognizable. Oil however refuses to mix. Try to stir it with water and it refuses to “assimilate”; it rises to the top and remains distinctive and identifiable.

It is the ideal symbol for the Hanukkah story which recounts the miracle of those who championed commitment to the truths of Sinai over the temptations of secularism. The Greeks sought to transform the world to their belief in the holiness of beauty. The Jews saw as their mission the message of the beauty of holiness. Two philosophies were at war with each other. And miraculously, the spiritual ideal proved triumphant.

For those of us today who are frightened by studies which question the possibility of Jewish survival in the face of seemingly rampant assimilation, we need to remind ourselves that the miracle of Hanukkah is our affirmation that we will always persevere in our faith. Hanukkah teaches us that the light of our tradition, which some might say doesn’t even have the capacity to last for one night, will against all physical laws of nature miraculously grow stronger and brighter. And Jews, like the oil of Hanukkah, will never totally assimilate.

Hanukkah then is the historic sequel to the blessing over Torah. It commemorates our religious survival against all odds, the victory of the spiritual over the profane, the sacred over the sacrilegious.

And when Thanksgiving and Hanukkah coincide we find ourselves doubly blessed. We will be able to offer thanks to God on the same day for both our spiritual and material blessings. Let us delight in this extremely rare opportunity to bless God for the food for our bodies as well as the survival of our faith that grants us spiritual sustenance for our souls.
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15  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Iran deal: Same world, opposite risk assessments on: November 24, 2013, 07:50:01 PM

Iran deal: Same world, opposite risk assessments
Herb Keinon

"Or, as Obama enthused, if Iran “seizes this opportunity” to prove to the world that its nuclear program is for exclusively peaceful purposes, then “the Iranian people will benefit from rejoining the international community, and we can begin to chip away at the mistrust between our two nations. This would provide Iran with a dignified path to forge a new beginning with the wider world based on mutual respect.”

Really? How about Iran’s part in Syrian President Bashar Assad’s massacre of tens of thousands of people? How about its continued development of intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads that were not even mentioned in the Geneva agreement? How about its role in exporting terrorism around the globe? How about its stoning of women accused of adultery, hanging of homosexuals and gruesome rate of executions? How about the anti- Semitic ranting of its leaders? Does all of the above really render the world a safer place, as Obama said? This agreement shows that Iran can indeed do all of the above, yet still get to be a member of the international community."
16  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Blake Nordstrom Speaking on: September 24, 2013, 01:51:09 PM
The Jewish Holiday season is still on going

It is actually Sukkot

Our surprise direct line.
by Sara Yoheved Rigler

Seattle resident Sarah Busch was chagrined when she opened her monthly Nordstrom statement. Instead of the concise, compact statement she had been receiving for decades, the 79-year-old retired bookkeeper unfolded a bulky 8 X 10 statement in a new format. She decided to complain.

She phoned Nordstrom's corporate headquarters right there in Seattle and asked to speak to someone in management. "Don't give me Customer Service," she instructed the operator. After a few rings, a masculine voice answered the phone. "First of all, I'd like to know to whom I'm speaking," Sarah Busch began.

"This is Blake Nordstrom," came the reply.

"Blake Nordstrom? You're the President!" a confounded Sarah Busch exclaimed.

"I am indeed," he responded.

"What are YOU doing answering the phone?"
17  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Yom Kippur, Still Single?/Yom Kippur Infographic/ Yom Kippur: Everyone Falls on: September 13, 2013, 04:41:25 PM

Thanks for the reminder.    Easy  Fast.  May we written in the Book of Life

Yom Kippur, Still Single?
by Delia Fine

I slowly began to realize that Yom Kippur is a gift, not a burden.

Growing up, I often heard Yom Kippur described as the “saddest day of the year,” but I wasn’t sure what the women in my synagogue were crying about. Maybe they felt true remorse for their sins. Maybe they cried because they were begging God for a good year; their heartfelt wishes for the future bringing them to tears.

Yom Kippur infographic --

Yom Kippur: Everyone Falls

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18  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Answering Rosh Hashanah's Call/ Crash Course on Rosh Hashana on: September 04, 2013, 04:06:24 PM
Answering Rosh Hashanah's Call
by Sara Debbie Gutfreund
If you have ever lost a child in a crowded place, you know the raw fear. Has anyone seen a two-year-old with a blue shirt on? He has brown hair. A Gap baseball hat with green letters?
A couple of years of ago we lost our toddler in an amusement park in Israel. One second he was right in front of us, and the next thing we knew he was nowhere to be found. At first we thought he had to be at most a few feet away, and we called out his name. No response. After a minute of looking around and shouting, I began to panic. Where could he have gone? We started stopping people and asking them to help us. I fought back tears as I ran past the jumping castles and bumper cars. By then we had a small crowd circling the area and calling his name.
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19  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / What Is Rosh Hashanah?/Get Clarity on: September 03, 2013, 10:27:12 AM

Rosh Hashannah, the Jewish New Year starts Wednesday night at sundown.
What Is Rosh Hashanah?
The anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, a day of judgment and coronation, the sounding of the shofar . . .

The festival of Rosh Hashanah—the name means “Head of the Year”—is observed for two days beginning on 1 Tishrei, the first day of the Jewish year. It is the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman, and their first actions toward the realization of mankind’s role in G‑d’s world.

Rosh Hashanah thus emphasizes the special relationship between G‑d and humanity: our dependence upon G‑d as our creator and sustainer, and G‑d’s dependence upon us as the ones who make His presence known and felt in His world. Each year on Rosh Hashanah, “all inhabitants of the world pass before G‑d like a flock of sheep,” and it is decreed in the heavenly court “who shall live, and who shall die . . . who shall be impoverished, and who shall be enriched; who shall fall and who shall rise.” But this is also the day we proclaim G‑d King of the Universe. The Kabbalists teach that the continued existence of the universe is dependent upon the renewal of the divine desire for a world when we accept G‑d’s kingship each year on Rosh Hashanah.

The central observance of Rosh Hashanah is the sounding of the shofar, the ram’s horn, which also represents the trumpet blast of a people’s coronation of their king. The cry of the shofar is also a call to repentance, for Rosh Hashanah is also the anniversary of man’s first sin and his repentance thereof, and serves as the first of the “Ten Days of Repentance” which culminate in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Another significance of the shofar is to recall the Binding of Isaac which also occurred on Rosh Hashanah, in which a ram took Isaac’s place as an offering to G‑d; we evoke Abraham’s readiness to sacrifice his son, and plead that the merit of his deed should stand by us as we pray for a year of life, health and prosperity. Altogether, we listen to one hundred shofar blasts over the course of the Rosh Hashanah services.

Additional Rosh Hashanah observances include: a) Eating a piece of apple dipped in honey, to symbolize our desire for a sweet year, and other special foods symbolic of the new year’s blessings. b) Blessing one another with the words “Leshanah tovah tikateiv veteichateim,” “May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.” c) Tashlich, a special prayer said near a body of water (an ocean, river, pond, etc.), in evocation of the verse, “And You shall cast their sins into the depths of the sea.” And as with every major Jewish holiday, after candlelighting and prayers we recite kiddush and make a blessing on the challah.

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20  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Age of the Universe on: September 01, 2013, 01:27:03 PM
Age of the Universe

How old is the world? Ancient commentators propose that the world may be simultaneously young and old.

by Dr. Gerald Schroeder

One of the most obvious perceived contradictions between Torah and science is the age of the universe. Is it billions of years old, like scientific data, or is it thousands of years, like Biblical data? When we add up the generations of the Bible, we come to 5700-plus years. Whereas, data from the Hubble telescope or from the land based telescopes in Hawaii, indicate the age at about 15 billion years.
21  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Re: Israel, and its neighbors on: September 01, 2013, 01:07:49 PM

I not very familiar with Cato the Elder but according to Wikipedia

"A common modern use in order to emphasise to third parties the strength of one's opinion about a perceived necessary course of action is to add either at the beginning or the end of a statement the two opening words "Ceterum censeo?

I don't think  that Iran and Hezbollah are the root of all problems in the Middle East  but certainly they are responsible for  a great many of them.  However, a  nuclear Iran is an existential threat to Israel and  an attack by Syria on Israel  would be painful and deadly but not an existential threat.   Whatever actions are taken or not taken  on Syria will have an  influence on  Iran.  It is much more important to think strategically about Iran than about Syria.   

22  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Let My Teaching Fall Like Rain on: September 01, 2013, 11:52:39 AM
Let My Teaching Fall Like Rain
By Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

In  the glorious song with which Moses addresses the congregation, he invites the people to think of the Torah—their covenant with G‑d—as if it were like the rain that waters the ground so that it brings forth its produce:

    Let my teaching fall like rain
    and my words descend like dew,
    like showers on new grass,
    like abundant rain on tender plants.

G‑d’s word is like rain in a dry land. It brings life. It makes things grow. There is much we can do of our own accord: we can plow the earth and plant the seeds. But in the end, our success depends on something beyond our control. If no rain falls, there will be no harvest, whatever preparations we make. So it is with Israel. It must never be tempted into the hubris of saying: “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.”1

The sages, however, sensed something more in the analogy. This is how Sifrei puts it:

    Let my teaching fall like rain: Just as the rain is one thing, yet it falls on trees, enabling each to produce tasty fruit according to the kind of tree it is—the vine in its way, the olive tree in its way and the date palm in its way—so the Torah is one, yet its words yield Scripture, Mishnah, laws and lore. Like showers on new grass: just as showers fall upon plants and make them grow, some green, some red, some black, some white, so the words of Torah produce teachers, worthy individuals, sages, the righteous and the pious.

There is only one Torah, yet it has multiple effects. It gives rise to different kinds of teaching, different sorts of virtue. Torah is sometimes seen by its critics as overly prescriptive, as if it sought to make everyone the same. The midrash argues otherwise. The Torah is compared to rain precisely to emphasize that its most important effect is to make each of us grow into what we could become. We are not all the same, nor does Torah seek uniformity. As a famous mishnah puts it:

When a human being makes many coins from the same mint, they are all the same. God makes everyone in the same image—His image—yet none is the same as another.2

This emphasis on difference is a recurring theme in Judaism. For example, when Moses asks G‑d to appoint his successor, he uses an unusual phrase: “May the L‑rd, G‑d of the spirits of all mankind, appoint a man over the community.”3

On this, Rashi comments:

    Why is this expression (“G‑d of the spirits of all mankind”) used? [Moses] said to him: L‑rd of the universe, You know each person’s character, and that no two people are alike. Therefore, appoint a leader for them who will bear with each person according to his disposition.

One of the fundamental requirements of a leader in Judaism is that he or she is able to respect the differences between human beings. This is a point emphasized by Maimonides in Guide for the Perplexed:

    Man is, as you know, the highest form in creation, and he therefore includes the largest number of constituent elements. This is why the human race contains so great a variety of individuals that we cannot discover two persons exactly alike in any moral quality or in external appearance . . . This great variety and the necessity of social life are essential elements in man’s nature. But the wellbeing of society demands that there should be a leader able to regulate the actions of man. He must complete every shortcoming, remove every excess, and prescribe for the conduct of all, so that the natural variety should be counterbalanced by the uniformity of legislation, so that social order be well established.4

The political problem, as Maimonides sees it, is how to regulate the affairs of human beings in such a way as to respect their individuality while not creating chaos. A similar point emerges from a surprising rabbinic teaching:

    Our rabbis taught: If one sees a crowd of Israelites, one says: ‘Blessed be He who discerns secrets’—because the mind of each is different from that of another, just as the face of each is different from that of another.5

We would have expected a blessing over a crowd to emphasize its size, its mass: human beings in their collectivity. A crowd is a group large enough for the individuality of the faces to be lost. Yet the blessing stresses the opposite—that each member of a crowd is still an individual with distinctive thoughts, hopes, fears and aspirations.

