Friday, July 01, 2022

The Leadership Legacy of the Lubavitcher Rebbe

 

What was Moshe’s leadership philosophy? He responds in very different ways to two critical episodes in the middle of Sefer Bamidbar. When Korach and his supporters rebel against Moshe’s leadership, Moshe responds with fury; he maneuvers Korach’s camp into accepting a challenge that will ultimately cost them their lives. Moshe stands out as a strong minded leader who deftly eliminates the opposition.
Yet during the incident of Eldad and Medad, Moshe reacts very differently. At God’s command, Moshe had gathered a group of 70 to receive prophecy and assist him. Two men who were not invited to join the group of 70, Eldad and Medad, begin to prophesize, even though they had not been included among the 70 appointed assistants. Eldad and Medad’s actions are perceived as an act of rebellion; Moshe's disciple Yehoshua wants to imprison them. Rashi highlights their defiance by quoting a Midrash which says that Eldad and Medad had prophesied “Moshe will die and Yehoshua will bring Israel into the Land.” Like Korach, Eldad and Medad are challenging Moshe’s leadership.
 
Yet what is Moshe's response to Eldad and Medad? He says: “May it be that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD put His spirit upon them!”
 
It is apparent that the Torah intends us to read these two accounts side by side; their narratives and language mirror each other. In both, there is a gathering of elders. In both, there are calls for Moshe’s resignation; in the first instance, Moshe offers his resignation, in the Korach narrative, Korach calls on Moshe to resign. In both, there are declarations about the elevated status of the nation. Moshe exclaims that he wishes that the entire nation could be prophets; Korach declares that the entire nation is holy.

So, what accounts for why Moshe reacts so differently in the two narratives? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks argues that there are two aspects of Moshe's role. He writes that: “There are two forms or dimensions of leadership. One is power, the other, influence. Often, we confuse the two…. In fact, however, the two are quite different, even opposites…. So deep is the difference that the Torah allocates them to two distinct leadership roles: king and prophet. Kings had power. They could levy taxes, conscript people to serve in the army, and decide when and against whom to wage war. Prophets, by contrast, had no power at all. They commanded no armies. They levied no taxes. They spoke God’s word but had no means of enforcing it. All they had was influence – but what influence!”
 
Sacks explains that in the story of Eldad and Medad, we are discussing prophetic inspiration, a form of non-coercive influence. Inspiration should be shared widely; therefore, Moshe embraces Eldad and Medad. On the other hand, Korach wants power, and wants to replace Moshe. That Moshe cannot accede to, because it is impossible for two kings to wear the same crown.
 
(The difficulty with Rabbi Sacks’ position is that the story of Eldad and Medad and the 70 elders takes place during a political crisis. The 70 elders he appoints are meant to be both political leaders and prophets; and the clear demarcation between political and prophetic leadership doesn’t begin until the time of King David.)
 
I would suggest a slightly different approach. Moshe is a transformative leader who sees the goal of leadership as serving others. This idea is reflected in a verb that is shared in both narratives, sa, or to “lift up.” However, it is used very differently, in its active and passive forms. In the narrative of Eldad and Medad, the verb sa is used to connote that leading the people is a burden. The analogy Moshe uses is that leadership is like carrying a child on your lap; and this burden is difficult to carry. Moshe remarks, “I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me.” In the narrative of Korach, this verb is used by Korach in a very different way. He complains against Moshe saying, “Why then do you raise yourselves above God’s congregation?” Korach sees the leader as being lifted by his followers; it is the leader who benefits most from the relationship of leadership.
 
I believe this is the key to Moshe's contrasting reactions. Eldad and Medad may be challenging Moshe, but they are not searching for personal glory; they simply want to help spread the word of God. This type of transformative leadership is welcomed even when there are other leaders around; uninterested in power for its own sake, Eldad and Medad pose no threat to Moshe. Korach, however, wants to be raised up by others. His thirst for leadership is egocentric. Leaders like Korach who are focused on their own glory can be very destructive, because for them political power is a zero-sum game. And for that reason, Moshe responds harshly to Korach, whose true goal is creating an autocracy of one.
 
Transformative leaders represent a very different vision of leadership. They not only come to serve the community, but they also recognize that the greatest service one can offer is to help create other transformative leaders. They use their influence to help others become the best version of themselves.
 
This week marks the 28th yartzeit, anniversary of the death, of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of blessed memory. Perhaps the most exceptional aspect of the Rebbe’s leadership is precisely this: he was determined to turn others into leaders.
 
Today, there are thousands of Chabad shluchim in every corner of the globe; they each lead synagogues, schools, communities, and organizations. The Rebbe has inspired many leaders within Lubavitch; but his influence goes well beyond Chabad. 
 
Joseph Telushkin, in his book Rebbe relates two examples of the impact the Rebbe’s transformative leadership had on rabbis outside of the Lubavitch community.
 
One anecdote he relates is about Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, who later would become the executive Vice President of the Orthodox Union. At the time, Weinreb was 30, and working in Baltimore as a clinical psychologist and educator. He was at a crossroads in his life, unsure of which career path to take, and plagued with religious challenges. So Weinreb decided to call the Rebbe, whose farbrengens he had attended when he lived in Crown Heights. Telushkin relates that:
 
In February 1971, Weinreb called the Rebbe’s office to see if he could arrange an appointment. The call was answered by a secretary, whom Weinreb later deduced was Rabbi Chaim Mordechai Hodakov. Hodakov started asking him questions to ascertain the purpose of the call, when Weinreb heard a voice in the background – which he recognized from those earlier farbrengens – asking in Yiddish, “Who’s calling?”
 
At that point, Weinreb was anxious to maintain his anonymity – particularly if he did not end up meeting with the Rebbe. He replied,” A Jew from Maryland.” …..
 
But then, even before Weinreb could pin down a date for a meeting, he heard the Rebbe call out in the background, “Tell him that there is a Jew who lives in Maryland that he can speak to, Der Yid hayst Weinreb (His name is Weinreb).”
 
Hodakov said to him, “Did you hear what the Rebbe said?”
 
Weinreb had heard and was in shock.… he assumed that he had probably misheard the Rebbe. So, he told Hodakov no, he had not heard what the Rebbe said.
 
Rabbi Hodakov repeated the Rebbe’s words: “Tell him that there is a Jew who lives in Maryland that he can speak to. His name is Weinreb.”
 
Weinreb said, “But my name is Weinreb.”
 
Now it was Rabbi Hodakov’s turn to be shocked. But not the Rebbe. When Hodakov repeated aloud what Weinreb had said, the Rebbe simply responded, “Oih azoi. If that is the case, then he should know that sometimes a person needs to speak to himself.”
           
