No Apologies Necessary, Rabbi Gordimer!

Rabbi Gordimer, with all due respect, you’re mistaken. You didn’t have any explaining to do. You were gracious in your apology, but you cannot truly offer penance when you have done no wrong. What you wrote wasn’t revolutionary, wasn’t offensive, and, honestly, I think most of us understood your intent quite well. You have now assuaged one who misunderstood you, but your original critique still rings true.

Full disclaimer: I am neither a student of the Rav, nor more than casually familiar with his oeuvre. My father-in-law was considered one of his brilliant talmidim in his day, but we did not have long discussions about his Rebbe’s opinion on various subjects. So I approach this discussion as an outsider. That means I can look at general principles that arose in your discussion far more than I could hope to address anything unique to Rav Soloveitchik. So it is in that vein, with full disclosure of my limitations, that I contribute my thoughts.

You wrote:

… when dealing with master disseminators of Torah – rebbeim – one cannot sever their temporal existence and their writings from their eternal and living legacies. One must look to the closest disciples of a Torah disseminator to determine his focal impact and long-term emphases, and to understand the traditions, insights and attitudes he transmitted and exemplified.

The only thing you said with which one could possibly quibble is the phrase “when dealing with master disseminators of Torah.” I believe that what you wrote is true of any writer.

One who reads a teacher’s books or essays is obviously going to remain a distant second to that scholar’s “closest disciples,” those who studied under his tutelage for several years, when it comes to correctly portraying the thoughts and beliefs of their teacher. The only exception to that rule would be a student who deliberately misconstrued his teacher’s positions — and the remedy to that is found by looking at what other close associates and students have to say. From everything I have heard from others, your essay reflected the consensus, rather than the positions of an outlier.

What you wrote was no insult. No one was declared “unfit.” What you found at issue is the very reason why we are told not merely to study the works of Talmidei Chachamim, but to be “meshamesh,” which is perhaps poorly translated as “serving” them. A Shamash is not an Eved. In modern terms, Executive Assistant would be a more accurate term. By being close at hand, by listening even to the ordinary dialogue of a person, one learns things which cannot be gleaned from books. And Chazal exhorted us to have this experience with Sages, in order to learn to emulate them — to learn to think as they do.

And as I said, the disparity between readers and close associates is not limited to “master disseminators of Torah.” Rabbi Gordimer, you are a prolific writer, so I’m certain you can identify instances where your own written work has been misunderstood and misconstrued. I am sure that you can identify times when various readers ascribed to you motivations, emotions, and implications which you simply did not possess at the time. I’ve certainly had this experience often enough (yes, my writing can be inadequately clear. But still).

These are often exercises in projection: someone angered by something I wrote (although considering how I studiously avoid controversial topics, I cannot understand how that happens) might describe me as “angry.” On at least a few of those occasions, I remember chuckling as I was writing the “angry” comment. [I do laugh at my own jokes, and even sarcasm. It’s a problem.] In fact, I now fully expect someone to comment what a fool I am to not recognize that I write about contentious topics, although I think my sarcasm was obvious. It is simply all too easy to read what one wishes to see in the writings of another.

I have heard more than once that the Talmud is deliberately cryptic for this reason. As we know, a neophyte cannot simply sit down with a Gemara and start reading. Rather, it requires years of training to be able to so much as read through a page on one’s own, even to understand which type of punctuation is implied at what point, where a sentence begins and ends, and whether it is a question or answer. While Artscroll may have removed much of the guesswork, one still needs a great deal of assistance to comprehend what the page intends to tell you.

As I said, I understand this to be no accident. Rather, Rav Ashi and Ravina wanted to preserve the Oral Law, yet require that a student acquire the skills necessary by learning with a teacher. Rebbe Yochanan did precisely the same; in fact, the Yerushalmi is still less comprehensible to beginners. They all recognized the very danger that is the topic of our discussion. The chain of our Mesorah is not a trail of books.

In his response to you, R’ Avrohom, Prof. Kolbrener wrote: “Confining the legacy of R. Soloveitchik to that ever-contracting circle, the batei midrashim, is a much surer way of ‘killing off’ the reputation of the Rav, and consigning his legacy to antiquarians and the already converted.”

