Thursday, August 28, 2014

Of Prophets and Prestidigitators - Reflections on Parashat Shoftim 5774

A charismatic preacher comes along and says, "The 'Lawt' hath spoken unto me, and I speak unto thee in His name." Should we believe him? How do we know if he's telling the truth? What proof should we demand? Is he merely psychotic (like the disheveled soapbox 'messiahs' that roam the streets of Jerusalem)? Is he a crass opportunist like Shabbetai Zvi, he really the conduit of Gcd's Word, like a Moses or a Nathan or a Samuel, a person who demands our attention and respect? 

Intriguing question.

This week's Torah portion, Shoftim, deals with this very problem. But, whoa, horsey, let's back up a bit.

In Shoftim, Moses lays out the basic framework of Jewish leadership. He deals with the Cohanim/Levi'im, the priestly tribe, administrators of the Temple and the trustees of the sacred treasures of Judaism; with the king, whose power is delimited and whose high station never places him above the law; with the Judge/Rabbi, through whom justice is administered and Torah law applied to novel situations; and with the prophet, the holy soul through whom Gcd speaks to Israel and functions as the conscience of the nation.

As an aside: there is an interesting balance of powers between these positions of leadership. Two are hereditary, and two are meritocracies. Two deal with matters spiritual, and two deal with matters temporal. They are all interdependent and yet exclusive. Think of it - 3,000 years before the drafting of the US Constitution, the Torah understood the need to diffuse and balance power among different "branches" of government.

In the gestational period of our national being, we had, in the person of Moses, all four leadership duties rolled in to one man: Moses was king, prophet, judge/rabbi and High Priest. In his lifetime, he delegated the Office of High Priest to Aaron and the priesthood to Aharon's descendants. He also established the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of 71, as well as the system of lower and appellate courts. But here Moses, as he nears death, is telling us that in the future, these four poles of leadership would be distinct and separate.

Let's return to the question of our prophet. The verse states: 
And when you shall ask in your heart: how do we know if the prophet really speaks in Gcd's voice? Here's how you know: when the prophet claims to speak in Gcd's Name and the matter doesn't happen or come to pass - then you can be assured that Gcd didn't say it, that the 'prophet' willfully lied to you. Don't be afraid when he threatens doom. (Deut. 18:21,22)

We must say that the Torah's answer (wait and see) is not terribly helpful. It could take decades to vindicate this guy; great for the judgement of history, but pretty darn useless for practical decision-making in the here-and-now. Furthermore, the commentators bring cases where genuine prophets predicted things that didn't come to pass: the famous case of Jonah prophesying the destruction of Nineveh. The Ninevites did teshuvah and their city was spared. Or Jacob, whose death-bed prophesies were not fulfilled (according to some) because his children were not deemed worthy enough.

OK, what about performing miracles, signs and wonders? Ooh! That's impressive. Sorry, the Torah is not thrilled, as we learned earlier in Chapter 13. The performance of miracles, taken on their own, signifies nothing about the veracity or the divine favor of the miracle worker. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. A cheap trickster, a master of prestidigitation. Don' be a sucker.

What about the sine qua non of Judaism, the performance of the 613 mitzvoth? Perhaps a good predictor of the trustworthiness of our prophet and the source of the sounds in his head is his encouragement to the Jews to keep the mitzvoth? Ah, now we're getting somewhere. 

But sadly, this yardstick is also not absolute. We see later in the Torah that at moments of great national crisis, verified prophets have deviated from the 613. Elijah the Prophet established a private altar on Mount Carmel to confront the priests of Baal, in violation of an explicit commandment not to do so. Abraham, after a lifetime devoted to uprooting human sacrifice and other monstrous pagan rituals, wakes up one morning intent on offering his only son as a crispy burnt offering.

The commentators struggle mightily with this question, and the answers are all over the map.

I would like to suggest my own approach to the problem.

First, we are being shown what not to seek out in a prophet of Gcd: don't be conned by skillful orators, dynamic personalities and charismatic leaders. Louis Farrakhan is one of the most spellbinding and electrifying speakers that I have ever heard. His ability to hold an audience of thousands on the edge of its seat for three or fours hours is freakishly Hitlerian. And I make that comparison deliberately. Given the chance, he would impose his view of black supremacy on America like Hitler's Aryan supremacy myth on Germany. He is a dangerous man.

(If you've never heard him speak, here is a three minute clip of Farrakhan on the recent race riots in Ferguson, MO.)

