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Rabbi Mendy Herson's Blog

Thoughts from, and conversations with, Rabbi Herson

Because We're Not Okay

 

I’ve been publishing weekly Torah thoughts for several decades, focusing on Torah insights I find relevant to our daily lives. I rarely address current events, or politics, because I figure people can find enough – or even too many – sources to opine on those.

But I’ve shifted since October 7. As things stand, I don’t feel that I can speak to the world without mentioning the horrors of that day and the ongoing captivity of innocents. Perhaps most all, I want to call out the immoral silence; perhaps even more than the active whitewashing of rapes and burnings, grotesquely masquerading as concern for human rights in in Gaza.

On October 6, many of us saw the Western world as progressing toward higher morality. But since October 7, we haven’t even seen basic decency. Can you imagine that the UN resolution condemning Hamas’ slaughter was rejected by the General Assembly? If that’s not passive complicity with - and support for - evil, what is?

No one of good conscience wants any non-combatant – man, woman or child – in Gaza to suffer (even if the overwhelming majority of Gazans support Hamas and its Oct 7 pogrom). That’s why the IDF drops millions of leaflets, and sends hundreds of thousands of texts, begging civilians to move out of the way. So, most of us are actually in agreement. But stubbornly sticking to that discussion-point becomes a wickedly manipulative red herring. We first need to all agree on condemnation of Hamas’ actions, and demand the hostages’ return.

But it’s not happening. The silence like people are ignoring the October 7 atrocities, hoping the images will fade. It feels like our raped women don’t qualify for Me Too, and Hamas’ many war crimes can be waved away with “well, they’re not like us”. 

If we find that immoral, we need to speak up. Loudly.

This week’s Torah portion describes the Holy regalia worn by the High Priest in the Holy Temple. The Scripture describes these majestic vestments as being ‘a remembrance before G-d.’ The High Priest was representing the Jewish people and their needs, one of which is memory - a mental and moral clarity as to events and their lessons. In Torah language, forgetfulness isn’t only about the timeworn blurring of recollections. It’s also about willful removal of the truth from one’s mind, while remembering is about ensuring that a lesson of life is properly acknowledged, for posterity.

So let’s be loud and clear: Our present dystopia isn’t about people who forgot something over time. Almost immediately after Oct. 7, people had the gall to deny Hamas’ self-recorded atrocities, or just blamed Israel for their actions. 

Just recently, the Palestinian Authority’s Prime Minister advised that “the world needs to stop focusing on October 7.” Mr. Prime Minister, the world hasn’t even begun to focus. They can’t forget a travesty they’ve never known or remembered.

That’s why our voices can’t stop.

Welcome Home

 

Why did G-d create us? It’s the existential question of questions.  

For insight, let’s look at the Jews’ journey from spiritual debasement and physical abuse in Egypt to national and individual self-actualization, through receiving the Torah and settling in the Promised Land.

When we stood at Mount Sinai, G-d told us how we could use our human liberty to lead meaningful lives. Our purpose in freedom, and in life itself, was to imbue our lives with the holiness of Higher living. In the words of our early Sages: G-d taught us that the purpose of existence is to make a ‘home’ for G-d in our lives.

G-d didn’t just give us a religion, a way for people to access holiness on regular occasions – annually, weekly or daily – through ritual practices. G-d gave us a way of life. G-d gave us the Torah which  enables us to sanctify our otherwise-mundane lives, our work, our play, our meals, etc. This approach guides us to elevate a mundane exercise by first considering – and adopting - its G-dly purpose.

G-d is always relevant, because strengthening our relationship with G-d is always at the core of our life pursuits. Even in our difficult moments, when we’re in the throes of our Egypts, G-d wants us to trust that He is with us, that we’re never alone. Maintaining that attitude is making G-d ‘at home’ in our lives.

Inviting G-d into life occasionally, even on frequent occasion, is having G-d as a [frequent] visitor. G-d wants more, because we can make G-d our consistent North Star, our trusted support.

Indeed, immediately after we received the Torah, G-d told the Jews to build a Tabernacle, a physical structure in which they could commune with the Divine. This was a place where they could palpably feel their ever-present connectedness to G-d, where they could make G-d at home within them.

In other words: G-d wants to dwell within each of us, and is only waiting for us to open the door of our hearts and minds.

