Guest Post – Rabbi Philip Moskowitz
Words simply cannot describe how touched and appreciative Arielle and I have been by the incredible outpouring of care and support you have shown us over the past few weeks. Knowing that the full force and love of our community are behind us and rooting us on gives us constant encouragement and strength. I am very much missing learning with you, regularly davening with you, being at Simchas and events with you and being as much of a presence in the shul as I am used to. However, these past few weeks have afforded me the opportunity to do a lot of thinking, learning and reading, and at some later point I look forward to being able to more formally share with you some of the insights and inspiration that I have gleaned from this experience.
For now, I wanted to take just a moment to give you some updates and share a brief thought. I have just completed the first cycle of my treatment, and this Monday I will begin a new cycle of chemotherapy. There are expectedly some side effects to the treatments and so when you see me you may notice some changes in my appearance. I know how concerned you each are and how much you care. I once again thank you for treating us all as normally as possible when you see us.
I also want to take a moment to share a brief idea from this week’s Parsha that has been weighing on my mind these past few days. This past week, an article appeared in the New York Times titled “Random Acts of Being Human.” The article is commenting on a recent study that appeared in the journal Science on the role that “bad luck” plays in getting cancer. That study, which was reported upon widely, “caused an outbreak of despair, outrage and, ultimately, disbelief.” The New York Times article attempts to reinforce the role that chance and luck play in our life, but argues counterintuitively that “for all our agonizing, it can be liberating to accept and even embrace the powerful role chance plays in the biology of life and death. Random variation, after all, is the engine of evolution.”
I agree with the author. In a strange sense, I have found having cancer to be an extremely liberating experience. But I wholeheartedly disagree with his reason. You see, when I was first diagnosed with cancer, I realized I could react in one of two ways: I could view myself as the unlucky victim of random mutations of cancer cells that could have struck anybody, but due to pure chance struck me. Or, upon learning about how unusual my form of cancer is, rather than feel the victim of randomness I could recognize and see the hand of the Almighty, the Omnipotent Creator who for whatever reason chose me to face this challenge. Don’t get me wrong – I am neither happy nor grateful to have to fight this battle. I do, however, find great comfort and strength in feeling the warm hand of Providence on my shoulder as I battle through my treatments. Knowing that enduring this experience is not random but was specifically meant for me by Hashem makes getting through it just a bit easier.
The Ramban, in a famous series of comments at the conclusion of our Parsha this week, writes that the very purpose of constantly remembering the exodus from Egypt is to always remember that Hashem isn’t a passive observer to our lives, but is rather an active and involved participant in our daily existence. As the Ramban firmly writes, “an individual does not have a stake in the Torah of Moshe, our teacher, until he believes that our affairs and chance occurrences are all miraculous, that there is no ‘natural order’ or ‘routine working’ within the universe.”(Shmos 13:16)
Life isn’t a series of random occurrences. Rather, our lives are lived under the watchful eye of a loving and compassionate Creator. The ever-present narrative of Yetzias Mitrayim in Judaism is there to remind us that there is no happenstance and there is no coincidence. For the believing Jew, life is not random and we are not victims of chance.
Revisiting these comments by the Ramban this week and contrasting it with the sentiments in the New York Times article gives me pause. Does this explain why I have cancer and another person does not? Of course not. But make no mistake about it. It IS liberating and comforting to accept that while there are still things in this world that, no matter how hard he tries, mankind will simply not understand and grasp, our lives are still all under the watchful eye of the Almighty. While it’s sometimes difficult to internalize, that faith in Hashem and the lack of control over certain elements of our existence can, in fact, be a liberating and strengthening realization.
These are obviously weighty and complex theological challenges that have troubled individuals far wiser than you and me throughout our history. As Rav Soloveitchik writes at the beginning of Kol Dodi Dofek, “One of the deepest mysteries, troubling Judaism from the dawn of its existence, is the problem of suffering. At a propitious moment of Divine compassion, Moses, the master of all prophets, pleaded before the Lord of All to be enlightened as to the workings of this impenetrable phenomenon.”
I share these thoughts with you, not because I believe they are simple, but so that we can grapple with them together, and as a community grow through our individual and collective challenges. Please God, may we emerge from them with an even stronger Emunah (faith) in Hashem and a greater recognition of His ever-present role in our lives.