The same was true for the relationship between the sages. A mishnah6 states:

    When R. Meir died, the composers of fables ceased. When Ben Azzai died, assiduous students ceased. When Ben Zoma died, the expositors ceased. When R. Akiva died, the glory of the Torah ceased. When R. Chanina died, men of deed ceased. When R. Jose Ketanta died, the pious men ceased. When R. Jochanan ben Zakkai died, the luster of wisdom ceased . . . When Rabbi died, humility and the fear of sin ceased.

There was no single template of the sage. Each had his own distinctive merits, his unique contribution to the collective heritage. In this respect, the sages were merely continuing the tradition of the Torah itself. There is no single role model of the religious hero or heroine in Tanach, the Hebrew Bible. The patriarchs and matriarchs each had their own unmistakable character. Moses, Aaron and Miriam emerge as different personality types. Kings, priests and prophets had different roles to play in Israelite society. Even among the prophets, “no two prophesy in the same style,” said the sages. Elijah was zealous, Elisha gentle. Hosea speaks of love, Amos speaks of justice. Isaiah’s visions are simpler and less opaque than those of Ezekiel.

The same applies to even to the revelation at Sinai itself. Each individual heard, in the same words, a different inflection:

    The voice of the L‑rd is with power:7—that is, according to the power of each individual, the young, the old, and the very small ones, each according to their power [of understanding]. G‑d said to Israel, “Do not believe that there are many gods in heaven because you heard many voices. Know that I alone am the L‑rd your G‑d.”8

According to Maharsha, there are 600,000 interpretations of Torah. Each individual is theoretically capable of a unique insight into its meaning. The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas commented:

    The Revelation has a particular way of producing meaning, which lies in its calling upon the unique within me. It is as if a multiplicity of persons . . . were the condition for the plenitude of “absolute truth,” as if each person, by virtue of his own uniqueness, were able to guarantee the revelation of one unique aspect of the truth, so that some of its facets would never have been revealed if certain people had been absent from mankind.

Judaism, in short, emphasizes the other side of the maxim E pluribus unum (“Out of the many, one”). It says: “Out of the One, many.”

The miracle of creation is that unity in heaven produces diversity on earth. Torah is the rain that feeds this diversity, allowing each of us to become what only we can be.
1.    Deuteronomy 8:17.
2.    Sanhedrin 4:5.
3.    Numbers 27:16.
4.    Guide for the Perplexed 2:40.
5.    Talmud, Berachot 58a.
6.    Sotah 9:15.
7.    Psalms 29:4.
8.    Shemot Rabbah 29:1.
By Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the British Commonwealth. To read more writings and teachings from the Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, please visit
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23  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / The chaos theory on: September 01, 2013, 11:28:03 AM
Israel Hayom is currently my favorite source  of  commentary on  Israel and Middle East

The chaos theory
Dr. Reuven Berko

Syria is currently on the operating table, and the question is whether, due to its lack of morals (the mass murder of civilians and use of chemical weapons), it will be allowed to die, permanently clipped by the knife of the coalition. It is not a question of leadership but rather an ethno-religious question. The Syrian leadership is trapped in the dying body of an artificially established nation that is in constant conflict with itself. Instead of resuscitating the dying country, a clumsy Western assault could actually accelerate its demise.

An artificial army

Unfortunately, the assessment is that despite the vast differences between the interests of the U.S., the West, the Arab nations and Russia, they all surprisingly share one common objective, which can be gleaned from the list of the operation's targets: To punish and deter Assad and his regime. However, the very definition of these targets suggests that the mission at hand is to preserve the existing Syrian regime, not to topple it.
24  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Re: The Power of Word on: August 25, 2013, 06:35:34 PM
I'm glad you enjoyed "The Evolution of God". I'm familiar with the other  thread but I decided not post there because I disagree with the title . Science vs  God is a false dichotomy .   I see it as Science and Religion and I don't see a conflict. 
25  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Mayim Bialik: How I Teach My Kids About Both Science & Faith on: August 23, 2013, 09:40:33 AM

 Mayim Bialik: How I Teach My Kids About Both Science & Faith

As a scientist and a person of faith, I get asked the following question a lot: “How do you reconcile your scientific beliefs with your faith in God?” The question seems to concern others a lot more than it concerns me, largely because I see no conflict at all. They exist together, happily, and each supports the other.

How do I teach my sons about religion without compromising my scientific integrity? Well, I make sure to tell my sons that the Tanakh (Hebrew bible) is not a science book. God created the universe as a scientific one. God created evolution and gravity and placed the stars in the sky.
26  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Bambi Meets Godzilla In The Middle East on: August 21, 2013, 12:14:22 PM
Bambi Meets Godzilla In The Middle East

"What Americans often miss is that while democratic liberal capitalism may be where humanity is heading, not everybody is going to get there tomorrow. This is not simply because some leaders selfishly seek their own power or because evil ideologies take root in unhappy lands. It is also because while liberal capitalist democracy may well be the best way to order human societies from an abstract point of view, not every human society is ready and able to walk that road now."
27  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Bambi Meets Godzilla In The Middle East on: August 20, 2013, 09:16:07 PM
Bambi Meets Godzilla In The Middle East

"What Americans often miss is that while democratic liberal capitalism may be where humanity is heading, not everybody is going to get there tomorrow. This is not simply because some leaders selfishly seek their own power or because evil ideologies take root in unhappy lands. It is also because while liberal capitalist democracy may well be the best way to order human societies from an abstract point of view, not every human society is ready and able to walk that road now."

I don't agree with everything but this article was excellent. 

28  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Not a Jewish Princess on: August 13, 2013, 08:24:22 AM

The article has parts that are more rude than funny.

“It’s nonsense,” said Doreen Berger, the chairman of the Jewish Genealogy Society (JGS). “I have been researching Kate Middleton’s ancestry since it looked like she was getting engaged to Prince William.

“I’ve looked back as far as it’s possible to look back and she doesn’t have a Jewish link at all — it’s just not true. I’m 100 per cent sure.”

She added that Mr Cole was “confused. The names — Myers and Goldsmiths — are shared by non-Jews as well as Jews. Carole Middleton’s ancestors were a coal miner and a carpenter and they were not from Jewish areas.”


The “Jewish” surnames were also used by non-Jews, and “there is no evidence of synagogue marriages or Jewish burials,” Harris noted. On the contrary, there are solid records of church weddings among Carole’s ancestors going back at least five generations.


The office of the British Chief Rabbi, which keeps records of marriages in the Orthodox United Synagogue, says that previous publications debunking the Middletons’ Jewish heritage “make the issue completely clear.”
29  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Why democracy still wins on: August 11, 2013, 08:40:53 PM
A great  blog post about the value of democracy and capitalism.

Why democracy still wins: A critique of Eric X. Li’s “A tale of two political systems”
Posted by: Tedblogguest
July 1, 2013 at 12:12 pm EDT
By Yasheng Huang

Earlier this year, economist Yasheng Huang (watch his 2011 TED Talk) sparred with Eric X. Li in the pages of Foreign Affairs on a similar topic to today’s TED Talk. The TED Blog asked Huang to expand on his argument in his ongoing conversation with Li.

Imagine confusing the following two statements from a cancer doctor: 1) “You may die from cancer” and 2) “I want you to die from cancer.” It is not hard to see a rudimentary difference between these two statements. The first statement is a prediction — it is saying that something may happen given certain conditions (in this case death conditional upon having cancer). The second statement is a preference, a desire, or a wish for a world to one’s particular liking.
30  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / The Astronaut on: August 11, 2013, 08:26:57 PM

From the Rebbe's remarks at a farbrengen (Chassidic gathering) on Shabbat, December 28, 1968:

Yesterday, an event took place that had no known precedent in human history: a manned spacecraft approached the moon, orbited it several times, photographed both its "light side" and its "dark side," and returned safely to earth at the exact time and place that were programmed.

The Baal Shem Tov1 taught us that "from everything a person sees or hears, he must derive a lesson in the service of his Creator." Indeed, this event, and its every aspect and detail, is full with instructive insights into our mission in life.2

Some twenty-four hours before the conclusion of the space mission, another event took place: a question was posed at an "Encounter" session3 -- a question that the said space mission can help address.

A participant in the "Encounter" challenged one of the speakers: "I understand that under Torah law, if a person eats a bite of non-kosher food, the penalty is thirty-nine lashes. I think that what a person eats is his own business. Laws should forbid and penalize actions that are harmful to others and to society, but should stay out of a person's private life."

The rabbi conducting the session was quite flustered by the question. How to explain to a roomful of young people, raised in free and democratic America, the fact that for an act as "harmless" and "personal" as eating a bite of food, the Torah instructs that a person be bound, stretched out, and thirty-nine lashes be administered to his bare back with a whip? After much hemming and hawing, he came out with the standard apologetic reply: that in order for a transgression to be punishable by lashes, it must be committed in the presence of two witnesses; that these two witnesses must first warn the transgressor of the criminality of his deed and of the penalty it carries; that the transgressor must commit the deed within seconds of the above warning; thus, due to these and a host of other stipulations, this penalty was rarely, if ever, actually carried out. It might therefore be said that the Torah-mandated punishment of lashes is more an indicator of the severity of the transgression than an operative penal procedure.

All this is of course true, but it doesn't really answer the question. Even if the penalty of lashes was administered but once in a hundred years, does the deed warrant such punishment? And why does the Torah legislate such a gross intrusion into a person's private life?

But our sages tell us that "A person is obligated to say: The entire world was created for my sake."4 In the words of Maimonides, "A person should always see himself as half meritous and half guilty, and the entire world as half meritous and half guilty, so that when he transgresses one transgression, he tips the balance for himself, and for the entire world, to the side of guilt, and causes it destruction, and when he does a single mitzvah, he tips the balance for himself, and for the entire world, to the side of merit, and causes salvation for himself and for the entire world."5

Ingesting a spiritually toxic bite of food is not a harmless act, nor is it a personal one: all of creation is deeply affected by our every thought, word and deed, for the better or, G-d forbid, for the worse. What greater crime can there be than for a person to knowingly jeopardize his own well-being, and that of his family, community and the entire world, because his taste-buds prefer a non-kosher piece of meat over a kosher one?

This is what is written in the books. The nature of the human being, however, is that things are more readily understood and accepted when he or she sees a tangible example of it. By divine providence, we have such an example in the space mission concluded yesterday.

Three adult men were told to put aside all personal preferences and follow a set of guidelines that dictated their every behavior, including their most intimate habits. They were told exactly what, how much and when to eat, when and in what position to sleep, and what shoes to wear. Should any one of them have challenged this "dictatorial" regimen, he would have been reminded that one billion dollars have been invested in their endeavor. Now, one billion dollars commands a lot of respect. Never mind that it's not his billion -- it's only Uncle Sam's billion -- still, when a person is told that one billion dollars are at stake, he'll conform to all guidelines and instructions. Of course, he has no idea how most of these instructions relate to the success of his mission -- that has been determined by grey-haired scientists after many years of research; but he'll take their word for it, and readily accept the extensive intrusion into his private affairs.

