Nineveh, The Animals – And My Grandmother. Thoughts For Yom Kippur

My grandmother passed away earlier this year aged 97. She had grown up as the youngest child of the Chief Rabbi of Dusselfdorf, a city in Western Germany, and with the rise of Nazism had fled aged twelve to London. Her parents remained until their apartment was destroyed on Kristallnacht in 1938 after which my great-grandfather was imprisoned for a short while before being able to escape to the UK.

My grandmother loved animals and for as long as I can remember always owned a cat who she spoilt terribly. She did not spend much time with religious texts and so I was struck when she once remarked to me that her favorite verse in the Bible was the final one of the book of Yonah:

ואני לא אחוס על־נינוה העיר הגדולה אשר יש־בה הרבה משתים־עשרה רבו אדם אשר לא־ידע בין־ימינו לשמאלו ובהמה רבה

And should not I care about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not yet know their right hand from their left, and many animals as well!”

God argues with Yonah – how can He not care for a city with so many inhabitants? He cannot see them destroyed! They are simple people who do not know the difference between left and right! And moreover – and with this book ends – there are so many there animals too. It was the animals that, for my grandmother, summed up the pathos of the book. She loved animals and apparently God did too – so much so, that they would be a factor in the decision to save the city from destruction.

I’d like to explore this idea and make the argument that the animals play a key role in the book of Yonah and capture one of its most radical ideas, an idea that the prophet Yonah himself is unable to entertain.

Yonah has an argument with God. Only at the end of the book – after having seen Nineveh saved from destruction – does what is really on Yonah’s mind come to the fore. ‘And he said O God, isn’t this just what I said when I was still in my own country, this is why I ran away and fled to Tarshish’: He continues:

…כי ידעתי כי אתה אל־חנון ורחום ארך אפים ורב־חסד ונחם על־הרעה. ועתה יהוה קח־נא את־נפשי ממני כי טוב מותי מחיי

… for I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, forgiving of evil.  And now, please, LORD, take my life, for I would rather die than live.”

Although Jews throughout history have said words to this effect as praise of God, requesting His mercy, Yonah uses them not as prayer, but as bitter, biting critique. Enumerating God’s attributes of mercy, is not a petition, but rather an accusation. God – you are too merciful. You do not treat the wicked as they deserve to be treated – instead you are compassionate. You do not punish injustice – instead you abound in kindness.

The original account of God’s attributes of mercy – given to Mosheh in the aftermath of the golden calf episode in Shemot ch.33 – speaks of the Almighty being slow to anger, abounding in kindness and in truth, erech apayim, rav hesed v’emet. Yonah consciously changes this: ‘slow to anger, abounding in kindness, forgiving of evilerech apayim, rav hesed, v’nichem al hara’. God forgives evil and this is nothing to be happy about. God is not truthful. Truth would be to punish evil. Falsehood is to let Nineveh live. Who in fact is truth? Yonah. The son of Amitai. Yonah the son of truth.

So angry is Yonah that the prayer (‘And Yonah prayed…’) is in fact a death wish (‘please take my life from me’). Because if being Your emissary o God means inaction in the face of evil, then I wish to have no part in it. If You won’t let me run away, then kill me now.

Yet was Yonah correct? Great crimes had indeed been committed in Nineveh but hadn’t its inhabitants repented? It is the quality of this teshuva, or lack of it, which lies at the heart of Yonah’s argument with God. To unpack the dispute a full reading of Nineveh’s response to Yonah in ch.3 is required:

ויחל יונה לבוא בעיר מהלך יום אחד ויקרא ויאמר עוד ארבעים יום ונינוה נהפכת

Jonah started out and made his way into the city the distance of one day’s walk, and proclaimed: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”

ויאמינו אנשי נינוה באלהים ויקראו־צום וילבשו שקים מגדולם ועד־קטנם

The people of Nineveh believed God. They proclaimed a fast, and great and small alike put on sackcloth.

ויגע הדבר אל־מלך נינוה ויקם מכסאו ויעבר אדרתו מעליו ויכס שק וישב על־האפר

When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his robe, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes.

ויזעק ויאמר בנינוה מטעם המלך וגדליו לאמר האדם והבהמה הבקר והצאן אל־יטעמו מאומה אל־ירעו ומים אל־ישתו

And he had the word cried through Nineveh: “By decree of the king and his nobles: No man or beast—of flock or herd—shall taste anything! They shall not graze, and they shall not drink water!

