Watch What You Say

In this week’s parasha, Ki Teitsei, in the midst of a description of rules about what to do about leprosy, the proper treatment of slaves, and lending money to fellow Israelites, we find this verse that seems to be out of context:

“Remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam on the journey after you left Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 24:9)

What is it that God did to Miriam? She was punished with a form of leprosy because she spoke disparagingly about her brother Moses in public (Aaron, who also gossiped about Moses, was oddly not punished). It’s not precisely clear why this reminder about the perils of evil speech is found in this location in the Torah.

Rabbi Isaac Kook suggests that we are reminded about Miriam’s sin in this particular context because the seriousness of her punishment reflects the grandeur of Moses:

“The Torah relates (Numbers 12:1-15) how Miriam spoke against her younger brother Moses for neglecting his wife. Miriam felt that the fact that Moses was a prophet was not an excuse for his behavior. ‘Is it only to Moses that God speaks? Does He not also speak to us?’…Far worse than her sin of slander, Miriam erred in her evaluation of the nature of Moses’ prophecy. Had Moses been just a regular prophet, Miriam would have been correct in her criticism. But in fact, Moses’ prophetic vision was on a higher plane than common prophecy. Moses’ vision was not distorted and murky, but crystal-clear, As a result, the Five Books of Moses are on a higher level than the other books of the Bible. No prophet may challenge or contradict Moses’ prophecies. It is for this reason that we are admonished to remember Miriam’s punishment for speaking against Moses. By recalling her mistake, we are reminded to appreciate the unique nature of Moses’ prophetic vision.” Rabbi Abraham Isaac Ha-Kohen Kook

Nachmanides (also known as the Ramban, 1194-1270, Spain and Israel) links the recollection about Miriam’s sin to what he defines as a positive commandment in the Torah to use appropriate speech when talking about others. Ramban praises Miriam’s righteousness, but suggests that this one act severely diminished her:

“‘If you wish to guard yourself against being stricken with leprosy, do not speak slander.’ This is Rashi’s language. And in my opinion this actually is a positive commandment, like ‘Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy’ (Exodus 20:8); ‘Remember this day, in which you came out from Egypt’ (13:3); ‘Remember what Amalek did to you’ (25:17) – which all are commandments. If so, this verse, too, is like those, it being an admonition against speaking slander. He commanded by way of a positive precept that we remember the great punishment that God inflicted upon the righteous prophetess who spoke only about her brother upon whom she had bestowed her mercy and whom she loved as herself. And she spoke nothing wrong to his face, but only in private, between herself and her holy brother Aaron. Yet all her good deeds were of no avail to her!”

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb (American Rabbi, former head of the Orthodox Union) also pursues the idea that Miriam’s sin reminds us of the damage that can be done by the irresponsible use of words, not only spoken by sent electronically:

“Recalling Miriam’s misdeed is especially valuable today. Nowadays, through the power of electronic instant communication, words can be sent to millions of people in microseconds. If these words are negative, they can harm individuals instantly, without even the possibility of recourse or recall. Not a day goes by when we do not receive emails or read Internet reports which damage reputations of individuals, without due process and without the remotest possibility of defending themselves. Imagine if emails were limited to complimentary statements and words of praise. Imagine if the blogs and websites were replete with stories of human accomplishment, altruism, and heroism. It would be a happier world for sure. And it would be a world closer to that which the Almighty intended.”

Without doubt, the use of electronic media has made hurtful speech an even more potentially dangerous and damaging act. For one thing, what we say electronically can be circulated to countless more people than the spoken word, and it can happen in the time it takes to press the “send” key on a computer. Beyond that, sending an e-mail is an impersonal act, a communication done without having to face the other person. For some, that may make it possible to say things they might not otherwise say to someone’s face. While that can be empowering for the person who has trouble communicating with someone they may find intimidating, it can also be dangerous. The restraint we feel when talking with someone face-to-face may not be present when we send an e-mail to the same person.

Choosing our words carefully and with sensitivity to the feelings of the people we are addressing is an especially relevant message at this time of the year as we prepare to celebrate the New Year. As we go about a personal “inventory” of our deeds and behaviors, as we scrutinize how we act toward others, we should elevate the way we speak to a high level of self-assessment and scrutiny. While it’s unlikely that we’ll suffer leprosy for committing an act of hurtful speech, the pain and embarrassment that improper speech could cause others, including what we say electronically, would be much worse.

