Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Navonim - The Ramblings of Garnel Ironheart

Friday, 25 July 2008

The Knock at the Door

Those of us with the misfortune to live in Golus know what that knock at the door means. It's yet another group of meshulachim from Israel requesting money for a variety of causes. In larger communities, I understand that it's possible to get over a dozen on a sunny Sunday and almost as many in the course of any given week. Fortunately, I live in a small community so we don't see them on a regular basis but rather they come in spurts.
The other advantage of being off the beaten track is that only those who are passionate about their need for collection tzedakah will make the trip out to our community. This means having to deal with far less than folks in the larger community next door (something I occasionally use as a selling point when trying to convince people to move here).
Ah, but you may be asking: why am I portraying these men in a negative light? After all, Chazal tell us that more than the giver does for the taker, the taker does for the giver because of the greatness of the mitzvah of tzedakah that he earns. And this is quite true.
In truth, I have no problem with helping needy causes. I recognize that God has been quite generous and kind with me, far more than my personal performance of miztvos and chesed could ever come close to justifying. One of the prominent commentators on the Aseres Hadibros notes that the underlying reason for the commandment to not envy thine neighbour is because one must always remember that what one has came from God and that therefore one shouldn't try to decide how things should be apportioned in this world. If a man comes to my door with an outstretched hand, should I not see this as an opportunity sent by God? This man's money is in my possession and God gave it to me to give to him so that He could also give me the opportunity of helping my fellow. In this light, these meshulachim should be treasured.
Then there's the educational value. Imagine one's children watching you give tzedakah and treating total strangers with respect. If one wishes to inculcate one's children with the importance of ahavas Yisrael, is there a better way to do it?
So why is it that when I hear the knock at the door my shoulders sag and my lips mutter "not again"?
Perhaps it is my own personal arrogance but I also believe that beggars cannot be choosers, as the old adage goes. I am happy to give generously if need be but I expect that whatever I hand out will be taken with at least a slight smile and "thank you".
Last night, though, that didn't happen. We had three guests from Israel at the door. The first came with a very efficient presentation, had his request all organized and was effusive in his thanks when I handed him the cheque. The second, however, caused me to nearly lose my temper. He was collecting for a Bratzlover yeshiva in the Old City and when I gave him the cheque, he looked at it and announced that if I were only to double the amount, then I would get a blessing from Heaven. My donation to his cause was too small for a blessing?! And when I refused, he continued to argue with me, pointing out how much to my benefit my generosity would be. I noted that the local community also has great needs and I have to think of them first. He pointed out that he had come a long way. I pointed out that I hadn't actually invited him in the first place! Finally, after five minutes of argument he grudgingly took the cheque and left.
Then came the third man who got angry with the amount I gave him (not a small amount). He had been expecting more and seemed to be outraged that he hadn't received it. By this point, I was tired of the whole encounter and told him in no uncertain terms to leave before I took the cheque back and sent him away with nothing.
And today I remain confused. On one hand, I am happy to give. On the other, these people clearly have legitimate needs. Who am I to say no to them? On what authority do I do that? Is there still a blessing on such tzedakah?