ויתכסו שקים האדם והבהמה ויקראו אל־אלהים בחזקה וישבו איש מדרכו הרעה ומן־החמס אשר בכפיהם. מי־יודע ישוב ונחם האלהים ושב מחרון אפו ולא נאבד

They shall be covered with sackcloth—man and beast—and shall cry mightily to God. Let everyone turn back from his evil ways and from the injustice of which he is guilty. Who knows but that God may turn and relent? He may turn back from His wrath, so that we do not perish.”

 

What is to be made of this description? Briefly read, it seems like a perfect turning around.

They believed fully in God, they publically demonstrate through fasting and proclamations the decision to mend their ways. It is not one strata of society that experiences the transformation, rather it runs from the people on the street all the way to the royal court. An explicit articulation of the change they intend, ‘Let everyone turn back from his evil ways and from the injustice of which he is guilty’. A perfect teshuva. No wonder then that the passage concludes with God’s decision to drop all charges:

וַיַּ֤רְא הָֽאֱלֹהִים֙ אֶֽת־מַ֣עֲשֵׂיהֶ֔ם כִּי־שָׁ֖בוּ מִדַּרְכָּ֣ם הָרָעָ֑ה וַיִּנָּ֣חֶם הָאֱלֹהִ֗ים עַל־הָרָעָ֛ה אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֥ר לַעֲשׂוֹת־לָהֶ֖ם וְלֹ֥א עָשָֽׂה׃

God saw what they did, how they were turning back from their evil ways. And God renounced the punishment He had planned to bring upon them, and did not carry it out.

And yet, a slower, more deliberate reading gives a clear insight into where Yonah was coming from.

After a single day in Nineveh, Yonah has already produced quite the reaction: V’ya’aminu anshei Nineveh b’Elokim – and the people of Nineveh believed in God. The bell that that this verse rings takes us back to Shemot. Post the splitting of the sea and the exodus from Egypt we read, ‘v’yaminu b’Hashem u’vMoshe avdo – and they (the Jewish people) believed in God and His servant Moshe’. Both the immediacy and the extremity are befuddling. Are we really to conclude that the greatest moment of Israel’s faith, having witnessed the destruction of Egyptian tyranny at God’s hand, is paralleled by a city of pagan sinners who have a brief encounter with a reluctant Israelite prophet who utters five words in a language they most likely don’t understand? I struggle to believe in their belief.

Moreover the seeming superficiality of the repentance also provides us with pause for thought. Public fasts, proclamations and sackcloth? My personal preference for sincere teshuva would be the words of the prophet Yoel (Yoel 2:2):

קרעו לבבכם ואל קרעו בגדיכם Tear your hearts and not your clothes

Yet the real clincher lies with the animals of Nineveh. Read the proclamation again: “By decree of the king and his nobles: No man or beast—of flock or herd—shall taste anything! They shall not graze, and they shall not drink water!

 

The animals had to fast?! What had they done wrong?! And if this sounds extreme, the continuation moves from the sublime to the ridiculous: They shall be covered with sackcloth—man and beast—and shall cry mightily to God.

 

Animals fasting and in sackcloth. This, God, says Yonah, is what You call teshuvah?! Is God a cultural-relativist with no objective yardstick? Is the Almighty trolling Yonah? Yonah leaves the city ‘… until he should see what happened to the city’ (4:5) – in other words to watch from the outside just how long it would take (days? hours?) for Nineveh’s superficial and hypocritical repentance to dissolve itself back into unembarrassed evil.

 

On the balance of the evidence many objective readers would be inclined to agree that Yonah is right and God is wrong. Nineveh is wicked and the city’s apparent repentance does not convince. Soon enough they will be back to their old ways.

And yet God will have the final word. The book concludes with story of a tree called a kikayon. Kikyoni in modern Hebrew means, ephemeral or fleeting.

 

In the heat of the day Yonah rejoices at finding shade under this tree that God has caused to sprout above him. But then ‘God assigned a worm at the beginning of the following day, and it attacked the kikayon so that it withered’ (4:7). Yonah is deeply grieved over the loss of the kikayon and again requests for his life to be taken from him. And with this Yonah has lost the argument.

