Friday, August 18, 2017

Parashat Re'eh: Show me the Money

By Rabbi Ari Kahn

The mitzvah to which we are introduced in Parashat Re’eh helps even out these inequities, leveling the playing field and restoring balance to the financial ecosystem of the Land of Israel. This is a primary form of Jewish social justice.

In this week’s Torah reading, Moshe continues to prepare the nation for their new life in the Land of Israel. He warns them - numerous times - not to follow the practices of the local pagans who worship their deities under “every leafy tree.” Instead, he tells them, they are to create a central place of worship; there, and only there, are they to bring offerings to God. Reading these instructions, we might conclude that our religion is to be practiced only in this centralized place – in the Temple, in a place that we later learn is called Jerusalem. However, the subsequent verses of Parashat Re’eh prove this conclusion to be in error: A new element of holiness is revealed in this week’s parasha, and it is the most decentralized form of holiness we can imagine.

The Torah had already introduced the idea of a sabbatical year, at first very succinctly in Parashat Mishpatim (Sh’mot 23:10-11), and then in a more fully developed manner in Parashat B’har (Vayikra 25). In the sabbatical year, we relinquish ownership of the fields, orchards and gardens of the Land of Israel, and we remind ourselves that this land belongs to God. For six years, we work the land and benefit from its produce, but the seventh year reminds us that we are merely tenants. The “landlord” has set out very specific rules by which we must abide if we are to remain on His land. Indeed, Moshe reminds the nation - quite pointedly - that the Israelites will be inheriting theland not because of their own merit, but because of the gross misbehavior of the nations that have taken up residence there. The current tenants will be banished because they have failed to obey the landlord’s most basic rules; should the Israelites emulate the behavior of these other nations, their own fate will be the same. (Dv’arim 9:4,5)

How, then, do we merit the Land of Israel? We must do more than eschew idolatry; we must create a just society, and the new element of holiness which is introduced in this parashah aims to do just that: “Shemitat kesafim,” the monetary sabbatical, calls for the cancelation of loans at the end of the sabbatical year (Dv’arim 9:15).

In the seventh year, farmers are not to work the land; even produce that grows spontaneously is declared ownerless. This is how we are reminded that the land is not ours. However, a small problem may arise as a result of this cessation of work: survival. The farmer declares his or her fields ownerless; anyone and everyone may come and take whatever produce they find growing there in the seventh year. The economic burden created by observing this commandment, though, falls squarely on the shoulders of the farmer. Even if the sabbatical year was preceded by years of prosperity, when perhaps the farmer might have put aside a “nest egg” to help survive the year without income, a full year of unemployment is most certainly a severe economic hardship.

It is here that the Torah introduces the law of loans and canceled loans. Presumably, the person in need of a loan is the farmer who has no income. We may further presume that the person who is giving the loan does not subsist from agriculture. This “industrialist” has not been hurt financially by the sabbatical year; quite the opposite, he or she has been the beneficiary of free produce throughout the year. As the seventh year wears on and thecity-dweller’s savings add up, the farmer’s savings dwindle. The mitzvah to which we are introduced in Parashat Re’eh helps even out these inequities, leveling the playing field and restoring balance to the financial ecosystem of the Land of Israel. This is a primary form of Jewish social justice: By canceling these loans at the end of the sabbatical year, the burden – and privilege - of shemittah observance is shared equally by all members of society.
We should not overlookthe more subtle message of the commandment of shemitat kesafim, the monetary sabbatical: Just as the Land of Israel and all its produce are holy, and belong, ultimately, to God, so, too, does all wealth. Whether a household subsists on farming or trading, on agriculture or industry, all prosperity comes from God’s hand. Both the commandment to let the land lie fallow and the commandment to extend loans and cancel debts are divine imperatives; both are intended to remind us that all sustenance comes from God.

The underlying message of these laws was not lost on Hillel, one of the greatest sages of the Mishna. In order to preserve the spirit and intent of the sabbatical laws, Hillel enacted an often-misunderstood and therefore much-maligned decree known aspruzbul(Mishna Shvei’t 10:3). At a time in our history when the majority of Jews did not live in the Land of Israel, the sabbatical laws were observed only by force of rabbinic decree; they were not a Torah-mandated obligation (Rashi, Gittin 36a). This being so, the system of loan cancelation was at risk of collapse, and many people declined to extend loans to other Jews. Hillel created a system, based on an existing loophole in the sabbatical laws, which enabled individuals to assign loans to the court for collection; loans assigned to the court are not affected by the sabbatical laws (Mishna Shvei’t 10:2). In this way, lenders were allowed to bypass a rabbinic law (cancelation of loans at the end of the sabbatical year) in order to uphold the Torah obligation to help other Jews in need. In other words, the very same rabbis who instructed lenders to cancel debts also placed limits on the lenders’ “exposure” by relying on Hillel’s pruzbul.

It has become fashionable in our day and age to claim that “when there is a rabbinic will there is a halakhic way.” Cynics of this ilk enjoy nothing more than pointing to the enactment ofpruzbul as evidence that the rabbis can upend the Torah whenever they so choose. Rashi, and many others, would not agree: Hillel’s innovation applied a pre-existing principle of Torah law, and affected the enforcement of a rabbinic statute; it did not have anything at all to say about observance of a Torah-mandated law. In fact, Hillel’s innovative approach had precisely the opposite result: It allowed monies to be returned to their rightful owner, and was motivated by the desire to uphold the Torah law that requires us to extend loans in support of the less-fortunate members of the community.

The Torah’s sabbatical laws are a means of creating social balance: When the financial burden of the sabbatical year is shared by all sectors of the society, the different sectors of society are sensitized to and take responsibility for one another’s welfare. These laws –shemittah and shemitat kesafim – preserve the fabric of our society, and refocus us all on the true secret of our continued survival: The land belongs to God, and our presence and prosperity here is dependent upon God’s benevolence and our own decency.