Abdicating Intelligent Thought

Two of the greatest gifts God ever gave us are freedom of choice and the ability to think intelligently when using it. Given that God Himself exhorts us to make choices for ourselves, it seems that there is at least some obligation on us to live our lives through intelligent choices. We learn the material (Torah) from qualified instructors (rabbonim) and then use that information to live our daily lives in consonance with what we believe God Himself wants from us, as much as humanly possible.
For some people, this can be a daunting task. After all, if the goal of a Torah lifestyle is fulfilling God's will with every action, which perforce means that the wrong action is against His will and therefore a sin, then the level of responsibility in being a Jew is quite high. For many, it might be too much responsibility to handle.
I was thinking of that while reading the latest article on Cross-Currents from Rav Yitzchok Adlerstein. This article addresses the alleged disrespect ba'alei teshuvah face in the Chareidi world. To my surprise, he did not use the approach other authors on that site do, which would be to deny the problem even exists and then attack those who claim is does as misguided. Instead, he noted that there are many ba'alei teshuvah (BT) that feel slighted or rejected by the frum-from-birth (FFB) brethren and explained eloquently why BT's should, in fact, be warmly and enthusiastically welcomed into the Chareidi community. (Presumable someone MO who became Chareidi would also be considered a BT but that's a subject for another post).
So far so good.
It was his reply to the various comments that caught my eye.
As I have written before, I am cheered by the school some of my grandchildren attend in Dallas, which welcomes not-yet-frum kids and does not make their mothers sign a tzniyus agreement - all in consultation with a major American rosh yeshiva.
Never mind the idea that there are tznius arrangements in certain religious schools in the Chareidi community. That idea is already bizarre and strikes me, to be honest, as fascist. It's the final words of the paragraph that caught my eye: "all in consultation with a major American rosh yeshiva."
Now, as readers of my medical model of halachah know, I would agree that there is a strong role to be played by roshei yeshiva and poskim in the daily halachic lives of observant Jewry. However, just as the average person does not need a subspecialized cardiologist to tell him that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables is healthy and desirable, so too does the average Jew not need a rosh yeshivah to tell him that ahavas Yisrael and allowing non-frum children to receive a frum education and, by inference, positive influence from the frum peers, is a good idea.
I could ask three questions back of this paragraph: first, why did a major American rosh yeshiva have to be consult? Does the local community not have a Rav? Is he not competent to make decisions on his own? Why would the layfolk go over his head? And if it was with his encouragement, what kind of community leadership is he showing?
Secondly, why did a Rav have to be consulted at all in such a manner? One gets the impression that if the rosh yeshiva, who presumably does not live in the community and probably isn't familiar with it had say "no" then the non-frum would have been deliberately excluded from this school. Yet how sensible a decision is that?
And third, why did the Rosh Yeshiva answer the question at all? He's not the community's Rav. This wasn't a matter of deciding a difficult question in halachah. Why was the answer not: Listen, I don't live there. I don't know your intricate community structure or needs. Ask the local Rav. Are Chareidi layfolk considered children by their leaders that need rabbinical permission for even the simplest initiatives? Are Chareidi layfolk so docile that they can't do anything for themselves unless a prominent Rav says it's okay?
Years ago I had a friend who converted to Judaism and was given a mashpiah by the Beis Din supervising the process. He was encouraged to turn to this person whenever he had a question about something, however trivial. It got to the point where we would joke with him about which brand of toilet paper his mashpiah orders him to buy.
On one hand, for important matters that require guidance, a Rav should certainly be consulted. After all, one must live one's life in accordance with halachah and it is the Rav who has spent time educating himself in that very system. Remember that when one strips away all the liberal roles that Conservatism and Reform have attached to the job description, the Rav is really just a teacher, albeit of the most important subject in the world.
But for some matters, one must also remember that the fifth section of the Shulchan Aruch is Sechel Yashar, Common Sense. Things which increase ahavas Yisrael (especially during this time of year) and create a sense of community amongst all Jews without compromising the integrity and observance of halachah don't need a stamp of approval from some higher authority. They are the purview of all Jews who have made their choice and have chosen to live their lives in accordance with God's Holy Torah.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

