The seventy year reprieve from anti-Semitism that the nations of the world have given our people, perhaps out of pity and sympathy in the aftermath of the Holocaust, seems to be coming to an end. Our default status in the world – scapegoat, and object of blame, hatred, anti-Semitism, and de-legitimization – is being restored as Israel is no longer the underdog and victim in the world’s eyes, but rather somehow has become the aggressor and the perpetrator.
Mi’shenichnas Adar, marbim b’simcha, we sing with great enthusiasm. When the month of Adar begins, we increase, expand, and intensify our sense of joy. But how can we be happy right now when we reflect on the Jewish condition in the world? What does Adar contain that would allow us to overlook and disregard the threats that Israel confronts, the isolation it experiences, and the challenges our people face?
When Haman approached Achashveirosh with his diabolical, genocidal plan to exterminate the Jews he said, “yeshno am echad mefuzar u’mefurad bein ha’amim…there is a nation scattered abroad and dispersed among the nations.” Rav Dovid Miller, Rosh Kollel of YU’s Gruss Kollel in Israel, pointed out the Gemara in Megillah 13b, which expands on their conversation, is very instructive for us today.
When Haman targeted the Jews for annihilation, the Gemara records, he said to Achashveirosh, “Let’s destroy the Jews.” Achashveirosh replied, “Not so fast. I am afraid of their God, lest He do to me what He did to my predecessors.” Haman relieved the King of that fear when he said, “yeshno am echad,” which translates literally as there is a certain nation. The Gemara quotes Rava, who explains that Haman was telling the King something much more strategic and insightful. Not yeshno am echad, there is a certain nation, but rather yoshnu am echad, there is a sleeping nation. “They have been negligent of mitzvos, they are divided, fighting with one another and divisive. They are asleep as to what is important and what threatens them,” said Haman.
We were vulnerable and literally on the brink of elimination and extinction as a people because we were asleep. Our eyes were closed to what was happening around us. We didn’t take the threats seriously, and we didn’t stand up for our right to simply exist. Haman, like so many of our shrewd enemies throughout Jewish history, understood that going about business as usual, living with our eyes closed and sleepwalking through life exposes us and makes us particularly vulnerable and susceptible to attack.
Haman recognized and took advantage of yoshno am echad, there is a nation that is sleeping. All he had to do was continue to lull the Jewish people into a false sense of security, to breed complacency and apathy and at that moment he could accomplish his goal of ridding the world of our people. So how did we survive? What spoiled his plan? Why did we ultimately triumph over Haman such that we are here today and he is a distant memory? The answer is simple: Mordechai and Esther, two heroes stood up and, like an alarm, rang and rang until they woke up our people from their practically comatose sleep.
Mordechai understood that the antidote to yoshno am echad, there is a nation that is sleeping, is lech knos kol ha’yehudim, go and wake them up. He understood that the response to heim am mefuzar u’mefurad bein ha’amim, they are weak because they are scattered, is to bring them together in fasting and praying. That wakeup call saved our people and ignited a response that provided not only the spark that led to military victory, but attracted people of Shushan to want to join the Jewish people.
Yoshno am echad. Too many of us have been lulled asleep and into a false sense of security and are therefore vulnerable at this time. Our enemies are no less evil than Haman, their plans no less nefarious, and their goals no less threatening to our very existence. And yet, for so many, it is business as usual, apathetic and indifferent to the threats we face.
The story of Purim is unfolding again right before our very eyes. Last week, Iran marked the 36th anniversary of its 1979 Islamic Revolution with rallies and gatherings in which participants chanted “Death to Israel.” Iran is modern day Persia and its leaders are modern day Hamans sharing the same explicitly stated goal of wiping out our people. If they are successful, they can accomplish in minutes what it took the gas chambers years, to kill 6 million Jews and with it the Jewish homeland. We must not allow that to happen.