The Levitical Model of supporting Torah

By HaRav Eliezer Melamed
Rosh HaYeshiva, Har Bracha

The Torah set a goal for Kohanim and Levi’im – to teach Torah, and educate the public * The ideal was for the firstborn to be sanctified, so each household would have a spiritual Torah member, but we have not yet reached that level * The Kohanim and the Levi’im established the model of the ‘garin Torani’: scattered throughout the country, but living in groups * The Israelites supported the Kohanim and Levi’im who studied Torah, and they in turn strove to teach the nation in a suitable manner * Israelites could also teach, supplementary to the stable foundation of the tribe of Levi * In our times, ma’aser kesafim for Torah scholars implements the goal of terumot and ma’asrot

The Continuation of Torah in Israel

Q: Why did the Torah grant special status to the Kohanim (priests) and Levi’im (Levites), and command us to give them terumot and ma’aser rishon (tithes)? Isn’t this discrimination towards the rest of the people?

A: These are not free gifts given to the Kohanim and Levi’im, but rather gifts that are meant to enable them to be Torah scholars and educators among the Jewish nation, as the Torah says: “They shall therefore teach your law to Jacob, and your Torah to Israel” (Deuteronomy 33:10). The Torah also says: “If you are unable to reach a decision in a case involving capital punishment, litigation, leprous marks, or any other case where there is a dispute in your territorial courts, then you must set out and go up to the place that God your Lord shall choose. You must approach the Levitical priests and other members of supreme court that exists at the time” (Deuteronomy 17:8-9).

Kohanim and Levi’im Not Engaged in Torah

Since the goal of terumot for the Kohanim and ma’aser to the Levi’im is to assist them in their spiritual role, it is a mitzvah to give these gifts to Kohanim and Levi’im ‘Talmidei Chachamim‘ (Torah scholars) who study and teach Torah. As King Hezekiah commanded: “Moreover, he commanded the people who dwelt in Jerusalem to give the portion of the priests and the Levites that they might adhere firmly to the Torah of the Lord” (Chronicles II, 8-9).

The poskim (Jewish law arbiters) disagreed as to what should be done in a place where there are no Kohanim or Levi’im engaged in Torah: some say that it is forbidden to give priestly gifts to a Kohen who is an ‘am ha’aretz’, i.e., someone uneducated in Torah; the opinion of most Rishonim is that it is indeed a mitzvah to give the priestly gifts to Kohanim and Levi’im who are Torah scholars, but if there aren’t any Torah scholars present, it is a mitzvah to give them to the uneducated Kohanim and Levi’im, and one is not obligated to go out of his way to give them to Kohanim and Levi’im who are ‘Talmidei Chachamim’ (Tosafot, Ramban, Rashba, Ran, Ritva, and Meiri, Tractate Chulin 130b, as well as being codified in the Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 61:7).

Nationwide Deployment

In order for the Kohanim and Levi’im to be spread throughout the Land of Israel and available for their spiritual task – studying and teaching Torah – the Torah determined that they would not be given an inheritance in the Land, rather, each tribe would allot them cities within their own inheritance. As the Torah says: “God spoke to Moses… give orders to the Israelites, and have them give the Levites residential cities from their hereditary holdings. Also provide the Levites suburbs around their cities. The cities shall be their residence, while the suburbs shall be for their animals, property, and other amenities… the total number of cities that you shall give the Levites shall be 48 cities…more from a larger holding, and fewer from a smaller one. Each tribe shall therefore give the Levites cities in proportion to the hereditary property that it has been given” (Numbers 35:1-8). In other words, the Kohanim and Levi’im received places to live, and even plots for their belongings, but they did not have enough land to grow their own food, but were nourished by the terumot and ma’asrot they received from B’nei Yisrael. As the Torah says: “The Levitical priests and the entire tribe of Levi shall not have a territorial portion with the rest of Israel, and they shall therefore eat God’s fire offerings and their hereditary gifts. Since God shall be their heritage, as He promised them, they shall not have any territorial heritage among their brethren” (Deuteronomy 18:1-2).

And this is exactly what B’nei Yisrael did in the days of Yehoshua, as it is stated: “And the children of Israel gave to the Levites out of their inheritance, at the commandment of the Lord, these cities and their pasture lands…” (Yehoshua 21:3). Over the generations, the leaders of Israel designated additional cities to the Kohanim and Levi’im as needed, for example, the cities of Nov and Anatot.

The Vision of the Firstborn: A Kohen in Every Family

Initially, all bechorim (first-borns) were meant to be Kohanim, so that each extended family would have a distinguished member – firstborns – whose task was to engage in Torah, teach, and serve in the Temple, and thus, the entire nation would be connected to the worship of God and spiritual matters. But after the firstborns participated in the Sin of the Golden Calf as well, they fell from their exalted level, and in their stead, the tribe of Levi who did not participate in the sin, were chosen and sanctified. One can learn from this that the idea of ​​the birthright of the firstborn is still too lofty for us, and therefore, instead of the firstborn Kohanim influencing the public at large, the secular life of general society would have an influence them, and annul their spiritual uniqueness. In order to create a group of Torah scholars and educators responsible for religious observance among the nation of Israel, they need to belong to a tribe that is entirely engaged in matters of holiness. This became apparent in the Sin of the Golden Calf when the firstborns participated in sin, whereas the Levi’im, members of Moshe Rabbeinu’s tribe, stood in the breach against the sinners.
The Model for ‘Garinim Torani’im’

It is possible to learn from the Levite cities scattered throughout the country, an example and precedence for the ‘garinim Torani’im’(Torah-based groups of idealistic, religious individuals and families, who settle in underdeveloped communities to help build up and strengthen the community through social and religious programming) which, on the one hand, should be scattered throughout the country, while on the other hand, needs to preserve themselves as a group, in order to strengthen each other in their sacred work, which at times can be difficult and fraught with trials and tribulations.