 

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהוָ֔ה אַתָּ֥ה חַ֙סְתָּ֙ עַל־הַקִּ֣יקָי֔וֹן אֲשֶׁ֛ר לֹא־עָמַ֥לְתָּ בּ֖וֹ וְלֹ֣א גִדַּלְתּ֑וֹ שֶׁבִּן־לַ֥יְלָה הָיָ֖ה וּבִן־לַ֥יְלָה אָבָֽד

The LORD said: “You cared about the plant, which you did not work for and which you did not grow, which appeared overnight and perished overnight

 

You tell Me, says God to Yonah, that you don’t believe in the power of that which is temporary. That a momentary, superficial repentance on the part of Nineveh is not enough to satisfy you. And yet here you are, lamenting the loss of your kikayon which was here one day and gone the next.

 

And if that is so ‘Should I not take pity on Nineveh, the great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who do not know their right hand from their left, as well as many animals?’ (4:11). Yes, those very same animals who were dressed up in ridiculous sackcloth and made to fast. They are simple and helpless – how can I not care for them? And so the animals have their role too says God, – even if they represent the height of Nineveh’s superficiality – and partly on their account will I forgive this city.

 

————–

 

In her final years, the old age home my grandmother lived in had a small farmyard of animals in the garden – rabbits, goats, a huge pig and others – which gave her great joy[1].  She had seen the whole world she knew destroyed by Hitler. In some small unarticulated way, the love and the home that she gave to animals may have been her own response to those who had vandalised her parents’ apartment on the night of Kristallnacht. Love and care for those who would otherwise perish. No wonder the final verse of the book of Yonah spoke to her across the millenia. For God too loves both humans and animals in their simplicity and helplessness and values their genuine expressions even when those expressions are fleeting and arrive clothed in superficiality.

Perhaps we should read Yonah on Yom Kippur with the following in mind. Our own resolutions for change may be closer to those of Nineveh than we would hope. Sincerity and heartfelt prayer is easier in the middle of Neilah than it is on a dreary day in March six months later. Genuine resolutions may give way to easy comfort and carelessness. Our teshuva may be kikyoni. May it be Your will, Hashem, to be as generous to us as You were to the residents of Nineveh.

Gma

Nancy Hannah Wolfson nee Eschelbacher. Born Dusseldorf, Germany 1921. Died Birmingham, UK 2018

[1] On the positive effects experienced by the elderly from living in proximity to animals see Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, ch.5 and www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4248608/

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Rosh Hashana’s Hidden Theme – Infertility

The major themes of Rosh Hashana? Teshuva? Kingship? Creation of the world? Or infertility. And although I’ve called it a hidden theme, it’s really hiding in broad daylight. It’s not spoken about much at all. After I wrote this post originally on Facebook a number of women who have firsthand experience of the topic messaged me to say that in none of their conversations or shul derashot had they heard it spoken about. The Facebook post received a lot of positive responses as did the Rosh Hashana derasha at Sixth St Synagogue in Manhattan that I gave on the topic. It should be spoken about more. Here goes.

Consider the readings: The first day’s Torah portion, Bereishit ch.21 – has God remembering Sara after so many years of pain of not having children and giving her a son. The haftara meanwhile, from Shmuel ch.1 – features the great sorrow of Hannah unable to have children, a husband Elkana who doesn’t understand her, and a co-wife who is both fertile and cruel

On the second day: we read Bereishit ch.22 – the akeida and the almost loss of the child Sara and Avraham had yearned for. This is followed by the Haftara from Yirmiyahu depicting Rachel, many years after her death, speaking from the mountains: a voice is heard in the heights, a bitter cry, Rachel is crying for her children, refusing to be comforted for them, for they are not’. Rachel, who in her lifetime, is the ultimate figure who struggles to have children, competes with her sister and is misunderstood by her husband and eventually dies in childbirth, becomes in her afterlife, the ultimate petitioner on behalf of her children.

I noticed this many years ago – you really have to be blind to miss it – when I first started to get into the Tanakh’s literary themes. Unfortunately this long preceded my emotional understanding. This was a cool piece of Biblical artistry but it didn’t touch real people that I knew. Only in recent years, watching too many of our closest friends struggling with infertility and miscarriage has it become clear to me that this is as relevant today as it was in ancient Canaan.

It doesn’t seem right that there is still something of a taboo around the subject. A couple of years ago, colleagues of ours ran a Friday night discussion for our students about infertility. Feedback from students was lukewarm – it wasn’t deemed relevant. But one day, not so far off, it will be relevant – if not for them personally, then for their close friends and family.