Like Mordechai and Esther before him, on the eve of Ta’anis Esther this year, the Prime Minister of Israel will speak before a joint a session of Congress and seek to sound the alarm, to awaken from their sleep the decision-makers who can stop the wicked plans of modern day Persia. You don’t have to agree with the decision to invite Prime Minister Netanyahu, and you don’t have to agree with his decision to have accepted.
But now that he is scheduled to speak, as Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel said, “On the day before Purim the Prime Minister of Israel will address Congress…I intend to be there. Should we not show our support for what might be the last clear warning before a terrible deal is struck?” Democratic Senator Charles Schumer called on his fellow Senators, Republican and Democrat alike, to attend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech in Congress, saying the Israel-US relationship should “transcend” any political differences.
Earlier this week, I had the privilege of attending a private event with Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, leading sponsor together with Senator Robert Menendez, of the new Iran sanctions legislation. Senator Kirk spoke bluntly and directly of the threat that Iran poses not only to Israel, but also to the United States and the entire free world. He turned to those gathered and after invoking the story of Purim challenged us, will you rise to your Esther moment? Will you do all you can to make sure Iran’s nuclear ambitions are stopped? When he graciously took questions and called on me, he joked, “Rabbi, are you going to correct my quote from Esther?” “Quite the contrary,” I responded, “I want to expand on your parallel and share an incredible insight of Rabbi Soloveitchik with you.”
We all study and celebrate the story of Purim as commemoration of a miracle, the triumph of the Jewish people over evil tyrants. Do you know what the real miracle was, explained the Rav? A madman rose and articulated his intentions to destroy the Jewish people. The miracle was that we didn’t ignore him, we didn’t excuse him, and we didn’t seek to reinterpret him. The miracle was that we actually believed him and sought to do something about it.
I thanked Senator Kirk for being our miracle and taking the bold steps to protect Israel from an existential threat, but Senator Kirk told us that the work is not nearly complete. He challenged us that if we care about Israel and if we care about America’s national security, we must take the time to contact Senators across the country and ask them to commit to both attending Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address and voting in favor of the sanctions bill. He told us to take out a pen and paper, write down the number for the Senate switchboard (202) 224-3121 and make calls every day.
With the Iran negotiations deadline looming and the new Iran sanctions bill in Congress, now is the time to wake up, now is the time for lech k’nos kol ha’yehudim, to come together in prayer, and in fasting, in letter writing, phone calls, advocacy, lobbying and any way that we can raise our voice on behalf of our people.
Perhaps the joy of Adar is the happiness of waking up, of rising from our sleep and recognizing what we confront and stepping up to make a difference. Rav Miller suggested that simcha is being alive, responsive and alert, ready to face whatever challenges may come and to be confident that we will be triumphant as we ultimately have been throughout our illustrious history. Mi’shenichnas adar, marbim b’simcha. When Adar begins, we remember enemies past like Amalek and Haman and we focus acutely on our present enemies and stopping them. When we wake up and confront them, marbim b’simcha, that in itself is a source of joy.
On Sunday, June 7, 1981, on the eve of Shavuos and under the order of then Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Israel unilaterally attacked the Iraqi nuclear reactor in Osirak and carried out a perfect mission that afterwards, even the U.S. military could not believe was possible. In his incredible book “The Prime Ministers,” Ambassador Yehuda Avner recalls that moments after they received the phone call saying the mission was a complete success and the boys are on their way home, Begin dictated a communique to President Reagan that he concluded: “Let the world know that under no circumstances will Israel ever allow an enemy to develop weapons of mass destruction against our people. If ever such a threat reoccurs, we shall take whatever preemptive measures are necessary to defend the citizens of Israel with all the means at our disposal.”
On the eve of Ta’anis Esther, the Prime Minister of Israel will seek to ring the alarm and wake up many of our elected leaders from their sleep. Let us do our part by taking the few moments to contact them and encourage them to attend. Let us pray that they have the fortitude, tenacity and resolve to do all that is necessary to protect not only Israel, but the interests of the entire free world.