Jews in Israel, and across the globe, are going through a particularly challenging time right now.

We should recognize that we are not alone. The IDF, G-d protect each one of them, is doing amazing work and Jewish communal organizations are standing up against Jew-hatred. Ultimately, we depend on G-d’s protection.

Let’s do our part in making G-d at home in our lives. Take a moment. Think about what G-d needs from you to today. And welcome G-d home.


The Stranger

“Love the stranger… Do not mistreat the stranger…”  The Torah repeats this lesson 36 times, twice in this week’s Parsha alone. This emphasis highlights a fundamental window into our humanity. A stranger is someone who is not ‘one of us.’ Maybe they look or behave differently. Maybe they have dissimilar values.

I’ve spent much of my life feeling ‘different’ when I’m in public. I grew up in a NJ town which had plenty of Jews but little overt Judaism, and I was one of very few kids who openly wore a Kippah. I got the stares. The occasional comments. I always knew I was different.

Even today, as I dress in classic chassidic garb with a black fedora and beard, I still get the stares, or averted eyes, when I enter a setting unfamiliar with Chassidim.

I understand it. My appearance is distinct, so why shouldn’t someone notice? Or be genuinely curious? It is only a problem when ‘dislike of the unlike’ kicks in. When curiosity becomes antipathy or - even worse - when we dehumanize the ‘stranger,’ we lose our own humanity. We’re actually dehumanizing ourselves.

It’s been said that convictions bind and blind. They binds us to our own like-minded group, and can blind us to the humanity of the ‘other’, ‘stranger.’ 

Hence the Torah’s repeated warning.

We can ALL use a reminder – especially as we enter an election season – on welcoming “the stranger,” making sure our convictions bind, but do not blind. 

What’s going on with radical Islamists is radically different. It’s not about passive dislike, or even nasty argumentation. That would be human frailty, which is in the range of the humanly expected.

I recently came across a NY Times article from 2008: “In Gaza, Hamas’ Insults To Jews Complicate Peace,” which gives examples of the deep Jew-hatred being taught in Gaza. The article reports that an average Mosque sermon spews words of incitement against Jews – and Christians – as a mortal enemy, dehumanizing us as “brothers of apes and pigs.” A popular Mickey Mouse-like TV cartoon presents cute animals teaching young minds that the Jews are objects to be hated and destroyed. This is how perfectly normal humans become comfortable acting abhorrently inhuman.

The five-year-olds watching cartoons in 2008 were twenty-one in 2023. Many came into Israel, and - with deeply-cultivated hatred - abducted, tortured, dismembered, raped, and murdered over 1500 innocents. The world saw humans acting inhumanly. And we know why.

People can live in peace with neighbors who see them as different. Or even dislike them. But not with those indoctrinated to dehumanize and murder them. That’s not living in peace.

Gaza’s deliberately-cultivated, murderous hatred should be the civilized world’s primary focus. Artificial cease-fires won’t address the root problem which brought - and will G-d forbid yet bring - terrible destruction to innocents on all sides.


Stand Strong

When the Jews stood at Mount Sinai, the newly-freed Hebrew people - whom the Egyptians had beaten and tortured for centuries - were transformed into a Nation. The Jewish Nation. 

Interestingly, the Talmud teaches us that G-d hard-wired Jew-hatred into the world at that very same event. We got our greatest gift, Jewish identity, together with a built-in challenge of the ages. It’s not that every non-Jew hates Jews, G-d forbid. But Jew-hatred is always out there, somewhere. 

Someone recently told me about a childhood friend, Jacob Goldstein. Jacob’s family was devoutly catholic (the Goldstein name came from a Jewish ancestor several generations back), he was quarterback of the high school team and dated the most popular cheerleader. But he still endured anti-Semitic taunts at their rural Pennsylvania school. 

No one thought he was Jewish. Why the hate?

When Haman wanted to exterminate all Jews in the Persian empire, he explained: “they are spread out through all the nations, and their customs are different than everyone else’s.” He hated us because Jews (ever since the Romans chased us from our homeland in Israel) are dispersed to communities throughout the world. In the 1930’s, US newspapers were criticizing Jews for being too clannish. Is it that we’re blended in other communities or that we stick to ourselves?  

Our traditions are different? True. But why do you hate Jacob Goldstein?