The End of Gilad Shalit

Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser were recently returned to Israel as part of a prisoner exchange. The two soldiers, may God avenge their blood, were kidnapped from the Israeli side of the border by Hezbollah terrorists in 2006 just before the Lebanon Debacle began. They were finally sent home but unfortunately they travelled in their coffins. Their captors had decided it wasn't worth keeping them alive and had ended their lives in brutal fashion.
There has been much comment on the validity and appropriateness of the exchange since it happened. The price Israel paid for their bodies was high: Samir Kuntar, an unrepetant terrorist with much Jewish blood on his hands along with other unreformed Jew murderers. In contrast to the Hezbollah, Israel returned these men alive and unharmed. From the few pictures I've seen, Kuntar was far from distressed by his stay in Israel. It seems he was quite well fed and cared for while in custory.
Was it worth it? My person answer is: No. Now, before I explain why I will acknowledge the horrible pain the Reged and Goldwasser families have gone through over the past two years. I cannot claim to understand how they have suffered and I don't dismiss their desire to see their sons buried at home with some dignity.
But I am also not the leader of a state whose responsibility is to pursue policies that are best for that entire state even if some of its citizens are not in agreement with them. And in this regard, like in so many others, I believe that Ehud Olmert and his henchmen failed miserably.
Consider what Israel was created for: a refuge for the Jews of the world where they could finally walk proudly, build their own society and show the world that for the first time in 1900 years Jewish blood was no longer cheap.
What this deal has done is put a lie to that belief. Jewish blood, it seems, is quite cheap. If one lives in Sderot or Ashkelon, one cannot walk in the streets without worrying that a rocket from 'Aza will suddenly rain down on the street. And if they do and a citizen is killed, his government will not exact retribution for it. Rather, we will be reminded that if Israel is being attacked, it is because it hasn't weakened itself enough yet!
The lesson from the prisoner exchange is also clear. Kidnaps a Jewish soldier and even if you kill him, the Israelis will still give you whatever you want for his body. No matter how outrageous the price, Israel will pay it because of some "Jewish value" of morality and decency. This same state which pays mere lip service, or less, to mainstream Jewish values like Shabbos or family purity suddenly became frum when it came to this deal?
And this will bode very poorly for Gilad Shalit, assuming he's still alive. If Hamas thought keeping him breathing was of value for any future prisoner exchange, Olmert and co.'s shameful dealing with Hezbollah has proven otherwise. And that is the final crime of this deal: its condemned the soldier Israel is supposedly so cared about to death.

The Savvy Kiruv Consumer

Years ago (many more than it seems sometimes), I attended the Discovery Seminar put on by Aish HaTorah at my university. The program was divided into two parts. The first was the standard "why be frum" lectures that Aish gives to try and bring in people to its programs and, hopefully, mekarev them to Judaism. The second was the famous talk about the Bible codes, the theory that lots of events were hidden inside the text of the Written Torah and that, using mathemtical formulae and deducing certain patterns, these events could be discovered and used to validate the truth of Torah.
As I recall, the day was quite interesting. The speakers were dynamic and clearly enthused with their subjects. The presentation was slick and any questions people had were quickly answered. If Aish was looking to present Torah observant Judaism in a positive light, they had done a very good job.
Of course, from a cynical point of view, I also realized that any good car salesman also used the same approach in his profession.
As I posted over at Cross Currents, if someone not connected to Judaism is interested in learning Torah and discovering the beauty that is Torah observance, then if that person is going to do so through a kiruv organization, be it Aish, Ohr or Chabad, he must first do his due diligence. A kiruv organization requires members and money to be successful. In order to obtain both, it must sell itself to its target market through advertising, seminars and personal interactions. No kiruv organization is going to present a balanced and fair view of the frum world. It's going to show that its approach is THE approach, that its form of Judaism is THE true form of Judaism and that only its way is the true path to Torah observance.
And this is not to be critical of that approach. Any company which wishes to successfully sell its product or service, be it Dell, Justwhiteshirts, or Ohr Sameach is going to use these methods. After all, at the end of the day rent needs to be paid, programs need to be funded and paycheques have to be issued to the staff.
There, what is incumbent on the participant is a critical eye and a willingness to do background research on anything he is taught. Is this asking too much? I certainly hope not. After all, a car salesman will also present his product in a perect light, have rebuttals for any superficial concerns about his car's safety rating or reliability and sound very convincing when he says that the overinflated manufacturer's suggested retail price is so reasonable that it should be paid without haggling. But who would fall for that?
Having said all that, I realize there are people out there who don't realize the depth of Judaism or the need to investigate the veracity of what the kiruv worker tells them. Perhaps they are eager to believe, or they have an intrinsic trust of the worker because he presents like a teacher and we are all trained to trust our teachers, for better or for worse. But that does not change the underlying obligation to be the savvy consumer in this process. One would do it for a car. For one's soul, could the obligation be any less?
I mention all this because of an article recently published in The Jerusalem Post on one young woman's experience with Aish which reads like a textbook case of how not to interact with the organization.
Certainly the author's bias is presented up front. Words like 'enticed' where 'encouraged' could have worked just as well betray a certain bitterness:
According to the Aish Hatorah Web site, it alone entices more than 100,000 people in 17 countries to its programs annually.
Yet what she presents is both a warning and reminder of the need for people to keep their brains fully functioning when being presented with information in suggestive environments.
Many of the programs offer several week-long trips combining learning and traveling in Israel, Canada or the US. They are ridiculously low-priced, often up to five times less than other tour groups.
The participants pay through other means, though; they absorb a particular brand of Judaism that seems to be an extra ingredient in the twin hallot eaten every Friday evening.
"They overload you with free stuff, and then you work because you want it. You'll do anything," says Sarah, a participant on two Israel programs and several long-term programs in Canada by Aish Hatorah and NCSY.