Parenthetically, an important piece of advice for the heads of the ‘garinim Torani’im’: in addition to educating towards Torah and mitzvot, they should set a goal for themselves to attract first-rate mathematics and English teachers to the schools under their influence, because these subjects are beneficial for acquiring respectable professions, and thus, their contribution and influence will be well-rounded, and will find pleasure in the eyes of both God, and man.

The Privilege to Choose a Kohen and Levi

Every Jew had the privilege to choose which Kohen and Levi he would give his gifts to. This privilege created a personal connection between the Israelites and the Kohanim and the Levi’im, and compelled the Kohanim to devote themselves to their sacred work among their communities, so that the members of the community would want to give them their gifts. Thus, a Kohen or Levy who went out of his way to teach Torah to children and adults, and the members of his community benefited from his good advice and resourcefulness, was given preference in receiving their gifts. On the other hand, a Kohen or Levy who alienated himself from the community – belittling those who worked for a living, claiming everyone should study in kollel, or refused to recite a “mi she’berach” (a public prayer or blessing for an individual or group, most often recited in synagogue when the Torah is being read) for young men enlisting in the army, or were lazy and did not teach Torah – they received similar treatment at the time of distribution of the gifts.

Nevertheless, there was no fear that the Kohanim or Levi’im that the public loved and respected for their wisdom and dedication would become overly wealthy while their friends would starve, because the gifts were food, and after the Kohanim and Levi’im received all their needs in abundance, there was no point in giving them more gifts that their family could not eat. In such a situation, it was preferable for the owner of the fruit to seek out other, more available Kohanim and Levi’im to create a spiritual and educational bond with those to whom they choose to give gifts. Thus, a continuous relationship was established between all Israelites and all the Kohanim and Levi’im, with the devoted Kohanim and Levi’im given preference in receiving all their needs abundantly, while those who were less affable, failing to make an effort to teach the students well, received fewer gifts. And in difficult years when the crops were scarce and there wasn’t enough gifts to sustain all the Kohanim and Levi’im, those who did not serve the members of their communities properly, suffered from scarcity.
Did Israelites also Teach?

In addition to the fact that the tribe of Levi was chosen to be responsible for Torah study and teaching in Israel, any Israelite also wishing to do so was of course entitled to devote his life to Torah – to study, and to teach (Rambam Shemittah and Yovel 13:13). Israelites wishing to do so had to curtail work in their fields and live modestly in order to have time to study Torah. Most probably, those choosing to do so possessed outstanding talent, diligence and virtue, and consequently, merited attaining higher levels of Torah knowledge, above and beyond the average member of the tribe of Levi, and as a result, many of them served as members of the courts and the Sanhedrin. Occasionally, their families would assist them with their livelihood, similar to the agreement between Zevulun and Issachar, and sometimes the public paid them unemployment benefits so they could dedicate their time to teaching or sitting in judgement. Nonetheless, the important role of the tribe of Levi remained, for they were given the overall responsibility for Torah observance in Israel, educating the young and older children, setting times for classes with adults, establishing peace between man and his fellow neighbor, and between husband and wife, providing emotional relief to the needy, and rehabilitating murderers and criminals. Beyond this solid foundation, the Israelites who devoted themselves to the Torah added an important element of magnifying and enhancing the Torah, in case law, in education, and in the enrichment of social life in all fields in which the members of the tribe of Levi were involved.

‘Ma’aser Kesafim’ – The Continuation of Tithes

In the distant past, more than 90% of the GNP was from agriculture and cattle, and as a result, terumot and ma’asrot from vegetation, first born animals, the zeroah, le’chaim, and keyvah (foreleg, cheeks, and maw of all non-sanctified, ritually slaughtered domestic animals), and reshit HaGez (the first shearing of the sheep’s wool) sustained Israel’s Torah scholars and educators. In the course of time, Israel’s livelihood expanded to industry and commerce, and other fields as well, and then, just as the Torah stipulated that Israelites give gifts in the sum of between 10% (ma’aser) to 20% (chomesh) to the Kohanim and Levi’im, our Sages determined the setting aside of ‘ma’aser kesafim’ (giving one-tenth of one’s wealth to tzedakah) as a medium measure, and ‘chomesh’ from one’s wealth as a good measure.

The Purpose of ‘Ma’aser Kesafim’

The main purpose of ‘ma’aser kesafim’ is to support Torah scholars and educators. In other words, the halakha is that in normal circumstances most of one’s ma’aser should be directed to supporting Torah scholars who study in order to teach and guide the people in the ways of Torah and mitzvot, morality, and derech eretz (common decency). However, in times when many poor people are in need of bread and clothing, the majority of one’s ma’aser kesafim should be allocated for the needs of the poor, and in such a situation, it then serves as a substitute for the mitzvot of ‘leket, shikhhah, and pe’ah’ (gleanings, forgotten produce, and the corners of the field), ma’aser ani (the pauper’s tithe), and tzedaka (charity).

It can be said that ideally, ma’aser is given as a preventive medicine. By way of the teachings and guidance of the Torah, the value of work and proper economic planning becomes common practice – young adults learn a viable profession, people work diligently and resourcefully, and as a result, blessing increases, there are less poor people, and thus, funds from tzedaka above and beyond ma’aser kesafim would be adequate for them. But when preventive medicine is ineffective, and Torah scholars fail to educate the public to work diligently and develop the economy properly, the majority of ma’aser must be devoted to the less fortunate themselves – namely, the poor, sick, and the rest of the needy.