I believe this very revealing quote confirms that the phenomenon I mentioned earlier is relevant here. Prof. Kolbrener fell into the trap of reading the material in a way that confirmed what he wished to find.

With no embarrassment, I had to look up “antiquarian.” It means a person who studies or collects antiques. And let’s be honest: to one who looks at physical age, a 3300-year-old document is an antique. The Talmud is an antique. The Mishnah Berurah is called “recent” yet is a century old, and, like more modern halachic literature, builds upon earlier conclusions and applies very ancient principles to new situations. These are the “antiques” under discussion in this context.

In other words, Prof. Kolbrenner believes it would “kill off” the reputation of the author of Halakhic Man to leave his legacy in the hands of those studying Halakha. Need I say more?

Yes. Because he also defined the Batei Medrash as “that ever-contracting circle.”

He certainly didn’t mean this in any physical sense. It is well-established that the number and size of batei medrash is growing, and following an exponential curve at that. The Mir in Jerusalem was a single Beis Medrash a generation ago; now there are five buildings. A plethora of new institutions have opened and expanded at the same time, all over Israel and the United States. It’s easy to understand why there are housing issues in Lakewood, because hundreds of newly-married couples rent their first apartments there every month.

So it seems apparent that Prof. Kolbrener intends this in the sense of diversity of thought. This is an astounding statement, because there are now hundreds more teachers for these thousands more students, and all of these new teachers bring their own methodologies and opinions along with them — unless one believes that all of this expansion has been accompanied by increasing rigidity in terms of what types of thoughts are “acceptable.”

Without apology, that would be mistaken — actually, it defies logic. New teachers from diverse institutions mean increased diversity of thought. The surfeit of students means that it is easier, not harder, to gather a “critical mass” of them around a new set of ideas, whether or not they were ever previously considered acceptable. [See, for example, Open Orthodoxy, committed to beliefs that R’ Avi Weiss himself said were not permissible less than two decades ago.]

It is the same circle. It’s called the “dalet amos of Halacha,” and it’s not getting tighter. It’s just getting a lot more crowded. To an ever-increasing extent, Jews are recognizing that our place is within that circle. Which, even for those minimally familiar withRav Soloveitchik’s writing, we recognize as the central topic of Halakhic Man.

More than a Bonfire

In Judaism, our holidays are never mere celebrations or commemorations — they are opportunities for spiritual growth. In the case of Lag B’Omer, there are two key lessons for all of us, found in the two stories behind this rabbinic holiday.

Lag B’Omer gets its name from being the 33rd day of the Omer count. All Hebrew letters express a numerical value — “ל‎”, “Lamed”, is 30, and “ג‎”, “Gimel”, is 3. Thus we get the acronym “Lag” (pronounced “lahg”).

The Talmud tells us that during the time of the great teacher Rebbe Akiva, a plague raged through his yeshiva, his rabbinical school, during the Omer. He lost 24,000 students during this time; even the great schools in Babylonia, and those of today, are not as large. Rebbe Akiva went on to teach five more students, and it is they who transmitted much of Jewish tradition on to future generations — so one can only imagine what was lost because those 24,000 other students passed away. This is why many observe customs of mourning during the Omer period, except on the 33rd day when the plague ceased.

One person who did pass away on Lag B’Omer was one of Rebbe Akiva’s five key students: Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai, author of the Zohar, the work of revealed Kabbalah. Defying Roman persecution, Rebbe Shimon and his son Elazar hid in a cave to learn Torah together — for twelve years! The custom of lighting bonfires on Lag B’Omer celebrates the incredible light of Torah which Rebbe Shimon Bar Yochai gave the world.

Why were all of the 24,000 scholars lost to us? Our Sages say that considering their spiritual level, they showed insufficient respect and love for each other. So throughout the Omer period, it is not sufficient to mourn by not shaving or listening to music; we must think about our obligation to show love and respect for every other person. And on Lag B’Omer in particular, we should celebrate — and ponder — the incredible light that one person can share.