In 1989, I witnessed signs in Moscow saying ‘kill the communists and the Jews,” and then signs in Minsk: “kill the capitalists and the Jews.”

At its core, Jew-hatred has no rationality. It just is.

We live in a benevolent, tolerant country – the Rebbe used to call it a ‘kingdom of kindness’ – where we are free to live as Jews. This, in the scope of our painful history, is simply amazing. The USA has also been a beacon of light, shining the beauty of religious freedom to other countries across the world.

But Jew-hatred lives here too. Not in governmental policy. Not in every non-Jew walking the street. But it’s here. Just because.

The Rebbe taught us that strengthening our Jewish identity, never cowing, never bending before haters is our powerful response. Haters will hate, and do what they do. You can’t control them. But we can control ourselves. And standing up with continued Jewish pride is critical.

Remember who you are, the heritage you carry and what you stand for. And stand tall. We’ve survived for 3300 years, and we’re not going anywhere.


Amalek Begone

Questions are a fundamental tool of the truth-seeker. Ask. Probe. Consider another perspective. Transcend accepted axioms so you can think out of the box. “Doubt,” it has been said, “is the servant of discovery.”

But there’s also a crippling form of doubt, a menace to our psychological and moral welfare. Imagine experiencing irrational doubts about the loyalty of loved ones? How about doubts as to the evils of the Holocaust?

Healthy doubts clear the path to truth; unhealthy doubts obstruct its firm embrace.

This week, the Torah introduces us to the ultimate Jew-haters: the tribe of Amalek. They attacked the Jews in the desert for no apparent reason, and their Jew-hatred is described as surpassing that of the other Jew-hating people’s we’ve endured. The Torah tells us that G-d is at war with Amalek for the course of history, and that G-d’s Throne will not be complete until the concept of Amalek is vanquished. While Amalek eventually disappeared as a people, the Amalek poison persists.

Kabbalistic writings note that the numerical value of the word Amalek (240) is the same as that of the Hebrew word for ‘doubt’ (safek). When the Jews left Egypt, personally witnessing G-d’s love for them and G-d’s absolute mastery over nature, the Amalekites maliciously sought to undermine their grip on reality.

“Are you sure you saw what you saw?” “Did you truly experience what you experienced?” “Were the Egyptians really that evil?” Today, we’d call it gaslighting.

That doubt-sowing is what our spiritual masters identify as the spiritual poison of Amalek. The peppering of doubts, masquerading as open-minded analysis, which debilitates a firm moral vision. Feeling the need to temper one's firm outrage at Hamas's pogrom, and one's strong support for Israel's right to self-defense. Because, on the other hand.....

Amalek at work.

To be clear: I have no doubt that the IDF is righteously pursuing victory in this Hamas-triggered war.

I have no doubt that the IDF – on a daily basis - puts more thought and effort into actually protecting innocent Palestinians, even as it seeks to eliminate those who actively threaten Jewish lives, than any other governmental body in the world.

I sadly have no doubt that innocent lives will be lost in war.

I have no doubt that humans occasionally err, and the IDF is comprised of humans.

I have no doubt that the IDF is the most moral army in the world.

Amalek begone.

The Man, Moses

 

Moses was a big deal.

He was an Israelite who confronted Pharaoh. More importantly, he was able to show Pharaoh that he had such clear connections with G-d that he could forecast coming plagues and bring them to a close. That had to be impressive to the Egyptian populace. And it was.

Yet, we see that Pharaoh’s cabinet – his servants at the palace – initially were skeptical. They weren’t sure if this was sleight of hand or some type of cutting-edge magic. But eventually they saw that Moses’s predictions were so sharp, and so obviously attuned to an otherworldly Master of the Universe, that they had to concede.

Even more, they had a close angle to observe Moses, the human being. They heard him speak, they saw his body language, they felt his passion and conviction. They saw a saintly man in action. That was deeply impactful, even beyond the supernatural plagues.

In this week’s Torah reading, as Moses prepares to warn Pharaoh about the tenth and final plague, the Torah testifies that “Moses, the man, was held in high esteem by Pharaoh’s courtiers and by his people.”

Moses, the man.

The Egyptians developed a deep respect for Moses the individual, aside from their submission to Moses the miracle-worker. They knew they were dealing with an outstanding human being, with deep intellect, profound empathy, and impeccable character.  

It strikes a chord in me.