Blessings and Curses Come from Within

By Rabbi Ben Tzion Spitz

Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude. -Thomas Jefferson

God prefaces many of His commandments with the line "when you enter the land," meaning, many of these commandments need to wait until we're in the Promised Land or are somehow dependent on the land itself. However, after one of these common introductions God goes on to give an unusually specific location and direction as to where the people of Israel should go and what they should do there.

He orders them to congregate at the Twin Mountains of Gerizim and Ebal next to the city of Shechem. There, in what turns out to be a massive natural amphitheater, the assembled nation of Israel is to proclaim the blessings that will be accorded to themselves and their descendants should they listen to God's commandments, as well as the curses that will befall them should they choose to ignore God's directives. What is physically unusual about the setting is that although the two mountains are almost identical in their shape, size, location and elevation, Mount Gerizim is verdant and alive; Mount Ebal is barren and desolate. Not surprisingly, the blessings were uttered upon Mount Gerizim, the curses on Mount Ebal. Rabbi Hirsch on Deuteronomy 11:29 elaborates:

"Both of them rise from the same soil, both are watered by the same precipitation - rain and dew. The same air passes over them both; the same pollen is blown over them both. Yet Ebal remains starkly barren, while Gerizim is covered with lush vegetation to its very top."

"Thus we see that blessings and curses are not dependent on external circumstances. Hence, whether we are blessed or cursed is not dependent on the superficial conditions that are imposed upon us, but on how we deal with them - on our attitude..."

Whether we are blessed or cursed is not dependent on any outside force. Our fate doesn't rely on good or bad luck. Happenstance should not determine our inner reality. The opposite is true. Our attitude, how we see the world, how we perceive things, how we react, how we internalize the reality around us, that will determine whether we are blessed or cursed. It is completely in our hands.

May we be grateful for the blessings in our lives and see it as such. 

Shabbat Shalom.

Personal Democracy and Ideological Dictatorship

By Moshe Feiglin

Can anybody explain to me the difference between the Likud’s two-state-solution and the Labor party’s?

Between Lapid’s proposal to divide the Land and Bennett’s?

Israeli politics no longer represents ideas - just people and political camps.

We are a personal-level democracy, but an ideological dictatorship. We are invited to vote for one of many people. But we can choose only one idea.

The Likud took it one step further. The party didn’t even bother to publicize its platform before the previous elections. Essentially, it was saying to its voters: “We don’t have policies, just political camps. Give us an open check for any policies we please.”

In an ideological dictatorship, when the voting slip has no meaning, it is only natural that citizens who wish to influence policy will become members of various parties and attempt to steer them from inside.

Many Israelis who seek a truly ideological party with a broad and detailed platform – a platform that includes both political Right and true liberalism and solid Jewish identity – will have a true party to vote for in the next elections: A party of ideas and not just people. For those Israelis, Zehut has restored the right of democratic elections. They no longer have to sneak into the large parties. They have their own party to vote for.

See how the Torah teaches us how to see

See, Moses tells the children of Israel. Behold, a blessing shall come upon you if you follow the ways of the Lord. For seeing truly is believing, as the Lord Himself knew well, having seen and having declared that it was good after He laboured for six days to create this world. But when the world started to unfold the Lord saw it was otherwise, and though He was disappointed with His Own Creation He did not shrink from seeing clearly what He had wrought. And angry though He was He yet relented on His anger and spared the world with Noah, and again with Abraham, and again with the children of Israel at Sinai and in the wilderness of Paran. For the Lord had learned long ago that the heart of man harbors evil from the get-go. Hence His infinite mercy, but also His refusal to let men off the hook, and of all men least of all the Jews. And so Moses warns the Israelites again and again in these instructions which he never tires of repeating, for he too knows they will repeat that which he warns them against.

When you come into the land, Moses reminds them again, you shall, to the extent that it is in your power, bring your offerings to the place where the Lord shall dwell to eat them therein. But as there is only one God so there is only one place where He may dwell in the land He is bequeathing to you. Make sure therefore to destroy all the places of idol worship and rid the land of the nations who sacrifice to them that you inquire not of their gods, for the Lord cannot abide them. There is not an abomination that they do not do on behalf of their gods, Moses stresses to his assembled Israelites, and to make it crystal clear to them he adds that one instance which says it all: for even their sons and daughters do they burn in the fire to their gods. To rid the land of these inhabitants therefore is to put an end to child sacrifice, as God enjoined Abraham back in the Book of Genesis.

For those who think God discriminates unfairly against the Canaanites, they have but to read on to see that the Lord is just as implacable to Israelites who would lead their countrymen astray. If anyone, however close a kinsman, shall entice you to go and serve other gods you shall not only ignore him, but put him to death, Moses tells them. And if an entire city of the Israelite confederacy shall have the effrontery to do likewise, you shall smite the inhabitants of that city with the sword and destroy it utterly, burning everything within it and leaving it a heap forever.

There are those who would say see, war and extermination is what the Bible preaches in the name of religion and the one true God. But those who would have us see thus are the ones who truly do not see. For they avert their eyes from the evil that runs rampant in the world, and especially the evil that is child sacrifice, whose practitioners cannot be cajoled into abandoning their evil ways. Only the fear of the Lord struck into their hearts can make them stop. And though one can strike that fear into one man’s heart atop Moriah, one cannot do so to an entire nation. For a nation follows the norms which its society teaches it to expect, which in this case means latching the evil in the hearts of men onto the evil it practises, incites and condones. Think of ISIS in our day, and think of the Palestinian Authority from whom ISIS learned its evil ways and whose leaders lay claim to a Canaanite ancestry. When you bring up young children to go and murder at random, as the Palestinian Authority does to its young and sets them loose on Israeli streets and markets, you do nothing less than organize your society around child sacrifice. Just as when ISIS marshals the young it captures and seduces into the murder of all it deems infidels, it does no less. With such societies there can be no truck. They can only be destroyed that the earth may be cleansed of their evil. For if we do not act thus, the Bible taught us long ago, we shall become contaminated in turn and the mercy which God has shown us shall vanish from the places where we live. Which means we shall forget in turn to show mercy to the people with whom we live in peace.