This advice seems to be the opposite of what a rebbe should offer. After all, the follower is coming to him, the leader for support. But that’s precisely the point. The Rebbe’s goal was to create leaders, not followers. And he was challenging Rabbi Weinreb, who was already an accomplished rabbi and psychologist, to recognize his own abilities and trust his own instincts and insights.
 
The Rebbe also challenged people to take responsibility for the situation around them; to stop looking inward, and instead recognize that the potential for change was in their hands.
 
The book has a second anecdote regarding a second-year student at Cambridge, Jonathan Sacks, who came to visit the Rebbe. This meeting would change Sacks’ life trajectory and start him on his career as a rabbi and Jewish leader. Telushkin writes:
 
At the meeting, what first struck Sacks was the Rebbe’s understated, nonaggressive manner. For a good while, the Rebbe listened and responded patiently to Sack’s philosophical queries and concerns, always acting “as if the most important person in the room was me.” But then, having taken his measure of the young man, the Rebbe suddenly turned the conversation around. The interviewee became the interviewer. “Things are going wrong,” the Rebbe had said to him. “Are you willing to be one of those who helps to put them right?”
 
The young man was taken aback. He had gone into the meeting to ask questions, not answer them. Furthermore, at that early, somewhat uncertain stage of his life, his intention was to become an economist, a lawyer, or an academic. He certainly did not see himself as a leader, though that was the role the Rebbe was now telling him to assume; at one point, the Rebbe even challenged him as to what he was doing to strengthen Jewish life at Cambridge.
 
The Rebbe’s insistent manner made a profound impact on Sacks: “I had been told that the Rebbe was a man with thousands of followers. After I met him, I understood that the opposite was the case. A good leader creates followers. A great leader creates leaders. More than the Rebbe was a leader, he created leadership in others.”
 
This is the very foundation of transformative leadership: true leaders teach others how to be leaders. And the Rebbe did that, thousands of times over. May his memory continue to inspire us to be those people that when things are going wrong, helps to put them right.

Friday, June 24, 2022

Jewish Cowardice: A Reevaluation

 


In his book The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud recounts a conversation with his father Jakob, when he was 10- or 12-years-old. Jakob said to his son: "While I was a young man, I was walking one Saturday on a street in the village where you were born; I was handsomely dressed and wore a new fur cap. Along comes a Christian, who knocks my cap into the mud with one blow and shouts: "Jew, get off the sidewalk." "And what did you do?" "I went into the street and picked up the cap," was the calm answer." This response upset Sigmund Freud; he wrote that "(it) did not seem heroic on the part of the big strong man, who was leading me, a little fellow, by the hand." Freud was embarrassed that his father was a coward; he was embarrassed that his father did so little to stand up to an antisemite.
Hannah Tessler | Shira Tessler
The allegation of Jewish cowardice has a long history, one which begins with the generation of the desert. The spies return from a reconnaissance mission to the promised land with a negative report; they had reviewed the strength of the Canaanites, and concluded that “we cannot attack those people, for they are stronger than we are.” That night, the entire nation cried, grumbled, and plotted a return to Egypt.
 
Without question, the spies lacked self-confidence. A revealing verse offers a window into their fears and worries; in it, the spies declare that in comparison with the Canaanites, "we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.” The Midrash notes that the spies engage in mind-reading, and instantly assume that the Canaanites see them as weak and small as well; this negative assumption speaks volumes about the spies’ inferiority complex.
 
From the moment they left Egypt, the Jews were plagued with a lack of self-confidence. Every difficult moment brings fear and worry; so much so, that the Torah explains that God didn’t take the Jews on a direct path to Israel, because of a concern that the Jews would flee back to Egypt if they faced war immediately. Many of the commentaries to the Torah explain this lack of self-confidence as being a product of a slave mentality. Ibn Ezra offers the following observation regarding the panic the Jews had at the banks of the Red Sea, when being pursued by the Egyptian army:
 
One may wonder how such a large camp of six hundred thousand men would be afraid of those pursuing after them; and why did they not stand up and fight for their lives and for their children? The answer is that the Egyptians were the Israelites' masters. And the generation that left Egypt was trained from its youth to tolerate the yoke of Egypt and had a lowly soul… (and they were) weak and not trained in warfare. And God… brought it about that all the males of the people that went out of Egypt would die, as there was no strength in them to fight against the Canaanites; (the Jews would first enter the land) after a new generation…that did not see exile and had a confident spirit, arose...
 
Ibn Ezra says the Jews had a “slave mentality”; they were still held emotionally captive by the Egyptians, and unable to build an independent life. This theory is embraced by the Rambam and multiple other commentaries. The first generation of Jews in the desert are the original Jewish cowards, people who would rather remain slaves than fight for their own future. And Jews in exile often saw a reflection of themselves in the generation of the desert.
 
Ultimately, the image of the cowardly Jew becomes a staple of antisemitic propaganda; but sadly, Jews adopted this self-image as well. Some of the nastiest and harshest depictions of Jewish cowardice come from inside the Jewish community. Consider the following bitter Jewish joke about what is considered to be “celebration for the Jews.”
 
One year, in an East European town, a child was found dead on the night of Pesach. All the Jews knew well the rage, rioting, and killing that would soon befall them. They gathered in the synagogue and engaged in fervent prayer until one Jew rushed into the synagogue and joyously proclaimed: “Der mes is ah Yid – the dead child is Jewish!” Good news … we had nothing to worry about. There will be no pogrom! Der mes is ah Yid – a simcha bei Yidden - a celebration for the Jews.
 
This joke is so vicious, I thought for a long time before deciding to include it in this article. But it authentically represents a profound Jewish fury at their own community, a fury that they were too eager to accept discrimination and persecution. But by the late 19th century, many young Jews saw themselves as the opposites of their ancestors. Much like the second generation of Jews in the desert, they felt that they needed to make a complete break with the past. In a speech memorializing Theodor Herzl, Ze’ev Jabotinsky called on young Jews to restart Jewish history. (Here too, the rhetoric is harsh; Jabotinsky used the antisemitic slur zhid in the text; it has been replaced with Yid.) He calls on the community to transform itself from the slavish old Jew of the past:
 
Our starting point is to take the typical Yid of today and to imagine his diametrical opposite ... because the Yid is ugly, sickly, and lacks decorum, we shall endow the ideal image of the Hebrew with masculine beauty. The Yid is trodden upon and easily frightened and, therefore, the Hebrew ought to be proud and independent. The Yid is despised by all and, therefore, the Hebrew ought to charm all. The Yid has accepted submission and, therefore, the Hebrew ought to learn how to command. The Yid wants to conceal his identity from strangers and, therefore, the Hebrew should look the world straight in the eye and declare: "I am a Hebrew!"
 