Note the details. Of course the programs are cheap. Kiruv organizations are very adept at getting wealthy donors on side with the promise of names on buildings and other various honours. These programs have to be heavily subsidized. After all, the organzations are trying to convince the most cynical consumer group in the world, Western youth, about the virtues of its product. To ask them to go on a trip for three weeks at the full cost would discourage most of the target audience. Furthermore, the term "a particular brand of Judaism" is very accurate. Be is Aish, Ohr, Chabad or any other group, they realize their customers know very little but have come looking for answers. So they provide answers. It doesn't matter that in real Torah Judaism one question might have several different but equally legitimate answers. That's too complicated. One answer, one version, they provide a sense of definitive conclusion.
The organizations present their Judaism as the uniquely accurate one, the Halacha that the non-Orthodox have merely forgotten but that all their ancestors invariably followed. Their assumption that all our great-great-grandparents grew up in an Eastern European shtetl contributes to divisiveness among Jews, for it fails to acknowledge that Halacha has had a variety of interpretations across different times and cultures.
A fellow participant on my trip was ignored by advisers when she remarked that for some Sephardim, the only halachic requirement was to be more modest than one's neighbors, and that the stringent laws that guide current frum fashion (good-bye collarbones, elbows and knees) were unnecessary. Outright dismissal of alternative views may drive sales of skirt manufacturers, but it is not beneficial to learning about the history of Judaism.

I agree and disagree with these paragraphs. On one hand, Halachah is what our ancestors invariably followed. The statement that every Reform Jew has an Orthodox great-grandparent and that no Reform Jew has a Reform great-grandchild is inconveniently true. It is only through a lifestyle filled with Jewish observance that one's religious/national identity continues to pass through to one's children and beyond. However, the next part, the idea that all Jews come from stereotypical shtetl dwellers and that this is the kind of Judaism God envisioned and decreed when He gave us the Torah at Har Sinai is absurd. It ignored the wide and wonderful cultural diversity within the Torah world. But again, if one agrees that their way is not the only way, what then stops the interested person from leaving the organization and going to learn about that other way elsewhere?
However, I have no time for the claims that kiruv organizations run their programs like a cult. Of course they do. They want their participants to leave at the end of the program fully convinced they've found the way to truth and happiness and then return for the next program. Any person, young or old, signing up to participate in a kiruv organization, has to be aware of this standard tactic. Claiming afterwards that they were coerced, tired, confused or forced shows a weakness of personality that doesn't produce a life-long observant Jew because as soon as a more seductive, compelling culture comes along, this same person will simply jump ship. Is that the kind of Jew we're looking to produce?
If a person is looking for a religiously fulfilling, spirtually full life, then Torah observance is certainly a competitive option. Ditto if the person is looking for a religion that will intellectually challenge. But to present it as "obvious" through simplistic metaphors and cliche slogans does a disservice to the beauty and depth of Torah.
I wonder what the success of these organizations says of our community. I know of another Jewish group, Nishma, that encourages people to look into the depth of Judaism, understand concepts like eilu v'eilu, and teaches them to realize there are no simple answers to questions. Despite this challenging approach, it remains small and marginal in the Orthodox community. But maybe that's why Aish is successful. People do want simple answers. Being told that the questions are far more important might just turn them off.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