Already western democracies suffer from this blindness, though none suffers as much as the State of Israel itself. In the place where the Lord should dwell Israel has allowed the Palestinians to usurp its authority. The Al-Aksa Mosque has become a focal point for libel and murder by Palestinians of Israelis and by Muslims of Jews. Women and children are mobilized to harass Jews who dare go up to the place where the Lord should dwell and forbid them to pray. They spit, throw stones, even knife police who enforce this outrage. Cries of ‘the Al-Aksa Mosque is in danger’ become the excuse for riots. Verily, as Moses told his assembled Israelites thousands of years ago, if you do not uproot their places of idol worship and dispossess them of the land, you shall become dispossessed in turn. One is tempted to add: if the Israelites did not see then, how can they not see now when Jerusalem is burning before their very eyes and the Temple Mount lies desolate, a heap?

But people in democracies do not see because they cannot believe there are societies organized on the principle of child sacrifice. They think all societies are like theirs and all people are like them. They think all people basically want the same thing, good people wanting the good life. They forget that for most of human history people wanted no such thing and even today that statement is questionable as an adequate description of human motivation and conduct. They have but to read crime novels and psychoanalytic papers to see otherwise, since they no longer read the Hebrew Bible. But they could read the Hebrew Bible, as Jews are wont to do, and see the truths they do not want to see because they are not pretty. Though they are human, all too human, the stuff of humans created in God’s image.

Shabbat shalom!

You Shall Open Your Hand

By HaRav Mordechai Greenberg
Rosh HaYeshiva, Kerem B'Yavneh

In our parsha there are a number of mitzvot and prohibitions regarding the mitzvah of tzedaka:

Regarding the tithe of the poor it says: "Then the Levite can come ... and the proselyte, the orphan, and the widow ... so they may eat and be satisfied." (Devarim 14:29)

Regarding charity: "You shall not harden your heart or close your hand against your destitute brother. Rather, you shall open you hand to him." (Devarim 15:7-8)

Regarding shemitta: "Beware lest there be a lawless thought in your heart saying, 'The seventh year approaches, the remission year,' and you will look malevolently upon your destitute brother and refuse to give him ... and it will be a sin upon you." (Devarim 15:9)

To us it appears that the possessions that are in our hands are ours, and we are doing a favor to the poor person when we give him of our property. However, the Torah teaches us that all the money that is in a person's hands is only a means and a tool by which a person fulfills his role in this world, and any usage of property that we received from the Creator for a self-serving purpose is nothing but stealing.

On Yom Kippur we conclude the prayers with the request, "so that we should refrain from stealing." This is surprising; why is only the transgression of stealing mentioned at the end of the day? However, the intention is not to the prohibition against stealing from others, but rather to improper use of the property that G-d places in our hands for us to use as tools in His service. When we do not sustain the poor and use G-d's present only for our personal needs, we are stealing that property from G-d.

The rich person who is an egoist, who sees in money an independent goal, will never find fulfillment. Therefore, money is called "kesef," for the word "kisufim" (longing), since a person longs it and will not be satisfied with it. One who has a hundred wants two hundred, etc. (Kohelet Rabbah 1:34) Similarly, the Maharal explains that the word "zahav" (gold) is from the phrase "zeh hav" (Give this!), for he always seeks to receive, and he is always lacking. Therefore the destitute person is called an "evyon," because he always desires ("ta'ev") to get more and more. Therefore, the truly rich person is one who is happy with his share, and not necessarily one who has a lot, because one who has desires to receive more, and therefore he is poor.

The halacha is that the owner of a field is not allowed to cut the pe'ah and give it to the poor, but rather he must allow the poor to enter the field and cut the pe'ah himself. Rav Kook zt"l explains that this is to indicate that the owner of the field is not the true owner of the pe'ah, and therefore he may not act like an owner. Rather, the pe'ah is given to the poor person, and he is the owner of the field with regard to the pe'ah, and therefore he enters the field and reaps.

Parshat Re'eh is read on Shabbat Mevarchim Elul -- before the seventh month, the Sabbatical month, in which G-d releases the debt of Bnei Yisrael and atones for them -- because He acts towards us with kindness and mercy. We must act to each other with kindness, and then G-d will also act with us accordingly. "To You, G-d, is righteousness" -- when we give charity; but if we say, "The seventh year approaches," and we do not open our hand to the destitute -- also our debts toward G-d will not be released. G-d's relationship with a person is linked to the relationship between man and his friend, and therefore we find in the seforim two acronyms for the month of Elul:

"Ani Ledodi Vedodi Li." "I am My Beloved's and My Beloved is mine."
(Shir Hashirim 6:3)

"Ish Lere'eihu Umatanot La'evyonim." "[Sending delicacies] one to another, and gifts to the poor." (Esther 9:22)

Therefore, Chazal say that in these days of the month of Elul there is a need to increase in acts of chesed and charity, and this brings to the general redemption: "Zion will be redeemed though justice, and those who return to her through righteousness." (Yeshaya 1:27)

The Yishai Fleisher Show: Real Liberalism

First, Yishai speaks with author, law professor, and human rights activist, Thane Rosenbaum about the anti-Israelism that has infected liberalism. Then, freshman US congressman Brian Mast on how the loss of his legs in Afghanistan led him up to climb the steps of the Capital. Finally, Dr. Owen is a top oncologist on sabbatical in Israel and Noahide who follows a life of Torah.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Sins of Coercion

Does the Talmudic category of “ones rachmana patrei,” that “the Merciful One exempts [from punishment one who sins because of] coercion” apply to sins that are not forced on us by our enemies or by circumstances beyond our control? This issue has again risen to the fore by the assertion of a well known American-Israeli rabbi that this concept can be applied to deal sensitively with the plight of practicing homosexuals and has been the source of controversy here in Israel. To be clear, my focus here is not on the quandary of the homosexual, a situation that in our world causes great hardship to individuals and families, demands our sympathy and understanding and has been discussed at length. It is rather on the plight of the rabbinate.