This idea was adopted by multiple Zionist thinkers, and called shlilat hagolah, “the negation of exile.” The dream was for a generation of new Jews to replace the fearful, cowardly old Jew. The Jews of the early 20th century could only leave the desert of exile if the new Jew unlearned the bad habits of their forebears.
 
After the Holocaust, some extended this rhetoric to attack the victims of the Holocaust; they were seen as weak and fearful, people who didn’t fight back, and went like sheep to the slaughter. Raul Hilberg, one of the first historians to research the Holocaust, reinforced the stereotype of Jewish cowardice, and he ignored all forms of Jewish resistance. But other historians recognized that this picture was distorted, and further research brought many instances of active resistance to light. But a large part of this reevaluation came from a new definition of resistance. To resist did not require the taking up of arms, which in most cases was both impossible and futile. Instead, there was a growing recognition of the importance of spiritual resistance; and for those under the crushing oppression of the Nazis, the determination to raise one’s spirit and to pursue life was nothing short of heroic. Hilberg mocked this theory that heroism included the "soup ladlers and all others in the ghettos who staved off starvation and despair." But today, there is broad recognition of the significance of spiritual resistance. In the hell of the concentration camps, the will to live on required profound strength and determination.
 
A similar reevaluation is needed for the Jews in the desert. The Torah highlights their flaws and their failures; but perhaps the evidence of a few negative episodes over 40 years is insufficient to render a final verdict on an entire generation. The generation of the desert did follow God for 40 years in the desert; and in the Book of Jeremiah, their devotion is highlighted, where Yirmiyahu says: “I remember the devotion of your youth…how you followed Me in the wilderness, in a land not sown.” In the Mishnah, Rabbi Eliezer argues against the prevailing view, and says that the generation of the desert were pious keepers of the Covenant. Yes, at times some of them grumbled, at times they were afraid. But they followed Moses for 40 years in the desert, and they raised a generation of children that would ultimately enter the land. Their case deserves a second look.
 
This reevaluation also explains a mystery: How is it that after 1900 years of exile, the cowardly Jew became the pioneer and soldier? How did this new Jew arise, as if out of nowhere? Perhaps the answer is that the new Jew and the galut jew are not all that different. Yes, they look different; the new Jew is the very portrait of a knight in shining armor, unafraid to do battle, while the galut Jew is a hunched man in rags, being heaped with abuse as he walks in the street. But one needs to look past the externals; what is more critical is the inner values. Both the new Jew and the galut Jew were guided by the goal of am Yisrael chai, ensuring that the Jewish people live on. Sometimes that goal can be pursued with pride; but sometimes survival on its own is good enough, even if it requires enduring humiliation. And when he finally got the chance, the galut Jew grabbed the opportunity to return home.
 
This reevaluation of the galut Jew is now widely accepted; in recent years, the hearts of the two generations have been brought closer to each other. On Yom Hashoah, many Israelis take a moment to reflect on the legacy of Jews who survived during the Holocaust. They are not seen as weaklings; instead, they are respected as heroes. And each year on Yom Hashoah, the IDF, the Israeli army, shares the stories of Holocaust survivors together with their grandchildren who are serving in the Israeli army. One of the stories featured Holocaust survivor Hanna Tessler, 96, and her granddaughter Shira, a parachuting instructor in the IDF Paratroopers Brigade. The caption included what Hanna said to Shira that day:
 
As a child, I hated soldiers in uniform. They scared me very much. I never thought there would be a time that I would love soldiers. As you hold my hand, while wearing the uniform of the Israel Defense Forces, paratrooper's wings pinned on your shirt, and a pair of paratrooper’s boots on your feet, I am overwhelmed with emotion that I can't keep inside. You're a paratrooper and I float in the air, pinching myself to make sure it's not a dream. My heart is filled with pride and such incredible love. I feel like a soldier myself – I fought for my life, I fought for my sanity, I fought to be a person again, and I really fought and dreamed to have a big family. So today, I stand up tall and salute you. 
 
This photo is of two generations side by side, holding each other in mutual admiration and love. The Jewish people wouldn’t be here without the determination of previous generations, and we wouldn’t have returned to Israel without the courage of a younger generation. And thanks to the sacrifices of Jews past and present, we can continue to say am Yisrael chai.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Everyone Kvetches: A Guide to Dealing with First World Problems

 

There is an old Jewish joke about the prominent businessman who gets sick and is taken to the best hospital in town. A few days later, he abruptly transfers to a small hospital nearby, which is best known for its mediocrity. When he arrives there, the attending physician is intrigued, wondering why this man left a world class facility to come to his humble hospital. So, the attending quizzes his new patient about the previous hospital.
The Jews Gathering the Manna in the Desert -1637 - 1639
By Nicolas Pousin 1594-1665
"Was the medical care not good enough?"

"No - the medical care was remarkable, with one doctor more brilliant than the next. I can't complain".

"Was the nursing care OK?"

"The nurses were absolute angels. I can't complain."

"What about the food and the rooms?"

"The food was exceptional, truly restaurant quality; the hospital rooms were just redecorated. I can't complain.”

Finally, the doctor asks: "So why did you come here??"

"Here..…I CAN complain!"

There is no shortage of Jewish jokes about "kvetching." Kvetching is more than just a Yiddish translation for complaint, and there's a vast difference between the quotidian kvetch and a noble protest. Instead, kvetching is a sort of whining or whinging, punctuated by sighs and served up with melodrama; it is both an attitude and performance art. And for reasons unknown, kvetching found a home among the Jews of Eastern Europe.
 
But kvetching is very much out of place in Western culture. It runs counter to a tradition of uncomplaining courage, what the British call a “stiff upper lip.” Aristotle writes that those of a "manly nature" don't share their pain with others, because they don't want to burden their friends. Immanuel Kant endorsed a stoic attitude to pain, explaining that "complaining and whimpering, even crying out in bodily pain, are unworthy of you…" In the classic poem “Invictus,” the poet declares that he will accept his difficult fate head on, and that:
 
In the fell clutch of circumstance,
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
 
In the United States, there is a culture of compulsory cheerfulness, and all complaining is marginalized as "negativity," something that brings down the collective good mood. Scanning the shelves in any bookstore, you can find titles such as The No Complaining Rule, The Complaint Free World, and No Complaints: How to Stop Sabotaging Your Own Joy, pushing us to be forever cheerful. Grief and sadness are frowned upon; even tragic events like funerals are supposed to be a "celebration of life." It is improper to honestly answer the question “How are you doing?” The only acceptable reply is: “Great!” Immigrants from other countries sometimes don't realize that in America, the question is a request for an upbeat platitude. Instead, they will offer an unexpectedly lengthy and open answer to this question. A friend of mine, who worked for Jewish Immigrant Aid Services, had to counsel new immigrants not to answer this question honestly. In a culture of optimism, everything must be “great!”
 