In his book first published in 1989, “Doesn’t Anyone Blush Anymore,” Rabbi Manis Friedman bemoans the loss of modesty and decency in society, and describes it as the greatest obstacle to achieving authentic love and intimacy. If twenty-six years ago people failed to blush when exposed to indecency, perhaps today one could best describe our society as one that fails to even notice or identify indecency.
This week, the highly provocative and grossly immodest movie “Fifty Shades of Grey,” based on what has become an iconic, best-selling, sensual book series, will be released. The books were deemed so lewd and vulgar that in 2013 a Brazilian judge ruled that they either had to be removed from bookstores altogether or wrapped and placed out of the reach of minors. Before bowing to pressure, the public libraries in Brevard County, Florida, banned the books because of their highly controversial content that has been described by many as a form of pornography.
What is completely shocking and frankly, terribly disturbing, is not only how many sophisticated, successful, mainstream members of society have read the books and eagerly anticipate seeing the movie, but how open they are about it and how utterly unembarrassed they are to admit it and discuss it in public. Once upon a time, there was shame and indignity associated with satisfying a base, animal impulse to read or view indecent material. If one viewed or read such things they did so in private, denied it in public, and did all they could not to be caught with it.
It is frightening and disconcerting how today, instead of the person who unabashedly boasts of reading or watching such things being the outcast, it is the individual who considers reading or watching Fifty Shades or other material like it licentious behavior that is unbecoming and unfitting a decent, moral, and modest person who is dismissed as a prude, a puritan and a killjoy.
Sadly but unsurprisingly, a casual and accepting attitude towards material that was once deemed lascivious and inappropriate is not only true in secular society, but is becoming increasingly present in the Torah-observant community as well. Unconscionably, a Jewish women’s organization is showing the film as a fundraiser. A Purim business is promoting “Fifty Shades of Grey-themed Mishloach Manos.” In 2014, the most popularly borrowed books in the heavily Orthodox community of Williamsburg, Brooklyn Public Library was the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy.
Just because society has lost its way regarding modesty and appropriateness doesn’t mean we need to imitate them or dumb down our own sense of dignity and ambition for a life of sanctity. Having healthy boundaries of decency is not an issue of prudishness, or religious fanaticism, or narrow-mindedness. Unlike other religions, Judaism sees pleasure, even sensuality, in the appropriate context as a mitzvah, a noble and spiritual act. But appropriate context is the crucial and key element of achieving true intimacy, of promoting love rather than lust. Guarding our eyes is critical for the health and well-being of our relationships and for preserving the capacity to experience intimacy. The more dulled our radar for indecency and the more casual we are with immodesty, the more we struggle to experience functional, fulfilling, and satisfying relationships.
Being overexposed to images and ideas that are unrealistic and entirely divorced from reality can’t help but hurt the expectations in our relationships and from our spouses. Viewing indecency may satisfy the momentary urge of the body, the animal impulse in all of us, but it poisons the soul, our Godly spirit, and becomes an obstacle to experiencing the eternal pleasure that comes not from hedonism or decadence, but rather from self control, discipline, and a life of dignity and self-respect.
Shemiras ha’einayim, guarding our eyes and protecting ourselves from vulgarity, has always been a challenge, but it has never been nearly as difficult as it is today. It is not just the ease of access to graphic material due to the explosion of electronic devices and the proliferation of the Internet, but it is the larger issue that we live in a society that has utterly erased the taboo and stigma once associated with possessing and viewing it. When and how did it become acceptable in the world at large, and in the Jewish community in particular, to admit openly and discuss publicly that you read erotic books, watch salacious movies, and are avid followers of shows that contain graphic and explicit nudity?
We are all human, we all have moments of weakness, and have personal indiscretions and areas to work on. But what happened to being embarrassed or ashamed of doing things that are beneath us? What happened to keeping it private, personal, and to ourselves? Perhaps one could argue that certain literature shared between a couple could stimulate greater intimacy in their relationship and can be used constructively. However, our moral compass in this area has become so mis-calibrated that social media is full of devotedly observant men and women unabashedly linking to articles, referencing books, and reviewing movies that they should be humiliated for anyone to know they saw or plan to see.