This Shabbos, the 10th day of Shevat, we honor the 74th yahrtzeit of the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, which we also mark as the day that the Rebbe took over the leadership of Chabad-Lubavitch.

There are many articles and books about the Rebbe’s otherworldly vision and guidance, his incredible scholarship and his revolutionary leadership. The Rebbe was a giant, respected by leaders throughout the world.

But there is something distinctly awe-inspiring about the Rebbe, the man. There is something deeply moving about his deep love for, and focused guidance to, ‘regular’ people.

Every Shabbos, in Shul, we give out a double-sided page called ‘Here’s My Story’ (click here), which gives us a snapshot of the Rebbe’s care for a specific individual. I find those testimonies breathtaking.

G-d gifted me with more than 25 years of watching and listening to the Rebbe, of being in his [relatively] close orbit. Before the Rebbe passed away, I would have thought I could imagine the Rebbe’s sphere of influence.

Not even close.

We love you, Rebbe.

Make It Last

Early one morning, I got a call from a congregant. “Mendy,” he asked in a halting tone, “How would I know if I’m dead?”

Blindsided by the question, I asked,“Where are you?”

“In Chicago. O’ Hare Airport.”

“When did you go to Chicago?”

“This morning. I just arrived.”

“Are you okay? What happened?”

“When I left home early this morning, it was pouring. As I drove down the highway, I could see a few cars around me. All of a sudden, I hit a patch of water and lost control. My car did two full 360 degree turns and finally stopped. I can’t believe I survived, and that none of the cars hit me.”

After speaking this through for a while, my friend calmed down. I then asked: “Do you remember what you were thinking as your car spun so frighteningly?”

“I was thinking of my wife and kids. Hoping they’d be okay without me.”

We met the next day, to recap my friend’s experience, and I suggested a daily exercise for him: Spend a few moments in the morning, reliving the trauma of that near-death experience, and soaking in the clarity it brought, his prioritization of family. I wanted this painful experience to be transformative for days and years ahead.

Human inspiration tends to be flash-in-the-pan. Just google ‘New Year’s resolutions’ to see how long they last.

When G-d was hammering Pharaoh and the Egyptians with painful plagues, Pharaoh would come to a breaking point and agree to free his Israelite slaves.

Then, the Torah relates, “when Pharaoh saw there was relief, he went back to being obstinate, paying no heed to Moses…”

Pain and trauma teach us lessons, but they only become enduringly transformative if we pro-actively keep them alive in our hearts and minds.

For most of 2023, Israel went through a particularly acute period of internal strife about judicial reform. The vicious pogroms of October 7, brought Israeli – and global Jewish – society together. Irrespective of where we stand on the observance spectrum, we’re recognizing that we need each other, and we need to unite for Israel.

This unity can last. October 7's pain be channeled into growth for Jews as a people. 

It’s up to us. 

Time To Speak Up

The human psyche is complex and multi-layered. We don’t easily get to see or understand someone else’s deepest feelings, or even our own.

The Torah tells us that, while in Egyptian slavery, the Jews suffered sadistic abuse and murder at the hands of their captors. But “G-d saw the children of Israel, and G-d knew;” so G-d sent Moses to save the Jews.

Our Sages point out that the double language of G-d “seeing” and “knowing” the Israelites’ suffering describes two levels of recognition: “G-d saw” the physical abuse, and “G-d knew” the deep emotional scarring and traumatic impact that tormented the Jewish psyche.

The Jews had been living in Egypt as respected citizens. When the abuse began, and especially once any pretense of civility fell away, everyone was able to see the evils being perpetrated.

But, aside from the readily observable, how do you think the Jews really felt? They had been part and parcel of their society. Until they weren’t. They were now ‘other,’ as their Egyptian neighbors and associates watched – some with applause and some in silence – from the sidelines. How did that affect their fundamental faith in humanity?

So, the Torah tells us that “G-d knew.” G-d didn’t only see what was readily observable, G-d understood the torment of the Jewish soul, the emotional disgorging and upheaval of an entire people and all the psychological turbulence that it brought. And G-d sent Moses to speak up.

It’s safe to say this is an emotionally difficult time for Jews in America.