In July of 2004, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told a gathering of North American Jewish federation leaders: “If I have to advocate to our brothers in France, I will tell them one thing: Move to Israel as early as possible… I say that to Jews all around the world, but there I think it’s a must and they have to move immediately.”
After the horrific Islamic terrorist events that struck France last week, and the Jewish community in particular, current Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu once again articulated the call for French Jews to move to Israel: “This week, a special team of ministers will convene to advance steps to increase immigration from France and other countries in Europe that are suffering from terrible anti-Semitism. All Jews who want to immigrate to Israel will be welcomed here warmly and with open arms.”
With hostility towards Jews growing in many parts of Europe, the blessing and miracle of the existence of the modern State of Israel as a place of refuge and a safe haven for all Jews is perhaps more pronounced than ever. The Jew experiencing anti-Semitism no longer has to rely on the protection of his or her host country alone. They need not live gripped by the fear of being expelled with no place to go. Today, for the first time in two thousand years, our homeland is back in our hands, under our sovereignty, and serving as a source of protection and security not only for those that inhabit its borders, but also for Jews around the world.
As the Jews of France, England and elsewhere are unfortunately learning the hard way, Israel is indeed a safe haven and place of refuge, not just in theory, but also in practice. However, it would be a terrible mistake to reduce Israel to that alone.
In 1903, at the sixth Zionist Congress, Theodor Herzl dropped a bombshell. While the British refused to allow a Jewish state in Palestine, they were offering another territory in East Africa where Jews could enjoy home rule as a British protectorate. A mere six years after the founding of political Zionism, the Uganda Plan was considered a major breakthrough. Herzl expected the proposal to pass easily, but instead a bitter debate ensued.
In his wonderful book, “Jabotinsky: A Life,” Hillel Halkin describes what took place and I was shocked to learn who voted in favor of setting up a Jewish state in Africa.
The Mizrachi voted with Herzl; under attack by the anti-Zionist Orthodox establishment for supporting a Jewish return to the Land of Israel without divine sanction, it sought to demonstrate that it was motivated solely by a desire to relieve Jewish suffering that was untainted by messianic fantasies. Nearly all of the secular Zionists of the “democratic faction,” on the other hand, were fiercely opposed; products of the shtetl and its value even after having revolted against them, they could not imagine a Jewish homeland that was not the land Jews always had longed for.
The vote was tallied. Two hundred ninety-five295 delegates voted in favor, 176 were against, and 143 abstained. Without a true majority, the plan was abandoned and focus was returned to achieving a Jewish state in the Jewish homeland, the Land of Israel.
Israel cannot be in Uganda or Teaneck, the Five Towns, LA Los Angeles, or Boca Raton. Perhaps a Jewish state solely to provide refuge and a safe haven could take root in any of those places. But Israel is so much more than a place to find sanctuary. Only that land possesses unique spiritual qualities, what Rabbi Soloveitchik called “singular.” In “Reflections of the Rav” (volume 1), Rabbi Soloveitchik writes:
The word “singular” means “being one,” “exceptional,” “extraordinary” and “separate.” The word segulah in Hebrew similarly connotes singularity. In Exodus (19:5), the Torah enunciates the doctrine of the election of Israel as a cardinal tenet of our faith. “And you shall be to Me a segulah from all other peoples.”
A segulah people inhabits a segulah land. It is “a land which the Eternal your God looks after; on which the Lord your God always keeps His eye, from year’s beginning to year’s end” (Deut. 11:12). Rashi adds that, although God cares for other lands too, His relationship with Eretz Yisrael is special… Jewish destiny is linked with this land; we have no other. Only in this land, our Sages say, does the Shekhinah dwell and only therein does prophecy flourish. This segulah attribute of the land is no more rationally explicable than the segulah of the people. These are qualities certified by our faith, and history has corroborated the singularity of both people and land.
The reaction to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s call for French Aliyah has been mixed. Many Zionists are thrilled to see more Jews coming home, regardless of whether their motivation is running towards, or just running away. However, others have shared grave concern for the implications of an Aliyah inspired by anti-Semitism and hatred. Fleeing the diaspora, they argue, only incentivizes and rewards Islamic terror, anti-Semitism, and thereby inadvertently promotes more extremism.
