Monday, August 30, 2021

Selichot Message - 2021

What happens when you run out of inspiration?

Every time the high holidays come this early in the year it is a challenge to feel the inspiration.

Simply put, August and Elul don't fit well together.

August has the laziest days of the summer, when you've already had a month of practice at doing nothing. We sit by the water, and work on our suntans. 

Elul is the time of awe and spiritual preparation. 

Someone quoted me recently the Yiddish saying about Elul - "in Elul, der fish tzittert in vasser" "in Elul, The fish trembles in the water."

Elul is a time of fear and trembling, when we undertake the spiritual inventory and search for greater inspiration and meaning in our lives.

It is definitely not at all like August.

In any year, when Selichot falls in the month of August, it is difficult to find inspiration. 

But this year it is all the more difficult. After 18 months, we are still grappling with the coronavirus crisis, still struggling with this awful illness. And not only that, we are preoccupied with the enormous amounts of day to day minutiae in connection with the coronavirus. 

Inspiration is difficult to come by right now.

So what happens when you run out of inspiration? 

How do you say Selichot when your heart just isn't into it?

The answer can be found in a passage of the Talmud, Pesachim 117a

 ״לְדָוִד מִזְמוֹר״ — מְלַמֵּד שֶׁשָּׁרְתָה עָלָיו שְׁכִינָה וְאַחַר כָּךְ אָמַר שִׁירָה. ״מִזְמוֹר לְדָוִד״ — מְלַמֵּד שֶׁאָמַר שִׁירָה וְאַחַר כָּךְ שָׁרְתָה עָלָיו שְׁכִינָה.

 If a psalm begins: Of David a psalm, this teaches that the Divine Presence rested upon him first and afterward he recited the song. However, if a psalm opens with: A psalm of David, this teaches that he first recited the song, and afterward the Divine Presence rested upon him.

This may seem to be an interpretation of a textual anomaly, a simple way of resolving why the order of words is sometimes reversed. 

But it actually is a lesson. Sometimes you are inspired and song is natural. 

Other times, you are without inspiration. What do you do then?

You read the song without inspiration.

You read the song without inspiration, because sometimes the song will bring inspiration.

You read the song without inspiration, because sometimes the song will remind you of when you were inspired in the past.

You read the song without inspiration, because it's still worth reading the song.

In excellent example of this is the mourner's Kaddish. At the graveside, we tell the mourner to read this prayer. It begins with the words:

"Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world"

Most mourners are not inspired when they saying these words. If anything they feel alienated from this lofty vision of divine redemption.  The mourners are often wondering how God could visit this tragedy upon them. So why do we recite the Kaddish? 

The answer lies in an idea that many Jewish thinkers have mentioned: we not only have faith in God, but also have faith in ourselves, in our ability to find faith. We know that even after alienation, We can find faith again.

And this is why it is so important to say the song even if we don't feel the inspiration. Because we know that even if we don't feel inspiration now, we will feel inspiration later; perhaps in 2 months, perhaps in 2 years. 

We continue to say the song and read the words, and hope the inspiration will come eventually.

That is why we always read the words, no matter what we feel.

What should we do tonight, if we just aren't inspired for the high holidays? Let's read the song, let's read the words. 

With God's help, the words will lead us to inspiration.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

When History Touches You

The casual reader is immediately struck by the pageantry of the offering of first fruits, bikkurim, in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Mishnah offers a vivid description of the bikkurim procession. It tells of how individual farmers would gather in local groups, and

“an ox would go in front of them, his horns bedecked with gold and with an olive-crown on its head. The flute would play before them ... when they drew close to Jerusalem ... the governors and chiefs and treasurers [of the Temple] would go out to them, and ... all the skilled artisans of Jerusalem would stand up before them and greet them saying, ‘Our brothers, men of such and such a place, we welcome you in peace.’... When they reached the Temple Mount even King Agrippas would take the basket and place it on his shoulder and walk as far as the Temple Court. When they got to the Temple Court, the Levites would sing” (Mishnah Bikkurim Chapter 3). 

All of this pomp and ceremony highlights how different bikkurim are from other agricultural offerings. Bringing an offering of first fruits or firstborn animals in gratitude to God was common in the ancient world, and is found in the story of Kayin and Hevel at the very beginning of the Torah. But bikkurim are different because they tie the first fruits to the Exodus from Egypt. Here, the farmer speaks to those present and says: “I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come to the country which the Lord swore to our fathers to give us.” 