Imagine if - at the turn of this century - I had told you that within 25 years:

-          Jewish students wouldn’t feel safe on Ivy League campuses
-          Only 4% of elite American academics under 30 would be Jewish
-          NYC’s Congressional delegation would be down to one Jewish
Senator and one Jewish Representative.
-          Hamas would send thousands of marauders into Israel to murder, behead, rape, mutilate and abduct men, women, and children, from babies to the elderly, while recording many of the atrocities in real time to the open celebration of Palestinians. That the atrocities would be so undeniable that even the NY Times would – 10 weeks late – print a scathing in-depth report. And that, instead of the world finally gasping at the depth of savage hatred being nurtured in the Palestinian community, there would be regular demonstrations – in the U.S. by U.S. citizens – advocating the elimination of Israel.

You would have thought I had gone off a dystopian cliff.

So how are Jews REALLY feeling in our perplexing reality? G-d certainly sees and knows. Do you?

Speak up.

I Am Jew. Hear Me Roar

Sometimes you need to be blunt and call reality what it is. When protesting a wrong, one should maintain civility and composure, but that doesn’t preclude being forceful and indefatigable.

Over the past few weeks, the Torah readings have been the story of Joseph, who’s brothers had jealously sold him into slavery. After many years, Joseph rose to the position of Viceroy in Egypt, and his brothers approached him – not dreaming it was their long-sold brother – for help in a time of severe famine. Joseph wanted to grant them forgiveness, but wanted first to ascertain whether they regretted how they treated him, so he orchestrated relationship ‘stress tests’ to find out. He (falsely) accused his youngest brother Benjamin of stealing his royal goblet and threatened to keep him as a slave to see if the brothers would go the distance in protecting Benjamin.

Judah was an impoverished Hebrew in a foreign land. He was also a man about whom Jacob called “a fearsome lion, whom one doesn’t dare rouse”.  Judah spoke truth to power by saying: “You may not like hearing this, but you created our messy situation, and we don’t accept your proposal.”

I have early childhood memories of Jewish pride in the afterglow of Israel’s decisive 6-day war victory. Since then, I’ve witnessed Israel, and the global Jewish community, twisting themselves into pretzels trying to appease a world that seems to begrudge us any victory.

Judaism sets a Messianic era as our ultimate goal, which means we are always aiming for global peace, between people of all nationalities and faiths. But that doesn’t mean we should accept the gaslighting of our haters.

Since Judah is the ancestor from whom we – Judaism and Jews – take our name, let’s channel some Judah and roar some reality: 

1.       The Arab-Islamic empire is among the most successful colonialists in human history. In cases where they allowed subjugated populations to practice other faiths, they were forced to pay a special tax. They are estimated to have taken 14-17 million Africans as slaves. 20th century pan-Arabism is an attempt to create an Arab Empire of the Middle East. Tiny Israel stands in the way. Israel has never tried to conquer another country (all its wars are clearly defensive), and never compels other faiths to convert.

2.       In 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 181, partitioning Biblical Israel into two states, one Jewish and one Arab. The Arabs rejected the plan and attacked the Jews. The Jews fought back and won. There was a war, launched by the Arabs against their Jewish residents. And there was a victor: Israel. If you start a war in the hopes of conquering another’s land and instead you lose land, you don’t get a do-over.

3.       The Hamas charter rejects the UN resolution (otherwise known as ‘International Law’) as null and void. Hamas’ identifies Biblical Israel – in its entirety - as an “Arab Islamic land”. No room for Jews.

4.       ‘Ethnic Cleansing’ is the systematic targeting of a specific ethnic group for murder or displacement. In the 20th century, over 850,000 Jews were governmentally expelled from Muslim lands in the Middle East. The Israeli government supports and protects its citizens, irrespective of faith, asking only that they not treasonously wage war against their own country.

5.       There has never been an Israeli call for, or attempt at, the genocide of any people, including Palestinian, G-d forbid. At the same time, Hamas is issuing a loud call for Jewish Genocide (Globalize the Intifada, From the River to the Sea, etc.). Let that sink in. The silence of Israel’s Arab neighbors – and too many in American academia - tells us where they stand.

We, Judah, will not be silent.

Dig Deep

 The golden Menorah, the centerpiece of the Chanukah miracle, predates the story by more than a thousand years. It was constructed in the desert, shortly after the Exodus. G-d instructed us to build a portable Sanctuary, and one of the Holy articles was to be a golden seven-branched Menorah, to be kindled daily. It was this very same Menorah that the Maccabees lit when they retook the Holy Temple from its Hellenist invaders. 