And what if at stake is not a billion-dollar scientific project, but the divine purpose in creation?

1.   Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698-1760), founder of Chassidism.
2.   What follows is but one of several lessons the Rebbe derived in his talk from the said space flight. For another of these, see The Rocket Age
3.   The Lubavitcher community in Crown Heights holds periodic "Encounter With Chabad" -- weekends, in which Jews of all backgrounds stay with Chassidic families and attend lectures and workshops on Jewish thought and practice.
4.   Talmud, Sanhedrin 37a.
5.   Mishneh Torah, Laws of Repentance, 3:4
Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, adapted by Yanki Tauber; originally published in Week In Review
Originally published in Week in Review.
Republished with the permission of If you wish to republish this article in a periodical, book, or website, please email
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31  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Helping Children Develop Faith on: August 05, 2013, 08:01:34 AM
Helping Children Develop Faith
By Sara Chana Radcliffe
You may have read the title of this article and wondered, How can I help my children develop their faith? I’m still developing my faith!

Of course, we could ask a similar question about our anger management. Since we continue to lose control on some occasions, should we just not even try to teach our children to manage their tempers? Of course not.

Life is all about growth and improvement. If we’re still angry or still lacking in an abundance of faith, that’s normal. The important thing is that we are constantly working on ourselves. Our kids should be able to see concrete signs of improvement: fewer angry outbursts, greater patience, more self-control, less wringing of hands, fewer words of fear and worry, greater equanimity in the face of challenge, more verbal expressions of sincere trust in G‑d’s ways.

So yes, imperfect as we are, we have the right and the obligation to help our children develop their emunah (faith in G‑d). It is an act of tremendous kindness on our part to help our children learn to swim confidently in the deep end of life, to have all the internal resources they need in order to deal with every challenge they will face. So let’s look at how we can help kids achieve faith.

Instilling Faith and Trust: Do’s & Don’ts

Let’s begin with the “dont’s”:

Try not to share your worries and negative thought processes with your children. Children can easily pick up on their parents’ habits and are likely to become worried themselves.
When children express their own anxieties, never reprimand them with comments like, “Don’t think that way.” Anxiety and fears are not bad behaviors; they are emotions that require proper support and healing.
Don’t shut children down by saying things like, “It’s all up to G‑d,” or, “Don’t worry--G‑d always protects us,” and so on. Although these are perfectly true statements, they should not be offered until you have helped the child address his or her frightened feelings. Fear causes cortical inhibition (a diminished capacity to process and utilize cognitive information), so providing education while the child is in a frightened state is usually useless. Moreover, Fear causes cortical inhibition so may be perceived as uncaring, which can harm the parent-child relationship.
Now let’s look at a few “do’s”:

Do accept your child’s fear with open arms: “You’re afraid? Tell me about it.” This helps the fear begin to move out of the child and into your welcoming arms.
If sharing the fear does not release it completely (which is quite often the case), offer other strategies for helping to calm the fear. (See “Fear Busters” below.)
Once the fear is settled and the child feels more calm, offer the wisdom of Judaism on the subject of faith in G‑d. For example, “Instead of running scary pictures through your mind, imagine the situation turning out just fine. As the Rebbe said, ‘Think good, and it will be good.’” Or, “No matter how it turns out, we can remember that there is a reason for everything, and everything that G‑d does is for our good, whether we see it right away or not.” Check out one of the many wonderful books or online resources that explain the the concept of Divine Providence--the fact that G‑d supervises and supports each one of us in all the small and large details of our life.
Take advantage of emotionally neutral moments to gently slip concepts of faith into your child’s heart and mind. Tell vivid stories of your own experiences of being supported by G‑d. For example, tell your child how you asked G‑d for help in finding a parking space right in front of a building because you were already late for a meeting. Sure enough, just as you were pulling up, a car pulled out right in front of the building, leaving you a perfect parking space. “Thank You, G‑d!”
Help your child create a “faith-builder” diary--a personal record, complete with stories, drawings, and photos of events in which the benevolent Hand of G‑d became obvious to your child, especially the occasions that were preceded by worry, dread and fear.
Fear Busters

There are numerous ways to help calm a child’s mind and body. Here is a small selection:

A child who worries is an expert at (negative) visualization. After the child has described his scary image of unfolding events, and you have accepted the worry with open arms, ask him to close hisA child who worries is an expert at (negative) visualization eyes and imagine everything working out just fine. Ask him to describe the positive events in his new “movie” to you. Ask him how the positive image makes him feel. Instruct him to repeat the exercise as often as possible and particularly when the scary story enters his mind.
Another use of this visualization skill is to imagine G‑d’s divine protection and assistance in various ways. For example, “see” G‑d’s messengers, His protective angels, surrounding the bed when drifting off to sleep.
Teach your child to use the breath to help calm the heart, which will then calm the brain, which, in turn, will release calming hormones to every cell of the body. There are numerous ways to breathe for this purpose, but a simple one is to breathe in normally and then breathe out slowly, thinking the number “one” on the out breath. To be effective in times of need, this breathing pattern needs to be practiced for one minute daily, forever. An ideal time for practice is at bedtime when falling asleep or in the morning just after awakening.
There are many other strategies children can learn that will calm their anxious feelings. Always help your child turn off fight-or-flight chemistry before talking about Divine Providence! Most important, keep your own faith-builder diary that can strengthen your own belief that G‑d is there for you. The most powerful way to help children accept the reality of G‑d’s kindness is through your positive modeling. When you sound like you believe it, your kids will too!

Sarah Chana Radcliffe, M.Ed.,C.Psych.Assoc. is the author of "Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice" and The Delicate Balance published by Targum Press. Click here to visit her website.
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32  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Miracles You Can't See on: July 30, 2013, 09:04:54 PM
Thank for the kind words.  I'm not really familiar with "The Evolution of God"  It looks interesting. I just  today finished reading/listening to the excellent  "A History of the Jews"  by Paul Johnson. It is a one- volume book of  the  history of the world "seen from the viewpoint of a learned and intelligent victim." The author  is actually a British Roman Catholic but this book is very popular among Orthodox Jews. 

Miracles You Can't See

by Rabbi Yaakov Salomon

It's a blazing night in August. You grab a PowerAde and sneak in a serene midnight repose on the porch swing. The faintest tinge of a breeze wafts at your sweltering brow. It is a few minutes before midnight.
Suddenly, a bluster of blinding light douses the darkened sky. The breeze is abruptly transformed into a ferocious gust that lifts you inches off your seat. Fear abounds, but strangely, it is accompanied by a remarkable tranquility that confuses and calms you at the same time.
In a flash you find yourself in a scene from a sci-fi movie as a spacecraft, the size of two football fields, lands before you. A short ladder descends and a creature of sorts makes his way out of the vessel and walks towards you. You are too dazed to move.
33  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / The Morality of Love on: July 25, 2013, 08:16:29 PM
The Morality of Love
by Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

Ekev(Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25)
The Morality of Love

Something implicit in the Torah from the very beginning becomes explicit in the book of Devarim. God is the God of love. More than we love Him, He loves us. Here, for instance, is the beginning of this week's parsha:

    If you pay attention to these laws and are careful to follow them, then the LORD your God will keep his covenant of love [et ha-brit ve-et ha-chessed] with you, as he swore to your ancestors. He will love you and bless you and increase your numbers. (Deut 7:12-13)

Again in the parsha we read:

    To the LORD your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. Yet the LORD set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations-as it is today. (Deut. 10:14-15)

And here is a verse from last week's:

    Because he loved your ancestors and chose their descendants after them, he brought you out of Egypt by his Presence and his great strength. (Deut. 4:37)

The book of Deuteronomy is saturated with the language of love. The root a-h-v appears in Shemot twice, in Vayikra twice (both in Lev. 19), in Badmibar not at all, but in Sefer Devarim 23 times. Devarim is a book about societal beatitude and the transformative power of love.

Nothing could be more misleading and invidious than the Christian contrast between Christianity as a religion of love and forgiveness and Judaism as a religion of law and retribution. As I pointed out in Covenant and Conversation to Vayigash, forgiveness is born (as David Konstan notes in Before Forgiveness) in Judaism. Interpersonal forgiveness begins when Joseph forgives his brothers for selling him into slavery. Divine forgiveness starts with the institution of Yom Kippur as the supreme day of Divine pardon following the sin of the Golden Calf.

Similarly with love: when the New Testament speaks of love it does so by direct quotation from Leviticus ("You shall love your neighbour as yourself") and Deuteronomy ("You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your might"). As philosopher Simon May puts it in his splendid book, Love: A History: "The widespread belief that the Hebrew Bible is all about vengeance and 'an eye for an eye,' while the Gospels supposedly invent love as an unconditional and universal value, must therefore count as one of the most extraordinary misunderstandings in all of Western history. For the Hebrew Bible is the source not just of the two love commandments but of a larger moral vision inspired by wonder for love's power." (1) His judgment is unequivocal: "If love in the Western world has a founding text, that text is Hebrew." (2)

More than this: in Ethical Life: The Past and Present of Ethical Cultures, philosopher Harry Redner distinguishes four basic visions of the ethical life in the history of civilizations.(3) One he calls civic ethics, the ethics of ancient Greece and Rome. Second is the ethic of duty, which he identifies with Confucianism, Krishnaism and late Stoicism. Third is the ethic of honour, a distinctive combination of courtly and military decorum to be found among Persians, Arabs and Turks as well as in medieval Christianity (the 'chivalrous knight') and Islam.

The fourth, which he calls simply morality, he traces to Leviticus and Deuteronomy. He defines it simply as 'the ethic of love,' and represents what made the West morally unique: "The biblical 'love of one's neighbour' is a very special form of love, a unique development of the Judaic religion and unlike any to be encountered outside it. It is a supremely altruistic love, for to love one's neighbour as oneself means always to put oneself in his place and to act on his behalf as one would naturally and selfishly act on one's own." (4) To be sure, Buddhism also makes space for the idea of love, though it is differently inflected, more impersonal and unrelated to a relationship with God.

What is radical about this idea is that, first, the Torah insists, against virtually the whole of the ancient world, that the elements that constitute reality are neither hostile nor indifferent to humankind. We are here because Someone wanted us to be, One who cares about us, watches over us and seeks our wellbeing.

Second, the love with which God created the universe is not just divine. It is to serve as the model for us in our humanity. We are bidden to love the neighbour and the stranger, to engage in acts of kindness and compassion, and to build a society based on love. Here is how our parsha puts it:

    For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, mighty and awesome God who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the stranger, giving him food and clothing. So you must love the stranger, for you yourselves were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deut. 10:18-19)

In short: God created the world in love and forgiveness and asks us to love and forgive others. I believe that to be the most profound moral idea in human history.

There is however an obvious question. Why is it that love, which plays so great a part in the book of Deuteronomy, is so much less in evidence in the earlier books of Shemot, Vayikra (with the exception of Lev. 19) and Bamidbar?