The farmer then tells the history of how their ancestors wandered, eventually becoming slaves in Egypt; and “the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and ... He has brought us to this place and has given us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now, behold, I have brought the bikkurim of the land which you, O Lord, have given me.”  

Even though bikkurim reflect the farmer’s personal achievement, everyone else joins them in the celebration, including political leaders, Levites, and the shopkeepers in Jerusalem. This is because bikkurim are also a national celebration, and commemorate the Exodus and the birth of the Jewish people. 

It is fascinating to contrast bikkurim with the rituals of Pesach. Both tell the story of the Exodus, but in very different ways. Pesach takes place on the anniversary of leaving Egypt, and its ritual foods—the Pesach sacrifice, the Matzah and Maror, all relate directly to the experience of liberation. To sit at the Seder is to reach out and touch history, and imagine oneself as part of the Exodus; each person at the Seder sees themselves as if they were the slaves leaving Egypt that very night.

With bikkurim, the process goes in the opposite direction, reversing the narrative of the Pesach Seder. The farmer takes an individual achievement, the arrival of the new crop, and sees within it the story of the Exodus. Bikkurim are a reminder that history is very much a part of current events; as the farmer celebrates their personal good fortune, they make a point of recognizing that their prosperity is rooted in the miracles of the past. Unlike the Seder, the history lesson of bikkurim begins with the farmer, who reflects on their first fruits, and recognizes that history has touched their daily life. 

In the past century, Jewish history has been retold in two forums. One is at a commemoration or a pilgrimage, such as on Yom HaShoah and Yom Haatzmaut, or at Auschwitz, Atlit (the prison camp near Haifa) or Ellis Island. The very dates and places are imbued with significance; they stand ready and waiting for their story to be retold. But history is also retold at personal celebrations—at a wedding when the grandfather gets up to speak, or at a Bat Mitzvah when the grandmother addresses her granddaughter. These speeches return to great historical moments, and repeat bittersweet stories of crisis, tragedy, courage and survival. They conclude, always, with the sense that now, finally, there is a celebration! 

These are bikkurim moments, when we recognize how history touches their daily lives. And this is actually a more profound retelling of the past, because it demonstrates how history impacts the life of the individual.  

Ultimately, the declaration of bikkurim is included in the Haggadah and read at the Pesach Seder. David Henschke and others have wondered why this passage was chosen for the Seder because it doesn't fit well. The bikkurim declaration actually had to be edited for the Haggadah, because it made no sense in exile to read the words “He has brought us to this place and has given us this land.” It would have made more sense to use Deuteronomy 6:21-24, which tells the Exodus story exclusively, as the foundation of the Haggadah.  

I would argue that the declaration of bikkurim was chosen for the Haggadah precisely because it speaks from the perspective of the individual, and reminds the reader that the redemption will bear fruit for everyone. During the bitter years of the diaspora, individual circumstances were shaped by exile; daily life was more a reminder of Tisha B’av than Pesach. In the Haggadah, the section of bikkurim offers hope to the brokenhearted, and reminds them to wait for Elijah to bring them to Jerusalem; then, they too will bring bikkurim.

Contemporary Jews can tell the story of bikkurim as their own; they know the wanderings of their grandparents, and recognize how lucky they are now. One moving example of this is a story told by Daniel Gordis, which he heard from an elderly woman he met. He writes:

“She was nineteen during the war ... her father realized that they might not survive Europe, even where they were hiding, and told her he was sending her out ... She'd never given much thought to Palestine, but she had a sister who’d already moved here. … she boarded her ship, and sailed for Palestine ... At the shore, of course, they were stopped by the British ... [and she was] taken by the British to Atlit, the prison camp still preserved not far from today's Zichron Yaakov. ... Here she was, scarcely out of her teens, alone except for a sister, in a country that barely existed. 

About sixty years later, she told us, she told her children that for her eightieth birthday, she wanted them all to get in a few cars, and she would lead them, her grandchildren and great-grandchildren around Jerusalem showing them the places that had been important to her over the past decades. Places she'd lived, where she'd worked, where significant memories had been etched. They agreed on a date and time, and a son-in-law knocked at her door to take her to the car. But there was no car. Instead, there was a bus. And instead of her immediate family, it was children and grandchildren, nieces and nephews and many more; literally dozens of people filling a bus. She’d come alone, she told us in a voice quivering with emotion, and now, six decades later, the family she'd created could barely fit into a bus.”