A Sad Day for American Jewish Media

Originally published on Arutz-7, May 1, 2017

It is indeed a sad day when an article by the editor of a major Jewish publication fully crosses the line in order to adopt an anti-Semitic narrative about Jews and Israel. But when it is the editor of The Forward who expresses her "dread, despair and embarrassment" that Israel avoided extermination in 1967, we can express our disappointment, but few of us are surprised.

She states that as a child, she "truly believed" that Israel's survival was endangered — as if it were simply childish to imagine that "the extermination of Zionist existence" was the Arab agenda. She says that military victory — not the Balfour Declaration, much less the eternal bond between the Jewish People and their homeland — "legitimized Israel’s moral right to exist;" a militaristic, colonialist view entirely foreign to Israeli Jews who lived through the crisis. 

Far from a "disaster for Palestinians," the Six-Day War gave Arabs living in Gaza and Judea (what Jordan called the "West Bank" when they occupied it in 1948) unparalleled opportunities: universities, modern medicine, massive upgrades to infrastructure. It also vastly improved their lives, from a human and civil rights perspective, compared to Jordan, Egypt and any other Arab state. 

It also gave them something else: the opportunity to slaughter Jews, celebrate barbarism, and blame it on "the occupation." Previous atrocities, from the attack upon Petach Tikva in 1886, to the massacre of the Hebron yeshiva and surrounding community in 1929, to the threatened "momentous massacre" of 1948, and the terrorist attacks of the 1950s culminating in the creation of the PLO terrorist organization in 1964, were all recognized as barbaric and evil. Today we are told that, on the contrary, "resistance is not terrorism." The murder of civilians was "indefensible" for the Irish Republican Army and destroyed the Chechen rebellion, although both constituted "resistance" to true and unquestioned occupations of indigenous peoples in their homelands. Yet it is acceptable for "Palestinian" Arabs. Why the difference? Because in this case, the victims are Jews.

A photo caption to Eisner's article asserts that "Palestinians surrender to Israeli soldiers." This is historical revisionism at its finest. Those surrendering to Israeli soldiers in 1967 did not describe themselves as "Palestinian," but rather "Jordanian." But of course, that level of honesty would vacate the claim that "indigenous Palestinians" are under "occupation." 

The name "Palestine" is translated from the Roman Palaestina. It is a name associated with genocide and ethnic cleansing. Hadrian, the Roman Emporer, renamed the land known to its natives as Judea, because the original name made too obvious a connection to its natives: the Jews. 

Who are the "Palestinians?" Arabs, of course. Arabs who cannot pronounce "Palestine" in their language — the only purported indigenous people to lack a home-grown name for their so-called homeland. The same Arabs who colonized the Middle East and Northern Africa from their true homeland, a large expanse known as Arabiyya. After each failed attempt to massacre the Jews of Israel, they engaged in pogroms and ethnic cleansing of Jews from their homes across the Arab world; the majority fled to Israel. Today, Arabs point fingers at the descendants of these Jewish refugees, and accuse them of racism towards Arabs. And Jane Eisner, editor of The Forward, joins their cry.

The "checkpoints" were not built in 1967, nor to promote "apartheid." They exist for precisely the same reason that we endure the humiliation of removing our shoes in order to board an airplane. The barrier and checkpoints were built to stop massacres of Russian refugees at a discotheque and Holocaust survivors at Passover seders — not to mention families out to enjoy a pizza at Sbarro's. Eisner does not condemn any of these atrocities. Instead she implies that there is something evil in trying to prevent them.

To traditional Jews, this is not entirely a surprise. The Forward has consistently favored welfare programs, but only as long as they aren't used by Jews. It incessantly obsesses over people leaving Orthodoxy, and groups that help them leave. Should we be surprised that the editor writes a hit piece against Israel, celebrating the canards of anti-Semitism — and on the day when the Jews of Israel celebrate being spared from death yet again?

Impossible to Know… But Known

In this week’s reading, the Torah clearly lays out for us the animals, fish and poultry permitted under Jewish Law. In the course of doing so, the Torah makes a statement that — were it made by a human being — would have been beyond foolhardy.