There is a rare genetic disorder called congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis (CIPA) in which those diagnosed with it, simply cannot and do not feel any pain at all. While an inability to feel pain might sound attractive, consider that many people with the disorder suffer terribly because they have no alert system that something is wrong. Some pass away from undetected appendicitis, others have bone infections or internal bleeding and never know anything is wrong before it is too late. Children need to be watched with extreme caution, because they can burn themselves and not be aware of it. While we go to extremes and great expenses to avoid pain and to relieve it, the capacity to feel pain is an essential component of securing our safety and well-being.
Just as pain, while unwelcome and unappreciated, is a necessary component of protecting the body, so too shame and the capacity to blush are necessary components of protecting the spirit and the soul. Shame is the pain of the neshama, alerting us to something being wrong, a line being crossed, a boundary being violated. The lives of people with CIPA are in danger because their pain sensors are broken and they don’t know if something is wrong or threatening their well-being. Our lives are in danger if our spiritual pain sensors are malfunctioning and failing to alert us to something morally wrong, behavior that is indecent that threatens our spiritual well-being.
Seichel hu ha’busha v’habusha hu ha’seichel. Discernment and embarrassment go hand in hand. A discerning individual feels a natural sense of discomfort and disgrace when a boundary of appropriateness has been violated. In her book, “A Return to Modesty,” Wendy Shalit writes, “Embarrassment is actually a wonderful thing, signaling that something very strange or very significant is going on, that some boundary is being threatened – either by you or by others. Without embarrassment,” she writes, “Kids are weaker, more vulnerable to pregnancy, disease, and heartbreak.”
When mainstream members of society proudly boast of having read the Fifty Shades trilogy and the essentially pornographic film version is being shown in theaters across the country, we cannot help but realize that we are to a large degree living in a shameless society. It cannot be a coincidence that the more shameless society has become, the more it has struggled to create functional, healthy, long-lasting marriages of fidelity and fulfillment.
As Torah-observant Jews, a people of decency, modesty and aspiration for purity, we must work overtime to preserve our sense of appropriateness and to retain our capacity for shame. If we post to Facebook with a link we should be embarrassed to have seen privately, let alone to share publicly, we are acting shamelessly. If we forward emails that contain inappropriate images, a racy joke, or language that we should not use or be associated with, we are acting shamelessly.
While the rest of the world moves towards shamelessness, we must remember we, the Jewish people, are to distinguish ourselves specifically through the quality of shame and the capacity to feel shocked. The Talmud in Yevamos 79a states: “Ha’banim ha’kesheirim ha’busha nir’ah al pneiheim ki mi she’hu byshan hu siman she’hu mizerah Avraham, Yitzchak v’Ya’akov.” We the Jewish people can be identified by our natural inclination towards blushing when something is prust: inappropriate or improper. A byshan is not a prude. He or she is one who has maintained a pristine quality, a natural alert system of when a boundary has been crossed and when a border has been violated.
The culture today is to share the intimate details of your life with friends over coffee or with coworkers at the watercooler or in real time over Facebook. What happened to modesty, to privacy, and to a sense of shame that some things are not meant to be shared with the world? If we become numb and oblivious to the distortion of decency, if we lose our busha, than we lose our seichel, our ability to discern between right and wrong, correct and incorrect, between appropriate and inappropriate.
Let’s recalibrate our moral compasses. Let’s repair and renew the feeling in our spiritual nerve endings. Let’s reinstate the very trait that makes us proud descendants of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov.
When presented with the opportunity to read or see books or movies whose material is raunchy, vulgar and lewd, let’s make clear that they are beneath us, and instead, rediscover the capacity to turn many shades of red.