This bus trip is a true bikkurim moment. After all of the wandering and persecution, one branch plucked from the fire of destruction has become a multitude. But stories like this are everywhere; and the next time you drink a bottle of Israeli wine, celebrate that bikkurim moment, and recognize what a miracle that wine, people, and their homeland truly are.  

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Oh, Brother

Yibum, the biblical institution of levirate marriage, seems awkward and antiquated. It occurs when a man dies without children, and leaves behind a widow. It is a mitzvah for the brother of the deceased to perform yibum, and move in with the widowed sister-in-law and take her as his wife. (When the widow and her brother-in-law choose not to perform yibum, a ceremony called chalitzah takes place.)  Yibum is the polar opposite of romantic love, and is the ultimate arranged marriage.

Already in the times of the Talmud, there was discomfort with yibum. Marrying a widowed sister-in-law is ordinarily prohibited, and only allowed in a case when the deceased brother left no children; the former prohibition is now turned into a mitzvah. Abba Shaul, who lived in the second century, felt that yibum should be forbidden for everyone, because this previously prohibited relationship is set aside when one is performing yibum for the sake of the commandment; and it is impossible to be certain that the brother has only pure intentions.

The other rabbis disagreed with Abba Shaul, and encouraged yibum. This debate continued on through the centuries; in the 7th and 8th centuries, the Babylonian Yeshiva of Sura encouraged yibum, while the nearby yeshiva in Pumpedita discouraged it. Similarly, in the Middle Ages, Sephardic halakhists encouraged yibum, while Ashkenazic authorities discouraged or forbade it. As a consequence, yibum has not been practiced in Ashkenazic communities for hundreds of years. In 1950, the Sephardic and Ashkenazic Chief Rabbis of Israel, Rabbi Ben Zion Uziel and Rabbi Isaac Herzog, attempted to institute a universal policy against yibum in the State of Israel. A year later, a Yeminite couple presented themselves to the Rabbinical Court in Petach Tikvah, asking for the right to perform yibum. The man was shocked that his arrival in the State of Israel would prevent him from performing this mitzvah. Rabbi Ovadiah Yoseph, who was then a 30-year-old newcomer to Israel, wrote a lengthy responsa defending the historic Sephardic practice, and disagreeing with the Chief Rabbinate's new policy. Ultimately, Rav Ovadiah’s view proved decisive; and in a well-publicized case in 1985, Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu gave permission to a widow and her brother-in-law in Ashkelon to perform yibum, and marry.

While yibum is uncommon, it plays a significant role in biblical thought. A close reading of the Tanakh leads to the realization that the theme of yibum is a foundation of nationhood. It plays a central role in two biblical narratives: Tamar and Judah in the book of Genesis, and Ruth and Boaz in the Book of Ruth. In both cases, a somewhat reluctant man is called upon to marry the widow of a deceased relative and build a family, after others refuse to do so. And both of these yibum marriages are performed by prominent ancestors of King David, the founder of Israel's dynastic monarchy. Clearly, yibum is central to the future Jewish commonwealth. But why?

The answer lies in understanding what Yibum represents. The Torah explains that when a baby is born to the new marriage, it will “carry on the name of the dead brother, so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel” (Deuteronomy 25:6). The brother who has passed away will never be forgotten; the new baby will carry on his name and legacy. (There is a dispute over whether the verse is metaphorical, or actually means that the child should be given the identical name as the deceased brother; either way, the baby represents a way of keeping the memory of the deceased brother alive.) Yibum is a difficult sacrifice for the brother who marries the widow; his new son is not quite his own, as he has dedicated this child to the legacy of his dead brother. In performing yibum, the living brother accepts responsibility to carry on his brother’s legacy and care for the widow. In the ancient world,yibum is a powerful act of solidarity, where one brother sets aside his own interests to stand in for the other.

Solidarity is critical to building a nation. The Tanakh sees the Jewish nation as a family writ large; and the lessons of yibum are also lessons of leadership. Every nation will have multiple tribes; but it can only succeed if those tribes stand up for each other, as if they were brothers, and ensure each other's existence. When King David ascends to the throne, his first responsibility is to find a way to unite all the tribes; and that remains the first responsibility of every future king and leader.