The Torah lays out two signs by which we can recognize kosher land animals (both wild and domesticated): they must have split hooves and chew their cud. [11:3]

This is unremarkable — but then the Torah goes on to specify which four animals have only one of these two signs. Lest one think that these are merely examples, the Ramban (Nachmanides) spells it out: “it would have been appropriate to say the general rule, but [the Torah] specifies the camel, shafan and arneves in chewing cud, and the swine in its cloven hoof, for there are no others in the world with one sign alone.

That fact was entirely unknown to humanity even 500 years ago.

Two of these, the shafan and arneves, are wild animals. To which species, genera or families they refer may once have been known with certainty, but today this is a matter of speculation.

Not so, however, the camel and swine [the pigs and peccaries], which are domesticated and thus well known to us. The Camelid family is found in two distinct regions: from North Africa across to Central Asia, and in South America, and the species found in one place are different from those in the other. The many different genera and species of the suborder Suina also live in distinct regions — yet for Suina as for Camelids, their commonality is as obvious to farmers as it is to taxonomists. The llama is called the “New World Camel” for good reason!

The Talmud takes this even a step further:

Rav Chisda said, if one is going through the desert and finds a domesticated animal whose hooves are cut, check its mouth. If it has no upper teeth, it is known to be pure, if not, it is known to be impure, as long as he can recognize a… juvenile camel [which does not yet have upper teeth].

Do not say, if there is a juvenile camel, there is also a similar type of animal to the young camel [in that it also has no upper teeth]. Do not consider this, for they taught in the School of Rebbe Yishmael, “and the camel, for it is a ruminant” — the Ruler of the World Knows that there is no other thing that ruminates and is impure [among the domesticated animals] except the camel, for which reason the verse specifies “it.”

And Rav Chisda said, if one is going on the way and finds a domesticated animal whose mouth is damaged [its teeth have fallen out], check its hooves. If its hooves are cloven, it is known to be pure, if not, it is known to be impure, as long as he can recognize a swine.

Do not say, if there is a swine, there is also a similar type of animal to the swine. Do not consider this, for they taught in the School of Rebbe Yishmael, “and the swine, for it has cloven hooves” — the Ruler of the World Knows that there is no other thing that has cloven hooves and is impure except swine, for which reason the verse specifies “it.”

These statements are every bit as true today as they were thousands of years ago, when it was inconceivable that human beings could claim to know these things by studying the natural world. The platypus was not discovered until the very end of the nineteenth century — the first specimen sent to the British Museum has scissor marks at the end of its bill, because the curator was so certain he was examining a hoax that he tried to hack it apart.

To me, there seems to be only one reasonable explanation for how the Torah and Talmud could say these things!

The Laban Brand of Hate

What is the connection of “Arami Oved Avi” — “An Aramean [Laban] destroyed my father” — to the Haggadah?

The Haggadah says that “Pharaoh decreed only against the males, but Laban tried to uproot everything.” Again, why connect the two? The goal of the Haggadah is to tell us about the Exodus from Egypt, so why go back in history to find another example of someone who didn’t like Jews?

Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, zt”l, known by his name’s acronym the Netziv, explains that Laban was the paradigm of anti-Semitism. He began with the false notion that our forefather Yaakov was stealing from him — something obviously false, both because Laban owed his wealth to Yaakov (as Laban himself recognized), and because Yaakov was impeccably honest.

Yet Laban, the dishonest swindler who kept changing Yaakov’s wages, projected his own evil upon Yaakov. Rather than Laban stealing from Yaakov, in his mind it was Yaakov stealing from Laban. And how could Yaakov, such an honest and G-d-fearing person, steal? Laban blamed Judaism. Yaakov was a Jew, father of the “Chosen People,” dedicated to a special kind of Divine Service. In Laban’s mind, this meant that Yaakov was a supremacist — that Judaism itself permitted Yaakov to steal from anyone who wasn’t Jewish. And Laban thus concluded that he needed to eliminate this evil: to destroy Yaakov and all those who shared his beliefs.