A few summers ago, I had the pleasure of attending a wedding in which I hardly knew anyone present other than the family of the bride. At the meal, I found myself sitting at a table full of people, most of whom I had never met. In an attempt to be friendly to the man seated next to me, I asked him, “What do you do?” He sat up in his chair, turned to me and said, “What do I do, or how do I earn a living? I earn a living as a plumber. What I do, what I am most proud of, is that I learn Torah every morning before davening, and I spend time with my family every evening after work.” His answer remains etched in my memory as he taught me a profound lesson that day in that short, but poignant answer to my simple social question.
How often is our first question to someone we meet, what do you do? When inquiring about someone else, how often is our first question, what does he or she do? How often do we define our own self-worth by our profession or if we aren’t working by what takes up the bulk of our time? For too many of us our identity is entirely wrapped up and monopolized by our profession or by what takes up most of our day. We mistake earning a living for actually living. If we are not working, we still often mistakenly identify with the details that take up the greatest quantity of our time, not quality of our time.
We need to challenge ourselves to create a meaningful list of goals outside of how we earn a living. Will our list include making a million dollars, or making a difference? Will it include finishing a stamp collection or finishing shas? Will it include spending money on a nicer car and nicer home or spending time with our spouses and children?
The Netziv, Rav Naftoli Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, was once visited by a student whom he had not seen in a long time. He greeted the student with the popular Yiddish idiom, “vus machs tu,” which is used in the vernacular as how are you, but literally translates as what do you do? The student answered, “I am well Rebbe, Baruch Hashem I am healthy and earn an excellent living.” They sat and made small talk and after a little while the Netziv again asked so “vus machs tu?” Again, the talmid answered, “thank God I am well and grateful I am very successful financially.” They spent the next hour in discussion and again the Netziv, a third time asked, “nu, vus machs tu?” The student finally turned to his Rebbe and said, “forgive me Rebbe, but this is the third time you asked me the same question and I have already told you all is well, I am healthy and parnossa is great.”
The Netziv turned to him and said, “maybe you didn’t understand the question. You answered that you have good health and an excellent livelihood. That’s what Hashem does for you; I asked ‘vus machs tu’, and what do YOU do?”
If we are fortunate, we serve in professions that are more than just ways to earn money, but rather are ways to find meaning. But even so, our profession should not define us or our lives. It must not prevent us from spending the time and doing the things that matter most. Paul Tsongas, the former Senator from Massachusetts wrote, “No man ever said on his deathbed I wish I had spent more time in the office.”
Every seventh year, the farmer is asked by the Torah leave his land fallow. He or she many not plant or harvest and instead must forfeit income for a year. The Kli Yakar explains that the mitzvah of shemita is essentially an exercise in emunah, an opportunity to work on our faith and to remember what is truly important in our lives. For six years we work diligently, we conquer the world, manipulate nature, and fill our day by literally or metaphorically plowing, planting and collecting the fruit of our labor. It is easy to see our lives as synonymous with how we earn a living. Every seventh year we are instructed to take a break from working and to remember what truly matters in our lives.
We are not farmers and though this year is a shemita year, I imagine most of us are not taking sabbaticals from our jobs. Nevertheless, shemita presents an excellent opportunity to challenge ourselves to answer, vus machs tu, and what do YOU do?
Super Bowl XLIX will take place this Sunday night and it is anticipated that it will be watched by more than 113 million people who will consume 1.25 billion chicken wings. And yet, the biggest story leading up to the game is not which quarterback is better, who has a better running game, or which team has the stronger defense. Coverage of the big game has largely been overshadowed by talk of “Deflate-gate,” the scandal involving the New England Patriots having allegedly cheated in the AFC Championship game by deflating eleven out of twelve of the balls they provided.
While the NFL has not yet completed its investigation, there is anecdotal evidence that the Patriots have once again violated the rules in an effort to gain an unfair advantage over their opponent. In 2011, their star quarterback, Tom Brady, was quoted as saying that he likes the ball deflated. A statistical analysis shows that the Patriots fumble the ball at an extremely low rate compared to all other teams and that the same players are more likely to fumble when they play for other teams than when they play for the Patriots.