On A Guiding Philosophy

I've been participating in a post over at the Orthodox Freelancers Guild on hashkafah and it led me to this post in which I will try to clarify what I think my core beliefs are and what a proper Jewish attitude should encompass.
The problem I have with the word hashkafah is that it has assumed an importance too close to ideology to allow for much flexibility. Nowadays, one must take one's ideology as a complete package to belong to any particular group. For example, one cannot be a card-carrying Republican and think that abortion should be legal or that gun control has merits. One cannot be a Democrat yet believe that the war in Iraq was justified or that Bush isn't the devil incarnate. The problem is that this is quite limiting and forces people to narrow their beliefs and interests into a narrow focus that often does not define them or allow them to deal with new situations in an innovative fashion.
Haskafah within the Jewish world has taken on a similar pattern. To call oneself Chareidi means accepting as authoritative a whole host of beliefs and values without exception. Similarly, the Mizrachi and Modern Orthodox communities have developed their own ideologies that act as definitions of what they are in totality. In the former case, it's support for the brave Jews who live in Yehudah and Shomron. In the latter, it's the definition of one's religious behaviour in the negative (eg. I don't wear a black hat, I don't avoid movies and television, etc.)
But it is my opinion that none of these competing ideologies reflects the spectrum of values, beliefs and philosophies that encompass true Torah Judaism. Indeed, strict adherence to any of them causes a person to miss out on several values that may appeal to a person's personal sense of self or give one a greater feeling of connection to God and Torah. Imagine the Chareidi who believes in the scientific method and wants to reconcile geological facts with the Torah's truth and is told: No, to be Chareidi, you must reject geology. There is no other option. Image the Modern Orthodox person who insists on separate seating at a social function and the looks such a decision would get.
After much thinking, therefore, I have concluded that a real Jewish ideology allows for such flexibility which enhances one's observance, not detracts from it. As a Jew is a combination of three elements: the physical, the intellectual and the spiritual, this philosophy must account for all three. So, as I posted on the other blog, there are three components to this hashkafah:
a) A person must have the passion of a Chasid. What distinguishes Chasidim from other Torah observant Jews is their absolute enthusiasm for God and His Torah. It isn't just something fascinating to them, or a subject of interest. They are in love with God and Torah, overwhelmed emotionally by immersing in the thought of them and come alive when celebrating them. Such a passion can lead to intimate contact with one's deepest desires for closeness to God and, as such, must be present in any hashkafah to satisfy the spiritual portion of the Jew.
b) A person must have the love for lomdus of a Misnagid. As Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch notes in his commentary to Pirkei Avos, the dissemination of Torah is the main goal of any Jewish community. It is the job of rabbonim to make themselves superfluous. One can only do this through constant learning and this constancy can only be achieved through desire. What the Chasid achieves through emotional ecstasy, the Misnagid does through analysis and understanding of our holy texts. Thus, for the intellectual portion of the Jew, this element is a necessity.
c) The need for a comprehensive understanding of God's creation. There is an old question: Does the Torah contain all knowledge? Is, as the mishnah in Avos assert, everything in it? Well, of course not. The Torah nowhere tells us how to treat heart attacks, how many planets are in the solar system or what the best recipe for chicken soup is. What the Torah does do is provide a complete set of values and laws for a believing Jew to apply in any and all situations he might find himselves in. In that sense, the Torah is complete and perfect. Yet that also means there is much more knowledge out there, much of which can be used to understand Torah better. This in itself is not a radial statement. The gemara in Eiruvin used basic geometrical concepts to example many halachic principles. Geology, archeology, finance, science and medicine are all used by the Torah to explain many concepts and their backgrounds. To reach out into the world of knowledge like science and math is not simply optional or a fanciful idea. For a Jew to more completely understand Torah, it is an imperative. If all of creation is the product of God's handiwork, then the more we understand of it, the more we understand (albeit an infintessimally tiny fraction) of God Himself. So this is the final element of the hashkafah which satisfies the physical nature of the Jew in that it allows him to better understand how his universe works so that he can navigate his way through it more effectively.
In summary, the idea of combining passion, intellectual stimulation and the use of secular knowledge for the enhancement of understanding Torah is what Judaism should ideally be about. Yes, it's a high standard but Torah does not cater to the lowest common denominator. It demands we strive to reach Heaven itself through our activites and observance of mitzvos. In this way, perhaps the enterprise will be even more successful.