Certainly, kvetching is not the Jewish ideal. The Mishnah tells us that the truly wealthy man is the one who is content with his lot, not one who complains about its shortcomings. The Tanakh emphasizes over and over that the man of faith does not complain and places his trust in God. And because of this, it is tempting when reading this week's Torah portion to look down our noses at the complaining Jews in the desert. Grieving and crying, they complain that they are sick of eating manna; it is just too boring. Then, the complaint jumps to the absurd, when they say they would rather return to Egypt, whereof the former slaves “remember the fish that we used to eat for free…the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.” Yes, the Jews in the desert say they are ready to return to the house of bondage just to find a better restaurant. At first glance this looks silly, and we are tempted to dismiss them with condescension. But the lesson of this parsha is how ordinary and human kvetching is.
 
What is fascinating about this narrative is that everybody complains, without exception. The grumbling begins with the mixed multitude of people who joined the Jews during the Exodus; they complained that they missed meat. One would expect this group, who were already freemen in Egypt, to be the first to complain; they had the most to lose and least to gain by leaving Egypt. Then the grumblings catch on with the Jews, who miss the fish they were able to catch at the river, along with "the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic" that they ate at their slave master's tables. But the grumblings don't end there. Moshe, overwhelmed by the complaints of the Jews, responds with a bitter complaint of his own. And it is this complaint that is most dramatic, where Moshe asks: "Why have You punished Your servant?" Moshe tells God he would rather die than continue as the leader of the grumbling Jews.
 
The lesson of these cascading complaints is simply this: everybody kvetches. It is not limited to a mixed multitude of Egyptians or the weak-willed former slaves; even the central hero of the Tanakh, Moshe, joins in on the complaining.
 
Instead of mocking the grumbling masses, the Torah wants us to recognize that we're not very different than them. And we really aren't. Don't we also pay an inordinate amount of attention to the garlics, leeks and watermelon in our lives? We plan meaningful celebrations like weddings, kiddushes, bar and bat mitzvahs, only to fight about, criticize, and otherwise get hung up on the menu. Kvetching is universal, not just a childish habit that people will simply grow out of.
 
So how does one end kvetching? Yes, one could use the two methods mentioned before, and maintain a stiff upper lip or put on a happy face. And at times, it is important to do exactly that. But the problem is that changing one's outer demeanor will often fall short. Both methods require us to suppress our actual feelings; afterwards, we are often left grumbling inside.
 
Our Parsha offers its own guidance on how to deal with kvetching. We are not demanded to change human nature. Instead, we are invited to reflect on who we are. Our perspectives, priorities, and sense of purpose shape us; we only complain about things that we consider important. In the end, an empty soul will always be dissatisfied.
 
Why did the Jews grumble about the manna? A careful reading of the text indicates that their complaint arises from a lack of spirituality. The text interweaves the story of the complaints about meat (and the quails God sends in response to the complaints), with another story about Moshe's disciples receiving the gift of prophecy. As Elchanan Samet points out, these two stories are linked by the Hebrew root word for gathering, assaf; the people are gathering the quails that land around the camp while Moshe is gathering a group of future prophets. The contrast is clear: some gather birds, while others gather inspiration.
 
The text also hints that a confusion of values leads to this grumbling. When telling the people to ready themselves to eat meat the next day, the word the Torah uses is hitkadashu, which in most other contexts means to "make oneself holy"; here, it is used in an unusual way, to mean "prepare." This invocation of religious language to describe an upcoming meat delivery is meant to mock the perspective of those clamoring for tastier meals; they are worshiping food and consider a pound of flesh to be sacred. And when you worship food, you will always complain about the menu. Someone with a purpose-driven life will have a sense of gratitude and instead appreciate the divine blessings of freedom and goodness.
 
Kvetching will never cease; as long as desire exists, so will disappointment. Even though our current standard of living far exceeds that of previous generations, we can still find plenty of things about which to complain. On the contrary, better living conditions breed even higher expectations. There is even a term for this type of complaint: first world problems. The renowned psychiatrist Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski relates an anecdote about his own first world problem:
 
“I had just bought a new car, fully loaded, and was very upset that the cruise control was not functioning properly. That day, a woman who was eight months into recovery from alcoholism stopped by to tell me about her good fortune. “I found an apartment that I can afford. Now that my son is going to school all day, I can take a full-time job. I might save enough money to get my car fixed,” she said.
 
“What’s wrong with your car?” I asked.
 
“It doesn’t have a reverse gear,” she said
 
"How do you drive without a reverse gear?” I asked.
 
"You just have to be careful where you park,” she said. “At least I have a way to get around – there are some people who don’t even have a car.”
 
I felt pretty meek – instead of being grateful that I had a fully loaded new car, I was griping because the cruise control was not working!”
 
A broken cruise control is truly a “first world problem.” Our first instinct is to kvetch when something like this happens; and that has been true since the very beginning of time. But the parsha is a guide for how to properly relate to these first world problems. We must never forget to focus on our purpose, recognize our priorities, and keep our sense of perspective. If we do that, menus and cruise control malfunctions won't matter.

Friday, June 10, 2022

A Blessing for Alienation

 



In the early summer of 1970, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Gefner was sitting at the Kotel praying for peace and tranquility. The War of Attrition in the Sinai had intensified, and Israeli soldiers were being killed daily. Heartbroken by the losses, the words of the Mishnah echoed in his mind: "From the day that the Temple was destroyed, there is no day that does not contain curses."
Detail of a mozaic in the Synagoge of Enschede. The mosaic text reads "בשמאלה עשר וכבוד" ("in her left hand riches and honor"), which is a part of Proverbs 3:16, Mozaiek in de Synagoge van Enschede
Suddenly, Gefner had a revelation. He remembered that there is a passage in the Midrash that responds to the Mishnah and says: “Rav Acha said: If so, by what merit do we remain standing? Through the merit of Birkat Kohanim (the priestly blessing).” This inspired Gefner; he later found a tradition from the late 12th century mystic, Rabbi Eleazar of Worms, that said: “If three hundred Kohanim would stand on the Mount of Olives and recite Birkat Kohanim, the Messiah would arrive.” Gefner decided to organize large Birkat Kohanim gatherings at the Kotel; and today, because of him, tens of thousands of people, along with hundreds of Kohanim, come from around the world to the Kotel on Pesach and Sukkot for Birkat Kohanim.
 
Gefner's choice of Birkat Kohanim is unsurprising; this blessing has been a perennial favorite for millenia. Parents offer this blessing to their children on Shabbat, and the oldest biblical text ever found is that of Birkat Kohanim; it is inscribed on the Hinnom Scrolls, two silver amulets that date to the seventh century B.C. Birkat Kohanim has a unique appeal that draws people to it.
 