And this is the classic model of anti-Semitism. Pharaoh similarly concluded that Yaakov’s descendents were gaining too much power, and would use that power to steal Egypt from the Egyptians. By murdering the boys and marrying the girls, he as well hoped to eliminate Judaism.

Thus the story of Laban is especially relevant, appearing as it does after the paragraph “V’hee She’Amdah” — “It is this that has stood by our fathers and us. For not only one has risen against us to annihilate us, but in every generation the rise against us to annihilate us. But the Holy One, Blessed be He, rescues us from their hand.” Laban is the paradigm. He gives us the model through which to understand all those who follow this well-worn path of hatred.

The Haggadah also tells us the inevitable result of this anti-Semitism: in the end, the Jews are liberated from oppression and connected more closely to their G-d. The Egyptians were destroyed, while the Jews were brought out to receive the Torah. The Torah stands with us throughout history, enabling us to withstand oppression when it happens, and to prevent our destruction. From Laban until this day, Torah is our best protection!

No Angels on Earth

In this week’s reading, we begin the third of the 5 Books of Moses, Vayikra, or Leviticus. It was undoubtedly dubbed “Leviticus” because much of it concerns the Temple services, done by the Kohanim, the Priests, descendents of Aharon HaKohen, of the tribe of Levi.

Here, at the beginning of the book, some of the first offerings to be discussed are those when various individuals commit a serious transgression through negligence — by, for example, forgetting that the behavior was prohibited. And the Torah prescribes different offerings based upon who committed this sin: there is an offering for a High Priest who transgresses. Then there is one for “all of Israel,” by which the Torah means if the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court, were to rule incorrectly in a matter of law, only realizing its error later. Then there is one for the King, and finally for the common individual.

Long before the modern era, the Jews had a Balance of Powers. No one could claim absolute authority; rather, King David himself had to consult with both the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) and the Sanhedrin.

But furthermore, everyone had to second-guess his own conduct — even the King, even the Sanhedrin itself. There is no equivalent to “papal infallibility” in Judaism; on the contrary, no individual could avoid the possibility of transgression.

We could seek no better proof for the idea that no one is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes. So no one should look back at the past, and lose hope for the future. Nothing can stand in the way of sincerely turning back to the correct path, because G-d will always accept a sincerely repentant person. And as we see in this week’s reading, everyone does indeed make mistakes — even the judges themselves!

The Philo-Semitic President

First published in the American Spectator.

The Orthodox Jewish community is still reeling from the slapdown President Trump gave reporter Jake Turx in his press conference several weeks ago. Turx is the first senior White House press correspondent to work for an Orthodox journal, Ami (My People) Magazine. There are fewer than 100 reporters permitted to attend the daily briefings, and Turx even got to ask the President a question.

But no one gave Turx a microphone, and the President couldn’t hear him clearly. He thought he was being asked to defend against charges of anti-Semitism… again. This ridiculous calumny has dogged him since he began his campaign. Trump was piqued and he dismissed the question. Turx was frustrated by the experience, and so were Orthodox Jews. As TAS columnist Jay Homnick jested, “Trump let My People go and Turx let My People down.”

In truth, the man who really let my people down is Steve Goldstein of the Anne Frank Center, who is the paradigm for those in the Jewish community who have done their best to fan the flames. Director of an organization pledging “mutual respect,” Goldstein repeatedly calls the Trump Administration anti-Semitic, using flimsy claims that collapse upon rudimentary fact-checking, both in his Facebook posts and his confrontation with Kayleigh McEnany on CNN.

He and others of his ilk were strangely silent when the previous President called Judea “Palestinian land,” declaring invaders from the Arabian Peninsula to be the indigenous population of the only homeland of the Jews. They expressed no outrage when Berkeley students chanted “we support the intifada,” or when those at Columbia recently declared that “resistance is justified, when people are occupied.” Arab “resistance” is, of course, murdering civilians, a tactic that no one condones unless the victims are Jews. Yet these Jewish liberals were silent in the face of obvious hate.