Yibum teaches the importance of unity and solidarity, both in families and in nations. This message is popular, and oft repeated, both in synagogue pulpits and at dinner tables. The problem is that in real life, this lesson is often ignored.

One of the more fascinating aspects of the biblical passage regarding yibum is the phrase “when brothers dwell together” (Deuteronomy 25:5). In Hebrew, the two root words for dwell (yeshvu) and together (yachdav) are only grouped together in three other passages in the Tanakh. They are found in Psalm 133, where it declares “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity!”  This Psalm is about the crowds gathering in the Temple, with a multitude of different tribes joining together, and represents the ideal realization of the values found in yibum. But the two other Biblical parallels remind us how difficult unity actually is; both are in cases when a family is splitting apart.

When Abraham and his nephew Lot separate from each other, they do so because “their possessions were so great that they could not dwell together”; a battle between their shepherds ensues. When Jacob and Esau take each other's leave, it is because “their possessions were too many for them to dwell together.” In both cases, a family dissolves because of ambition. They have too many possessions, and because of the conflicts that arise, they cannot dwell together anymore. Unity makes for fine sermons; but all too often, it is much easier for brothers to dwell apart.

When I was in yeshiva, I had a teacher who would hammer away at the unconscious hypocrisy about unity we all carry. He would repeat the words of a student who once told him: “of course I love Jews. I love the Jews in the Soviet Union, I love the Jews in Syria. It's my roommate I can't stand!” We all talk a good game about unity, but don’t realize that this rhetoric masks how difficult it is to achieve. We can't ever take for granted that two brothers will dwell together. This is true of families and communities; and at a time when the various Jewish tribes seem to be drifting further apart, this is certainly true of the Jewish people as a whole.

Thursday, August 12, 2021

The Revolutionary Ideology of Humility

In a time of selfies and self-esteem, humility is a forgotten virtue. The Jewish tradition's emphasis on humility runs counter to our Zeitgeist, which places each individual at the very center of the universe. It is challenging for us today to make sense of the statement of Maimonides, that “the proper way is not merely that man be humble, but that one should be of a very diminutive spirit, and their spirit extremely lowly”. In some of the pre-war European Mussar Yeshivot, which were devoted to developing spiritual greatness, the students would constantly repeat aloud “ich bin a gornisht”, “I am a nobody”; this habit was meant to cultivate humility. Contrast that with social media, whose very purpose is to declare the opposite: I am a somebody, and I am worthy of attention.

For this reason, contemporary readers are shocked by archaic descriptions of radical humility. The following passage in Maimonides’ Commentary to the Mishnah (Avot 4:4) is a good example of this:

“I saw in a book from the books on characteristics that one of the important pious men was asked "Which day is the one upon which you rejoiced more than any of your days?" He said [back], "The day that I was going on a boat and my place was in the lowest places of the boat among the packages of clothing, and there were traders and men of means on the boat [as well]. And I was laying in my place and one of the men of the boat got up to urinate and I was insignificant in his eyes and lowly - as I was very low in his eyes - to the point that he revealed his nakedness and urinated on me. And I was astonished by the intensity of the trait of brazenness in his soul. But, as God lives, my soul was not pained by his act at all and my strength was not aroused. And I rejoiced with a great joy that I had reached the point that the disgrace of this empty person did not pain me and [that] my soul did not feel [anything] towards him..."

This type of saintly behavior seems strange to contemporary readers, and raises questions about the value of humility. Is humility submitting to humiliation? How can one live a life of joy with such a lowly self image? Furthermore, humility seems to undermine ambition. If a humble person doesn't see any value in their own abilities, they will never produce anything. Rabbeinu Bachya ibn Pakuda, the 11th century author of the classic ethical work, Chovot Halevavot, grappled with how he could be both humble and an author. In his introduction, he openly discusses his doubts about writing this brilliant work. He says that “..when I thought of proceeding to carry out my decision to write this book, I saw that a man like myself is not fit to compose a work like this. I estimated that my…. knowledge was too inadequate, and my intellectual faculties too weak to grasp the topics……(But) I knew that many great works were lost due to fear, and many losses were caused by concern. I remembered the saying: "it is part of prudence not to be overly prudent". ...Therefore, I found myself obligated to force my soul to bear the task of composing this book…” Bachya has to convince himself to disregard his own humility and write his book, because he recognizes that if every humble person desisted from writing, too much would be lost. Humility was always a complicated virtue; and in a time when self worth is the currency of the realm, humility is seen as a roadblock to happiness.