Despite its popularity, the idea that the Kohanim are the ones who offer bless the community is theologically troubling. Rabbi Isaac Arama articulates this problem in his commentary to the parsha:
 
"What purpose is there in this commandment, in having these blessings coming to the people from the mouths of the Kohanim? It is God above who gives the blessing. What can be added if the Kohanim offer this blessing or not? Does God need their help?"
 
Some are unconcerned by this question and say that the blessing of Birkat Kohanim does belong to the Kohanim. Rabbeinu Bachya says that “God handed over the gift of these blessings to the Kohanim, that they should have in their hands the power to bless Israel.” Some go even further. The Kli Yakar explains that it is the chazan who brings the blessings down from heaven, by reading the words of the blessing; the kohanim repeat the words after the chazan and take that blessing from the chazan to offer it to the community.
 
The Rambam and many other commentaries find this to be unacceptable; it is God who determines divine blessings, not man. The Rambam writes: “Do not wonder and say, "Of what use is the blessing of an ordinary person?" The acceptance of the blessings does not depend upon the Kohen but upon the Almighty, as it is said, "So shall they put My name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them" (Numbers 6:27). The Kohanim fulfill their duty with which they have been charged, and the Almighty, in His mercy, blesses Israel according to His will.” According to the Rambam, the Kohen’s recitation of the blessing is merely a formality, a ritual no different than the rest of the Temple service; in the end, it is God who provides the blessing. This answer solves the theological dilemma; but it devalues the role of the Kohanim and empties their blessings of meaning.
 
There is a third way of looking at the blessings, one which is suggested by the Rashbam. Birkat Kohanim is a prayer offered by the Kohanim on behalf of the community; God then listens to this blessing-prayer of the Kohanim and blesses the community. (The Sifrei notes that by listening to Birkat Kohanim, the community also brings God’s blessing to the Kohanim.) However, this too begs the question: Can’t the community pray for themselves? Can’t the Kohanim, who bless others, obtain their own blessings?
 
But perhaps that is precisely the point: a community that prays for each other, that sees the other person as worthy of God’s blessing, is a community transformed. That perspective is in itself a blessing.
 
True love requires both compassion and respect; but respect is the more important of the two. Compassion is the foundation of “love your neighbor as yourself”; when we appreciate that our neighbors are like us, we feel a desire to care for them. However, Ben Azzai, in a passage in the Talmud, says that recognizing that others are created in the image of God is even more important. This is the foundation of respect; one must treat a person who carries the divine image as sacred.
 
Birkat Kohanim is about respect; it teaches us to bless each other, because every human being is worthy of God’s blessing. This perspective is nothing short of transformative, and it is a true moment of divine inspiration when the Kohanim and congregation meet each other face to face and connect in appreciation and love.
 
The context of Birkat Kohanim in our Torah reading underlines its importance as a communal institution. Instead of being included in Sefer Vayikra with the other laws of the Kohanim, Birkat Kohanim is found at the beginning of Sefer Bamidbar. The theme of Bamidbar is nation building; the book begins with a census and the organization of the military and focuses on the development of a young nation in the desert. But the rise of the state brings with it a great deal of discontent. States are big and self-involved, and individuals will be overlooked and excluded. National ambitions pay little attention to the ordinary man, and consequently, states are by their very nature cold and impersonal. The state, in a word, is alienating.
 
The laws in our parsha all deal with people who are alienated or marginalized: those who are impure, the convert, the estranged husband and wife, and the uncomfortable religious striver, the Nazir. Taken as a group, these laws warn us about alienation, and the problems of nation building. Following these laws, the blessing of the Kohanim is introduced; it represents the opposite of alienation. The cold calculus of the state sees young men as a unit of military force, one more soldier available for battle; but Birkat Kohanim reminds us that they are all God’s children.

Alienation is now commonplace around the world. A toxic mix of technology, materialism, and polarization has left people feeling more disconnected than ever. It is in times like this that we must relearn how to respect everyone, to recognize the divine dignity of each human being. And that is what Birkat Kohanim does; it reminds us that even the stranger is created in the image of God and deserves our blessing.
 
Aaron Katz, an American immigrant to Israel, described in Tablet Magazine his experiences reciting Birkat Kohanim in “a moving minyan” on the train to Tel Aviv:
 
….as I recite the prayer each morning—on a moving train in the State of Israel—the words have taken on an entirely new meaning for me …. On a train filled with the spectrum of Israeli society, I have a unique opportunity to provide the passengers, including the soldiers and police officers who risk their lives to defend the State of Israel, with a blessing of protection and peace.
 
The Talmud explains …. that Birkat Kohanim reaches out to the people “out in the fields” who are unable to be present during the recitation of the blessing. As we literally pass through the fields... of Ramla and Lod...during Birkat Kohanim, I... smile at how literal the Talmudic saying has become in my own life. And I wonder, could the rabbis of the Talmud ever have imagined that an immigrant Kohen to Israel would be passing through the fields with a minyan while reciting the Birkat Kohanim and praying for peace?
 
I don’t know what the Rabbis of the Talmud imagined. But what Katz describes is precisely the purpose of Birkat Kohanim: to see everyone as worthy of God’s blessing. When we do that, we become just a bit closer to each other, just a bit less alienated. And maybe if we do this often enough, at the Kotel, on trains, and at the Shabbat table, the blessings of peace in Birkat Kohanim will become a reality.

Friday, June 03, 2022

Love in the Shadow of Death: The Story of Ruth

 

All of life is a footnote to love and death. These two poles of existence overshadow everything else; love creates life and death takes it away, filling our lives with joy and sorrow in unending succession.
The Wailing Wall In the Old City of Jerusalem, Courtesy of the American Colony, 1910
It is easiest to consider love and death separately, as two very different chapters of life; and emotionally, they are worlds apart. Halakhah reflects this instinct and treats mourning and celebration as irreconcilable opposites. Mourners don't attend celebrations and parties, and the joy of the holidays terminates shiva. The heart cannot accommodate both joy and grief at the same time because both love and death inspire intense, all-encompassing emotions.
 
Love is intoxicating. Shir Hashirim, the Song of Songs, portrays the exceptional power of love, with couples who are “lovesick” and unable to act rationally. And this reality repeats itself over and over in history. When Jacob falls in love with Rachel, he dramatically overpays for her dowry, offering to work seven full years for her hand. Even so, Jacob imagines that he is the one who is getting a bargain, because he is so much in love with Rachel; the seven years seem like a small price to pay for Rachel’s hand in marriage. Jacob is blinded by love.
 