The best way of answering that question is to ask another. Why is it that forgiveness plays no part - at least on the surface of the narrative - in the book of Bereishit? (5) God does not forgive Adam and Eve or Cain (though he mitigates their punishment). Forgiveness does not figure in the stories of the Flood, the Tower of Babel or the destruction of Sodom and the cities of the plain (Abraham's plea is that the cities be spared if they contain fifty or ten righteous people; this is not a plea for forgiveness). Divine forgiveness makes its first appearance in the book of Exodus after Moses' successful plea in the wake of golden calf, and is then institutionalised in the form of Yom Kippur (Lev. 16), but not before. Why so?

The simple, radical, answer is: God does not forgive human beings until human beings learn to forgive one another. Genesis ends with Joseph forgiving his brothers. Only thereafter does God forgive human beings.

Turning to love: Genesis contains many references to it. Abraham loves Isaac. Isaac loves Esau. Rebecca loves Jacob. Jacob loves Rachel. He also loves Joseph. There is interpersonal love in plentiful supply. But almost all the loves of Genesis turn out to be divisive. They lead to tension between Jacob and Esau, between Rachel and Leah, and between Joseph and his brothers. Implicit in Genesis is a profound observation missed by most moralists and theologians. Love in and of itself - real love, personal and passionate, the kind of love that suffuses much of the prophetic literature as well as Shir Ha-Shirim, the greatest love song in Tanakh, as opposed to the detached, generalised love called agape which we associate with ancient Greece - is not sufficient as a basis for society. It can divide as well as unite.

Hence it does not figure as a major motif until we reach the integrated social-moral-political vision of Deuteronomy which combines love and justice. Tzedek, justice, turns out to be another key word of Deuteronomy, appearing 18 times. It appears only four times in Shemot, not at all in Bamidbar, and in Vayikra only in chapter 19, the only chapter that also contains the word 'love.' In other words, in Judaism love and justice go hand in hand. Again this is noted by Simon May:

    [W]hat we must note here, for it is fundamental to the history of Western love, is the remarkable and radical justice that underlies the love commandment of Leviticus. Not a cold justice in which due deserts are mechanically handed out, but the justice that brings the other, as an individual with needs and interests, into a relationship of respect. All our neighbours are to be recognised as equal to ourselves before the law of love. Justice and love therefore become inseparable.(6)

Love without justice leads to rivalry, and eventually to hate. Justice without love is devoid of the humanizing forces of compassion and mercy. We need both. This unique ethical vision - the love of God for humans and of humans for God, translated into an ethic of love toward both neighbour and stranger - is the foundation of Western civilization and its abiding glory.

It is born here in the book of Deuteronomy, the book of law-as-love and love-as-law.



1. Simon May, Love: A History (Yale University Press, 2011), 19-20.

2. Ibid., 14.

3. Harry Redner, Ethical Life: The Past and Present of Ethical Cultures, New York, Rowman and Littlefield, 2001.

4. Ibid., 50.

5. I exclude, here, midrashic readings of these texts, some of which do make reference to forgiveness.

6. Loc. Cit., 17.
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34  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Politics & Religion / Making Peace with People on: July 09, 2013, 12:41:40 PM
Excellent Article that explains why the Middle East peace processes are such failures.;topic=962.1750;num_replies=1775

Making Peace with People
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author of "Infidel," views the Middle East from a Muslim background.

There is something dignified in the quiet, determined manner of Ayaan Hirsi Ali as she rises from the audience and walks towards the podium to deliver her lecture. Ayaan Hirsi Ali's intricate history starts in Somalia, where she was born to a Muslim family. At the age of five she underwent female genital mutilation. By her teens she was a devout Muslim. In her early 20s, upon learning of plans for an undesirable arranged marriage, she made her way to Holland, where she applied for asylum. Hirsi Ali studied at Leiden University and began publishing critical articles about Islam, the condition of the Muslim woman, and so forth.
35  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Shema Yisrael & the Motorcyclist on: June 30, 2013, 08:18:15 PM

Shema Yisrael & the Motorcyclist
The meaning of proclaiming God’s unity.
by Rabbi Tzvi Sytner

Every Sunday morning I have the pleasure of studying with two Jewish surgeons. Each week we explore the meaning of a section of the siddur (daily prayer book).
We were up to the Shema, the most prominent – and fundamental – Jewish prayer. “Hear O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” Hear means more than just uttering words; it means hear the deep message and internalize it in our hearts and minds. When we say the words “God is One,” we are saying everything in the universe concurrently exists because God wills it to exist, and that life’s occurrences are a result of God’s inner-workings and underpinnings of the world.

The Shema expresses our complete devotion to God, regardless of our life circumstances. We are recognizing that everything is ultimately part of His Divine orchestration. Every time we cover our eyes and proclaim God’s unity, we are essentially stating that regardless of what is in front of my eyes today, regardless of whether life is delivering me celebration or tribulation, I cover my eyes and declare my devotion, no matter what is in front of me. It is about unconditional devotion.
36  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Filling the Crevices of the Wall on: June 25, 2013, 08:22:47 PM
Filling the Crevices of the Wall

by Sara Debbie Gutfreund         
A few years ago my grandfather passed away right before the 17th of Tammuz. On the fast day I was helping my mother as she sat shiva and an old family friend offered me a drink.
"No thanks, I'm fasting." I said.
"What are you fasting for?" he asked. So I explained that it was the 17th of Tammuz, and we were mourning the day that the walls of Jerusalem were breached before the Second Temple was destroyed.
"I never heard of this fast day. But you know what's even sadder? Last year my wife and I visited Israel for the first time. We went on a tour of the Old City and the tour guide points out the Temple Mount. And all we could see was this huge mosque and then the tour guide points out the Western Wall. And I couldn't believe it. That's it? That's all that's left of the Temple? One wall? So I think I know why there's a fast. There's so little we have left."

He put down his own drink and stared out the window into the withering summer day. And I thought about his words for days afterwards: That's it? That's all that's left? One wall?

37  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Happy Father's Day! /Advice for Sick Friends on: June 16, 2013, 08:53:02 PM

Advice for Sick Friends
Sometimes our advice is not only wrong, it’s hurtful.
by Emuna Braverman 

In Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s new book, “How to be a Friend to a Friend Who’s Sick,” she says something very wise and very important. And she’s very blunt. It’s something that can actually be extrapolated to many of life’s challenges.
Under the heading, Ten Commandments for Conversing with a Sick Friend, she advises:
10. Don’t pressure them to “keep up the fight” or practice “positive thinking.” It’s cruel to imply that negative thoughts – that is, feeling discouraged, not battling hard enough, not having the “right attitude” – caused their illness in the first place or may have compounded their suffering. If your friend keeps getting sicker, the last thing they need is to blame themselves…Don’t say, “You’re gonna beat it!” when you know they probably won’t. Positive thinking can’t cure Huntington’s disease, ALS, or inoperable brain cancer. Telling a terminal patient to “Keep up the fight!” isn’t just futile; it’s mean. Don’t make a dying patient feel guilty for having lost the fight. Don’t make death into a personal failure.
38  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Why was Moses not destined to enter the Land? on: June 11, 2013, 09:23:47 AM
 Why was Moses not destined to enter the Land?

It is one of the most perplexing, even disturbing, passages in the Torah. Moses the faithful shepherd, who has led the Israelites for forty years, is told that he will not live to cross the Jordan and enter the promised land.

No one has cast a longer shadow over the history of the Jewish people than Moses – the man who confronted Pharaoh, announced the plagues, brought the people out of Egypt, led them through the sea and desert and suffered their serial ingratitudes; who brought the word of God to the people, and prayed for the people to God. The name Israel means “one who wrestles with God and with men and prevails.” That, supremely, was Moses, the man whose passion for justice and hyper-receptivity to the voice of God made him the greatest leader of all time. Yet he was not destined to enter the land to which he had spent his entire time as a leader travelling toward. Why?
39  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Re: The Power of Word on: June 03, 2013, 08:21:42 PM
I personally think free will and an omnipotent God are not mutually exclusive.

However,  the free will problem has been argued about by Jewish scholars for at least 2,000 years and possible closer to 3,000 years and I don't have the time or inclination to give it justice.

"On many accounts, the idea of "Freedom of Choice" seems a self-evident truth. It seems indispensable not only to any "religion", but also to any world-vision that holds the human being responsible for his or her actions. It resonates with the most fundamental element of our self-knowledge: that life is something that we live ("live" being an active verb) and our actions are things that we do. The fact that our choices and decisions have consequence does not need to be proven to us -- we experience it first hand, 24 hours a day, 3,600 seconds an hour.

But no sooner do we attempt to scratch the surface of this self-evident truth, that a flood of questions, paradoxes, absurdities and dilemmas overwhelm us. For this self-evident truth clashes with other, seemingly no less immutable truths: the apparently mechanical nature of our reality, the laws of cause and effect, and -- from a theological standpoint -- G-d's absolute knowledge of the "future" and His omnipotence and Oneness"

The above links to lots of articles about Free Wlill and Aish has a bunch as well

Judaism and all good religions do a terrible job of explaining why bad things happen but  hopefully they provide a good answer for what to do when bad things happen.

40  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Explaining Tragedy to Our Children on: June 03, 2013, 08:22:02 AM
Thanks Marc!
Explaining Tragedy to Our Children

Sara Esther Crispe

When I was a freshman in college, the little brother of my close friend was shot in the back and killed. For his beeper. Beepers were cool back then, and I guess the kid who murdered him really wanted it.

His loss affected me profoundly. It was so senseless, so unjust, so unnecessary. And I need things to make sense. I need to somehow understand and find a logical cause and affect. If someone is sick, he might die. If someone is old, he might die. But if someone has a beeper and someone else wants it, he might also die? I just didn't get it.

I still don't get it.

I am a mother now. I have four kids. And there are many things they don't get. Many things I can't explain.

41  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Words that Change People's Lives. on: May 29, 2013, 09:18:32 AM

42  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Groom’s Letter to Parents, Remembered After Fatal Hit and Run on: March 06, 2013, 03:13:04 PM

Groom’s Letter to Parents, Remembered After Fatal Hit and Run

The young groom took some moments on his wedding day to write a letter thanking his parents for never sparing time or money if he needed, say, a tutor or an eye doctor, and for sending him to yeshiva “to learn your values, religious and worldly, until I reached to this current lucky moment.”

Children, Nathan Glauber wrote, often do not understand what parents do for them until they mature and have their own children, so he asked them to forgive him for any pain he may have caused them.

43  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: Living with the past without being held captive by it on: February 22, 2013, 07:34:42 AM

THOUGHT FOR THE DAY: Living with the past without being held captive by it
Chief Rabbi Sachs

If you’re driving through a Jewish area this Saturday night or Sunday, don’t be surprised if you see lots of children in the streets wearing fancy dress and masks, or people going from house to house delivering presents of food and drink. The reason is that we’ll be celebrating Purim, the most boisterous and exuberant of all Jewish festivals.

Which is actually very odd indeed, because Purim commemorates the story told in the book of Esther, when Haman, a senior official of the Persian Empire, persuaded the king to issue a decree to annihilate all Jews, young and old, men, women and children, on one day: a warrant for genocide. Thanks to the vigilance of Mordechai and the courage of Esther, the decree was not carried out, and ever since, we’ve celebrated by reading the story, having parties, giving to the poor and sharing gifts of food with friends.