Our difficulty with humility is that we imagine it to be a form of self-affliction, and perhaps even self-delusion. But humility is also quite practical, and more necessary than ever. In our Torah reading, there are several regulations regarding the King; he has to limit the amount of horses and money he has, and must keep a Torah scroll with himself at all times. These rules are instituted in order “that his heart may not be lifted above his brethren, that he may not turn aside from the commandment to the right hand or to the left.” (Deuteronomy 17:20)  The Ramban explains that this represents an obligation for the King, and everyone else, to be humble. And the Torah outlines why this is so important: an arrogant king will ignore the Torah’s responsibilities and lose his connection with others. A humble King will be compassionate; as Maimonides puts it, he will “be merciful and compassionate to the small and great and attend to their wants and welfare…(and) show respect for even the lowest of the low.” (Laws of Kings, 2:6).

There are other benefits to humility. The Talmud asserts that humility is a prerequisite to learning, because one cannot learn if they believe they have all the answers; wisdom is found in those humble enough to learn from anyone. These rules recognize that arrogance is destructive. An arrogant king could become drunk with power, detached from his values, his people, and even common sense. A basic sense of humility is critical to the proper functioning of society.

But humility is more than a practical attitude; it is an ideology. Maimonides’ radical humility is meant to liberate humanity from the foolish desire for honor. Moshe Halbertal describes Maimonides’ view this way:"The humble man, the man of lowly spirit, is one whose self-esteem does not depend on social recognition. It follows that humility is not a belief in the lowliness of one's stature; rather, it is indifference to the value of honor." This is revolutionary. For the Greco-Roman political tradition, recognition on the public stage was a central value; but for Maimonides, God stands at the center. Once a person no longer seeks the accolades of others, they will base their self worth on whether they have served God and fulfilled their mission. As Halbertal notes, Maimonides’ view of humility threatens a political order built on controlling the public through honor and shame, because the humble will be far more independent than those who seek honor.  This is the ideology of radical humility; to pursue your mission without regard to stature, status, or honor.

The truly humble are driven, not by ego, but by purpose. Indeed, they will often achieve lofty goals, but make little of it. Their attitude is that they are “just doing their job”.

During World War II, Irena Sendlerowa, a young mother and social worker, was a member of a Polish underground devoted to saving Jews. With great courage and cunning, Irena used her position to smuggle 2,500 children out of the Warsaw ghetto and hide them in orphanages. After receiving a long overdue honor from the Polish government in 2007, Irena did not take a bow; instead, she shared her own abiding disappointment: "I could have done more…..this regret will follow me to my death.". When pressed by reporters about whether she was a hero, Irena responded: "Every child saved with my help and the help of all the wonderful secret messengers, who today are no longer living, is the justification of my existence on this Earth, and not a title to glory." Irena was a humble hero, unworried by popular opinion or the dangers in her path.

This is the ideology of humility; it matters not what humans think of you, only what God expects of you. And if you succeed in fulfilling your mission, you may have justified your existence on earth. 

I just wish the justification for my existence on earth was as good as Irena’s.

Why Are Jews So Charitable?

Charity is absolutely impractical. It is far more reasonable to keep your own money than to give it to strangers. That’s why it is not surprising that pagans in ancient Rome showed a pronounced disinterest in helping the poor. The 4th-century Roman emperor Julian, who restored ancient Roman paganism as the state religion, complained to one of the pagan priests that "it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galilaeans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us."

Julian makes clear that the pagans failed to give charity even to their co-religionists, while adherents of the Biblical religions of Judaism and Christianity were very charitable, to the point that every impoverished Jew was taken care of. (The Talmud corroborates this depiction of paganism; in one passage, it tells of Turnus Rufus, the Roman governor, criticizing the Jewish emphasis on charity to Rabbi Akiva). Peter Brown, a Professor emeritus at Princeton, explains that the Romans couldn’t understand the purpose of charity, and that the charitable approach of Judaism and Christianity represents a "new departure."

The example of ancient Rome reminds us that charity is never a given in any society; people don’t like to give away money. For this reason, the Torah phrases the commandment to give charity in an unusual way. It says: "If there will be among you a needy person, from one of your brothers shall not harden your heart, and you shall not close your hand from your needy brother." This language implies an ambivalence, with a heart that can be softened and hardened, a hand that is opened and closed. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin comments that it is natural "to be merciful, and to take pity on someone who is suffering. However it is also human nature to take pity on one’s own money, and to close up one’s merciful heart." While we certainly have a natural instinct to give, we do not always follow the better angels of our nature. Often, we close our hearts and our hands. The prophets consistently prod the people to take on social responsibility because one can never assume that people will be generous.