One op-ed in Israel put it this way: “Patriotic Israelis will welcome French immigrants to Israel, but that does not contradict the fact that Israel has no interest in promoting the eradication of over two millennia of Jewish presence in Europe. ‘France without its Jews would not be France,’ the country’s prime minister has said, but Israel without its Diaspora might not be the Israel that many of us are still hoping for either.”
Which begs the question: What would Israel look like without its Diaspora? Is there a role in Zionism for the continued existence of the Diaspora Jew? How would the French policies towards Israel be different if the French people and leadership had never met a Jew, known a Jewish colleague or friend, or felt the contribution of Jewish people to France? To be clear, I am certainly not advocating for French Jews to remain in France or for that matter for American Jews to remain in America, but I do believe these questions don’t have simple answers.
If Jews are going to remain in the Diaspora, there is no doubt that there is much important work to be done on behalf of Israel from there. Would America’s three billion dollars of aid, the funding for Iron Dome, military cooperation, and the willingness to utilize the veto at the UN all be givens if there were no Zionist Jews living in America lobbying, advocating and seeking to influence the U.S. policies towards Israel? Would the religious Zionist community be better served if every rabbi and community leader that cares passionately about Israel stopped leading missions, gave up preaching and teaching Aliyah, ceased organizing pro-Israel rallies, no longer promoted greater participation in AIPAC, ZOA, EMET, etc. because they all picked up and made Aliyah? So long as there are Diaspora Jews, there is a need for passionate Zionist Diaspora leadership.
While every Jew should be considering and struggling with Aliyah, to be fair, Aliyah is not a simple matter. Each individual must struggle with it in his or her own way. What is simple is that if one chooses to remain in the Diaspora, they must feel a connection to Israel emotionally, financially and spiritually as a part of their daily lives.
Hungarian born R’ Yisachar Shlomo Teichtal Hy”d was staunchly anti-Zionist. When running and hiding from the Nazis, everything changed for him and he saw a return to Israel as Hashem’s true plan for us. In his incredible book Eim Ha’Banim Semeicha, written by memory and while in hiding, he shares these prescient words:
Now, even though all of Israel will not return right away, it seems to me that the Land will become a universal center for the entire Jewish nation, by the very fact that there will be an assembly of Jews in Jerusalem and Eretz Yisrael. Even those who remain in the Diaspora will keep their eyes and hearts on the Land. They will be bound and connected with all their souls to the universal center, which will be established in Eretz Yisrael. It will unite them even in the Diaspora, and they will not be considered dispersed at all…
Diaspora Jews should make as many trips and spend as much time in Israel as possible. If you can afford it, don’t go to exotic locations for Pesach, go to Israel. Don’t go on summer excursions and tours around the world, go to Israel. But it is in between those trips that Diaspora Jews make their unique contribution to Israel, by using their presence in the Diaspora to advance Israel’s interests and well-being.
Israel certainly does not need Diaspora Jews disengaged from Israel. If Zionistic Jews have a role in the Diaspora we must be devoted and dedicated daily to serving Israel through financial support, lobbying, and advocating on social media, traditional media, and among coworkers and friends.
There is something practical every religious Zionist Jew in the Diaspora can do right now. The Uganda Plan is a distant memory, but the World Zionist Congress continues to meet and will hold its next assembly this year. The Congress’ 525 delegates from all over the world will include 145 delegates from the United States, elected from competing slates with different interests towards Israel’s policies and how funding should be allocated.
The Religious Zionist Slate is a party in the World Zionist Congress comprised of delegates from America’s foundational religious Zionist organizations who provide a religious voice for world Jewry by championing programming and policies that promote Jewish unity and continuity, as well as the preservation and enrichment of Torah values and Jewish life in Israel and around the world.
With every national election, Israeli citizens cast their votes to seat a new Knesset, the men and women who will chart a new path for the State of Israel. By voting in the upcoming elections for the World Zionist Congress, we in the Diaspora also have a voice in deciding Israel’s future as well as the future of Jewish life globally.