But if that Menorah had seven branches, why do ours have eight (in addition to the ‘servant light’, usually raised in the center)? Why did our Sages, in structuring the Chanukah holiday, add a branch, changing for posterity the public image of the Menorah?

On one level, the eight branches commemorate the miracle of the oil lasting eight days, but we can memorialize that aspect by lighting a seven-branch Menorah for eight days. Why take the drastic step of adding a branch?

The number eight represents a level of Divinity beyond reality's natural order. [Seven represents the framework of life as we know it. In the construct of time, think of the week’s seven days. In space, imagine lines extending in all six directions (four directions, up and down), with one point in the middle serving as the nexus.] 

Moshiach, the Talmud tells us, will play a harp of eight strings, alluding to the otherworldly ‘melody’ Moshiach will bring to the world.

What does that have to do with Chanukah? 

The core lesson of Chanukah isn’t so much about what G-d did for the Jews, but about what the Jews did for G-d: The Hellenists weren’t unabashed, Hamas-like Jew-haters. They actually saw themselves as high-minded, tolerant progressives. They just wanted – in the name of their ‘high-minded’ values – to tweak Jewish practice. They wanted to ‘help’ the Jews, by forcing them (on pain of torture and death) to change some practices the Hellenists considered ‘outdated’.

Many Jews agreed, or played it safe, and gave into their demands. After all, the Hellenists weren't indiscriminately murdering them, or professing blind Jew-hatred. They were still able to remain Jews; just with toned-down practices.

But the Maccabees knew this didn’t pass their souls’ sniff test. They weren’t going to concede one iota of Jewish identity. They fought back, putting everything on the line, even though the odds of victory made no sense. Their tradition, their heritage, wasn’t up for negotiation.

They dug deep into their souls and connected with their core Jewish identity. G-d reciprocated by ‘digging deep,’ beyond nature’s parameters (represented by seven), and gave them a miraculous victory, and lights that kept burning even when they had no scientific basis for combustion.

Jews are presently facing turbulent times. We have each other, we have our glorious ancestry, and – most importantly – we always have G-d.

The Menorah’s light - especially today, the last day of Chanukah, when all eight lights are burning brightly - calls us to strengthen our connections. Do Jewish. Stay strong. 

We’ll make it through this.

 We always do.

Can We Have An 'I Am Joseph' moment?

Joseph and his ten brothers had a difficult relationship. It spiraled out of control until the brothers' jealousy overtook them and they abducted Joseph, ultimately selling him into slavery. A famine strikes the region. Joseph, the slave, presents Pharaoh with G-d’s plan for salvation. Pharaoh installs him as Viceroy, and charges him with implementing the plan, which saves Egypt.

When Joseph's brothers come from Israel in search of grain, they meet Joseph, whom they haven't seen in two decades. They don't recognize him, but Joseph recognizes them.

Joseph wants to ascertain whether his brothers regret how they treated him, and whether they've grown as human beings, so he orchestrates situations to test them. As Joseph discerns their deep repentance, he emotionally calls out to them: “I am Joseph!”

Suddenly recognizing what's been happening, the brothers are faced with an earth-shattering paradigm shift. Imagine hearing that you've been operating under a fundamental misconception; that you THINK you've been rationally assessing reality, but you've actually had it all wrong. Your mind begins to race as you revisit the decisions you made in the fog of this illusion.

We've all gone through paradigm shifts. Sometimes it's the slow dawning of a recognition, and sometimes it's a sudden, startling realization. Either way, it's a humbling experience.

But humility leads to growth. When we set aside our self-importance, we can learn a new perspective, and stop living a lie.

Fast forward to 2023 in the USA: The Jewish community has consistently been a brother in solidarity to those advocating justice for the vulnerable and marginalized. Jews in the media have consistently been on the front lines of those speaking truth to power and supporting citadels of ‘forward-thinking,‘ Higher Education. Brothers in solidarity, we thought.

Until October 7, when our brothers sold us out. What will it take for the media, ‘social justice’ groups, politicians, University administrations, etc. to have an “I am Joseph” moment?

If they watch footage from Hamas cameras, of sadistic rapes, tortures and murders, will they speak up?