One of the most glorious things about the Jewish community is its love of family and children. And the flip-side of this is that one of the toughest experiences is being single in a community where most everyone else is married, or to be struggling to have children while everyone around seems abundantly fertile.

Not every message of the Yamim Noraim needs to be intensely spiritual. The fact that Chazal chose to center all four of Rosh Hashanna’s readings to a single topic should speak for itself.

If all people take from the Torah readings is a greater awareness and sensitivity – considering what to say and what not to say, understanding that not all people’s experiences are alike, that innocuous questions can cause pain, and knowing when to give friends some extra love and support – well, that would be no bad thing.

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Va’era: Religion, Politics, and Deciphering A Lineage List

Is Mosheh’s goal of liberating Israel from Egypt a religious one or a political one? And why is there a huge and highly detailed lineage list dumped in the middle of the exciting narrative? And what do these questions have to do with each other? A synthesis of Torah from a number of my great teachers – Rav Yair Kahn, Rav Alex Israel and in particular, Dr Yonatan Grossman.

The shiur and source sheet are here

 

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Shemot, Mosheh, And The Strangest Story Of All

There is currently a state of emergency in New York with a snow blizzard keeping everyone in doors. So here are three shiurim on Parshat Shemot to help you all pass the time learning Torah.

1. Introducing Shemot – What’s In A Name – An introd uction to the book of Shemot, focusing on both the first chapter and the themes and structure of the sefer as a whole.

2. Introducing Mosheh – The First 80 Years – Who is the young Mosheh? Why does Hashem choose him of all people? And why is his impatient radicalism in ch.2 replaced by such hesitancy in ch.3?

3. The Time God Tried To Kill Mosheh – 4:24-26 are some of the strangest verses in all of Tanakh. Having finally convinced Mosheh to return to Egypt, Hashem tries to kill Mosheh (or his son). And if that’s strange then Tzipora’s successful solution is even stranger. Rashbam, R Yoel bin Nun and R Shmuel Klitsner help us to find a brilliantly satisfying solution.

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When Did Shlomo Write What He Wrote? A Thought On Kohelet, Sukkot And Life

On Shabbat Hol HaMoed of Sukkot, tradition holds that we read Megillat Kohelet. I’ve always loved the sense of pedagogic irony that our Sages had when they instructed that the festival which has a greater emphasis on joyfulness than any other occasion in the calendar should also be the time when we enter King Solomon’s pessimistic world that declares havel havalim hakol havel – all is nothingness, vanity, futility. 

I’d like to explore this tense relationship between joy and sadness, optimism and depression, through the prism of a deceptively simple midrash found in the collection known as Kohelet Rabba. The question that bothers the rabbis is the order in which Shlomo Hamelech wrote his three works. The question is an interesting one because of the great difference between the books. Kohelet, as mentioned, is dark and gloomy. The world is full of injustice and there is little to be done about it. Any achievement is only fleeting. The memory of great works will fade quickly. Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) is a love song. Fervent, passionate, sensuous – the relationship between the two lovers, the dod and the raya, is so powerful and full of emotion that it has always been viewed as the ultimate metaphor for describing the relationship between God and Israel (side-note: this is a radical and daring idea, not a conservative kill-joy one as many people wrongly assume). Mishlei (Proverbs), in contrast to both of the other works, is practically minded. It contains aphorisms for how to best deal with this world and make a practical success of this life. A soft answer turns away wrath – is my mother’s personal favourite.

How fascinating that one person could have written three such different works! And so, to return to the question, in what order did Shlomo write his works? The Midrash presents us with two answers:

רבי יונתן אמר: שיר השירים כתב תחילה, ואחר כך משלי, ואחר כך קהלת – ומייתי לה מדרך ארץ: כשאדם נער – אומר דברי זמר, הגדיל – אומר משלות, הזקין אומר: הבל הבלים

רבי יוסי אמר: לעת זקנה, סמוך למיתתו, שרתה עליו רוח הקודש ואמר שלשה ספרים הללו: משלי, שיר השירים וקהל 

Rebbi Yonatan said: Shir HaShirim he wrote first, after that Mishlei, and after that Kohelet – and he derived this from derech eretz – when a man is young, he writes songs, when he grows up he writes parables/advice (Mishle) and when he is old he says, all is vanity.

Rebbi Yossi said: as an old man, close to death, divine inspiration came to Shlomo and he wrote these three works: Mishlei, Shir HaShirim and Kohelet.