You can register and vote simultaneously by visiting www.voteTorah.org. As we are witnessing the rise of Islamic terror and anti-Semitism worldwide, we are amazingly fortunate and blessed to have the miraculous modern State of Israel as a place of refuge and safe haven for all Jews.
However, as Torah Jews and religious Zionists we must remember that Israel is much more than just a place to run to when the heat is turned up in the Diaspora. It is the singular Land for a singular people to bring the singular Torah to life.
Do your part for Israel, even from the Diaspora, by taking a moment to register and vote today.
In a recent, highly controversial blog post, “Please G-d, Help me to understand why we must pray for a Third Temple!” the author offers arguments in the form of a prayer to God against the reinstatement of animal sacrifices and bluntly asks, “Is the rebuilding of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem what is best for us?” As a basis for his position and plea, the rabbi contends that both the Rambam and Rav Kook believed that the third Temple will not include korbanos (animal sacrifices).
In his usual scholarly and compelling fashion, Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky already rebuffed such an assertion in a compelling and conclusive way. He concludes his article by saying, “So will there be sacrifices in the Third Temple? The overwhelming majority opinion is that there will be. Rambam and Rav Kook seem to share this view.”
Many responses to the blog post correctly point out how absurd such a personal “prayer” is, given the centrality of longing for the third Temple in general, and pining for the return of sacrifices in particular, are to our liturgy, observances, and Jewish consciousness. They bring countless sources from Tanach, our siddur, and ma’amarei chazal (statements of our sages) that see redemption and the eschatological era as synonymous with the building of a third Temple and the return of the system of sacrifices.
Rather than seek to contribute to the conversation from the perspective of scholarship or theology, I would like to offer a thought from the perspective of symbolism and meaning. The author of the controversial post argues, in the form of a letter to God:
While livestock was once our primary resource and a meaningful sacrifice, today Your world operates in a different model of commerce. We would have new and more powerful contributions to sacrifice. Your people must be a light to the nations, not a source of darkness by returning to a practice once deemed honorable but now perceived by the global masses as barbaric. The Jewish people have transitioned in our own existential consciousness and our spiritual relationship to our animal’s slaughter has been altered irrevocably.
There is no question that the notion of animal sacrifice seems bizarre and inexplicable to us. Indeed, as the author suggests, offering sacrifices seems to modern man barbaric, archaic and brutal. However, it seems to me the discomfort we have with offering sacrifices is not so much an expression of moral opposition or protest, but rather a direct result of our unfamiliarity and inexperience with them.
Why do I say that? Because we bind ourselves with animal parts every morning when we don our tefillin, we kiss animal skin hanging from our doorposts when we reach for our mezuzas, and we have regular public readings from our Torah scrolls made of animal skin and tied together with animal sinews and veins, all of which we feel is normal and mainstream. Observant Jews recognize these mitzvos as non-negotiables: obligations that are incumbent upon us. Though we may find them strange or peculiar, our devotion to them leads us to study their symbolism, meaning, and purpose and thereby to seek inspiration and fulfillment through their mandated performance.
Animal sacrifices seem strange or even offensive because we have never performed them or even observed them. For the last two thousand years, since the destruction of the second Temple, not only are we not commanded in sacrifices, but we are prohibited from offering them.
While we don’t offer actual sacrifices today, our prophets ensured that their theme and purpose would not be forgotten or neglected in the absence of the Beis Ha’Mikdash. “U’neshalma parim sefaseinu,” said the prophet Hoshea (14:3). “And let our lips replace the (sacrificial) bulls.” The Midrash (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 4:3) teaches that when we are precluded from offering physical sacrifices, Hashem considers our recitation of the sections that describe them as a substitute. Though, sadly, few are there in time or pay it the proper attention, in fulfillment of the prophet’s charge, our davening each and every day begins with a reading of the korbanos.
Why do korbanos play such a central role, even today, when we can only speak of them, in achieving atonement, personal growth, and closeness to Hashem? In his commentary on the Siddur, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch offers a magnificent insight into the symbolism and purpose of korbanos. We offer animals not as an act of barbarism or to satisfy carnivorous cravings. Rather, says Rav Hirsch, we purchase an animal, bring it to the Temple, and have it sacrificed, to make the statement to the Almighty and to ourselves that we are eager and willing to sacrifice the animal inside us.