From the beginning, Trump has surrounded himself with Jews who observe classical Jewish practices. David Friedman and Jason Dov Greenblatt are not merely hired hands, but close friends of the President. Trump traveled to Queens to visit Friedman when he was sitting shiva — in a snowstorm. He does more than “tolerate” his Orthodox grandchildren; Jared Kushner is one of his most trusted advisors. Turx himself said the President has done “unprecedented” outreach to the Orthodox Jewish community.

So if supporters of the anti-Israel “J Street,” such as Reform Rabbi Rick Jacobs, are opposing Friedman for Ambassador as a “zealous partisan” and claiming his boss is an anti-Semite, one must question: do they honestly believe Trump doesn’t like Jews, or are they offended that Trump’s inner circle includes so many who take Jewish tradition far more seriously than they do?

Anti-Semitism is far too serious a matter to be used as a partisan political weapon, and academic justification of barbarity is vastly more dangerous than memes created by “alt-right” Trump supporters. To those a wee bit more objective, this administration is shaping up to be the most philo-Semitic since George Washington wrote his letter to the Jews of Newport.

Team Trump tried to stop the anti-Israel UNSC resolution of last December, and convinced the UK to block the statement of the French “peace conference.” He appointed Friedman as Ambassador to Israel and Nikki Haley to lead the mission to the UN. Her first post-Security Council press conference was both a memorable smackdown of UN duplicity and double standards and a pledge to confront them:

The Security Council is supposed to discuss how to maintain international peace and security. But at our meeting on the Middle East, the discussion was not about Hezbollah’s illegal buildup of rockets in Lebanon, it was not about the money and weapons Iran provides to terrorists, it was not about how we defeat ISIS, it was not about how we hold [Syrian dictator] Bashar al-Assad accountable for the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of civilians.

No, instead the meeting focused on criticizing Israel, the one true democracy in the Middle East. I am new around here, but I understand that’s how the Council has operated, month after month, for decades. I am here to say that the United States will not turn a blind eye to this anymore.

We have not seen anything similar since Daniel Patrick Moynihan declared the UN resolution likening Zionism to racism to be “an infamous act” and an “obscenity.” That was in 1975, under President Gerald Ford.

The UN’s hyperfocus upon Israel has far less to do with conventional international politics than irrational anti-Semitism, and Donald Trump seems to know this well. If Trump is what an anti-Semite looks like, I’ll take “anti-Semites” like him over “friends” like Obama any day of the week — and twice on Shabbos.

UPDATE: Since publication of this piece on American Spectator, several additional things have happened:

Education Secretary DeVos strongly praised Agudath Israel for its “leadership and commitment” working to ensure that “every child, regardless of where they live or their family’s income, should have an equal opportunity to a quality education.” As reported by the Washington Post, AI tweeted that this meeting was “truly historic.”

The Trump Administration proposed a budget with massive cuts” to State Department funding, threatening aid to nations around the world, but specifically preserving aid to Israel.

Haley once again condemned a UN statement for anti-Semitic bias (without saying so) using language unheard of since Moynihan:

The United States is outraged by the report of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA). That such anti-Israel propaganda would come from a body whose membership nearly universally does not recognize Israel is unsurprising. That it was drafted by Richard Falk, a man who has repeatedly made biased and deeply offensive comments about Israel and espoused ridiculous conspiracy theories, including about the 9/11 terrorist attacks, is equally unsurprising. The United Nations Secretariat was right to distance itself from this report, but it must go further and withdraw the report altogether. The United States stands with our ally Israel and will continue to oppose biased and anti-Israel actions across the UN system and around the world.

And during a recent US-Israel meeting, the Jewish touch wasn’t merely providing Kosher food — the diplomatic service had to facilitate Mincha so that one of the participants could say Kaddish. That person was Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s envoy to Israel.

Celebrating the Miracle of Jewish Survival

What is the miracle of Purim?

The great majority of Jewish holidays were mandated at Sinai: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, Pesach and Shavuot. Most of the Rabbinic enactments are fast days, times of mourning. So the one other (happy) holiday decreed by the Rabbis is Chanukah, which celebrates a great miracle, a clear sign from G-d, blessing the Jewish response to Greek oppression. Why did the Rabbis, then, make Purim into a holiday?