Bilaam and Marriage

"And God came unto Bilaam at nght and said unto him: 'If the men are come to call thee, rise up, go with them; but only the word which I speak unto thee, that thou shalt do.' And Bilaam rose up in the morning and saddled up his ass, and went with the princes of Moav. And God's anger was kindled because he went; and the angle of the Lord placed himself in the way for an adversary against him - Now he was riding upon his ass and his two servants were with him. And the ass saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand; and the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field; and Bilaam smote the ass to turn her into the way." (Bamidar 22:20-23)
Many commentators ask the obvious question: If God said Bilaam could go, why does He then get mad when he does?
For me, the answer is an obvious reference to marriage. Consider the situation: Bilaam asks God: Can I go with the prince of Moav? And God says no. Then Bilaam asks again and this time God says yes, but not in an unqualified fashion. Should Bilaam have perhaps read between the lines and realized that the way God said "yes" really meant "no"?
This is similar to marriage. Men, there are many times when you go up to your wife and ask if you can go out with the guys, perhaps to learn, perhaps to drink, perhaps to learn while drinking. And the wife says no. So what does the average man do? He asks again. And sometimes the wife then says yes. But does she mean it? Read between the lines. Her "yes" is really a "no". And if the man acts like Bilaam and actually treats the "yes" as a "yes", having failed (unintentionally or not) to catch the hidden meaning, then what happens?
He gets his ass whipped at least three times!

No Interest in Going Home

I've just returned from Lakewood where I attended the wedding of my wife's brother. It was my first time there and, contrary to what the blogsphere likes to write, it wasn't the horror I expected it to be. People were polite, some were even friendly despite my knitted kippah and lack of a black hat. No, I didn't get any kibudim but I wasn't looking for any in the first place.
It was, to tell the truth, my first real exposure to the "yeshivish crowd". At the Friday night and Shabbos lunch meals, we listened to several drashos praising the happy couple. After digesting everything that was said, two things struck me.
The first is that this pidgin language "Yeshivish" is a bunch of goobledygook. I once heard it described as "Yiddish for people who can't speak Yiddish but want to pretend that they do". I would say, having listened to several speeches in it, that this is an accurate description, to the point that meaningless phrases and words peppered every speech like verbal tics.
But the more important thing I noticed is that in every drasha there was one prominent subject that was never mentioned: Israel.
Maybe I'm just being sensitive because of my own personal hashkafah but I'm not sure that's the entire reason it bothered me. I heard words of praise about Lakewood, the local yeshivos and other relevant matters but nothing about our Land and I wonder at that.
A few posts ago I wrote about the value of living in a small Jewish community. One of the things I noted was that big communities tend to forget about the golus aspect of Jewish life, given the high level of conveniences available to them. Perhaps this is what I noticed and felt while in Lakewood.
After all, Baruch HaShem, Lakewood is a large community with everything a Torah observant Jew could want - stores, shuls, schools and a kosher grocery store. And one must wonder: on a strictly utilitarian basis, what advantage does Eretz Yisrael have over it? It's hotter there, the political situation is more volatile and for all than the fabulously rich life is financially more difficult as well. In fact, I would be willing to bet that people who live in the New York/New Jersey region can think of nothing that Israel has that is superior to what they have where they are.
But Judaism is not a strictly utilitarian nationality. Not for nothing did our Sages comment that the air of the Land causes a person to become more wise. There is something spiritual, intangible, that makes Israel the superior place for any Jew to live.
But more than this, there is the religious imperative of living in Israel to consider. Our exile from our Land was not voluntary. Our litury, our literature, emphasize our desire to return home to Israel. Do we not pray three times a day for the privilege to return and glimpse the Shechinah in Yerushalayim? Is this a sincere hope or just lip service?
For many, it is a sincere hope. These are the people, both religion and not so, who have made the sacrifice to leave their comfortable homes in golus and return to our Land despite the difficulties this decision has entailed. Of those people I am greatly jealous and I hope to add myself to their number one day.
But for many others, the desire to return to Israel seems to be only a token, a relic left over in the siddur because no one's taken it out. How else to explain the absence of any stated desire to return home? How else to explain that not one single sermon even briefly mentioned that the happy couple should one day find themselves in Israel living a proper and complete Jewish life?
And in the end, that would seem to undermine all their Torah efforts. Yes, the young man may sit and learn all day. His young bride may keep the most kosher home. But they have resigned themselves to golus. Short of the Moshiach (may he arrive speedily but not on Thursday because I have plans) showing up at their front door with business class plane tickets, they will happily live out their lives in Lakewood, convinced they are missing nothing because, physically, they aren't. And so immersed have they, and their compatriots, become in the materialism of their environment that they don't even realize the emptiness at the base of their souls. For a Jew, every day waking up in golus should be a distressing event. Why are we not home in our Land? But do they feel this distress at all? My impression, sadly, was that they don't.
We must never be satisfied with where we are. Until our Temple is rebuilt (again, speedily but not on Thursday) we cannot delude ourselves into feeling comfortable in our environment. Our place is in Israel, not golus. Any community that has forgotten this has, despite its external pieties, forgotten the basis of Judaism.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