In contrast, a true prophet of Gcd will be quiet, unassuming, humble; pious and modest in their personal behavior. No G5s, no mansions, no stretch limos or celebrity meet-and-greets. As the conscience of the nation, the true prophet will speak truth to power in a still, quiet voice, connecting only with those who are spiritually sensitive enough to hear it. 

The second lesson is that sometimes there is no ready-made answer: we have to start thinking things through for ourselves.

For forty years in the desert, Moses did all the cogitating for the Jewish People, all the intellectual heavy lifting. Have a question of law? Ask Moses. Need a dispute resolved? Find Moses. Missed offering the Paschal Lamb for reasons out of your control? Moses will ask Gcd for the answer.

Moses is saying; Look, I can't give you a simple rule on how to know who is a true prophet and who is a charlatan. You're going to have to noodle it through on your own. You can't rely on me to solve all your problems anymore; I'm not going to be around to pack your lunch and wipe your nose. There is a reason the very first blessing in the weekday amidah is "You graced humanity with knowledge, and instructed mankind in discernment; please continue gracing us with your wisdom, discernment and knowledge."  Your head is not merely a hat rack - think! Open your eyes and your ears. Use your head and your heart. 

What's his track record? That's one factor. How are his character traits? Another factor. Miracles? Another factor. Weigh all the factors. Don't be seduced by bling. And depending on the time and place, different factors may weigh differently.

In Moses' cryptic answer is a profound truth: Don't abandon reason at the doorstep of belief. The Torah says that the prophet's predictions must come true. Truth - capital "T" truth - has many facets, but they must somehow all fit seamlessly together. 

In providing a non-answer, Moses is demonstrating his abiding faith in our ability to eventually figure it out on our own.

Shabbat Shalom.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Rickety Rope Bridge - Reflections on Parashat Eikev 5774

Several people have asked that I post the drash I gave yesterday in shul. Here it is. - Y/

There is something very special about Sefer Devarim, the Book of Deuteronomy.  Unlike the other books of the Chumash, where we find Gcd speaking to - and through - Moshe to the Jewish People, this book is Moshe’s last will and testament. It is Moshe unchained – Moshe in his own words, his own living legacy; a series of orations delivered over the final weeks of his life to that eager and impatient generation, standing as they were on the east bank of the Jordan, chafing at the bit to begin the conquest of the Land of Israel.

If you listen closely during the Torah readings, this difference in voice can be heard in the ta’amei hamikrah, the cantillations used to sing the Torah verses in public. Devarim just plain sounds different. The difference is nuanced, but it’s there.  

And just as the rest of the Torah was written not for only for the generation that received it, but for all generations, in all times and in places, so, too, is Moshe’s last will and testament directed not only at the specific generation of Joshua. Its wisdom is transcendent, independent of time and place; and that’s why Gcd wanted Moshe’s words appended to His own.

Moshe’s message in this week’s parasha is as timely today, this week, right now, as it was 3286 years ago when he first spoke it. The words jump off the page and grab you by the lapels. He’s so on the ball you’d think Moshe had a current subscription to the New York Times.

Moshe’s message resonates with us precisely because of troubled times in which we live.

In Europe, we are witnessing an emboldened Jew-hatred at levels not seen since the 1930s. England, where Jew-hatred used to be more subtle and refined, now openly boasts “Israel-Free” cities. And here in America, Judaism is under a threat of a different kind: we are euthanizing ourselves, committing spiritual Hari Kiri.  It seems that the good-hearted American Jew will champion every cause under the sun - every cause, that is, except his own survival and self-interest.

And then we have the situation in Israel. For the last two months, the entire Jewish world was united – first in worry and angst, then grief and anguish – over the abduction and murder of our three teenaged sons and the Gaza War against Hamas which followed. But all of that was against a generalized backdrop of worry about Israel.

Israel, the first sprouting of the promised Messianic redemption, is under siege in international forums around the world. Israel has been in a state of war since 1948. The Home Front Defense Ministry estimates that Israel has some 200,000 rockets and missiles of various ranges and capabilities aimed at her.    

Then we have the Syrian crisis. The bloody and intractable Syrian civil war threatens to spill over to the Golan at any time.   

And ISIL. Having conquered large swaths of Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State threatens the stability of the Kingdom of Jordan on our eastern border.

And then there is the over-arching existential threat of a nuclear Iran.

Many of us are understandably scared and worried about these developments.