I used to be very puzzled by this. Why such exhilaration at merely surviving a tragedy that was only narrowly averted? Relief, I can understand. But to turn the day into a carnival? Just because we’re still here to tell the story?

Slowly, though, I began to understand how much pain there has been in Jewish history, how many massacres and pogroms throughout the ages. Jews had to learn how to live with the past without being traumatised by it. So they turned the day when they faced and then escaped the greatest danger of all into a festival of unconfined joy, a day of dressing up and drinking a bit too much, to exorcise the fear, live through it and beyond it, and then come back to life, unhaunted by the ghosts of memory.

Purim is the Jewish answer to one of the great questions of history: how do you live with the past without being held captive by the past? Ours is a religion of memory, because if you forget the past, you’ll find yourself repeating it. Yet it’s also a future oriented faith. To be a Jew is to answer the question, Has the messiah come?, with the words, Not yet.

There are so many parts of the world today where ancient grievances are still being played out, as if history were a hamster wheel in which however fast we run we find ourselves back where we started. Purim is a way of saying, remember the past, but then look at the children, celebrate with them, and for their sake, put the past behind you and build a better future.
44  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / The Hidden G‑d on: February 14, 2013, 08:08:15 AM
The Hidden G‑d
Where do you hide when you’re everywhere?
By Tzvi Freeman

It was one of those brutal winter mornings for this West Coast kid in Brooklyn, not so much for the stormy weather as for the struggle to sleep in a dormitory where the Israeli contingent had deemed that night party night. A small group of us had cut a deal with Rabbi Yoel Kahan, teacher supreme of Chassidut Chabad, to provide us a class three times a week at 7 AM. There were conditions: one of us had turn up at his home at 6:30 to wake him, drive him to our semi-authorized-but-not-really room outside the yeshivah, and brew him a strong coffee. Despite the vertigo and aching head, I wouldn’t miss that class for the world.

Reb Yoel, as all his students still call him (may he live for long and healthy years), recognized the torpor of that sleepless night on our faces. I don’t recall the passage we were studying—somewhere in the writings of Rabbi Sholom Dovber, from the year 5672 (1911–12). Deep stuff. Kinda too deep for a morning like this. But in the middle of some obscure passage, he leaped mischievously into a question so ridiculously simple, all of us were now bouncing off the edge of our chairs; so absurdly obvious, none of us could find an answer.

Reb Yoel wanted to know why we couldn’t see G‑d.

“He’s invisible!” came the first response.

That was certainly of no help. Yes, the class was in Yiddish, but Reb Yoel had the words for “tautology” nonetheless.

“G‑d is spiritual,” someone innocently suggested, “and we are physical.” Boy, was that a mistake.

Reb Yoel thundered back, “In the beginning, G‑d created the heavens and the earth!” G‑d created both the physical and the spiritual, he explained. He Himself is neither.

So we tried this: “Well, if we can’t see spiritual things, like emotions, ideas, angels and higher worlds, how can we expect to see that which is beyond even the spiritual?”

Now we were getting somewhere. Straight into the trap he had laid for us.

“Why can’t you see spiritual things?” he demanded. “There are entire worlds that are spiritual. Where are they hidden?”

“They’re not hidden,” someone responded. “They’re right here. Just that we can’t see them.”

Now Reb Yoel began to move objects around on the table at which we all were seated. “This here,” he pointed to a cassette tape recorder we had sneaked beneath the cover of a book, “is hidden. Why? Because it is not within my field of vision. My vision and this object are in two different places. Therefore, I cannot see it.”

Well, we thought it was hidden. Reb Yoel, at the time, never approved of us recording his classes.

“Now, what about radio waves? Are they hidden? Are they in the same place as we are?”

“Yes, they are,” I answered, eager to display my technological expertise. “This room, and everywhere around us, is full of them, broadcasting every station in New York City.”

“Then why can’t you see them?”

“Because,” I strained, grasping for some way to describe frequency spectrums in Yiddish, “radio waves are not . . .”

“They are not within the same space as your vision!”

“Okay.” Same difference, I figured.

“So, as far as your eyes are concerned, radio waves are not here. And the same with emotions, and ideas, and angels, and higher worlds—they are not here. They are not within the same world as your physical eyes. So, you can’t see them.”

This was starting to make sense. But I wasn’t prepared for the bomb that came next.

“So, why can’t you see G‑d?” he clamored. “Isn’t G‑d everywhere?”

The class exploded into yet more futile regurgitations of our earlier attempts, in yet more feeble forms.

“But G‑d is formless! How can you see something that is formless?”

Useless answer. He’s here, now, nonetheless. Here, in our world of form.

“G‑d is not something you see. Seeing and G‑d are way apart!”

He’s in ideas. He’s in emotions. He’s in the palpable, visceral world of the senses. Why isn’t He in your field of vision?
More useless. G‑d is everywhere. He’s in the heavens, and He’s here on earth. He’s in ideas. He’s in emotions. He’s in the palpable, visceral world of the senses. He’s in the cool earth of the ground you clump in your hand and squeeze out between your fingers. He’s in the ethereal world of the philosopher, and He’s in the pragmatic world of the trucker speeding down Interstate 86. He’s in the putrid world of the worker digging out the city sewers down the street, and He’s in the aroma of the garlic our cook was now sprinkling on the chickens for tonight’s dinner. None of this could exist if He were not there. He’s everywhere, in everything. So, He’s certainly in your field of vision. Why can’t you see Him?

We had visibly given up, but the tension of the lecture was like static electricity waiting for a lightning bolt.

“The spiritual worlds,” Reb Yoel continued, “the World of Formation, the World of Creation—realms of angels and souls—they are not in another place that you could travel to. Yet, neither are they here. You and they are in different spaces—even more than radio waves.”

“But the World of G‑dliness—that is here, now!”

Then the answer. As simple as was the question, so the answer. Far too simple for sophisticated students as ourselves.

Reb Yoel leaned forward. “The only reason you cannot see G‑d,” he whispered, “is because He doesn’t want you to.”

“This is why we call Him ‘the hidden G‑d.’ Achein atah Keil Mistater—‘Truly, You are the Hiding G‑d.’ Because He is the only one who is truly hidden. Everything else is not truly hidden—it’s simply not here. But He, He is hidden even when He is here. He is present in His absence, absent in His presence.”

“G‑d, you see, is not a something, not a presence. G‑d just is.”

The rest passed over my head. And the cassette recording turned out futile as well.

In that class, Reb Yoel provided us a key to unlock so many passages in the teachings of Chabad. Here’s the vital passage in Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s The Gate of Unity and Faith (both translation and italics are my own):

Now, just as no created being has the capacity to grasp G‑d’s mode of greatness—meaning, His capacity to create something from nothing and vitalize it . . .—just the same way, none has the capacity to fathom G‑d’s mode of might. This is the modality of constraining the spread of vital energy from His greatness, so that rather than an open descent, energizing and sustaining the creations overtly, the energy is masked so that it remains undetectable within the actual created being. The creation now appears as though it were an autonomous entity, and not simply the artifact of a breath-like current of energy. Rather than appearing as sunlight appears—as nothing more than the radiance of the sun—it is now a something all of its own.

Truthfully, it is not its own entity, but actually quite similar to the sun’s radiation. Yet, that itself is the awesome might of a wholly transcendent G‑d: He can do anything, and so He can constrain this breath-like vitalizing energy that flows from the breath of His mouth until it becomes undetectable, so as not to annihilate the identity of the created being.

This is the facet that no created mind can fathom: What kind of constraining process is this that renders a vital force undetectable—and yet, a creation emerges out of the void? This is not within the capacity of a created being to comprehend—just as no created being can fathom how something can be created out of nothing to begin with.

Years later, I found another expert to ask the same question—my three-year-old daughter. I asked her why we couldn’t see G‑d. Her eyes opened wide as she whispered, “He’s hiding!”

Only then did I feel as stupid as I should have felt back there with Reb Yoel. I guess, when it comes to G‑d, we’re all better off thinking like three-year-olds.
45  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / COVENANT & CONVERSATION: : Mishpatim and YITRO on: February 06, 2013, 01:57:30 PM
I'm sorry for the delay in posting--I have been having an attitude problem.

COVENANT & CONVERSATION: Mishpatim – In The Details
Covenant & Conversation

Download Covenant & Conversation as a PDF
Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks

On the opening phrase of Mishpatim – “And these are the laws you are to set before them” – Rashi comments: “And these are the laws” – Wherever uses the word “these” it signals a discontinuity with what has been stated previously. Wherever it uses the term “and these” it signals a continuity. Just as the former commands were given at Sinai, so these were given at Sinai. Why then are the civil laws placed in juxtaposition to the laws concerning the altar ? To tell you to place the Sanhedrin near to the Temple. “Which you shall set before them” – G-d said to Moses: You should not think, I will teach them a section or law two or three times until they know the words verbatim but I will not take the trouble to make them understand the reason and its significance. Therefore the Torah states “which you shall set before them” like a fully laid table with everything ready for eating. (Rashi on Shemot 23:1)

Three remarkable propositions are being set out here, which have shaped the contours of Judaism ever since.

The first is that just as the general principles of Judaism (aseret hadibrot means not “ten commandments” but “ten utterances” or overarching principles) are Divine, so are the details. In the 1960s the Danish architect Arne Jacobson designed a new college campus in Oxford. Not content with designing the building, he went on to design the cutlery and crockery to be used in the dining hall, and supervised the planting of every shrub in the college garden. When asked why, he replied in the words of another architect, Mies van der Rohe: “G-d is in the details”.

That is a Jewish sentiment. There are those who believe that what is holy in Judaism is its broad vision, never so compellingly expressed as in the Decalogue at Sinai. The truth however is that G-d is in the details: “Just as the former were given at Sinai, so these were given at Sinai.” The greatness of Judaism is not simply in its noble vision of a free, just and compassionate society, but in the way it brings this vision down to earth in detailed legislation. Freedom is more than an abstract idea. It means (in an age in which slavery was taken for granted – it was not abolished in Britain or the United States until the nineteenth century) letting a slave go free after seven years, or immediately if his master has injured him. It means granting slaves complete rest and freedom one day in seven. These laws do not abolish slavery, but they do create the conditions under which people will eventually learn to abolish it. Not less importantly, they turn slavery from an existential fate to a temporary condition. Slavery is not what you are or how you were born, but some thing that has happened to you for a while and from which you will one day be liberated. That is what these laws – especially the law of Shabbat – achieve, not in theory only, but in living practice. In this, as in virtually every other aspect of Judaism, G-d is in the details.

The second principle, no less fundamental, is that civil law is not secular law. We do not believe in the idea “render to Caesar what is Caeser’s and to G-d what belongs to G-d”. We believe in the separation of powers but not in the secularisation of law or the spiritualisation of faith. The Sanhedrin or Supreme Court must be placed near the Temple to teach that law itself must be driven by a religious vision. The greatest of these visions, stated in this week’s sedra, is: “Do not oppress a stranger, because you yourself know how it feels like to be a stranger: you were strangers in Egypt.” (Shemot 23:9)

The Jewish vision of justice, given its detailed articulation here for the first time, is based not on expediency or pragmatism, nor even on abstract philosophical principles, but on the concrete historical memories of the Jewish people as “one nation under G-d.” Centuries earlier, G-d has chosen Abraham so that he would “teach his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord, by doing what is right and just.” (Bereishith 18:19) Justice in Judaism flows from the experience of injustice at the hands of the Egyptians, and the G-d-given challenge to create a radically different form of society in Israel.