In Jewish thought, man lives in two dimensions simultaneously. On the one hand, the Talmud observes, we are members of the animal kingdom who share in common the three basic physical activities of animals: eating, elimination, and reproduction. On the other hand, we have been endowed with a tzelem Elokim, a Godly soul, providing us the capacity to be disciplined, exhibit self-control, and reign sovereign over our instincts and impulses. Life is a perpetual battle between our animal urges that draw us to worldly pleasures and our Godly soul that yearns for higher purpose and satisfaction. A korban, ritual animal slaughter, is a pledge to suppress and control the animal in us and do more to have our tzelem Elokim triumph in its battle.
Rav Hirsch continues by explaining that the practice of sprinkling the blood of the sacrifice corresponds with our commitment to direct our passions to Hashem. The burning of the fats represents our efforts to eliminate gratuitous indulgences. The offering of soles (flour) and shemen (oil) remind us that all our sustenance and wealth are granted only with the consent of the Divine, and therefore must be directed to Him in the form of an allegiance-gift (mincha).
Herein lies the great irony in the controversial blog post. The author essentially argues that we have progressed, become more advanced, sophisticated, and cultured, and therefore sacrifices are not only irrelevant to us but they should be repulsive to us. In light of Rav Hirsch’s insights, I would suggest the exact opposite. Yes, we have progressed in so many meaningful ways.
However, in the area of the battle between the animal and the Godly soul, the temptations of the physical world versus the quest for spirituality, we not only have not progressed, but a survey of advertisements, websites, themes of movies and TV, and behavior of politicians and celebrities shows that we have regressed. The world of marketing seeks to exploit the animal impulse inside us all with messages like “Obey your thirst” and “Just do it.” Look at the infidelity rates and the obesity statistics and you cannot help but conclude that for many modern people, the animal instinct is defeating the Godly, disciplined soul.
And it is not just in the “outside” world that the battle is being lost. Within our own community and if we are to be honest, within ourselves, the battle is raging and victory for the tzelem Elokim is far from a foregone conclusion. Challenges with ostentatiousness, excess, modesty in all forms, food indulgence, unhealthy competitiveness and the race to keep up with others is evidence that while we the Orthodox community have made progress in so many remarkable ways, we too have regressed when it comes to the pursuit of the piety that results in the defeat of the animal instinct to the will of the Godly spirit.
The message and symbolism of animal sacrifices are in fact more relevant than ever for our generation and our culture, not less. Our prayers and pleas should not be in protest of a third Temple or in opposition to the notion of sacrifices but in desperation for them and their assistance in helping us realize our potential as Godly souls over our endless animal temptations.
My prayer is not that God nullify sacrifices, but that we, His people, renew our efforts to study them, to recite them with deep kavannah (intent), and to find in them the strength to begin each day with a pledge to slaughter the animal inside us so that all of our behavior and actions be at the direction solely of our sacred tzelem Elokim.
“Intermarriage is a fact of life and we should be more welcoming when it happens.” That was part of the reaction of the chief executive officer of The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism to a recent controversial decision made by the leadership of the youth wing of the movement, United Synagogue Youth. At the annual international convention of USY last week, the board voted to relax its rules barring teenage board members from dating non-Jews.
The decision drew strong reactions with some suggesting that the media exaggerated the significance of the vote for sensationalism on the one hand, and on other, one young man authoring an article entitled, “Why I’m now a former Conservative Jew.” In it, he argues, “The addition of Hebrew words in the language which adopts the permissibility of interdating is truly laughable. Saying that recognition of all humans being created betzelem elohim serves as a justification for interdating and eventually intermarriage, makes about as much sense as me arguing I should be eating delicious bacon in my Sukkah because the Torah says v’samachta b’chageicha, v’hayita ach sameach (we should rejoice in our holiday and we should feel nothing but total happiness).”
One article on the issue declared that, “The [Conservative] movement is in the midst of a major identity crisis.” I don’t know enough to know if that is true. My interest is not in commenting on another denomination or their youth. Indeed, if anything, the passion and dedication of the USY youth leaders is commendable and hopeful though it does compound the concern that even affiliated youth can come to such a decision. My concern is for the attitude and trends towards intermarriage in orthodoxy.