What was suggested is not a new idea and was first proposed decades ago. It was posited, according to a straightforward reading of the statement, that the Torah’s prohibition of homosexual contact applies only to a heterosexual who chooses to engage in same-sex behavior, not the committed homosexual whose only desires are in that arena. As he is, purportedly, wired that way, he cannot be held responsible for his actions and, indeed, G-d would not want to deprive him (or her) of the capacity to find love in this world.

Yet, upon scrutiny, the application of “ones rachmana patrei” to this situation is flawed, misplaced and incorrect, and will inevitably lead to a deterioration in observance of any Jews who are influenced by it. There is the considerable likelihood that such contentions will lead Jews astray in every area of life in which they feel they lack self-control on the one hand or seek passionately on the other. It can and will undermine the very notion of commandment, sin, and repentance. In essence, this methodology of “ones rachmana patrei” can be equally misapplied to Shabbat desecration, theft, violence, adultery, gossip, tax fraud, and any other sin, major or minor. Several points deserve analysis.

Firstly, “ones rachmana patrei” is generally applied when one is forced to sin because of some external coercive element rather than a lack of internal control. The motivating factor is always some outside force and not simply an innate desire that cannot be constrained. For example, the anusim (from the same root; Conversos in the vernacular) were forced to convert and engage in Christian practices because of the murderous hostility of 15th century Christian Spain. The proof text for “ones rachmana patrei” is the case of the naarah ha’me’urasa, the betrothed maiden who is violated in the field against her will. “And to the maiden you shall do nothing; she is not guilty of a capital crime” (Devarim 22:26). As the Talmud (Masechet Bava Kama 28b) explains, she is guiltless, compelled to sin because of the brutish acts of her assailant.

Secondly, the classic cases of “ones rachmana patrei” are noted by Rambam (Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah, Chapter 5) under the laws of martyrdom. One who is compelled by hostile enemies on pain of death to commit one of the three cardinal sins – idolatry, sexual immorality, or homicide – is obligated to forfeit his life and not sin, as those three sins are particularly corrosive to the soul. One can save one’s life and violate all other sins except in a time of religious persecution. Yet, if the person instead saves his own life by committing one of the three cardinal sins, “he has failed to sanctify G-d’s name, but because he was coerced, he is not punished” (Rambam, ibid 5:4). Again, “ones rachmana patrei” requires the coercion of an outside party.

Thirdly, it must be underscored that “ones rachmana patrei” only means that there is no criminal punishment of the offender. It does not at all render the act in question permissible in the first instance. So even if it were true that the committed homosexual is an “anoos,” and thereby not liable to judicial punishment, that would not justify the commission of the acts in any event. They remain prohibited, even if there is no longer criminal liability. An article in the recent Tzohar journal (Volume 41, pages 81-101) reiterated the prohibition against people with same-sex attractions even secludingthemselves together; the authors never entertained permitting sinful actions based on “ones rachmana patrei.”

Nevertheless, “ones rachmana patrei” is applicable in many familiar areas to us. We are not liable today for not bringing the Korban Pesach, or one in captivity has not violated the Torah by not eating in the Succa on the 15th night of Tishrei, because circumstances have made it impossible to fulfill those mitzvot. Sadly, a person without arms cannot fulfill the mitzvah of wearing tefillin shel yad like a blind person cannot recite Kiddush Levana. One who will die unless he consumes non-kosher food must eat non-kosher food. All are exempt by G-d from fulfilling these commandments because of the situation forced upon them. A license to sin because of tendencies that cannot be controlled is far removed from this concept.

Indeed, a person is only considered an “anoos” after he has made every possible effort to fulfill a mitzvah or avoid its violation – every possible effort. And even then, if he cannot fulfill the commandment, he has to be overcome with regret and sorrow, much like Moshe was when told he could not enter the land of Israel even though he desired to perform the commandments tied to the land. But wasn’t he prevented by G-d and therefore not obligated in those mitzvot? Yes, and so the Alter of Kelm noted that we learn from Moshe that even an “anoos” has to be distressed about his failure to follow G-d’s will (see Rav Menashe Klein’s Mishneh Halachot 17:189, at the end). Again, this was an inability to fulfill positive commandments; a permanent license to engage in a capital prohibition was never contemplated in the absence of any external coercive element.

There are grounds that support the notion that someone who is mentally ill and cannot control himself is not liable for his actions – because “ones rachmana patrei.” It is analogous to the insanity defense familiar in secular law. But there is no indication that the concept of “ones rachmana patrei” is being employed here in this sense, and, as we know, such an assertion in this context would be the epitome of political incorrectness.

Bringing comfort to troubled souls is one of the essential tasks of the rabbinate but to do so by distorting or fudging the Torah’s prohibitions is self-defeating and ultimately destructive. The Talmud (Masechet Sanhedrin 75a) tells the distressing tale of a man who developed an obsession with a particular woman, such that the doctors said he would die if he did not sin with her. The Sages brusquely prohibited even a private conversation between the two, much less anything more risqué. They did not seek to rationalize his desires because of “ones rachmana patrei.”