This is already foreshadowed in the first chapter of the Torah with its statement of the equal and absolute dignity of the human person as the image of G-d. That is why society must be based on the rule of law, impartially administered, treating all alike – “Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong. When you give testimony in a lawsuit, do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd, and do not show favouritism to a poor man in his lawsuit.” (Shemot 23:2-3)

To be sure, at the highest levels of mysticism, G-d is to be found in the innermost depths of the human soul, but G-d is equally to be found in the public square and in the structures of society: the marketplace, the corridors of power, and courts of law. There must be no gap, no dissociation of sensibilities, between the court of justice (the meeting-place of man and man) and the Temple (the meeting-place of man and G-d).

The third principle and the most remarkable of all is the idea that law does not belong to lawyers. It is the heritage of every Jew. “Do not think, I will teach them a section or law two or three times until they know the words verbatim but I will not take the trouble to make them understand the reason and significance of the law. The Torah states ‘which you shall set before them’ like a fully laid table with everything ready for eating.” This is the origin of the name of the most famous of all Jewish codes of law, R. Joseph Karo’s Shulkhan Arukh.

From earliest times, Judaism expected everyone to know and understand the law. Legal knowledge is not the closely guarded property of an elite. It is – in the famous phrase – “the heritage of the congregation of Jacob.” (Devarim 33:4) Already in the first century CE Josephus could write that “should any one of our nation be asked about our laws, he will repeat them as readily as his own name. The result of our thorough education in our laws from the very dawn of intelligence is that they are, as it were, engraved on our souls. Hence to break them is rare, and no one can evade punishment by the excuse of ignorance” (Contra Apionem, ii, 177-8). That is why there are so many Jewish lawyers. Judaism is a religion of law – not because it does not believe in love (“You shall love the Lord your G-d”, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”) but because, without justice, neither love nor liberty nor human life itself can flourish. Love alone does not free a slave from his or her chains.

The sedra of Mishpatim, with its detailed rules and regulations, can sometimes seem a let-down after the breathtaking grandeur of the revelation at Sinai. It should not be. Yitro contains the vision, but G-d is in the details. Without the vision, law is blind. But without the details, the vision floats in heaven. With them the divine presence is brought down to earth, where we need it most.

COVENANT & CONVERSATION: Yitro – The Politics of Revelation

The revelation at Mount Sinai – the central episode not only of the parshah of Yitro, but of Judaism as a whole – was unique in the religious history of mankind. Other faiths (Christianity and Islam) have claimed to be religions of revelation, but in both cases the revelation of which they spoke was to an individual (“the son of G-d”, “the prophet of G-d”). Only in Judaism was G-d’s self-disclosure not to an individual (a prophet) or a group (the elders) but to an entire nation, young and old, men, women and children, the righteous and not yet righteous alike.

From the very outset, the people of Israel knew something unprecedented had happened at Sinai. As Moses put it, forty years later:

Ask now about the former days, long before your time, from the day G-d created man on earth; ask from one end of the heavens to the other. Has anything so great as this ever happened, or has anything like it ever been heard of? Has any other people heard the voice of G-d speaking out of fire, as you have, and lived? (Deut. 4: 32-33).

For the great Jewish thinkers of the Middle Ages, the significance was primarily epistemological. It created certainty and removed doubt. The authenticity of a revelation experienced by one person could be questioned. One witnessed by millions could not. G-d disclosed His presence in public to remove any possible suspicion that the presence felt, and the voice heard, were not genuine.

Looking however at the history of mankind since those days, it is clear that there was another significance also – one that had to do not with religious knowledge but with politics. At Sinai a new kind of nation was being formed and a new kind of society – one that would be an antithesis of Egypt in which the few had power and the many were enslaved. At Sinai, the children of Israel ceased to be a group of individuals and became, for the first time, a body politic: a nation of citizens under the sovereignty of G-d whose written constitution was the Torah and whose mission was to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

Even today, standard works on the history of political thought trace it back, through Marx, Rousseau and Hobbes to Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Politics and the Greek city state (Athens in particular) of the fourth century BCE. This is a serious error. To be sure, words like “democracy” (rule by the people) are Greek in origin. The Greeks were gifted at abstract nouns and systematic thought. However, if we look at the “birth of the modern” – at figures like Milton, Hobbes and Locke in England, and the founding fathers of America – the book with which they were in dialogue was not Plato or Aristotle but the Hebrew Bible. Hobbes quotes it 657 times in The Leviathan alone. Long before the Greek philosophers, and far more profoundly, at Mount Sinai the concept of a free society was born.

Three things about that moment were to prove crucial. The first is that long before Israel entered the land and acquired their own system of government (first by judges, later by kings), they had entered into an overarching covenant with G-d. That covenant (brit Sinai) set moral limits to the exercise of power. The code we call Torah established for the first time the primacy of right over might. Any king who behaved contrarily to Torah was acting ultra vires, and could be challenged. This is the single most important fact about biblical politics.

Democracy on the Greek model always had one fatal weakness. Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill called it “the tyranny of the majority”. J. L. Talmon called it “totalitarian democracy.” The rule of the majority contains no guarantee of the rights of minorities. As Lord Acton rightly noted, it was this that led to the downfall of Athens: “There was no law superior to that of the state. The lawgiver was above the law.” In Judaism, by contrast, prophets were mandated to challenge the authority of the king if he acted against the terms of the Torah. Individuals were empowered to disobey illegal or immoral orders. For this alone, the covenant at Sinai deserves to be seen as the single greatest step in the long road to a free society.

The second key element lies in the prologue to the covenant. G-d tells Moses: “This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and tell the people of Israel. ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now, if you obey Me fully and keep My covenant, you will be My treasured possession, for the whole earth is Mine. You will be for Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation . . .’” Moses tells this to the people, who reply: “We will do everything the Lord has said.”

What is the significance of this exchange? It means that until the people had signified their consent, the revelation could not proceed. There is no legitimate government without the consent of the governed, even if the governor is Creator of heaven and earth. I know of few more radical ideas anywhere. To be sure, there were sages in the Talmudic period who questioned whether the acceptance of the covenant at Sinai was completely free. However, at the heart of Judaism is the idea – way ahead of its time, and not always fully realised – that the free G-d desires the free worship of free human beings. G-d, said the rabbis, does not act tyrannically with His creatures.

The third, equally ahead of its time, was that the partners to the covenant were to be “all the people” – men, women and children. This fact is emphasised later on in the Torah in the mitzvah of Hakhel, the septennial covenant renewal ceremony. The Torah states specifically that the entire people is to be gathered together for this ceremony, “men, women and children.” A thousand years later, when Athens experimented with democracy, only a limited section of society had political rights. Women, children, slaves and foreigners were excluded. In Britain, women did not get the vote until the twentieth century. According to the sages, when G-d was about to give the Torah at Sinai, He told Moses to consult first with the women and only then with the men (“thus shall you say to the house of Jacob” – this means, the women ). The Torah, Israel’s “constitution of liberty”, includes everyone. It is the first moment, by thousands of years, that citizenship is conceived as being universal.

There is much else to be said about the political theory of the Torah (see my The Politics of Hope, The Dignity of Difference, and The Chief Rabbi’s Haggadah as well as the important works by Daniel Elazar and Michael Walzer). But one thing is clear. With the revelation at Sinai something unprecedented entered the human horizon. It would take centuries, millennia, before its full implications were understood. Abraham Lincoln said it best when he spoke of “a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” At Sinai, the politics of freedom was born.
46  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Painting God on: January 22, 2013, 02:40:38 PM
Painting God
by Hannah Dreyfus

My quest for answers does not preclude a simple, emotional acceptance of God’s presence in the world.

When I was in kindergarten, I painted a picture of God. I was very proud of my artistic escapade into the non-corporeal. God had long white hair, a hot pink kippah, a technicolor tallit, no nose, and rather insufficient limbs (of the stick variety). God was deep in prayer, naturally, reciting the morning blessings to sing-song perfection.

I brought my modest masterpiece to the front of class, eager to show my teacher what I’d accomplished. The God who lived in the sky, probably somewhere near Marry Poppins – the God who Mommy cried to when she found out Grandpa died, and the God who smiled down at me when I didn’t pull my sister’s hair in synagogue – that God was now mine, a creation of crayon and colored paper.

But when I tugged on my teacher’s skirt to inform her of my theological milestone, she bit back a smile and gently reprimanded my efforts. “God isn’t a person or a thing, sweetie. We’re not supposed to paint pictures of God.”

I pinpoint my interest in Judaism and Jewish thought to that moment. Who was this God to whom I said good morning every sunrise and good night, right hand covering eyes tightly squeezed as I recited the Shema every night? Who was this God who demanded that we hide all our bread in cabinets marked with yellow warning tape once a year, and camp out in the backyard, in a tabernacle strung with Christmas lights and topped with sweetly smelling evergreen braches when the summer turned to fall? Who was this God who instructed us to put fixtures over the bathroom light switches on a Friday afternoon to ensure we don’t accidently desecrate the Sabbath? Who was this God, who gave me picture books filled with Abraham and Isaac and Sarah and Rebecca, in sweeping cloaks atop slender camels, but then told me not to draw Him a portrait?

Was this God camera shy, like Grandma, who always skirted to the edge of frame, muttering some excuse about age, before ducking out of finders view? Was God scared to be found?

The question, for me, never was “is He there?” If God was not there, who heard my mother’s whisper when she stood for several minutes, hands covering eyes, after lighting the Shabbat candles? During my summers in the years just shy of teenagehood, smelling of crisp mountain air, chlorine, and smoldering fire pits, I saw God too, in the stillness of the lake, mist rising silently, just before daybreak. In the song of the crickets as I meandered back to my tent, head thrown back to swallow the stars. If Abraham had found God traced in the sky, so could I.

When life introduced me to pain and death, I also found God. I screamed at Him on that still, October morning when my high school friend’s sister passed away without warning. And I cried to Him when I realized things wouldn’t change, no matter how much I screamed.

During my seminary year spent in Israel, I was told what I had heard before, but with newfound conviction and zeal, by people who didn’t just believe, but lived: God was everywhere. Nature was an illusion, only to test. I read of those precious few who had pushed past nature’s persuasive veil. Sitting cross-legged on the grassy hilltops of Jerusalem, it was easy enough to imagine how.

But skepticism and doubt crept between looming Manhattan skyscrapers, shadows obscuring the skyline from view. In the pages of Hume, Wittgenstein, and Spinoza, I found many of my fearful suspicions reflected. As I walked closer towards the simple, beautiful, portrait I had painted, I began to see flaws in the trusting, non-discriminatory strokes. I began to trace cracks, with trembling fingers. Disheartened, I fell back, disillusioned by the simple picture. I was angry with those who had confirmed and even encouraged my simple portrait, even while telling me, in gently reprimanding tones, that is not our place to paint pictures of God.

For a time, I hid that initial picture from view – the picture I had found among the stars, and in my mother’s whisper. I started on a new picture: a cold, analytical sketch. This picture was based upon thesis statements and comparative readings. The subject of this portrait would be built firmly upon books and articles, dissected and analyzed to avoid misstep. I wouldn’t be fooled again by beautiful simplicity, no matter how tempting. This portrait would be sketched in unforgiving, precise pencil, not crayon.