How Many Chormahs?

One of the placenames in the Torah that gets little play but has the fortune of being named twice is Chormah. The first time it appears is in Shelach Lecha, after the spies have managed to convince our ancestors that they should not attempt a military invasion of Eretz Yisrael. As a result, they are punished even though Moshe Rabeinu, a"h, tries to intercede on their behalf. The day after, a group of men try to start an invasion of their own, only to be beaten thoroughly by the locals living in the mountains above:
"Then the Amalekite and the Canaanite who dwelt in that hill country came down and smote them, and beat them down even unto Chormah." (Bamidbar 14:45)
The second mention comes soon after in parashah, Chukas. Aharon HaKohen had just died and Chazal tell us that as a result the Divine clouds of glory that had surrounded our ancestors ever since leaving Egypt disappeared. As a result, our ancestors were attacked by the local King of Arad. Revenge was sworn and a second battle was joined:
"And the Lord hearkened to the voice of Israel, and delivered them and their cities, and the name of the place was called Chormah." (Bamidbar 21:3)
Now, there is a general rule Ein mukdam ume'uchar b'Torah. The Torah does not tell its narrative in a strictly chronological nature. This is quite easy to prove, of course, since examples abound everywher. The major disagreement between the commentators is on whether or not this rule is a constant implying that one can interpret any narrative as happening at any time within reason, or must one assume that the narrative is following a chronological order unless the narrative clearly states otherwise.
Most commentaries I've read do not ascribe anything special to the story of the battle of Arad. Indeed, Chazal use its juxtaposition with the story of the death of Aharon HaKohen to teach a lesson about the Divine clouds of glory. However, I found thought in the Hertz Chumash (remember that ol' faithful?) by a non-Jewish commentator named H.M. Wiener that greatly interested me:
"This incident cannot be assignd to the period where the Israelites had begun to compass the land of Edom, for they were nowhere in the neighbourhood of Arad. It theremust must precede that event. 'After leaving Sinai, the Israelites proceeded to Kadesh Barnea. From this base, they could march due north and invade southern Palestine (the Negeb). This they did, and the result is given in the above three verses. It ended in the annihilation of the Canaanite rule, and his chief city was henceforth called Hormah. Spies where thereupon sent out to explore Canaan prope, as related in chapter 13. But their report was unfavourable. On hearing it, the people lost heart and it became clear that success could not be expected until a new generation had grown up. The order was therefore given to evacuate Kadesh and proceed towards Edom. But the people suddenly veered round, and refused to obey. In defiance of the Divine command, they embarked on a campaign of conquest. The result was disastrous. They were utterly routed and chased to Hormah, the scene of their former triumph.'"
What hint is there in the text that this supposition might indeed be correct? At the battle of Arad, we are told:
"And Israel vowed a vow unto the Lord and said: 'If Thou wilt indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities.'" (Bamidbar 21:2)
Now we do not find the concept of dedicating the entire spoils of one's war effort to God again in the Torah. Indeed, when we are told of battles, there is either no mention of the booty or details are listed to show how much the soldiers got to keep and how much they had to give to the Mishkan. But there is another episode where this dedication happens, after the conquest of Yericho by Yehoshua after our ancestors enter Eretz Yisrael:
"And the city shall be devoted; it and all that is in it to the Lord; only Rachav the harlot shall live, she and all that is with her in the house, because she hid the messengers that we sent. And only keep yourselves from the devoted thing (cherem), lest you make yourselves condemned when you take of the devoted thing and make the camp of Israel a ruin, and trouble it." (Yehoshua 6:17-18)
What is the meaning behind these two devotions? Both the battle of Arad and the battle of Yericho are "firsts" in terms of the conquest of Israel. The former was the first formal engagement between our ancestors and the occupants of the Land, the second the first actual battle fought to acquire territory within the Land. This might explain why both battles called for a dedication of the spoils, in the same way the first of everything we produce is dedicated to God (eg. terumah, pidyon haBen etc.)
But the wording of the narrative in Bamidbar is curious. Significantly, Moshe Rabeinu is not mentioned, rather Israel is the name used. One might suggest that the reason for this is because the very nature of the nation was to change when the conquest began. As is well known from the explanations of why the meraglim did what they did, the entire existence of our ancestors in the desert was a miraculous and spiritual one. They had man, water, protective clouds and all day long to study Torah. Once they entered Eretz Yisrael, they would have to go through a major change. The physical world would now be a constant concern. After finishing their conquest, the Bnei Yisrael would then have to engage in farming, building and commerce. As a result, they would cease to be a band of people led by Moshe Rabeinu and become a nation: Israel. Perhaps this is the reason the name Israel is used in the narrative of the battle of Arad: this was the first step the nation Israel was taking to begin its new existence. And since it was their first victory, they dedicated the spoils to God.
And if Wiener's supposition is correct, and the narrative of the Meraglim follows this battle in proper chronological order, then the reason for Yehoshua's cherem on Yericho now becomes clear. After the ma'apilim were defeated in their attempt to invade the Land, God calls off the whole enterprise. The generation will have to die in the desert and the next will then start from scratch 38 years later. This is why Yehoshua's victory at Yericho is really the first battle for Eretz Yisrael since the battle of Arad no longer counted.
And perhaps we can learn a lesson from this in what is happening in our day. For a long time after the miraculous establishment of the State of Israel, there was tremendous optimism amongst the secular population about their chances for creating a "Jewish state" imbued with all the non-Jewish values of Western society. The result is plain for all to see: a society that has lost all sense of direction, self-confidence and values. Indeed, is the government of Israel today not trying to do, in its own way, what the meraglim did to our ancestors: demoralize our people, convince them that a strong and proud Jewish state is not in our interests, and that all the great salvations God has showered upon us are of no value any more? But we who are a new generation must remember that God has provided us with the greatest opportunity to bring forth our final redemption in almost 2000 years. Just as our ancestors should have ignored the betrayal of the meraglim, we must ignore the pessimism and lack of faith of our leaders. We must remember that the land of Israel is, in the words of Kaleiv and Yehoshua, a very, very good land and that if God wants us to have posession of it, then we need only believe in Him and His Torah and strive to fulfill them in this Land to succeed.