To my thinking, a homosexual who cannot alter his behavior but remains chaste because of his religious commitment and faith is absolutely heroic, a role model for all. Perhaps today we lack such role models but at one time we had them. Yosef withstood the blandishments of Potifar’s wife notwithstanding all the good reasons (even some with religious overtones) that rang in his ears, and even though he wound up incarcerated for more than a decade as a result of his demurral. That is strength of character. Yosef is the exemplar of the Jew who is caught in the throes of sensual passion and does not succumb (Masechet Yoma 35b). Boaz refrained from committing any lascivious acts with Ruth, even though it could have been rationalized on some level. And both personalities pale before the superhuman willpower of Palti who did not touch his own wife because of his fear that she was still technically married to David. (I have simplified somewhat; see Masechet Sanhedrin 19b for the details.) Those who can harness the energy of an unquenchable passion and remain faithful to G-d are awe-inspiring. “Let those who love Him be like the powerfully rising sun” (Shoftim 5:31).

Rabbis should be encouraging fidelity to Torah. Rabbis should be teaching Jews about the virtues of self-control and moderation as the keys to faith and happiness. We need not pander to the young generation as if it is hopelessly degenerate and dissolute, as if they can never truly surrender to G-d’s will. Such is the death of Torah and the irrelevance of the rabbinate. Such is the evisceration of the function of Judaism throughout our history. A Jew is called upon to sacrifice; no one was poorer than Hillel (Masechet Yoma 35b) and yet he continued his Torah study in poverty. We would not say “ones rachmana patrei” for Jews who felt compelled to work on Shabbat a century ago (and some even today); commitment to Torah requires sacrifice and that sacrifice is asked of all of us in different ways.

It is disingenuous to claim that Halacha is pluralistic, in the modern sense that there is no one truth. The Talmud characterizes the disputes between the schools of Shamai and Hillel as “Eilu v’eilu divrei Elokim chaim,” “these and those are the words of the living G-d,” but then concludes that a heavenly echo decreed “the law is according to the house of Hillel.” Yes, there was finality, as there is overwhelming decisiveness and consensus in halacha; it is not an intellectual or spiritual free-for-all. “Anything” does not go. The disputes are always along the margins, in the details of some of the laws and customs. The consensus that dominates halachic practice in the laws of Shabbat, Kashrut, Taharat Hamishpacha, Tefila, and other areas is what unites the Torah world. The differences are mostly nuances that have endured for centuries and does at all impinge on our capacity to pray, eat, learn and live together. We can debate how long to wait between meat and milk but not whether a cheeseburger is kosher.

There is a real danger that people will construe themselves as “coerced” by their internal natures – and molest, steal, murder, cheat, gossip and breach all the norms of Torah because, after all, that was the nature with which they were born and, according to modern notions, they are not expected to control and refine. We all are subject to sin, and we all must exercise discretion in not seeking to pry into people’s private lives and judging them accordingly. But it is far better to sin out of lust (and sincerely repent and then stop) than to sin intellectually by writing out of the Torah one or more of its prohibitions. The former is a human being beset by frailties, like all of us; the latter is a heretic.

Similarly, what a rabbi might advise an individual in private is not necessarily appropriate for an entire group or for readers of a newspaper. In fact, sensitivity to the individual is much more important than sensitivity to a group, notwithstanding the modern obsession with “group identity.” It is the individual who deserves our attention, respect, sympathy, not the group with which he identifies or who claims her as an adherent. But our sensitivities and sensibilities should never be projected onto G-d and can never replace the Torah. All we know of G-d’s will is what He told us, and that is what makes the Jewish people special, unique and worthy of His protective hand. We modify, reform or modernize His word and His morality at our peril.

I am saddened by the reality of people suffering with the allure of sin and illicit desire as I am by the implications of a distortion of Torah law. Jews in this situation deserve our sympathy and our help, but also our honesty. And if rabbis do not preach G-d’s values, and do not speak the language of right and wrong, permissible and forbidden, then who will?

The Anti-Semitic Jewish Media

By Bruce Bawer

  • Almost everyone in a position to do something is a coward. Politicians continue to recite the mantra that "Muslims are today's Jews," even though in Europe today Muslims are far more often the tormentors than the tormented, and Jews lead the list of victims of public abuse.
  • Needless to say, the immigrants Trump wants to keep out of the U.S. are precisely the type who, in Europe, are currently Jew-bashing people like Stephen Miller -- and Rob Eshman. But Eshman doesn't want to think about this ticklish fact, which challenges his own simplistic, self-righteous pontifications.
  • Linda Sarsour is the very personification of stealth Islamization and an obvious anti-Semite. But as Davidson himself noted, she's acquired plenty of Jewish allies and defenders, "including Jeremy Ben-Ami, Mark Hetfield, Rabbi Jill Jacobs and Brad Lander."
Stephen Miller, Senior Advisor to the President for Policy, talks to reporters about President Donald Trump's support for creating a "merit-based immigration system", August 2, 2017. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
For years now, Jews across western Europe have been the targets of harassment by Muslims. Police officers stand guard outside of synagogues. Recently, when I stayed in the Jewish Quarter in Rome, I couldn't help notice the presence of multiple police kiosks, each manned by an armed cop. Many Jews in European cities have long since ceased wearing yarmulkes or Stars of David. Jewish kids are instructed by their parents to avoid identifying themselves as Jews at school lest they be beaten up by their little Muslim friends.

Just Get Out of the Way

By Moshe Feiglin

“The Finance and Health Ministries will examine how it is possible to export medical cannabis from Israel,” Israeli headlines recently reported.

This is a very important news item that testifies to a ray of light, logic and hope breaking through government impenetrability.

Israel is home to groundbreaking cannabis research and development. Unique strains of medical cannabis are being developed here all the time for direct treatment of various symptoms.

The entire world is watching and waiting for Israeli cannabis developments. An entire agricultural hi-tech industry could have been established here a long time ago. Besides providing cures for the ill throughout the world, this industry would have catapulted Israeli agriculture into an entirely new era, created tens of thousands of jobs and about 4 billion shekels annually in earnings for Israel’s economy – just for starters.