Jewish philanthropy remains a powerful force until this day. Hanna Shaul Bar Nissim, writing for Philanthropy Daily, notes how widespread charity is in the Jewish community, and that "60 percent of Jewish households earning less than US$50,000 a year donate, compared with 46 percent of non-Jewish households in that income bracket." Jews also give more money on average than adherents of other religious traditions. Bar Nissim writes that "the average annual Jewish household donates $2,526 to charity yearly, far more than the $1,749 their Protestant counterparts give or the $1,142 for Catholics." What makes this comparison significant is that the Christian tradition emphasizes charity as well.

So why is Jewish charity different?

I would argue there are two major factors for this extraordinary philanthropy, both due to the experience of Jewish history. The first is that persecution creates a unique bond of empathy. One example of this is found in a public letter to Egyptian Jewry by Maimonides, written in 1168. The Crusader King Amalric of Jerusalem had invaded the town of Bilbays on the southern Nile, and taken a group of Jewish prisoners. A very large sum was needed to ransom them. Maimonides wrote to the Egyptian Jewish community: “I have sent you a letter with our honored master and teacher, Aaron Halevi, may God keep him, who will read it out in public, he is accompanied by a parnass, [a social welfare official], also sent by me. When this letter is read out to you dear brothers, pay attention to it, as is expected from you, and earn this great merit. Act as we have done, we, the great judges, elders and scholars. We all go around day and night and solicit the people, in the synagogues and in the bazaar, at the gates of their houses, until we get something for this great undertaking, and this after we ourselves have contributed as much as we have been able to do.” This was an expensive and difficult undertaking for the community. In his book “Poverty and Charity in the Jewish Community of Medieval Egypt,” Mark R. Cohen explains that the going rate for a captive was 33 and one third dinars, “enough money to support a middling family for a year.” To ransom captives on a regular basis, on top of the other community charitable needs, must have required exceptional philanthropy.

This extraordinary benevolence needs to be understood. When Maimonides composed his Halakhic work, the Mishneh Torah, a few years later, he offered some insight into his passion for charity.  He wrote that it is critical to give charity because “if a brother does not show compassion for another brother, then who will have compassion for him? And to whom can the poor of Israel look? To the idolatrous nations that hate them and pursue them? They can only look to rely upon their brothers” (Matanot Aniyim 10:2). Maimonides is calling on his fellow Jews to give, and reminding them that they know from bitter experience what it is like to be at the mercy of the powerful who despise them. Even the wealthiest members of his community recognized how vulnerable they were, and understood that, but for the grace of God, they too could be dispossessed.

Compassion is feeling pity for those who don't have; empathy is imagining that you, yourself, might also end up going without. In Maimonides’ Egypt, every Jew could empathize with those who were down and out, and could imagine themselves being the captive one day.

But another reason for the Jewish emphasis on charity has to do with the search for redemption. In the Talmud (Baba Batra 10a), when Turnus Rufus criticizes charity to Rabbi Akiva, his argument is that if someone is poor, God must have wanted him to be poor; therefore, charity is impious, a violation of God’s will.  The commentary of the Maharsha explains that the subtext of this argument is political. Turnus Rufus is arguing that if the Jews are in exile, God must want them to remain in exile; and they should embrace Roman domination instead of searching for redemption. Rabbi Akiva offers the opposite view; the lesson of exile is to despise exile, and to refuse to accept it. One must always pursue redemption. The world as it is now is not a representation of a divine ideal, and we should never passively accept its flaws as the will of God. It is an unfinished creation, a place where tragedy, exile and poverty are still possible. It is up to man, as God’s partner, to finish the job. The Jewish mission is to repair an imperfect world, and every act of kindness and charity is a continuation of that mission. 

Charity for Jews is about more than caring for the poor; it is about transforming the world. And while giving away one’s hard earned money may seem impractical, Jewish history has taught that one cannot survive without charity.   



What Happens When We Are No Longer Hated?