For Rebbi Yonatan, Shlomo wrote the books throughout his life – each one corresponding to the age he was passing through at that time. For Rebbi Yossi, Shlomo, as an old man, wrote the books simultaneously with one another.

What is to be made of this disagreement? It seems to be that both suggestions convey important messages about growth, development and experience – messages that I seek to convey on a regular basis to my students. I’d like to share them here.

From Rebbi Yonatan I learn that each stage of our life is to be treated as distinct from each other stage – each has its own challenges and potential achievements – and that we may be doing ourselves a disservice if we are held hostage to expectations and assumptions about ourselves that come from a different period of our life. One of the most damaging lessons that I find many students have absorbed during their time in Israel is the idea one’s spiritual and religious life goes downhill from aged 19. The best one can hope to do is to tread water and not stray too far from one’s time in yeshiva or midrasha. I miss the yeshiva every day and there is no place that I have more gratitude towards for my own development than the yeshiva. But a young man or woman finishing their Torah studies in Israel has another 101 years to live and will be left with a sense of guilt, lack of fulfillment or apathy if they think that the rest of their life won’t provide them with meaningful challenges and areas for growth. Shlomo may have written Shir HaShirim by the time he was 19 but he still had a lot more left in him.  Rebbi Yonatan teaches us that each stage of life has its own book of Tanakh that needs to be written.

And what is to be learned from Rebbi Yossi’s claim that Shlomo wrote all three books in the same period of his life? Perhaps that it’s OK to have multiple and conflicting emotions and experiences at any one time. That it’s legitimate to hold different and even contradictory values simultaneously and to find meaning in very different pastimes and commitments. Maybe this is true wisdom, and it’s probably easier to achieve as we get older. I like the idea that it’s OK to be a Kohelet person and a Shir HaShirim person at the same time! And that not only is this combination of contradictions legitimate, it’s the well-spring of creativity and even ru’ach hakodesh.

And possibly Rebbi Yossi teaches us something even more important. That we shouldn’t feel strait-jacketed into feeling a certain thing at a certain point in our lives just because that’s what is expected of us. It’s ok to be a young person and to be depressed and pessimistic even though everyone around you is incessantly positive and expects you to be too. Better still, it’s ok to be elderly and frail, but nevertheless be head over heels in love with the partner you’ve been with for sixty years, singing ‘let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for your love is better than wine’ (Shir HaShirim 1:1)

 

 

 

 

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On The Eve Of Yom Kippur…

Very late in the day I upload some offerings for the greatest of days. Reading sheets first, followed by audio shiurim (all of which have source sheets).

Reading Sheets (some new, some from previous years)

Elie Wiesel’s Prayer

The Religiosity of Aharon Appelfeld

I.L. Peretz’s ‘If Not Higher’ – A class story by the great Yiddish writer

Man’s Mortality On Yom Kippur – Midrashim, Rav Hirsch, Michael Wyschogrod

Man’s Lowliness and Greatness – Erich Auerbach and Rav Aharon Lichtenstein

Tanakh

The Two Goats of Yom Kippur and Two Ways of Looking at Our Past

Yonah, Nineveh and the Hypocrisy of Teshuva

Talmudic Tales of Teshuva:

The Caves of Plato and Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai

Rabbi Akiva, The Dead Man and Kaddish

Jewish Thought

 

Pahad Yitzchak: The duality of the shofar and the duality of man. 

Rav Hutner suggests that the shofar is both a groan and a cry of joy, and to understand that this same paradox is at the nature of what it means to be human. Only by understanding what the rabbis meant when they said ‘better for man not have been created’, can we understand that in fact it indeed ‘very good’ that man was created.

G’mar Hatima Tova To All

Appelfeld.jpg

 

 

 

 

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A Haredi Humanist In Jerusalem – Introducing Rav Tukachinsky’s Gesher HaChayim

In the 1940s, whilst the Second World War ravaged Europe, Rabbi Yechiel Michel Tukachinsky (1871-1955) composed what would become an authoritative work on the laws, practices and philosophy of Jewish mourning. He called it Gesher HaChayim, or, The Bridge of Life.

It has long been considered a classic, not only for its halachic mastery, but also for its combination of halacha with midrash, Zohar, quirky personal footnotes, and deep human empathy, and I hope at some point to write a piece that draws out some of the work’s unique features. For now however I have translated the final part of the book’s introduction, which reflects on the author’s feelings about writing such a work during World War II.