But all that we are seeing now is a few rays of light streaming through the cracks in governmental impenetrability.

There is no reason to “examine how it is possible to export medical cannabis.” We simply must stop preventing it from happening.

If we adopt the “just don’t get in the way” approach, it will rapidly become clear that 65% of Israel’s government ministries are completely expendable.

Zehut’s platform shows how the government apparatus can be reduced from 30 ministries to 11.

The government has two main jobs:
One: Security and Justice
Two: Don’t get in the way

Rav Kook on Parashat Re'eih: Searching for the Temple Site

Surprisingly, the Torah never spells out exactly where the Temple is to be built. Rather we are instructed to build the Beit HaMikdash “in the place that God will choose”:

“Only to the place that the Eternal your God will choose from all your tribes to set His Name — there you shall seek His dwelling place, and go there.” (Deut. 12:5)

Where is this place “that God will choose”? What does it mean that we should “seek out His dwelling place”?

The Hidden Location

The Sages explained that the Torah is commanding us, under the guidance of a prophet, to discover where the Beit HaMikdash should be built. King David undertook the search for this holy site with the help of the prophet Samuel.

Why didn’t the Torah explicitly state the location where to build the Temple? Moses certainly knew that the Akeidah took place on Mount Moriah in Jerusalem, and he knew that Abraham had prophesied that this would be the site of the Beit HaMikdash.1

Maimonides (Guide to the Perplexed III: 45) suggested that Moses wisely chose not to mention Jerusalem explicitly. Had he done so, the non-Jewish nations would have realized Jerusalem’s paramount importance to the Jewish people and would have fought fiercely to prevent it from falling into Israel’s hands.

Even worse, knowledge of Jerusalem’s significance could have led to infighting among the tribes. Each tribe would want the Beit HaMikdash to be located in its territory. The result could have been an ugly conflict, similar to Korach’s rebellion against Aaron’s appointment to the position of High Priest. Maimonides reasoned that this is why the Torah commands that a king be appointed before building the Beit HaMikdash. This way the Temple’s location would be determined by a strong central government, thus avoiding inter-tribal conflict and rivalry.

"Between His Shoulders"

In any case, David did not know where the Beit HaMikdash was to be built. According to the Talmud (Zevachim 54b), his initial choice fell on Ein Eitam, a spring located to the south of Jerusalem. Ein Eitam appeared to be an obvious choice since it is the highest point in the entire region. This corresponds to the Torah’s description that:

“You shall rise and ascend to the place that the Eternal your God will choose” (Deut.17:8).

However, David subsequently considered a second verse that alludes to the Temple’s location. At the end of his life, Moses described the place of God’s Divine Presence as “dwelling between his shoulders” (Deut. 33:12). What does this mean?

This allegory suggests that the Temple’s location was not meant to be at the highest point, but a little below it, just as the shoulders are below the head. Accordingly, David decided that Jerusalem, located at a lower altitude than Ein Eitam, was the site where the Beit HaMikdash was meant to be built.

Doeg, head of the High Court, disagreed with David. He supported the original choice of Ein Eitam as the place to build the Temple. The Sages noted that Doeg’s jealousy of David was due to the latter’s success in discovering the Temple’s true location.

The story of David’s search for the site of the Beit HaMikdash is alluded to in one of David’s “Songs of Ascent.” Psalm 132 opens with a plea: “Remember David for all his trouble” (Ps. 132:1). What was this trying labor that David felt was a special merit, a significant life achievement for which he wanted to be remembered?

The psalm continues by recounting David’s relentless efforts to locate the place of the Temple. David vowed:

“I will not enter the tent of my house, nor will I go up to the bed that was spread for me. I will not give sleep to my eyes, nor rest to my eyelids — until I find God’s place, the dwellings of the Mighty One of Jacob.” (Ps. 132: 3-5)

David and Doeg

What was the crux of the dispute between David and Doeg? Doeg reasoned that the most suitable site for the Temple is the highest point in Jerusalem, reflecting his belief that the spiritual greatness of the Temple should only be accessible to the select few, those who are able to truly grasp the purest levels of enlightenment — the kohanim and the spiritual elite.

David, on the other hand, understood that the Temple and its holiness need to be the inheritance of the entire people of Israel. The kohanim are not privy to special knowledge; they are merely agents who influence and uplift the people with the Temple’s holiness. The entire nation of Israel is described as a “kingdom of priests” (Ex. 19:6).

The Waters of Ein Eitam

Even though Ein Eitam was never sanctified, it still retained a special connection to the BeitHaMikdash, as its springs supplied water for the Beit HaMikdash. The Talmud relates that on Yom Kippur, the High Priest would immerse himself in a mikveh on the roof of the Beit HaParvah chamber in the Temple complex. In order for the water to reach this roof, which was 23 cubits higher than the ground floor of the Temple courtyard, water was diverted from the Ein Eitam springs, which were also located at this altitude.

Rav Kook explained that there exists a special connection between Ein Eitam and the High Priest’s purification on Yom Kippur. While the Beit HaMikdash itself needs to be accessible to all, the purification of the High Priest must emanate from the highest possible source. Yom Kippur’s unique purity and power of atonement originate in the loftiest realms, corresponding to the elevated springs of Ein Eitam.

(Sapphire from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Shemu'ot HaRe’iyah (Beha’alotecha), quoted in Peninei HaRe’iyah, pp. 273-274,350-351. Shemonah Kevatzim I:745)

1 After the Akeidah, it says:

“Abraham named that place, ‘God will see'; as it is said to this day: ‘On the mountain, God will be seen'” (Gen. 22:14).

Rashi explains: “God will choose and see for Himself this place, to cause His Divine Presence to dwell there and for sacrifices to be offered here”