If they learn that Israel unilaterally gave Gaza to the Palestinians in 2005, FORCIBLY removing Jews (including families who’d been there for generations), only to have the residents turn their new opportunity into a missile launching site, forcing Israel to protect its borders, will they stop calling Gaza an “open-air prison”?

Will ‘educated’ leaders of our top Universities ever acknowledge that - gaslighting aside - “from the river to sea” is unmistakably a call for Jewish genocide?

The list goes on, but who is open to hearing it? Are our ‘brothers’ humble enough to shift perspective?

Joseph’s brothers were able to change their attitude; sadly, the jury is still out on our present-day ‘brothers.’

But it's not looking good.

Still Seeking Peace

We Jews have had a long and painful history with Jew-hatred. Yet we’ve survived against all odds. How have we dealt with it? What has been our strategy?

The Midrash tells us that in ancient times, when Rabbis needed to approach their [usually hostile] rulers on behalf of Jewish interests, they would prepare by meditating on a specific section of Scripture. Many centuries later, Nachmanides, who endured harsh religious oppression in 13th century Spain and ultimately had to flee to Israel, writes that this was still a practice. (Actually, in some communities, it’s still a tradition to read that Scriptural section every Saturday night, at the close of the Shabbos, as we begin to face the world in the coming week.

Propitiously, this very section of Scripture will be read in synagogues around the world tomorrows: 

The Torah describes how our Patriarch, Jacob, prepared to meet his twin brother, Eisav. For two decades, Jacob has been on the run from Eisav, who had sworn to kill him.  Now, Jacob is returning to Israel, their ancestral land, with a large family and a thriving business. 

Jacob hopes that Eisav’s anger has dissipated, but he hears that Eisav has mobilized an army to confront him. So, Jacob prepares a three-pronged response:  1. Diplomacy: Jacob sends gifts to Eisav. 2. Strength: Jacob prepares for war. 3. Prayer. 

The meeting went well. Torah describes how Eisav actually embraced Jacob in a loving, brotherly way. While we know that Eisav hated Jacob until his death, and that he passed this animus to his descendants, he - in this instance - backed off his war plans. 

Mission accomplished.

This has been our historic, strategic template: Try to keep things peaceful, but make it clear that we’re not cowed; we’re prepared for confrontation if necessary. 

And pray to G-d for success.

For many years, millions of people in the Middle East have been raising their toddlers to hate Jews, and some of that venom is infecting us right here at home. Whether it’s in Israel or here in the USA, our goal is always peaceful co-existence, but we can’t back down when we’re being attacked. We need to stand strong against cancerous hatred. It’s the only way to deal with a bully.

And, of course, we pray to G-d, the miraculous Master of Jewish Survival.

Still Feeling Thankful....And Hopeful

Why are we called Jews?

Historically, the name traces back to Judah, the fourth-born of Jacob’s children. Jacob had four wives, and Leah was the first to bear children. She was overjoyed at the births of her first three sons. But when she had her fourth, feeling that he was more of a blessing than she could have hoped for, she named him Yehuda (Judah), which comes from the word thankful, saying “this time, I must [REALLY] thank G-d.”

So the term Jew reflects thankfulness, gratitude for our blessings.

My family and I recently visited Poland, to celebrate the ninetieth birthday of my father-in-law, Rabbi Nissen Mangel. My wife Malkie’s father suffered through seven Nazi death camps, where he saw much of his family, and his childhood, destroyed. Eventually, he made it to this free and tolerant country, where he rebuilt his life.

Now he was turning 90, and he wanted to experience the milestone by bringing his descendants – three generations – to the scene of the crime, Auschwitz. So 97 of us flew to Poland to celebrate…in the shadow of the Holocaust.

The trip still feels as surreal as it was inspiring. My father-in-law has, thank G-d, had many successes and joys in his life. He’s also experienced unspeakable pain. One can only imagine what he carries in his memory banks, in the scars of his soul. One can only imagine how he felt on the trip, revisiting sites where he narrowly escaped the Nazis’ evil clutches.

Yet, counter-intuitively to many, his oft-repeated theme for the entire trip was ”Offer thanks to G-d, for He is good; for His kindness is everlasting (Psalms 118:1).” And, amazingly, an upbeat spirit of gratitude permeated our large group, even as we visited the sites of mass torture and murder.