The translation follows below and can be downloaded as a pdf with both Hebrew and English here. Before that however I have sketched a few reflections. The introduction is remarkable for a number of reasons:

Universalism. Notwithstanding the challenging Rabbinic Hebrew, the intended audience is humanity as a whole – a call for the world to pause in its mutual destruction and consider the purposes and value of life in itself.

WWII vs. The Holocaust. Jews today are accustomed, and understandably so, to first think of the word ‘Shoah’ and only then ‘World War’ when reflecting on that dark period. Astonishingly, in R Tukachinsky’s introduction, the Holocaust is not mentioned. Even if this is out of ignorance of what was taking place, R Tukachinsky could not have been unaware of the rise of anti-Semitism in the preceding years, and yet rather than placing the emphasis of his introduction to what is after all a halachic work on the Jewish and the particular (which would have been eminently understandable) he directs his message to mankind as a whole.

Critique of modernity. In R Tukachinsky’s eyes, the rise of machines and technology since the industrial revolution that was made possible by the great growth in human knowledge has led not only in the functional sense to the potential for extermination on an unprecedented scale but also in an essential sense, for it has entailed an exclusive consideration of the means of living and a neglect of the ends, the telos, of life. The critique is not a novel one. It is probably most deeply associated with the Frankfurt School – Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Walter Benjamin and others – who were writing at exactly the same period. But it is certainly fascinating to find it not in the arms of a Marxist critical theorist or a Conservative reactionary, but employed and developed by one of the great rabbis of Jerusalem and given a halachic-humanist twist.

The understanding of Aveilut. There is a wide-spread superstition amongst Jews, that the Torah of death and bereavement, the halachot and minhagim of Aveilut, should only be studied by those who need to know them for immediate practical purposes. Rav Tukachinsky would have considered this a tragedy – and I agree. I struggle to think of another area of Jewish law and practice where the connection between the written legal texts and questions of life and loss, meaning and mortality are so deeply connected to one another. In his words, ‘Remembering the day of death, even if only in a superficial manner, reminds man that he is alive, and this memory has the power to open his eyes to the immense goodness and light which is hidden in life’. Students of Rav Lichtenstein zt”l, my own teacher and a great religious humanist in his own right, will be interested to see that Rav Tukachinsky’s vort towards the end of the introduction about the eglah arufa preempts an almost identical dvar Torah by Rav Lichtenstein.

I hope that this ‘taster’ of the work of a great Halachic master provides people with nourishing and provoking Torah for the period leading up to Tisha B’Av.

faceyehielmichaeltuckachinsky

Rav Tukachinsky 

Rav Yehiel Michel Tukochinsky’s Introduction To Gesher HaChayim

And fate has decided that this work should be completed and printed b’ezrat Hashem specifically at a time of a most terrible war, the like of which has never been seen before. A war that broke the definition of what war is, and has become a global catastrophe, where nations and peoples are at war not only through their armies, but one involving entire countries and their residents, killing, murdering, exploding, destroying and wiping out all existence. A world where man controls man, destroying man – this is his work.

A war such as this is the direct result of the loss of faith in life and its purposes. The faith in the greatness and destiny of man has been destroyed – for what and for who then is man? If man has no purpose in life, and there is no value to life – then what value is his life? And it must come as no surprise if he will agree to give up his life and the lives of others, and for it to be no great matter in his eyes to be killed and to kill…

And how painful and vile is this fact: that all of the wisdom of mankind (the first and wisest of all creatures on the earth) now serves only to increase destruction and devastation, using all of his knowledge to invent all sorts of ways to speedily wipe out the masses of mankind!

For a long time now, wisdom and knowledge have ceased to serve life itself. For the spirit of man has been almost entirely dedicated to improving the means and conditions of existence. All of his skills and ingenuity dedicated only to finding ways to make his life easier and more pleasant. All of his learning and knowledge serve only his wealth and ease (whether or not he has achieved this desire through all of his inventiveness – is a question in and of itself) and he has totally neglected the study of life itself and its meaning. And now wisdom is wreaking its revenge on man, a tragic revenge… his inventions that made his life easier now make easier his death.

And at a time such as this, when life has become so cheap, and the end of life has become so commonplace and insignificant – is there a place for a ‘sefer’ dedicated precisely to the value of exactly this moment and the many issues surrounding it?! The answer is clear: precisely at a period such as this when the majority of men do not know the value of life, of death, of nothingness, neither in death nor in life – do we need works such as this one which direct the heart to the wisdom of Torah and  of our sages and teachers (who all their days dealt with the meaning of life and its purpose), who exemplify the great affirmation (hayesh hagadol) of life, and in the journey onwards from life, and of the life that exists in  death.