William Blake captures this mindless blindness in a short poem: “Love to faults is always blind, Always is to joy inclin’d, Lawless, wing’d and unconfin’d, And breaks all chains from every mind.” Love hatches remarkable dreams that fly in every direction; with love nothing seems impossible. Lovers are oblivious to reality and live in their own two-person universe, just like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
 
Death brings a blindness of its own. When King Solomon writes the book of Kohelet, Ecclesiastes, he begins with a lament about the pointlessness of life; as Rashi puts it, "The author of Kohelet issues a complaint against the seven days of creation, that (the world) is all a vanity of vanities." Death, the question without an answer, confounds him. What point does life have, Kohelet asks, if the righteous man meets the same end as the wicked, and the wise man has the same fate as an animal? (The bitter, skeptical tone of Kohelet seems out of place in the Tanakh; I sometimes wonder if the purpose of Kohelet is to expose us to our own bitterness and cynicism, to recognize that hope will disintegrate without faith.)
 
Whenever one looks death in the eye, optimism and joy quickly evaporate. Franz Rosenzweig notes how life stands in the shadow of death, and "all that is mortal lives in fear of death…each newly born waits with fear and trembling for the day of its passage into the dark…every new birth multiplies the fear (of death) ...for it multiplies that which is mortal." When one enters the realm of death, a cold cynicism descends, choking off any experience of joy.
 
The poetry of Shir Hashirim and the acerbic philosophy of Kohelet each deserve their own book; they faithfully explore the experiences of passion and despair. And because the emotions of joy and grief are opposites, we assume that the experiences of love and death are utterly incompatible. But they are not.
 
A third biblical book, the Book of Ruth, brings death and love together. In it, a family moves from Israel to Moab, where the sons take Moabite wives for themselves. In short succession, this family is devastated by death, with the father and his two sons passing away at a young age. Alone and impoverished, one of the son's wives, Ruth, returns with her mother-in-law Naomi to Israel. Ruth abandons her homeland to remain with her beloved mother-in-law, Naomi. Ruth persists despite discrimination and desperation and insists that she will perpetuate her husband's family's legacy; and in the end she does just that. She marries a relative of her husband's, Boaz, and the family continues; their great-grandson is King David.
 
The Book of Ruth is not just a book of love and death; it is a book about a different type of love, love in the shadow of death. After the family's tragedies, Naomi succumbs to cynicism; she even suggests she should rename herself as "bitter." Ruth refuses this path; she battles with the angel of death. Ruth teaches us how to pursue redemption in the valley of the shadow of death.
 
The Hebrew word for redemption, ga'al, appears multiple times in the Book of Ruth, because it is a book about redemption, ones both large and small. By remarrying and bringing grandchildren to Naomi, Ruth redeems and rebuilds a once broken family. And later, her descendant King David will be the very symbol of Messianic redemption and bring redemption to the nation as a whole.
 
Ordinarily, death erases life, and destroys all that love has built. But in redemption, it is love that gets the final word, staying one step ahead in a cosmic wrestling match. It is when you continue to love after a tragedy, when you courageously pour your broken heart into rebuilding a broken world, you have taken the first steps on the road to redemption.
 
The very foundation of Jewish history is redemption; it is the story of a people who, despite having every reason to be bitter and cynical, continued to rebuild and repair. This has never been more evident than in the past century. Crushed by the Holocaust, it would have made sense for the Jews to give up. Instead, following Ruth’s example, they built the State of Israel, a modern-day miracle of redemption.
 
Last week I joined the Ramaz Upper School mission to Israel, together with nearly 500 students and teachers. Israel is filled with stories of redemption, both large and small. At Tel-a-Saki, the sight of one of the fiercest battles of the Yom Kippur War, we were told about the heroism of the soldiers who fought there. Three tanks, under the command of Yoav Yakir, held off hundreds of Syrian tanks for nearly 2 days, giving the army precious time to reinforce their defenses on the Golan Heights. Even after it became clear that they were no longer able to hold off the Syrians, Yoav chose to fight as long as possible, and fell in battle. After the war, a member of Yoav's unit, Yitzchak Nagarker, had a baby boy. (Yitzchak is a war hero in his own right, with his own incredible story of courage.) At the bris, Yitzchak invited Yoav's father to be the sandek; and he named his first born Yoav, in honor of his fallen comrade. "Love is as strong as death” and is the very instrument of redemption; and Yoav's legacy continues to live on in Yitzchak's son.
 
Our mission prayed at the Kotel on Friday night, just a day before Yom Yerushalayim. Through hundreds of years of exile, the passion the Jewish people had for Jerusalem never wavered. They continued to dream of this place, to declare l’shanah haba'ah b’Yerushalayim, “next year in Jerusalem”. And on June 7, 1967, for the first time in 1900 years, that dream came true. An Israeli flag was raised over the Kotel. With tears in their eyes, the exiles had returned to Zion. The Kotel is the ultimate monument to redemption, and its stones whisper, Am Yisrael Chai, the Jewish people live on.
 
After services on Friday night, the Ramaz students gathered in the plaza, waiting to walk together as a group to Shabbat dinner. Then something remarkable happened. They gathered in one large circle, singing Jewish songs for a half an hour; other visitors came over to watch this moment of inspiration. At that moment, the students were making Ruth's legacy their own. They were singing the song of redemption, continuing an undying love story that has lasted for thousands of years.

Friday, May 27, 2022

After the Curses

How to read the Torah section of the tochacha, the curses, in the synagogue, has always been a delicate matter. The Torah discusses the consequences of God's covenant with the Jews twice; there are blessings for fulfilling the covenant, and curses for violating it. The Mishnah rules that the tochacha is meant to be read as a single unit, during one aliyah; the reason for this is a matter of debate. Rav Asi's opinion is that dividing the tochacha would show a lack of respect. He bases his view on the verse in Mishlei, "Do not reject the discipline of the Lord, my son, and do not abhor His rebuke." The curses offer a rebuke and a lesson of personal change, and we read this section uninterrupted in respect for its important message.

Rabbi YY Halberstam, The Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe, Founder of the Laniado Hospital.
A very different view of the Mishnah's rule is offered by Reish Lakish. He says we don't divide the tochacha into two aliyot because it would be inappropriate to make a blessing on the Torah in middle of the curses. He explains, "One doesn't make a blessing on calamities." We don't welcome curses and bless their arrival; curses are meant to be avoided like the plagues they enumerate.
 
This view became particularly influential in the medieval period, and the tochacha aliyah is actually treated as being cursed; so much so, that some communities skipped the Torah reading for this parsha! In most communities, the custom is to read this section quickly, and in a low voice; this is based on a passage in the Talmud that talks about "mumbling" while reading the tochacha.
 