My father-in-law wasn’t denying and repressing his painful experience. He was very open about them. He was just insistent that they not be allowed to eclipse the co-existent beauty in his life. 

Deeply inspiring. And profoundly timely.

Jews are going through a rough patch. Jew-hatred is popping up at Universities and in otherwise-polite company. Our beautiful American tolerance and liberty is being perverted into a turn-a-blind-eye acceptance of savagery and the freedom to incite. As a born and bred American, incredibly proud of what our country has contributed to the world, it hurts. Perhaps naively, I really hadn’t expected this. We can do much better.

But, in the spirit of our trip, I won’t let it stifle my gratitude. And given our country's wonderful history, I still believe we WILL do better. Together.

G-d bless the USA.

Add 'Social Justice' To The List Of Hamas Captives

In our recent Torah readings, we’ve been seeing a pattern: Abraham, a deeply-loving spiritualist, ends up with a wild and destructive son, Yishmael, and Isaac and Rivka, lofty and empathetic exemplars, raise a vicious murderer, Esau. What’s the Torah’s message?

Yishmael and Esau were each gifted with a wonderful upbringing, and each had a golden opportunity to carry it forward in their own lives. But sometimes good – even great – values can be taken off the rails.

Yishmael, for example, grew up in an atmosphere of unconditional benevolence. As the boy’s self-gratification needs developed, he translated ‘unconditional benevolence’ into ‘there are no boundaries.’ So, he lived a life of undisciplined trespassing into other people’s lives. He warped the idea of “what’s mine is yours” into “what’s yours is mine.”

Esau similarly perverted his parents’ lofty values. While those details are beyond the scope of this essay, the Torah’s message that even sublime ideas can be taken to harmful places, is exactly my point.

‘Social justice’ is an ancient Jewish concept. While the wider world was regularly practicing savagery and cruelty, Isaiah consistently called on society to care for the disadvantaged and vulnerable. Over the past years, this beautiful notion seems to have energized many high-minded and good-hearted people to advocate for the marginalized and the mistreated.

How Can Decent People Support Savagery?

 

I just returned from a deeply emotional week in Poland. My father-in-law – a survivor of seven Nazi death camps – marked his 90th birthday by bringing 93 of his direct descendants (and spouses) to the scene of the crime.  There, despite the horrors he experienced, he wanted to express his profound gratitude to G-d for the miracle of his survival and for the gift of his post-Holocaust life.

It was unnerving to contemplate the Nazis’ methodical evil, and many Poles’ supporting roles, during those years of horror. 

Perhaps most unsettling was juxtaposing the world’s post-Holocaust reaction with the present reactions to Hamas’ pogrom. After the Holocaust, Germany clearly accepted responsibility. Many Poles ducked responsibility, claiming they were hapless victims, because they wanted distance from the moral travesty. Either way, the world didn’t excuse it. The world certainly didn’t celebrate it.

The world called evil by its name.

Fast forward 80 years, and we’re witnessing a very different response to the wanton torture and murder of innocents.  

Not every Palestinian is a terrorist, and not every Palestinian knew what Hamas was planning. But the populace elected Hamas as their leaders. They know that Hamas sent agents to torture and slaughter innocent men, women and children. They all saw – via the terrorists’ GoPros - proof of the savage attacks.

The citizens of Gaza know what happened. Yet, it appears that many Gazans, rather than going the German route of accepting responsibility, or even the Polish route of ducking culpability are – from what I can tell – condoning and celebrating the brutality.

But I’m even more disturbed by some reactions here, in our blessed land of religious freedom.

If people want to point out that innocent Palestinians are unfortunately dying in Israel’s campaign to destroy Hamas, I get it. It’s very sad. If they want to criticize Israel for those deaths, I disagree (I lay the full blame on Hamas); but I don’t consider that an immoral stance. It may just be misguided naiveté.

But what can I say about some fellow Americans (including, sad to say, a few Jews), in universities and in the streets, who – even after the world has seen proof of beheadings, rapes, burnings, kidnappings, etc. – demonstrate in support of Hamas and hold placards that call for the elimination of Israel (“from the river to the sea” means nothing less)?

I’m dumbfounded.

So, in my post Oct 7 daze, I pray for the kidnapped and for our brave IDF. I mourn the victims.

And I grieve the death, in too many quarters, of basic human decency.

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