Heschel HaLevi was born in the city of Trier on April 15, 1777. His father and grandfather had served as the local rabbi, and his older brother Samuel would eventually become the rabbi as well. When HaLevi married in 1814, he married the granddaughter of a rabbi, Henriette Pressburg.

HaLevi trained as a lawyer. But when Napoleon was defeated in 1815, Jewish rights were rolled back, and Jews in Prussia could no longer practice law. HaLevi appealed and asked for an exemption, but to no avail.

Finally, HaLevi took the step of converting to the Lutheran church in order to preserve his career, and changed his name to Heinrich Marx. A few years later, he converted his wife and his children, including a precocious son by the name of Karl.  

It may seem extraordinary to us now that the son of a rabbi would convert so readily. But Heinrich Marx was not exceptional. The German-Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz estimated that about 50% of Berlin Jews in the late-18th and early-19th century converted (although others dispute this figure). Many of these Jewish converts to Christianity did not see conversion as a betrayal of their roots, and remained connected to the Jewish community. Heinrich Marx would continue to maintain warm relations with his brother Samuel, the Rabbi of Trier, and with the members of the Trier Jewish community. To HaLevi, accepting Christianity was simply a stepping stone to his success and the success of his children.

Indeed, what motivated the turn of the century conversions was not persecution; it was success. Despite prejudicial laws, Jews at the time were far more prominent than before, and had celebrated achievements. But they wanted more. Deborah Hertz in “How Jews Became Germans: The History of Conversion and Assimilation in Berlin” writes that many of the Jewish converts saw conversion to Christianity as an act of personal and cultural emancipation; they were not embracing Christianity, but rather the idea of being fully German. One of the more famous converts, Heinrich Heine, quipped that a conversion to Christianity was “a ticket of admission to European culture.” Upwardly mobile German Jews were already successful; but conversion gave them the possibility of entering exclusive circles and professions. By converting to Christianity they could realize their bourgeois dreams.

What happened in Berlin at the turn of the 19th century is a preview of the next 250 years. Jews in the Middle Ages had to struggle with hatred and antisemitism; they may have achieved material success, but were always outsiders, subject to official and unofficial discrimination. But in the modern era , Jews have achieved equal rights and integrated into the mainstream; and now, in the United States and elsewhere, Jews are full members of society. But this has not brought to American Jews a golden age of Judaism; on the contrary, it has increased assimilation.

The correlation between Jewish rights and assimilation raises a difficult question: what happens when we are no longer hated? Critics of Judaism have argued that Jews may very well disappear without antisemitism. Baruch Spinoza wrote that the Jews managed to retain their identity in exile only because of antisemitism. “As to their continuance so long after dispersion and the loss of empire,” he wrote, “there is nothing marvellous in it, for they so separated themselves from every other nation as to draw down upon themselves universal hate ... that they have been preserved in great measure by Gentile hatred, experience demonstrates.” This theory sees Jewish identity as a reaction, a refusal to bow to the harshness of antisemitism; and without antisemitism, the Jews would disappear. Based on his theory, less hatred of the Jews should lead to fewer Jews.

Spinoza dismissed the value of Jewish identity, which is why he needed to explain Jewish survival. And a supporter of Spinoza’s theory might feel vindicated by contemporary assimilation, which they might see as the disappearance of a people whose survival was purely an act of defiance.  

However, Spinoza’s theory doesn’t account for the fact that assimilation predates exile. The Torah itself predicts assimilation multiple times; in our own Torah reading it says “Beware that you do not forget the Lord your God ... lest—when you have eaten and are full, and have built beautiful houses and dwell in them. When your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and your gold are multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied; when your heart is lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God …” (Deuteronomy 8:11-14).

The Torah sees decadence as the cause of assimilation; the worship of success gets in the way of the worship of God. Assimilation is not directly caused by a lack of persecution, and even occurred in the Jewish Commonwealth in Biblical times. Rather, it is materialism that impacts Jewish identity. Whenever success is more important than spirituality, and fame and fortune become the ultimate goal of life, Judaism will slowly disappear. 

Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno takes this lesson a step further. In his commentary to Deuteronomy 8:2, he says that it is a nisayon, a test of character, to have every material need provided for. Confronting difficult conditions is a nisayon, but so too is the pursuit of happiness; it is easy to lose our soul when we have everything we need. And while Jews have managed to survive centuries of Crusades, inquisitions, massacres and pogroms, we find ourselves unequipped to handle equal opportunity and material success.