There are many other customs regarding this Aliyah. In some places they called an ignorant, undistinguished person for the curses, because their Torah blessing was less likely to influence the divine realm, while in other places they specifically called the rabbi, who would be unafraid to read this section. But in many locales, this section was avoided by the entire community. Rabbi Moshe Isserles records that the custom of Ashkenazi communities was to call out in synagogue before the tochacha aliya “Anyone who wants can read." This created a problem, because no one wanted to take the aliyah; and in responsa literature, there are reports of communities waiting for hours for someone to approach for the aliyah.
 
Some enterprising communities dealt with this problem by hiring a poor person to take this aliyah. (The 14th century Rabbi Yaakov ben Moshe Levi Moelin so disliked this custom, he once remarked angrily to a poor man who took this aliyah, "Why do you need more pain?") Some individuals became "specialists" who would be paid to take the tochacha aliyah in several synagogues. There is a joke about the time when the man employed to take the tochacha aliyah came exceptionally late. Annoyed with the delay, the head of the synagogue asked him why he didn't come on time; the man explained he was late because he had taken the tochacha aliya at several other synagogues as well, because "you can't make a living from just one set of curses.”
 
For hundreds of years, Jewish communities have embraced Reish Lakish's view; we do not want to listen to these curses or be entangled in them. Perhaps the fire and brimstone of the tochacha might motivate people to improve themselves; but even so, we would prefer to accept neither its honey nor its sting and avoid it entirely.
 
On a Shabbat morning in 1952, one Rabbi went a step further, and completely ignored the tochacha. The Klausenberger Rebbe, Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam, was a Holocaust survivor, whose wife and 11 children had been murdered by the Nazis; after the war, he had relocated to Brooklyn. On that Shabbat morning, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, who was at that time 12-year-old, had come to visit the Rebbe's synagogue; and this is how Rabbi Riskin describes that remarkable Torah reading:
 
"In accordance with the custom, the Torah reader began to chant the tochacha in a whisper. And unexpectedly, almost inaudibly but unmistakably, the Yiddish word hecher (louder) came from the direction of the lectern upon which the rebbe was leaning at the eastern wall of the shul.
 
The Torah reader stopped reading for a few moments; the congregants looked up from their Bibles in questioning silence. Could they have heard their rebbe correctly? Was he ordering the Torah reader to go against time-honored custom and chant the tochacha out loud? The Torah reader continued to read in a whisper, apparently concluding that he had not heard what he thought he heard. And then the rebbe banged on his lectern, turned to face the stunned congregation, and cried out in Yiddish, with a pained expression on his face, and fire blazing in his eyes: “I said louder! Read these verses out loud! We have nothing to fear. We’ve already experienced the curses. Let the Master of the Universe hear them. Let Him know that the curses have already befallen us and let Him know that it’s time for Him to send the blessings!”
 
The Klausenberger Rebbe was a man who had seen all these curses, and worse, up close; and that Shabbat morning he was demanding from God that there be no more curses. In doing so, the Rebbe redefined what these curses mean; but at the same time, he also redefined what blessings are as well. At the end of services, the Rebbe rose to speak. Rabbi Riskin writes: "His words were again short and to the point, but this time his eyes were warm with love, leaving an indelible expression on my mind and soul. “My beloved brothers and sisters,” he said, “pack up your belongings. We must make one more move. God promises that the blessings which must follow the curses will now come. They will come – but not from America. The blessings will only come from Israel. It is time for us to go home.”
 
The Rebbe's words are profoundly inspiring. But they are a great deal more than that; they represent a dramatic shift in the Rebbe's philosophy. Before the war, he was an anti-Zionist. He felt that a Jewish State could only be created by the Messiah, and a state built by secular Zionists would fall very short of the authentic Messianic utopia. But after the war, he became far more pragmatic. He explained his change of heart by referencing a debate between two Hasidic Rabbis during the Napoleonic wars, as the invasion of Russia had aroused speculation that the Messiah might be coming. The Klausenberger Rebbe wrote:
 
"The Rabbi (Menachem Mendel) of Rimanov declared that he would agree to them proceeding from Lviv to Rawa, ankle-deep in Jewish blood, so long as the Messiah would come, while the Rabbi of Ropshitz insisted that "we will not hear of a third or a quarter" – i.e., if even a third or a quarter of a Jew would be missing, we do not want to hear of redemption." When I was a child, I asked my revered father and teacher, may his memory protect us: Was Rabbi Menachem Mendel not correct?"
 
When the Klausenberger Rebbe got older, he came to the opinion that protecting people from suffering was more important than building a messianic utopia. When you have seen the worst the world has to offer, what matters are small blessings, not grand visions. And the Klausenberger Rebbe saw Israel as a blessing one must grab hold of. After that Shabbat morning, he began building a neighborhood in Netanya, and in December 1959, moved to Israel with 51 of his followers.
 
The Klausenberger Rebbe consistently searched for a way to improve the lives of his fellow Jews. In response to his own wartime experiences of suffering, he built the Laniado Hospital in Netanya, a rather unusual undertaking for a Hasidic Rebbe. And he appreciated the State of Israel for the safety and protection that it brought to so many Jews. The Klausenberger Rebbe met with, and maintained a regular correspondence with Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, and was vilified by many of his colleagues for doing so. For him, this represented a profound shift, not just away from anti-Zionism; it was a change of perspective, recognizing that even if it isn't a utopia, the State of Israel was a blessing that made the lives of Jews better.
 
When they met, Ben Gurion asked the Klausenberger Rebbe for his expectations for a Jewish state. The rabbi answered he has maximum and minimum expectations. "What are they?" “The minimum is that I will be able to go out on a Shabbos morning wearing my shtreimel and bekeshe and no one will bother me,” he said. And the maximum? “You, (Ben Gurion), will wear a shtreimel as well.”
 
The Rebbe still savored the utopian vision of a State of Torah; but he now embraced the "minimum expectation" as an incredible blessing as well.
 
I am currently in Israel with nearly 500 Ramaz students and teachers; it is truly inspiring to be a part of this mission, and to tour Israel with the students. Israel is not a utopia; but at a minimum, it is a miracle the likes of which previous generations could only dream. And at a time when too many American Jews mumble their support for Israel, it means a great deal that our school and our community is ready to offer its support for Israel, louder and louder.