During my mid-semester break, I headed back to Israel, to Jerusalem. My head spun with questions. The canvas of my new picture had grown weary, streaked with eraser marks. I found myself growing weary. I missed the God I had resolutely left behind, as I wandered between the crowded skyscrapers of New York City.

The gap between my skeptical and emotional self did not close consciously. The serene, modest beauty of Jerusalem, hushed by rare snow, didn’t intellectually combat my neatly contested list of questions. Rather, she rendered them null and void. Like a mother, answering a tired child’s long list of bereavements with an embrace, rather than answers. The child is left hiccupping, still indignant perhaps, but with no breath left for complaints.

Watching the sunlight glint off the white, the questions that had built up, like a wall of stone, crumbled, as if by the sounding call of Joshua’s shofar, walls of Jericho sinking into the ground. The defenses, built up like a small army, melted like a child’s breath on a frosty pane. I stood at the Western Wall and cried to a God I had never lost. It was the same God who had inspired my childish fervor and creativity. The same God who winked at me from behind evergreen trees of childhood memories. The same God I trusted while sitting, cross-legged, atop Jerusalem’s blossoming hills.

I still have questions. I don’t regret asking, nor will I cease to do so. I am a more sophisticated thinker for the journey. The greatest Jewish thinkers of all time, after all, never desisted from intellectual inquiry.

But during my stay in Jerusalem, I realized my quest for answers does not preclude a simple, emotional acceptance of God’s presence in the world. I realized simplicity and truth never were at odds. There will always be questions, debates, and philosophical contentions enough for any willing skeptic. But they fall, like matchsticks in the wind, in those rare, privileged moments when we face a portrait so beautiful, we cannot explain.

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47  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Why Does Everything Always Go Wrong? on: January 20, 2013, 06:46:39 PM
 Why Does Everything Always Go Wrong?
To a mother who was kvetching about everything always going wrong, and that her life was “full of curses and troubles”

Oy . . . I’m getting the picture.

Let me tell you what the Rebbe very often told people: Many troubles come because they feel at home. That is, when a person’s mind is full of thoughts of how rotten things are and how bad they are going, the troubles say, “Hey, here’s a place for us with all our friends, where we can feel at home!”

So what do you need to do? Throw out the unwanted guests—meaning, all those lousy thoughts—and bring in some friendly ones. There’s always something good; all of us have many blessings in life. You are alive, you are a mother who cares, you are not starving in Africa. First and foremost, you are a Jew who can turn and speak to G‑d firsthand at any time and He will listen, because you are His firstborn son.

Once you start thinking those thoughts and banish all the lousy ones, the troubles don’t feel at home any more. Instead, all those blessings that have been standing out the door for years waiting to come in—but couldn’t, because it just wasn’t the right company inside—now they will all come to party and fill your house.

Granted, this is not an easy task, at least for the first week or so. But we know from much experience that it works, and it works wonders: Misery attracts misery; joy attracts blessings.

How about giving it two weeks and see what happens?

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman

Here is my new favorite gratitue journal
48  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Sticking to Your Resolutions on: January 13, 2013, 07:54:07 PM

A majority of people report making resolutions each new calendar year. Unfortunately, your chances of making it through January with your resolution intact are slim. For while it’s easy to get fired up about starting the new calendar year off right, when everyone is making resolutions too and excitement about change is in the air, it’s harder to sustain that commitment as the weeks go by (the same phenomenon applies to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year).
Right now, during the depths of January when we’re most struggling to maintain our resolutions, is the real time to change. Studies show that those who make it through this month have a better chance of sticking to their resolutions for the rest of the year.
Jewish tradition gives us strategies for sticking with resolutions, even once the initial excitement has worn off. Even if you haven’t made any big resolutions yet this year, these behaviors can give you the tools to make this year your best yet.
1. Smart Planning
The famous Jewish poem “A Woman of Valor” describes the ideal woman. In addition to being a wife and mother, she’s selfless and busy: a tireless businesswoman. Many commentators have taken her description to be an allegory for the entire Jewish people. One of the most important qualities ascribed to her is foresight: “she considers a field, a buys it” (Proverbs 31:15). Amidst all her busy activities, she takes the time to stop, think, and plan ahead where it is she wants to be.
Jewish tradition encourages this type of preparing: set aside some time regularly – it can be annually, monthly or more often – to spend some time thinking about your goals and coming up with real life, detailed plans for tackling them. Brainstorm specific ways to replace old habits with new ones. When do you find it most difficult to implement your new behavior? What can you do when you feel yourself slipping back into old habits? Spending some time on this sort of exercise can transform resolutions from pipedreams to real, actionable plans.
Modern research echoes this wisdom. Scientists have found that this sort of regular, detailed planning is much more effective than more general, sweeping goals. Spend some time honestly thinking about your strengths and weaknesses: try to anticipate the challenges you face, and work on coming up with strategies that will help you towards your goals.
2. Seeing the Bigger Picture
While you’re brainstorming, spend some time also considering why you’ve chosen your goals and resolutions. What bigger picture are they part of? When the first excitement of new resolutions fades, having in mind what larger goals our resolutions are part of can help sustain us, giving us a larger reason for our behaviors. A person who wants to lose weight in the New Year, for instance, might ask herself why: does she want to be healthy? Does she want to have energy to be there for her family? What sort of person, ultimately, does she want to become?
When we reframe our resolutions as steps towards our ultimate goals, we gain the confidence that it’s possible to reach them. In modern psychological parlance, this is called self-efficacy: the belief that our goals are possible, which greatly enhances our self-control and ability to realize our ambitions.
This January, try asking yourself the big, heavy questions. What are you living for? What do you truly value? Thinking about these issues can help motivate us in keeping the resolutions that will bring us closer to our ultimate purpose.
3. New Habits
The Talmud relates the story of Rabbi Meir, who came to the aid of a couple who used to fight every Shabbat (Gittin 52a). Each Friday afternoon for three weeks, Rabbi Meir went to their house and acted as peacemaker, smoothing over their differences and helping them not to fight. By the end of the third week, the Talmud relates, the couple no longer had the habit of fighting: their problem was cured.
The Torah recognizes that after three weeks, new behaviors begin to become routine; if we can only make it through this difficult, early phase, our chance of changing our conduct permanently is much stronger.
Modern science also recognizes that forming new habits is crucial to changing the way we do things. Habit, which bypasses conscious thought, occurs when particular neural pathways in our brains are strengthened; brain activity along those lines is easier than other types of thought, and so becomes our default mode of behavior. It’s possible to “reprogram” our brains and create or strengthen new, different, neural connections.
“Reprogramming” the way we behave usually takes several weeks of conscious effort. Researchers have found that three weeks – the same length of time the Talmud mentioned – is roughly the length of time needed to change our brain structure. Recognizing this – and realizing that once our new behavior becomes habit it will be much easier to sustain – can help get us through the challenges of our first month or so when keeping new resolutions.
4. Healthy Environments
“Do not put a stumbling block before the blind” (Leviticus 19:14) the Torah enjoins. It can be hard enough to stick to a new regime without surrounding ourselves with temptations to lapse in our new resolutions. Whatever behavior we are trying to affect, it’s easier when we remove ourselves from challenging situations.
Conversely, the Torah also instructs us to find mentors for ourselves. “Provide for yourself a teacher and get yourself a friend” (Pirkei Avot 1:6). Attaching ourselves to people and communities whose behaviors model what we want for ourselves, can help move ourselves closer to our goals.
5. Connecting with God
Finally, even after taking all these steps, it can be difficult to get over the hump of January (or any time following the decision to turn over a new leaf, whatever the time of year or one’s stage in life). There are times when we’ve all felt completely helpless: that achieving our goals is beyond our grasp.
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Three thousand years ago, King David grasped this truth. He realized his only chance to succeed was appealing to God, and he penned words that have guided Jews ever since: “From the depths have I called to You, oh God” (Psalm 130:1).
In ancient times some synagogues even contained indentations in the floor where people could lead prayer “out of the depths”. Doing so – appealing to God when we realize we can’t succeed on our own – can bring us closer to the Divine, giving us both the strength and the resolution to succeed in our goals.
When the going gets tough, try opening a dialogue with God. This can be as formal or informal as you like. Get used the idea of asking God for help with your resolutions. This dialogue can help us clarify exactly what it is we’re trying to achieve and why, and it can also help give us the energy and spiritual sustenance to succeed in our goals.
49  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Of Lice and Men on: January 10, 2013, 08:01:06 PM
I'm glad you enjoyed the previous piece