If I Am Not For Myself

Over the past six months, I’ve lost 42 lbs. My doctor prodded me over the years to lose weight and though I had made countless attempts I never succeeded. I can’t say definitively what enabled me to take off that much weight this time. When people have asked what diet I followed, I’ve answered that I really didn’t follow a prescribed diet at all. Instead, I made an inner decision to eat differently. I made a decision to indulge myself less and to eat the foods that we know promote good health. I have a strong feeling that I have changed my eating habits permanently and that I won’t ever gain back the weight I’ve lost. My next challenge is to complete the transformation of my body by increasing endurance and developing an exercise habit. Now that I’ve lost the weight I needed to lose, I sense that I will finally be able to accomplish that goal. I certainly have more tangible incentive than ever before. I feel as though I have given myself a very important and lasting gift.

It’s fair to say, I think, that life can be viewed as concentric circles. Each of us stands in the center of our series of circles. Next to us are the people closest to us—family and close friends. The circles widen to encompass neighbors, casual friends, distant relatives, acquaintances, co-workers. At the outer reaches of the circles are strangers we encounter who enter our lives as fellow human beings to whom we owe a measure of courtesy and compassion. I find this image relevant and meaningful because we cannot relate meaningfully to those who inhabit the circles around us if we are not attentive to our own needs and desires. We must tend to ourselves first in ways that are both tangible and spiritual. We each must see to our own well-being, our physical and spiritual good health. Doing so sharpens and brightens our outlook on life. Taking care of ourselves first positions us to be attentive to others.

This Jewish month, Elul, the last month of the year, is traditionally devoted to introspection and increasing self-awareness. We are asked to look at how we live our lives, what we value, what commitments we are willing to make and uphold. Our tradition does not advocate a self-centered posture, an attitude of prioritizing ourselves rather than reaching out to others. Rather, we are taught that the prerequisite to approaching others to heal or brighten our relationships is to look inward first and strengthen ourselves.

The great sage Hillel said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” He was, intentionally or not, offering worthy advice for the month of Elul. First, look inward. Discover your faults, identify your shortcomings, tend to your spiritual and physical health, and mend what needs to be fixed. Personal renewal will open the door to renewing our relationships with others, and will open our eyes to the innumerable circles that surround us.

Is It A Good Deal?

Is the Iran Nuclear Agreement a good deal?

Truth be told, I’d have to say that I’m not sure. On the one hand, even with sanctions in place over a period of years and word that the Iranian economy was on the verge of collapse, they were still reportedly only a couple of months away from having enough nuclear fissile material to build a bomb. Even with tough sanctions in place, they were still able to build, and protect, complex sites where uranium was being enriched. So I’m inclined to think that any agreement that puts limits on Iran’s ability to develop its nuclear program is a win for those who fear what would happen if they actually had an arsenal of nuclear weapons.

True, the inspection protocol agreed to seems weak and insufficient, despite claims that it’s “airtight.” And I fail to understand why there is a sunset clause on the agreement. As one observer put it, all the Iranians have to do in order to acquire a nuclear weapon is to be patient. The answer some have given to that quandary, that 10-15 years is at least something, seems quite lacking to me.

On the other hand, it seems that the agreement lets a wild animal out of its cage and makes it stronger. The agreement completely overlooks the fact that Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, and that the lifting of sanctions will accomplish the goal of funding Iran’s terror machine. Even if they spend four out of five dollars available from newly found money on rebuilding infrastructure in their country, that would still leave tens of billions of dollars in the hands of the Republican Guard, the secretive arm of the Iranian government that is responsible for terrorist activity around the globe.

As an ardent Zionist and supporter of the State of Israel, I cringe at the way Iran will feel newly empowered to cause trouble for Israel. There is strong reason to believe that they will strengthen Hezbollah, make their missiles (really, Iran’s missiles) more lethal, and possibly open a second front against Israel from Southern Syria. My assessment of whether or not the agreement is good is based on whether Israel is more or less at risk as a result of it. And I am inclined to think that Israel is more threatened because of the Iran Nuclear Agreement.

I have to decide soon whether or not to urge my representatives to oppose the agreement when Congress votes on it. And so do you.

Whether we favor or oppose the agreement, as Jews and supporters of Israel we certainly cannot be apathetic or indifferent. What we need to make a decision is clear information, accompanied by robust discussion and debate.