To us, Moshe conveys a message of hope and encouragement in this week’s Torah portion:

Vchi Tomar Bilvavcha/Perhaps you will say in your heart: my enemies are more numerous than me; I’m overwhelmed and worried about how we will survive their attacks. Hamas. Hezbollah. Islamic Jihad. Fatah. ISIL. Iran.

Do not fear them! (Moshe says.) Remember what Hashem did to the most powerful military machine on the planet, to Pharaoh and to all of Egypt. In the same way that Hashem miraculously delivered you from their hand; in the same way that Hashem miraculously delivered you from Og king of Bashan, and Sichon king of the Amorites; in the same way that Hashem miraculously delivered you from the Syrian Greeks; in the same way that Hashem fought for you in 1948 and in 1967, and again in 1973, against all odds and against all the prevailing wisdom; so shall Hashem your Gcd do to the people whom you now fear.

Don’t cower before them; for Hashem our Gcd is in our midst, the Great and Awesome Gcd.

OK, so maybe I paraphrased a little…

But the intent of Moshe’s words are clear. Don’t fear; to the contrary, take heart. Don’t be overwhelmed by the troubling news, for there is also much good news, and much to be grateful for.

I was blown away this week by news of a social media campaign organized by  Individuals from all over the world have taken to writing the words I Stand With Israel on the palm of their hand and then taking a picture of their hand together with the passport of their respective country. To date, thousands of people from 136 countries Stand with Israel. (There are only 196 countries on the planet.) Even people in Pakistan and Iran sent in pictures. May Gcd bless them and strengthen them.

Wow. So don’t be afraid, take heart. Yihyeh tov – it’s going to be OK, it’s all going to work out.

Like the famous teaching of Rebbi Nachman of Breslov: Kol HaOlam Kulo Gesher Tzar Meod, VehaIkar Lo Lefached Klal.  "The whole world is a narrow bridge; but the main thing  is not to fear." We find ourselves walking a dangerous rope bridge over a gaping canyon, but the trick is not to look down. Keep moving forward and look ahead; Gcd is saying: ‘keep your eyes glued on me’ - look up to the mountain tops – as the verse in Psalms 121 famously says, whence our help will come.

The seven weeks between Tisha B’Av & Rosh Hashanah are called the shiva d’nechemta – the seven weeks of consolation. The consoling, inspiring message of this week’s parsha to us is: Don’t despair! Keep your chin up! Blessing and salvation beyond our wildest imaginings are in the offing.

May we all here today merit to see the day when Gcd’s supernal light floods the world with radiant goodness, with abundant love and with the blessings of peace.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places - Reflections on Parashat Va'etchanan 5774

In this week's Torah portion, Moses makes a very mystical (dare we say delphic?) promise:
Guard [the mitzvoth] and do them, for they are your wisdom and insight in the eyes of the peoples, that when they hear of these laws, they will say: what a wise and discerning people is the nation of Israel! For what other great nation has the One True G-d so close to them, as is Hashem our G-d, when we call out to Him? And what nation has a more just code of laws than this Torah which I place before you today? (Deut. 4:6 ff)
Moses is saying that the extent to which we keep the Torah is the extent to which we will be respected by the other nations. 

Say what? Our common Jewish experience, throughout our history and right up to today, has been the exact, polar opposite. The nations don't respect us; they despise us. And the more we cling to our holy lifestyle and values, the more we assert out unique weltanshauung, the more we insist on the right to merely exist, the more scorn, ignominy and abuse they heap upon us. 

Boycott. Divest. Sanctions. Blood libels. Jewish soldiers kill Arab babies for sport. The world would be at peace if the UN hadn't created the State of Israel. Hitler should have finished the job. Israelis are Nazis. Jews commit genocide. Jews commit war crimes. Israel is an apartheid state. Jews own Hollywood. Jews own the newspapers. Jews run the world. 

I'm not feelin' the love.

So we must ask: did Moses get it wrong?

Let's sharpen the question: We have a stirring prophecy from Zephaniah, a prophetic contemporary of Jeremiah. He foretold that, "At that time I will bring you, and at that time I will gather you in, and I will give you renown and praise among the Nations, when I bring you back from your captivity before your very eyes, says Hashem." (Zephaniah 3:20) 

We expand on this idea in our morning prayers: "Show us a good omen, and gather in the exiles from the four corners of the earth, that the Nations of the world will recognize and know that You are the One True G-d."