Friday, May 20, 2022

The Shmita Debate: A Clash of Utopias

 

The proper observance of shmita has been a topic of perennial debate in Israel's Orthodox community for the last 130 years. The rules of the sabbatical year, shmita, require farmers to desist from working their fields, and to open up their fields and all the produce within them to anyone. But the Jewish agricultural communities established in the late 1800s were worried that shmita could undermine their viability, and that they simply could not afford to shut down for the entire year. At the time, the idea of a heter mechira was first proposed by several religious Zionist rabbis, and endorsed by Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor, the leading halakhic authority of the time. The heter mechira means “permission through a sale.” It employs a mechanism where the fields are sold to non-Jews for the shmita year, and the Jewish farmer continues to work the very same field; after the conclusion of the shmita year, the Jewish farmer buys the field back. Even within the religious Zionist community there have been harsh opponents of the heter mechira. The religious Zionist pioneer Rabbi Yechiel Michel Pines, wrote the following about the observance of shmita in 1889:
Certificate of kosher sale permit for the Shmita year displayed in a supermarket on Emek Refaim Street in Jerusalem; October, 12 2021
“The commandment of shmita has been an essential limb of our religion, one without which we cannot live. And now comes the first shmita in our settlements, and suddenly there appears the merciful ones, the sons of merciful ones, who have compassion on the colonists without even asking their opinions and make a great tumult searching the world for a way to offer a halakhic permission (to work the fields on) shmita and cut a limb off the Jewish people."
 
These passionate words underline how important shmita is to Judaism. But why is shmita so significant? There are four theories in the commentaries regarding the purpose of shmita: to recognize God's sovereignty, to support the poor, to offer the farmer a sabbatical year of contemplation, and to honor and protect the land. What is most fascinating is that there is a strong biblical basis for all four theories.
 
In this week’s Parsha, the Torah describes the shmita year as a Shabbat; shmita is also the seventh year, a "seven" just like Shabbat. This suggests that like Shabbat, the purpose of shmita is to recognize God's sovereignty over the world He created. The Talmud emphasizes this point when it says: “The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to the Jewish people: plant for six years, and withhold during the seventh year, so that you will know that the land is Mine.”
 
Shmita centers on the importance of caring for the poor as well. In Exodus (23:11), the Torah says that the shmita is a time when the farmers open their fields to everyone, and "Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beasts eat." (Another rule of the shmita year also concerns the poor; the forgiveness of unpaid loans enables the bankrupt to get out of debt.) Charity is one of the chief purposes of shmita
 
The Torah also associates the shmita year with study and contemplation. The mitzvah of Hakhel follows the shmita year; at Hakhel, the entire nation gathers at the Temple to hear the King read the entire Torah. Hakhel’s connection to shmita has to do with the importance of learning. Ibn Ezra offers the fascinating theory that Hakhel occurs at the beginning of the shmita year, to inaugurate a year of communal learning; and like Shabbat, shmita is meant to be dedicated to learning. (In contrast to Ibn Ezra, the Talmud says Hakhel takes place right after the end of the shmita year. Even so, the connection between shmita and learning is clear.)
 
Finally, the Torah describes the land of Israel as “desiring” the shmita (Lev. 26:34), and the land “observing” the shmita. Abravanel sees this as highlighting the unique holiness of the Land of Israel; as a holy land, it too must be distinguished by a holy year of shmita. The holiness of the land of Israel requires the land itself to have its own sabbath, and to rest in a sabbatical year. A very different land-centered explanation is offered by the Rambam; he explains that the rest has a very practical purpose, because the land “improves when it remains fallow for some time.” To the Rambam, shmita is simply good agronomy.
 
Why does the Torah give so many different purposes for shmita? Perhaps because together, these four ideas represent a vision of returning to utopia. The farming life is bone-crushing and competitive and alienates the farmer socially and spiritually. In the shmita year, farmers can reclaim their true self; in this year, they connect more deeply to God, their fellow man, and even the very land they farm each day. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook described the utopian beauty of shmita this way: "What Shabbat does for the individual, shmita does for the nation as a whole. … Our mundane lives, with their toil, anxiety, anger, and competition cannot entirely extinguish (our) creative force. On the shmita, our pure, inner spirit may be revealed as it truly is..." 
 
Yet despite having such a profound appreciation of the beauty of shmita, Rabbi Kook and many others supported the heter mechira, because of the practical issues involved. In the earliest years of the agricultural settlements, there was a real concern that shutting the farms for a year might cause those settlements to fail. There is some debate today whether those concerns are still relevant in 2022, in a country that has a well-developed agricultural sector. But there is a strong case to be made that they remain a serious issue. Currently, a small percentage of the population, and an even smaller percentage of the farmers, observe shmita. If shmita were a reality for the entire country, it would wreak havoc on the economy. Consider the supply chain implications of shutting down all of Israel’s farms for an entire year and finding completely new sources for all agricultural products. Those who are stringent on shmita actually have to give thanks to those who are not; otherwise, there would be runaway inflation and persistent shortages every shmita
 
While practical concerns motivated the rabbis who proposed the heter mechira, their ruling stood on solid halakhic ground. The status of shmita in contemporary times is not completely clear. The majority of medieval authorities consider it to be only rabbinic in nature after the destruction of the Temple, and some even see it as simply a custom. In addition, after years of exile, it became unclear which year is actually the shmita year, and there is more than one way of reckoning the count of seven years; because of this, each shmita year carries the status of doubt. Because of these factors, the supporters of the heter mechira felt it was acceptable to circumvent shmita by selling farmland to a non-Jew. But this ruling attracted controversy from the very beginning, and that debate continues to rage until this very day.
 
The heter mechira debate is intertwined with multiple other debates within the Orthodox community. Should practical concerns shape how one relates to important religious goals? How significant is Jewish nationalism and a secular Jewish state in halakhah? How do we relate to farmers who are secular, and are not willing to follow halakhah? And all these debates stand on the foundation of prior medieval debates regarding body vs. soul: “If there is no flour there is no Torah, and if there is no Torah there is no flour.” But I would argue that the heter mechira debate is also something else. It is a clash between two utopias: the utopia of the Tanakh, and the utopia of the simple Jew. The biblical utopia is the shmita, where humanity returns to the Garden of Eden, and achieves the original ideals of creation. This is an inspiring goal, but one that remains out of our grasp. Today, shmita is only practiced by a tiny group of farmers, who are supported by charity; the sad irony is that instead of wealthy farmers supporting the poor during shmita, it is now the farmers who need the support of others during shmita.
 
But there is another utopia, that of the simple Jew. For 2,000 years, he dreamed of returning from exile and having his own home in his own homeland. But this practical nationalist vision is actually a profoundly religious one, one which represents a messianic vision of v’shavu banim l’gvulam, “the children shall return home”. To walk in the streets of Israel, and see a thriving, living, Jewish State was only a dream in the 1800s; and for the simple Jew, Israel is truly a utopia. And after a journey of two millennia, the simple Jew embraces Israel as a slice of heaven, where every fruit tastes sweeter, every day is more beautiful than the next, and every child is exceptional. The heter mechira is there to support and strengthen the State of Israel, the utopia of the simple Jew.
 
For those of us who do rely on the heter mechira, it is critical that we don’t allow pragmatism to douse our idealism. Even if the utopia of shmita eludes us, we must embrace a utopia we all too often take for granted: the State of Israel.