Toward that end, I’ve invited Matan Shamir, Executive Director of United Against Nuclear Iran, to speak to us at “Tapas and Torah” this Friday night (service at 8:00 PM, Tapas and presentation at 8:30 PM). Mr. Shamir and his organization may be against the Iran Nuclear Agreement, but I have spoken with him about the need for objectivity. He will not speak as if he is on a mission to persuade us to oppose the deal. He will not skew the facts toward his position. He will lay out why those who support the deal hold that view, and why those who oppose it do so.  He will make suggestions for how the deal could be improved from his perspective.  He will take questions and answer them objectively.

I urge you to be at Oheb Shalom this Friday evening, not primarily for the tapas of course, but for the opportunity to learn and discuss a truly crucial and momentous decision facing us as Americans and as Jews.

It Just Isn’t Jewish

We should all be aware of and concerned about two violent and tragic incidents that took place in Israel last week. The first of these incidents took place a week ago at Jerusalem’s annual Gay Pride Parade. In a region where gay rights are unheard of and where tyrannical leaders openly deny the existence of homosexual people living in their countries, Israel is a beacon of tolerance, freedom and inclusion. Despite the fact that the city’s ultra-orthodox Jews deem homosexuality to be forbidden by Jewish law (as do many mainstream Orthodox Jews around the world), Judaism’s holiest city holds an annual Gay Pride parade. At this year’s parade, a deranged man, Yisshai Schlissel, stabbed a 16-year old girl, Shira Banki, who was marching in the parade. She later died of her wounds. Making the incident even more outrageous, Schlissel had just been released from prison where he served a 10-year sentence for assault on another gay person (an investigation is now underway as to why Schlissel was released only two weeks prior to this year’s parade, apparently setting in motion another act of assault).

The second incident, perpetrated by Jewish extremists affiliated with a group known as “Tag Mechir” (Hebrew for “price tag” and referring to the “price” to be imposed after a Palestinian act of terror is committed against Israelis), involved someone firebombing a Palestinian home in Duma, near Nablus. This horrendous act of violence caused the death of an 18-month old baby asleep in the home, and serious injuries to the baby’s 4-year old brother and parents. Spray painted on the home was the Hebrew word “Nekama” (revenge), signaling the attitude and intentions of these cowardly criminals.

The two incidents are not identical, for one was committed by a person who is surely deranged (he is now being examined to see if he is fit to stand trial). What they have in common is that, in both cases, the perpetrators believed they were upholding the teachings and values of Judaism.

In the aftermath of these two horrifying incidents, Israeli officials are slowly turning their attention to the ugly phenomenon of Jewish terrorists. Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon approved detention without trial for an individual being questioned about the incident, and Isaac Herzog, head of Machane Tzioni (the Labor Party), posted on his Facebook page that Jewish terrorists should suffer the same fate as Arab terrorists, including home demolitions and long prison terms. These gestures are reasonable and appropriate, though they are viewed by many in Israel as too little, too late. Israel has long overlooked the problem of Jewish terrorists and now has to act quickly to defeat those who act violently in the name of Judaism. Indeed, anyone who is a Zionist, wherever they may live, must denounce these horrible acts as cowardly and unbecoming the values of the State of Israel.

But these acts are more than unbecoming the values of the State of Israel. They are entirely un-Jewish. The people who firebombed the home of a Palestinian family, killing an infant and endangering the lives of his parents and brother, did what they did not only because they are extremists who wanted to rid the land of Palestinians and punish innocent people with a sick act of revenge. They are supposedly religious Jews, people who pray regularly, who think they are following God’s commandments, people who keep Shabbat and the holidays, who study in Yeshivot and learn Torah.

I can say, indeed we all can say, that these people are utterly unrecognizable as Jews. This wasn’t an instance of someone committing a sin for which repentance is required in the hope of forgiveness (though what was done was surely sinful). Their acts represented a Jew distorting the teachings of Judaism in order to justify violence and murder in the name of Judaism.

We must recognize that there are Jewish terrorists living in the State of Israel who believe that acts of violence are appropriate and even justified by the Torah. We must denounce such acts of violence, and prosecute those who commit them to the fullest extent of the law. And we who cherish Judaism, who respect its teachings and who love the Torah, must stand up to say that no one, ever, may commit an act of violence for the sake of revenge and call that act Jewish. For there is nothing about such an act that is even remotely akin to the Judaism that we know and love.