At a moment like this, where the atmosphere is so full of murderous war, and is so soaked with the blood of man, are we most in need of turning our attention to the Torah of life which so venerates the life of man on this earth, and which understands the end of man, ‘the day of death’ to in fact not be an end at all but rather a continuation and consequence of his original life.

[Take note: the chapter concerning the ‘eglah arufa’  (Devarim 21:1-10), which describes the complex protocol that the local officials are obligated to perform when a murder victim is found without any indication of who the murderer is, our holy Torah placed these laws specifically in the middle of the laws of warfare (between the passage of ‘when you go out to war against your enemies’ at the end of Parshat Shoftim, and the passage of ‘when you go out to war’ at the beginning of Ki Tetze), to show us that even, and especially, and a time when you are obligated to protect yourself, and to kill and to spill the blood of enemies, do not let the value of life, even then, be a minor thing in your eyes].

And the whole Torah of Israel in its entirety comes to teach us the great value of life and its purposes. And all of its commandments and teachings, demonstrate how to make the most of life and through them to fulfill the command of ‘and you shall choose life’ (Devarim 30:19).

The difficulties of life in general, and of the wars of life in particular, cause man to forget not only his value, but also his essence and (the reason for) his existence. Not only does he not ask himself why and for what does he live and exert himself, he does not even realise that he is alive. Remembering the day of death, even if only in a superficial manner, reminds man that he is alive, and this memory has the power to open his eyes to the immense goodness and light which is hidden in life.

And when a person recognizes the value of life, he will recoil from all that leads to murder and from all of the acts that lessen the image and dignity of man

וְהָיָ֣ה ׀ בְּאַחֲרִ֣ית הַיָּמִ֗ים יִ֠הְיֶה הַ֣ר בֵּית־ה’ נָכוֹן֙ בְּרֹ֣אשׁ הֶהָרִ֔ים וְנִשָּׂ֥א ה֖וּא מִגְּבָע֑וֹת וְנָהֲר֥וּ עָלָ֖יו עַמִּֽים׃ וְֽהָלְכ֞וּ גּוֹיִ֣ם רַבִּ֗ים וְאָֽמְרוּ֙ לְכ֣וּ ׀ וְנַעֲלֶ֣ה אֶל־הַר־יְהוָ֗ה וְאֶל־בֵּית֙ אֱלֹהֵ֣י יַעֲקֹ֔ב וְיוֹרֵ֙נוּ֙ מִדְּרָכָ֔יו וְנֵלְכָ֖ה בְּאֹֽרְחֹתָ֑יו כִּ֤י מִצִּיּוֹן֙ תֵּצֵ֣א תוֹרָ֔ה וּדְבַר־יְהוָ֖ה מִירוּשָׁלִָֽם׃ וְשָׁפַ֗ט בֵּ֚ין עַמִּ֣ים רַבִּ֔ים וְהוֹכִ֛יחַ לְגוֹיִ֥ם עֲצֻמִ֖ים עַד־רָח֑וֹק וְכִתְּת֨וּ חַרְבֹתֵיהֶ֜ם לְאִתִּ֗ים וַחֲנִיתֹֽתֵיהֶם֙ לְמַזְמֵר֔וֹת לֹֽא־יִשְׂא֞וּ גּ֤וֹי אֶל־גּוֹי֙ חֶ֔רֶב וְלֹא־יִלְמְד֥וּן ע֖וֹד מִלְחָמָֽה׃

In the days to come, The Mount of the Lord’s House shall stand Firm above the mountains; And it shall tower above the hills. The peoples shall gaze on it with joy, And the many nations shall go and shall say: “Come, Let us go up to the Mount of the LORD, To the House of the God of Jacob; That He may instruct us in His ways, And that we may walk in His paths.” For instruction shall come forth from Zion, The word of the LORD from Jerusalem. Thus He will judge among the many peoples, And arbitrate for the multitude of nations, However distant; And they shall beat their swords into plowshares And their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up Sword against nation; They shall never again know war (Michah 4:1-3)

 

 

 

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Biblical Paradigms of Conversion: Avot, Sinai and Rut. A Shiur for Shavuot

Shavuot is the festival of the Jewish people’s conversion. The gemara in Masechet Keritut (9a) derives from the Torah’s description of Mount Sinai the necessary steps that a potential candidate for conversion needs to take. Shavuot is also the festival on which we read Megillat Rut – Rut, also represents an ideal model of geirut – yet seemingly a very different one from the model of Sinai.