It is not only the CEO of United Synagogue who sees intermarriage as a fact of life. Though the orthodox community may not be seeing more intermarriage in their nuclear families, there is hardly a family not exposed to or affected by intermarriage in their extended family in some way. Getting that call and being informed that a loved one is engaged to, or married to, someone outside our faith is incredibly painful. Trying to strike the delicate balance of communicating displeasure and terrible disappointment with their decision while maintaining love for them as a person is tremendously complicated and difficult to achieve.
While for centuries the response of Torah Jews to intermarriage was to sit shiva, disassociate, and ostracize those who married outside the faith, today not only is there no rejection, but there is often too much tolerance towards the intermarried and even gestures of welcoming, in an effort to maintain a connection and an avenue of Jewish influence.
Many poskim, understanding that intermarriage is becoming a fact of life, recognize that rejection will alienate and erase any possibility of interest in authentic conversion. Besides, in half the circumstances of intermarriage, the grandchildren will be Jewish and will benefit much more from the Torah influence and love of their family, rather than denunciation and estrangement.
A few years ago, I was standing with a friend who had recently moved from South Africa when we met someone who shared in passing that his wife was not Jewish. I vividly remember that when the person walked away, my friend was visibly shaken. When I asked him what was wrong he told me that coming from South Africa he had never actually met someone who married outside of Judaism and he was overwhelmed with sadness. At that moment, I too became terribly sad not because of having met someone who was intermarried, but rather because of the realization of just how numb and desensitized to intermarriage I had become.
One result of the growing number of intermarriage is a more casual attitude towards the phenomenon from our orthodox youth. When informally polled, most wouldn’t even consider distancing themselves from a friend who was dating a non-Jew and many don’t hesitate to say yes when asked if they would attend an intermarriage of a close friend. The more intermarriage grows and the closer it chas v’shalom hits to our homes, inevitably the more casual an attitude towards it we and our children will have.
I taught a class of high school boys this week and asked them for their reaction to the USY decision. While most were bothered by it, they struggled to articulate exactly why. I then challenged them with the following question: Why be Jewish at all? Why not just identify as a person, a kind human, a good American? Why differentiate ourselves? Why does being Jewish matter?
For the believer, the answer is obvious and simple. God created the world, He charged the Jewish people with a mission and mandate, and we entered a covenant in perpetuity to fulfill His commands and vision for our role in society. That answer is absolutely true and halevai it would satisfy all who ask. But what is the answer for those who waver and who are unsure? Why should a young Jewish man or woman who is unconvinced about either God’s existence or the divinity of His Torah, or who is confident in both but disaffected by the way religious Jews behave, continue to be Jewish?
For millennia, Jews didn’t have the luxury of asking why be Jewish. We had no other choice as our hostile host countries, through persecution and oppression, reminded us we were different. When we tried to retreat and segregate they didn’t leave us alone. When we tried to assimilate and integrate, they isolated us nonetheless. The United States, the great melting pot, has provided an opportunity heretofore thought impossible. A Jew in America can wake up one day, simply shed his or her Jewish identity, and society will welcome them with open arms, with no discrimination, and with no reminders of their roots and origins.
It would be easy, I explained to the teenage boys, to argue that we owe it to our grandparents who suffered through the Holocaust and lost so much in the name of Judaism to remain Jewish. But, as Rabbi Korobkin demonstrated so importantly in a recent article, teenagers and millenials are not moved, convinced or inspired by what they perceive as clichéd answers. Anti-Semitism as a motivating factor for Judaism is simply not compelling today and perhaps never was.
Which brings us back to the question, why be Jewish? Why does the world need the Jewish people? Why should young Jews feel a responsibility to continue, promote and drive Judaism forward? If you were in the room for that USY vote, what would you say?
If our goals are to both change the statistics of intermarriage and the growing comfort level we seem to be having towards it, we need to formulate compelling, meaningful and convincing answers to precisely this question. Our answers cannot be clichéd, judgmental, or trite. This question needs to be addressed at our Shabbos tables, in our children’s classrooms and from the pulpit. While I have thoughts on this issue, I prefer hearing your answers before suggesting my own. Together, we can make a difference by simply generating this critical conversation.