Va'eira(Exodus 6:2-9:35)
Of Lice and Men
Chief Rabbi Lord Sachs
Throughout all Egypt the dust turned into lice. But when the magicians tried to produce lice by their secret arts, they could not. The lice attacked men and animals alike. The magicians said to Pharaoh, 'This is the finger of God.' But Pharaoh's heart was hard and he would not listen
Too little attention has been paid to the use of humour in the Torah. Its most important form is the use of satire to mock the pretensions of human beings who think they can emulate God. One thing makes God laugh - the sight of humanity attempting to defy heaven:
The kings of the earth take their stand,
And the rulers gather together
against the Lord and His anointed one.
"Let us break our chains," they say,
"and throw off their fetters."
He who sits in heaven laughs,
God scoffs at them. (Psalm 2:2-4)
There is a marvellous example in the story of the Tower of Babel. The people in the plain of Shinar decide to build a city with a tower that "will reach heaven." This is an act of defiance against the divinely given order of nature ("The heavens are the heavens of God: the earth He has given to the children of men"). The Torah then says, "But God came down to see the city and the tower ..." Down on earth, the builders thought their tower would reach heaven. From the vantage point of heaven, however, it was so miniscule that God had to "come down" to see it.
Satire is essential to understanding at least some of the plagues. The Egyptians worshipped a multiplicity of gods, most of whom represented forces of nature. By their "secret arts" the magicians believed that they could control these forces. Magic is the equivalent in an era of myth to technology in an age of science. A civilization that believes it can manipulate the gods, believes likewise that it can exercise coercion over human beings. In such a culture, the concept of freedom is unknown.
The plagues were not merely intended to punish Pharaoh and his people for their mistreatment of the Israelites, but also to show them the powerlessness of the gods in which they believed ("I will perform acts of judgement against all the gods of Egypt: I am God", Ex. 12:12). This explains the first and last of the nine plagues prior to the killing of the firstborn. The first involved the Nile. The ninth was the plague of darkness. The Nile was worshipped as the source of fertility in an otherwise desert region. The sun was seen as the greatest of the gods, Re, whose child Pharaoh was considered to be. Darkness meant the eclipse of the sun, showing that even the greatest of the Egyptian gods could do nothing in the face of the true God.
What is at stake in this confrontation is the difference between myth - in which the gods are mere powers, to be tamed, propitiated or manipulated - and biblical monotheism in which ethics (justice, compassion, human dignity) constitute the meeting-point of God and mankind. That is the key to the first two plagues, both of which refer back to the beginning of Egyptian persecution of the Israelites: the killing of male children at birth, first through the midwives (though, thanks to Shifra and Puah's moral sense, this was foiled) then by throwing them into the Nile to drown. That is why, in the first plague, the river waters turn to blood. The significance of the second, frogs, would have been immediately apparent to the Egyptians. Heqt, the frog-goddess, represented the midwife who assisted women in labour. Both plagues are coded messages meaning: "If you use the river and midwives - both normally associated with life - to bring about death, those same forces will turn against you." An immensely significant message is taking shape: Reality has an ethical structure. If used for evil ends, the powers of nature will turn against man, so that what he does will be done to him in turn. There is justice in history.
The response of the Egyptians to these first two plagues is to see them within their own frame of reference. Plagues, for them, are forms of magic, not miracles. To Pharaoh's "magicians", Moses and Aaron are people like themselves who practice "secret arts". So they replicate them: they show that they too can turn water into blood and generate a horde of frogs. The irony here is very close to the surface. So intent are the Egyptian magicians on proving that they can do what Moses and Aaron have done, that they entirely fail to realise that far from making matters better for the Egyptians, they are making them worse: more blood, more frogs.
This brings us to the third plague, lice. One of the purposes of this plague is to produce an effect which the magicians cannot replicate. They try. They fail. Immediately they conclude, "This is the finger of God".
This is the first appearance in the Torah of an idea, surprisingly persistent in religious thinking even today, called "the god of the gaps". This holds that a miracle is something for which we cannot yet find a scientific explanation. Science is natural; religion is supernatural. An "act of God" is something we cannot account for rationally. What magicians (or technocrats) cannot reproduce must be the result of Divine intervention. This leads inevitably to the conclusion that religion and science are opposed. The more we can explain scientifically or control technologically, the less need we have for faith. As the scope of science expands, the place of God progressively diminishes to vanishing point.
What the Torah is intimating is that this is a pagan mode of thought, not a Jewish one. The Egyptians admitted that Moses and Aaron were genuine prophets when they performed wonders beyond the scope of their own magic. But this is not why we believe in Moses and Aaron. On this, Maimonides is unequivocal:
Israel did not believe in Moses our teacher because of the signs he performed. When faith is predicated on signs, a lurking doubt always remains that these signs may have been performed with the aid of occult arts and witchcraft. All the signs Moses performed in the wilderness, he did because they were necessary, not to authenticate his status as a prophet ... When we needed food, he brought down manna. When the people were thirsty, he cleaved the rock. When Korach's supporters denied his authority, the earth swallowed them up. So too with all the other signs. What then were our grounds for believing in him? The revelation at Sinai, in which we saw with our own eyes and heard with our own ears ... (Hilkhot Yesodei haTorah 8:1).
The primary way in which we encounter God is not through miracles but through His word - the revelation - Torah - which is the Jewish people's constitution as a nation under the sovereignty of God. To be sure, God is in the events which, seeming to defy nature, we call miracles. But He is also in nature itself. Science does not displace God: it reveals, in ever more intricate and wondrous ways, the design within nature itself. Far from diminishing our religious sense, science (rightly understood) should enlarge it, teaching us to see "How great are Your works, O God; You have made them all with wisdom." Above all, God is to be found in the voice heard at Sinai, teaching us how to construct a society that will be the opposite of Egypt: in which the few do not enslave the many, nor are strangers mistreated.
The best argument against the world of ancient Egypt was Divine humor. The cultic priests and magicians who thought they could control the sun and the Nile discovered that they could not even produce a louse. Pharaohs like Ramses II demonstrated their godlike status by creating monumental architecture: the great temples, palaces and pyramids whose immensity seemed to betoken divine grandeur (the Gemara explains that Egyptian magic could not function on very small things). God mocks them by revealing His presence in the tiniest of creatures (T. S. Eliot: "I will show you fear in a handful of dust").
What the Egyptian magicians (and their latter-day successors) did not understand is that power over nature is not an end in itself but solely the means to ethical ends. The lice were God's joke at the expense of the magicians who believed that because they controlled the forces of nature, they were the masters of human destiny. They were wrong. Faith is not merely belief in the supernatural. It is the ability to hear the call of the Author of Being, to be free in such a way as to respect the freedom and dignity of others.
50  Politics, Religion, Science, Culture and Humanities / Science, Culture, & Humanities / Leadership and the People on: December 30, 2012, 08:35:01 PM
Leadership and the People
By Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
The sedra of Shemot, in a series of finely etched vignettes, paints a portrait of the life of Moses, culminating in the moment at which G‑d appears to him in the bush that burns without being consumed. It is a key text of the Torah view of leadership, and every detail is significant.

I want here to focus on just one passage in the long dialogue in which G‑d summons Moses to undertake the mission of leading the Israelites to freedom—a challenge which, no less than four times, Moses declines. I am unworthy, he says. I am not a man of words. Send someone else. It is the second refusal, however, which attracted special attention from the sages and led them to formulate one of their most radical interpretations. The Torah states:

Moses replied: “But they will not believe me. They will not listen to me. They will say, ‘G‑d did not appear to you.’”1

The sages, ultra-sensitive to nuances in the text, evidently noticed three strange features of this response. The first is that G‑d had already told Moses, “They will listen to you.”2 Moses’ reply seems to contradict G‑d’s prior assurance. To be sure, the commentators offered various harmonizing interpretations. Ibn Ezra suggests that G‑d had told Moses that the elders would listen to him, whereas Moses expressed doubts about the mass of the people. Ramban says that Moses did not doubt that they would believe initially, but he thought that they would lose faith as soon as they saw that Pharaoh would not let them go. There are other explanations, but the fact remains that Moses was not satisfied by G‑d’s assurance. His own experience of the fickleness of the people (one of them, years earlier, had already said, “Who made you ruler and judge over us?”) made him doubt that they would be easy to lead.

The second anomaly is in the signs that G‑d gave Moses to authenticate his mission. The first (the staff that turns into a snake) and third (the water that turned into blood) reappear later in the story. They are signs that Moses and Aaron perform not only for the Israelites, but also for the Egyptians. The second, however, does not reappear. G‑d tells Moses to put his hand in his cloak. When he takes it out, he sees that it has become “leprous as snow.” What is the significance of this particular sign? The sages recalled that later, Miriam was punished with leprosy for speaking negatively about Moses.3 In general they understood leprosy as a punishment for lashon hara, derogatory speech. Had Moses, perhaps, been guilty of the same sin?

The third detail is that, whereas Moses’ other refusals focused on his own sense of inadequacy, here he speaks not about himself but about the people. They will not believe him. Putting these three points together, the sages arrived at the following comment:

Reish Lakish said: He who entertains a suspicion against the innocent will be bodily afflicted, as it is written, “Moses replied: ‘But they will not believe me.’” However, it was known to the Holy One, blessed be He, that Israel would believe. He said to Moses: They are believers, the children of believers, but you will ultimately disbelieve. They are believers, as it is written, “And the people believed.”4 The children of believers, [as it is written,] “And he [Abraham] believed in the L‑rd.”5 But you will ultimately disbelieve, as it is said, “[And the L‑rd said to Moses,] ‘Because you did not believe in Me . . .’”6 How do we know that he was afflicted? Because it is written,7 “And the L‑rd said to him, ‘Put your hand inside your cloak . . .’”8

This is an extraordinary passage. Moses, it now becomes clear, was entitled to have doubts about his own worthiness for the task. What he was not entitled to do was to have doubts about the people. In fact, his doubts were amply justified. The people were fractious. Moses calls them a “stiff-necked people.” Time and again during the wilderness years they complained, sinned, and wanted to return to Egypt. Moses was not wrong in his estimate of their character. Yet G‑d reprimanded him, indeed punished him by making his hand leprous. A fundamental principle of Jewish leadership is intimated here for the first time: a leader does not need faith in himself, but he must have faith in the people he is to lead.

This is an exceptionally important idea. The political philosopher Michael Walzer has written insightfully about social criticism, in particular about two stances the critic may take vis-à-vis those he criticizes. On the one hand there is the critic as outsider. At some stage, beginning in ancient Greece,

Detachment was added to defiance in the self-portrait of the hero. The impulse was Platonic; later on it was Stoic and Christian. Now the critical enterprise was said to require that one leave the city, imagined for the sake of the departure as a darkened cave, find one’s way, alone, outside, to the illumination of Truth, and only then return to examine and reprove the inhabitants. The critic-who-returns doesn’t engage the people as kin; he looks at them with a new objectivity; they are strangers to his new-found Truth.

This is the critic as detached intellectual. The prophets of Israel were quite different. Their message, writes Johannes Lindblom, was “characterized by the principle of solidarity.” “They are rooted, for all their anger, in their own societies,” writes Walzer. Like the Shunamite woman (II Kings 4:13), their home is “among their own people.” They speak, not from outside, but from within. That is what gives their words power. They identify with those to whom they speak. They share their history, their fate, their calling, their covenant.

Hence the peculiar pathos of the prophetic calling. They are the voice of G‑d to the people, but they are also the voice of the people to G‑d. That, according to the sages, was what G‑d was teaching Moses: What matters is not whether they believe in you, but whether you believe in them. Unless you believe in them, you cannot lead in the way a prophet must lead. You must identify with them and have faith in them, seeing not only their surface faults but also their underlying virtues. Otherwise, you will be no better than a detached intellectual—and that is the beginning of the end. If you do not believe in the people, eventually you will not even believe in G‑d. You will think yourself superior to them, and that is a corruption of the soul.

The classic text on this theme is Maimonides’ Epistle on Martyrdom. Written in 1165, when Maimonides was thirty years old, it was occasioned by a tragic period in medieval Jewish history, when an extremist Muslim sect, the Almohads, forced many Jews to convert to Islam under threat of death. One of the forced converts (they were called anusim; later they became known as marranos) asked a rabbi whether he might gain merit by practicing as many of the Torah’s commands as he could in secret. The rabbi sent back a dismissive reply. Now that he had forsaken his faith, he wrote, he would achieve nothing by living secretly as a Jew. Any Jewish act he performed would not be a merit, but an additional sin.

Maimonides’ Epistle is a work of surpassing spiritual beauty. He utterly rejects the rabbi’s reply. Those who keep Judaism in secret are to be praised, not blamed. He quotes a whole series of rabbinic passages in which G‑d rebukes prophets who criticized the people of Israel, including the one above about Moses. He then writes:

If this is the sort of punishment meted out to the pillars of the universe—Moses, Elijah, Isaiah and the ministering angels—because they briefly criticized the Jewish congregation, can one have an idea of the fate of the least among the worthless [i.e., the rabbi who criticized the forced converts] who let his tongue loose against Jewish communities of sages and their disciples, priests and Levites, and called them sinners, evildoers, gentiles, disqualified to testify, and heretics who deny the L‑rd G‑d of Israel?

The Epistle is a definitive expression of the prophetic task: to speak out of love for one’s people; to defend them, see the good in them, and raise them to higher achievements through praise, not condemnation.

Who is a leader? To this, the Jewish answer is: one who identifies with his or her people; mindful of their faults, to be sure, but convinced also of their potential greatness and their preciousness in the sight of G‑d. “Those people of whom you have doubts,” said G‑d to Moses, “are believers, the children of believers. They are My people, and they are your people. Just as you believe in Me, so you must believe in them.”

Exodus 4:1.
Ibid. 3:18.
Numbers 12:10.
Exodus 4:31.
Genesis 15:6.
Numbers 20:12.
Exodus 4:6.
Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 97a.
Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the British Commonwealth. To read more writings and teachings from the Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, please visit
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