This shiur (the introductory class to the course on conversion I gave earlier this semester, which I plan to upload the rest of soon) examines these various Biblical paradigms of conversion, examining how each of them contributed to Chazal’s understanding (and our own) of what the core nature of being Jewish is, and what the potential candidate for conversion needs to do in order to become a member of the Jewish people.

Audio is here and source sheet is here.

And in the spirit of Shavuot and Rut, here is the first piece I ever published on this website, entitled ‘Why Rut‘ – a close reading of the megilla and an attempt to understand its power and relevance.

 

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On The Second Yahrzeit Of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein zt”l

Today is the second yahrzeit of my great teacher Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. One of the experiences I am most grateful for is to have spent some of my most formative years sitting in the same Bet Midrash as him listening to his shiurim and sichot, absorbing his teachings.  Talmud Torah was what he lived for. Intimate and vast was his knowledge. Fiery and passionate about many issues, gentle and kind relating to individuals. Balancing and harmonising diverse commitments of Torah and public service, religious and secular knowledge, community and family. Linked here is a piece I wrote a few years ago when he received the Israel Prize and here is an excerpt about one of the aspects of his personality that made the strongest impression on me – on the tension and necessesity of being both passionate people and complex people.

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A number of years ago I sat in on a question and answer with Rav Lichtenstein with some visiting high school students from Manchester. One asked the obvious question for an eighteen year old formulating his gap-year plans, ‘what is it that makes your yeshiva unique?’ After a few moments of insisting that there were many wonderful yeshivot to choose from, Rav Lichtenstein came up with the following formulation about what he hoped characterised Yeshivat Har Etzion. There is a tension, Rav Lichtenstein explained, between two values: complexity and passion. Complexity entails being able to see multiple sides to an issue – the understanding that no single perspective captures the whole truth, that our own deeply held convictions will not necessarily be shared by others, for perfectly valid reasons. Passion entails a sense of absolute commitment to a cause, a love and determination to see a task through, to be bound up totally in one’s belief.

Passion does not naturally lead to complexity for passion is far easier to engender when one views the critical issues as black and white – when you are right, and the other is wrong. Complexity does not naturally lead to passion, for an appreciation of multiple angles and perspectives can leave one disinclined to commit to any single perspective. Said Rav Lichtenstein, his hope for the unique character of the yeshiva is that a synthesis is attained between passion and complexity – not a lukewarm halfway house, which pays lip-service to one without truly fulfilling the other, but a true and deep combination; to be as passionate as possible on the one hand, and as sensitive to nuance and complexity as possible on the other.

On hearing or reading these words an understandable response is that such a fusion is admirably idealistic, yet in practise unattainable. We all know in ourselves that we often achieve one of these values at the cost of the other. Yet all who have come into contact with Rav Lichtenstein recognise in him an exquisite balance of the two. I have never met someone as passionate as Rav Lichtenstein, nor anyone as complex as him, with such an ability to appreciate multiple sides of an issue, not only in the study of a sugya, but when engaged in public debate or helping a student address a delicate and personal issue. In my mind this should be a central aspiration not only of Yeshivat Har Etzion, but of modern orthodoxy as a whole, and Rav Lichtenstein’s example provides a model for us all.

May his memory be a blessing

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Six Shiurim on Shemot To Illuminate Pesach

I have loved Shemot (Exodus) for many years and so this year we chose to study it over the Spring Semester so that in the run up to Pesach we would have spent time in-depth time with the critical stories that make up the background to the Jews’ slavery, their liberation, Mosheh’s leadership, and the journey to Sinai, enriching our understanding of our most important national story.

All the shiurim focus closely on the Biblical text and have accompanying source sheets – although listening ‘on the go’ is definitely feasible.

1. Introducing Shemot – What’s In A Name

2. Introducing Mosheh – The First 80 Years

3. The Time God Tried To Kill Mosheh

4. Religion, Politics & Understanding The Lineage Interruption

5. Unmasking The Plagues

6. The Midrashim Of The Splitting Of The Sea

Chag Pesach Kasher v’Sameach!

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