News flash: almost half of the world's Jews have already been gathered in to the Land of Israel, and if current trends hold, the majority of the world's Jews will be in Israel within about ten years. The diaspora is over, doomed. We are witnessing, indeed living, the era of the ingathering of the exiles - that much is clear. But...where is the miraculous epiphany among the nations that's supposed to accompany the Great Return? 

..."In a shocking development, UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, addressed a rare joint session of the General Assembly and Security Council, stating simply: 'Oops! We were wrong. The Land of Israel does indeed belong to the People of Israel, bequeathed to them by the Gcd of Israel. (I don't know why we didn't make that connection before...) Anyway, no hard feelings, right? and...could I get that gefilte fish recipe? I've secretly loved that stuff for years.'"


Jews have been trying to get non-Jews to like us since forever. 'Why do you hate us?' we ask in different ways in every generation. Like immature, moody teenagers, some Jews try to get recognition and acceptance from society by modeling the behavior of the pack. If we dress like you, talk like you, eat your food, buy into your values, laugh at your jokes (even when we're the butt of them), then maybe you'll like us, right? But, alas, it hasn't worked.

Some Jews sought an economic solution to Jew-hatred. Socialism declared the capitalist to be the common enemy, and the Jewish and gentile proletariat would unite to fight the ills of economic inequality. Only that didn't work either. Stalin's bloody purges of the 1930s effectively cleansed the Communist Party of the many Jews that were instrumental to the initial success of the Communist Revolution. The purges were, in essence, a Red pogrom.

Others sought a political solution. If only Jews had their own country, then we would stand as brothers, shoulder to shoulder, with the nations of the world in dignity. Then we'll be worthy of their love. 

Some delusional Israelis still cling to the vain belief that one day, Jews will sit in the shuks of Damascus, Beirut and Amman, drinking Turkish coffee, passing around a hookah and playing sheshbesh with their adoring Arab neighbors. We see how well that's worked out: rockets and missiles raining down on our heads, and murderers popping up out of tunnels in our backyards.

We've been looking for love in all the wrong places.

The truth is that Moses and Zephaniah were not wrong; we moderns merely misinterpret them. 

When this conundrum was posed to Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, he answered as follows: Are we naive enough to think that, as we Jews return home, the Nations of the world will roll out the red carpet in a spontaneous outpouring of love? That the Arabs will pick flowers for us, and Europe will knit us quilts and cozies?

Of course we will have vexing new social, political, economic and diplomatic challenges; in light of the fact that we've been out of the game for 2,000 years, it's only to be expected. But these are good problems to have; they are the problems of self-governance.

Rabbi Soloveitchik famously wrote that there are three unique perspectives to understanding and interpreting the history of Western Civilization: Christian, Muslim and Jewish. All three have staunch adherents who are unshakable in their faiths; but the three worldviews are mutually incompatible, meaning only one can be true in the end.

The nations are genuinely alarmed at the return of the Jews to their ancient homeland. The fulfillment of the prophetic verses of Zephaniah - by definition - demolishes the pillars of the other faith systems. The consequences of this reality are too frightening to bear, so they must fight us. 

But their ferocious hostility to Israel and the Jewish People, the very fact that they oppose our presence on the Land, the absurdity of their arguments, the monstrous lies they disseminate; within all that hot mess is an implicit, reflexive recognition of our worldview, of Torah, and of the G-d to whom we cling. 

"...that the Nations of the world will recognize and know that You are the One True G-d." Their thunderous objections are the very recognition of which Moses and Zephaniah speak. That recognition won't come in the form of kisses and hugs (who ever said it would?) but in a grudging resentment; an unarticulated respect that can never be openly conceded.

To be sure, there are many gentiles, especially among the Evangelical Christian communities and the persecuted Arab Christian minorities, as well as some isolated Muslim voices, who recognize the Hand of G-d in the success story that is the State of Israel and the improbable survival of the Jewish People. Gcd bless and strengthen them and may their numbers grow.

But most follow the money: 1.5 billion Muslims on one side of the scale versus a mere 15 million Jews on the other - yep, we're throwing our lot in the Arabs, we're backing the heavy favorite. The British, for example, have been prostituting themselves for petrodollars since the 1920s; they've been thoroughly co-opted. Is it any wonder that in England today the most common baby name for newborns is Mohammed?

But the numbers don't tell the whole story. When we Jews are loyal to our mission - when we keep the mitzvoth, and love the Lcrd our Gcd with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our might - we consistently beat the odds.

So don't fret too much about the haters; the louder the objections, the more certain we can be that Gcd and history are on our side. 

Shabbat Shalom.