In the last two centuries, American Jews have come a long way in overcoming discrimination. They have asserted their rights, and made a point of opening up previously restricted private clubs to Jewish membership. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z”l  would joke that perhaps that’s the way to fill up empty synagogues: just put up large signs outside synagogues declaring “no Jews allowed,” because contemporary Jews would make certain to get into any restricted institution! Sadly, for too many Jews, getting into the restricted golf club is more important than returning to a neglected synagogue.

Throughout history, Jews have been able to handle adversity; but as of yet, we haven’t figured out how to handle success. We have to reconnect to our mission, remember “that man shall not live by bread alone,” and that our commitment to covenant, community and character is the only way forward. 

“The fewest of all peoples”: The Improbable History of the Jews

"How odd / Of God / To choose / The Jews." William Norman Ewer’s mocking verse, written in the 1920s, has sparked multiple responses. But Ewer is correct that there's something odd about the Jews; why would God choose such a tiny nation? One would think that "in a multitude of people is a king’s honor" (Proverbs 14:28), that bigger is better, and larger nations are far more deserving of the Biblical covenant.

Medieval Christian polemicists would offer this exact argument; the fact that the Jews were a small nation of diminished circumstances proved they had fallen from God’s good graces. Echoing the words of Haman, they would contend that a strange nation that is scattered and dispersed must be unworthy of distinction. Meir ben Simeon of Narbonne, in his 13th-century defense of the Jews, Milkhemet Mitzvah, repeats an attack he had heard from a Christian: "Why do you not leave the Jewish faith? Indeed you see that the Jews have been in exile for a long time and day by day decline. You see, concerning the Christian faith, that the Christians become more exalted day by day and that their success has been notable for a long time. You would live among us in great honor and high status, instead of living, as you now do, in exile, degradation, shame and calumny.” These polemicists argued that the Jews were too small to be significant, and were a dying, disappearing people who had been rejected by God.

Reading the Tanakh offers the opposite conclusion: the Jews were always meant to be a small nation. A verse in this week’s Parsha says so explicitly: "The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the fewest of all peoples" (Deuteronomy 7:7). Already in the Book of Genesis, the choice of Avraham makes it clear that the Jews were meant to be a small nation. When God makes covenants with Adam and Noach, they were at that time the ancestors of all mankind; those covenants were universal. By contrast, when Avraham and Sarah are appointed to their mission, they are a childless couple, just two people in a world of developing empires and states. Clearly, this is a preview of the future, when their descendants will be one small nation among many.

Being the “fewest” has forged the culture and character of the Jewish people. In order to survive, a small nation needs to be different, and have a different personality. Avraham was a true iconoclast, one who shattered the idols of his era; the Midrash tells us that it was as if the entire world was on one side, and Avraham was on the other. Avraham understood that his mission was not to blindly follow the masses, but to search for a more refined vision; his descendants would need to do the same. In their comments to our Parsha, Rashi and Ramban add two other qualities that a small nation will need: humility and chutzpah. Humility will be needed to endure difficulties and defeats, and not be broken by that hardship. Chutzpah will be needed to defy those who insist Jews convert; they would have to refuse to bow their heads to the demands of the powerful. Being a small, exiled, and persecuted nation requires a unique vision and personality. And that would have been impossible unless the Jews would be willing to embrace smallness, and learn that the way forward is “Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit” (Zechariah 4:6). They would need to dig down deep inside to find a way to compensate for their demographic shortcomings. The challenge of being a small nation has transformed the Jews; and being the fewest among the nations might actually be the secret to Jewish survival.

Jewish history astonishes many observers, who cannot understand how this tiny nation has held on. Mark Twain put it best, at the end of an article for Harper's Magazine in 1898:

“To conclude. —If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one per cent. of the human race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of star-dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has always been heard of ... He has made a marvellous fight in this world, in all the ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself, and be excused for it. The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. 

The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”

One doesn’t know what the secret is; perhaps it is supernatural, or perhaps not. But I would argue that embracing from the outset that they will be the “fewest of all peoples'' has shaped the Jewish soul, and has forced Jews to use their ingenuity and character to overcome challenges. That has made the Jews antifragile, and allowed them to continue to thrive during chaotic times.

The Jewish story is the story of the power of small, about a small nation that gets very good at beating the odds. And this story is inspiring to anyone, Jewish or not, who faces challenges, and feels that they are too feeble and limited to overcome them.