In his book “By His Light,” Rav Aharon Lichtenstein Shlit”a writes:
The significance of effort is very considerable in our hashkafa. This can find expression even in inherently trivial areas. For example, the world of sports is, in a certain sense, trivial; mature adults are running around trying to put a ball through a hole. Nevertheless, moral qualities can and do come into play: cooperation, teamplay, an attempt to get the maximum out of yourself, etc. The inherent effort of the person himself, or the loneliness of the long-distance runner in his isolation, are very significant moral elements… There is no question that within the essentially trivial world of sports, real moral greatness and real moral degradation can be seen.
Last week, another example of moral degradation in sports was displayed by a girls high school basketball coach. The Arroyo Valley High girls’ basketball coach was suspended for two games after he mercilessly ran up the score. He used a full-court press for the entire first half to lead his team to a 104-1 advantage at halftime; his team ultimately won the game 161-2, humiliating the opponents in the process.
Competitiveness is a virtue if it builds drive, ambition, and determination. In sports, and in life, there is nothing wrong with seeking to succeed, to win, or to prosper. Indeed, Chazal teach (Baba Basra 21a), kinas sofrim tarbeh chochma, competition between scholars increases wisdom. However, competitiveness is a great liability if it supersedes other values, clouds judgment, and leads to unethical and immoral behavior like cutting corners or cheating.
In sports and in life, one can be competitive and at the same time show what Rav Lichtenstein calls “moral greatness” by being kind, considerate, honest, moral, and sportsmanlike. An epic tennis match between Raphael Nadal and Tim Smyczek took place last week at the Australian Open. For more than four hours, 27-year-old Smyczek from Milwaukee competed fiercely for every point against the 14-time Grand Slam champion Nadal. It was 6-5 Nadal in the fifth and final set. Just as Nadal served, a spectator shouted, the serve went long and was called out. As Nadal glared into the stands Smyczek motioned that he should retake the first serve, or as we would say, “take a do-over.” Nadal won the point and the match and the relatively unknown Smyczek won the respect of the tennis world.
Following the match Smyczek said, ”I don’t know if the guy didn’t know (Nadal) was tossing the ball or not, but it clearly bothered him. You know, I thought it was the right thing to do.” Smyczek is just as competitive as any other professional tennis player. However, when given the opportunity, he chose to do what he called the right thing, and in that moment showed real moral greatness.
If indeed the Patriots are proven to have cheated, the NFL must punish them in a real way to demonstrate that while we encourage competitiveness, it must never lead to moral degradation. Some have argued that Deflate-gate is insignificant compared with domestic abuse, murder, steroid use, and safety, issues that the NFL has yet to deal with in meaningful ways. There is no doubt that those are critical matters the NFL must address, but it would be a mistake to dismiss or ignore cheating because it seems to pale in comparison.
In truth, while murder, domestic battery and concussions are hopefully not relatable to us and we are not in real danger of imitating what we see, the temptation to bend the rules to achieve success is ever present in all our lives and therefore deserves a significant response. While it may sound trite, 113 million people, many of them children, will watch the Super Bowl on Sunday. If the Patriots are guilty and nevertheless get off with a slap on the wrist or are allowed to continue their ways of unhealthy, unbridled competitiveness with impunity, the world will have learned that winning is more important than achieving moral greatness.
Our Rabbis teach (Pesachim 118b) that kasha mezonosav shel adom k’krias yam suf, earning a living is as difficult as the splitting of the sea. It took God’s intervention to overcome the natural order and split the sea and it takes God’s graciousness to allow us to succeed in earning a parnassah. There is nothing trivial about getting the job, closing the deal, making the sale, earning the bonus or getting the raise. Earning a parnassah is difficult and challenging. Being competitive, driven, and having great ambition are important and admirable factors for success. However, that competitiveness and aspiration must never lead to cutting corners, cheating or being dishonest.
More than in sports, it is in our pursuit of a parnassah that real moral greatness and real moral degradation can be seen. Let’s be competitive and driven, but when given the opportunity, rise to the occasion and always do the right thing.