There is, in actuality, a deep connection between Chanukah and Purim, in that both celebrate a reprieve from annihilation. Haman asked to murder all Jews; the Greeks wanted to stamp out Judaism.

And this helps us to recognize the miracle that we celebrate on Purim: the permanent nature of Jewish survival. Not everything is obvious. It doesn’t have to be an open miracle for us to analyze our circumstances and realize that something truly supernatural has transpired.

The very name given to Hadassah, “Esther,” comes from the Hebrew word for “hidden.” It recalls the verses in Deuteronomy [31:17-18], “I will hide My face from them … And I will surely hide [haster astir] My face on that day, for the evil that [Israel] did, for he turned to other gods.” Throughout the Megillah, G-d’s name is never mentioned; our Sages teach that every time the Megillah refers to “the King” without specifying Ahasuerus, we are to read it as referring to both King Ahasuerus and the King of Kings. Purim celebrates a hidden miracle.

In the global context, Jewish survival is perhaps the greatest miracle of all Jewish history. It defies clear historical patterns. Whenever people move to different countries, they gradually integrate, following the beliefs and ideals of the local population. Yet the Jews were different, stubbornly so. On the contrary, it is those who have oppressed the Jews – the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, Spanish, and the Nazis (to specify but a few of countless examples) whose ideologies rightly reside in the proverbial dustbin of history.

In the wake of Haman’s decree, the Jews of that era recognized that by participating in the party of Ahasuerus, in which he rejoiced in the desecration of the Jewish Holy Temple and the ongoing exile of the Jews, they were leading to their own destruction. And they changed course. They returned to the unique path that has preserved the Jews through history.

Amazingly, it is the idolatry of Haman and Ahasuerus that has declined. Today the majority of humanity at least purports belief in the Jewish G-d — and throughout the Western world, the principles of ethical monotheism found in our Torah are considered fundamental to development of a first-world civilization.

Anti-Semitism remains what it always was: the revolt of immorality and barbarism against the ongoing, inexorable turn towards the values found in our Torah. The Jews were prophesied to be “a light unto the nations,” helping to spread the moral principles taught by G-d… and that light will always burn.

That is, indeed, a great cause for celebration!

Why So Much Hate?

Why are Jews hated? It comes from this week’s reading. “Why is it called Mount Sinai? It is the mountain where hatred [Sinah] descended upon the nations of the world” [Shabbos 99a].

The Medrash says that G-d offered the Torah to various other nations of that time, but when they found out that the Torah had laws against murder, theft and immorality, each nation chose a reason why they did not want to accept its laws upon themselves.

Rabbi Shmuel Yaakov Klein of Torah U’Mesorah gave me a fascinating insight into this Medrash. Wouldn’t it make more sense, he asked, for nations to be bothered by incomprehensible Commandments, such as the laws of the red heifer, which even King Solomon could not understand? Every civilized nation has laws against theft and murder; otherwise you would have anarchy!

Yet what bothered them, he explained, is exactly this idea — that even basic laws, central to civil society, are in G-d’s Hands. Even a king is not exempt, he cannot do as he pleases. The prophets were very critical of David and Solomon, although they, as kings, did so much good, and wrote prophetic works of their own.

A king wants to see himself as above the law, as having absolute power. Everyone else isn’t allowed to steal, but he has eminent domain. Everyone else cannot commit murder, but he is able to call for a royal execution.

This idea, that we are not Kant philosophizing about our own moral requirements, but subject to an absolute standard that we cannot challenge or change, is what they found so offensive. That is the concept that those filled with hatred cannot abide.

Hitler said he was honored to be called a barbarian. His enmity for Jews went along with his enmity for the idea of conscience, which he called a Jewish concept. He even said that he wanted Germans to be ruthless and cruel.

In the end, anti-Semitism is about hatred for an absolute standard of morality. If you’re going to be hated for something, it might as well be for the very best of reasons!

There’s No (Real) Excuse

In this week’s reading, Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers. “And his brothers were unable to answer him, for they were disoriented in front of him” [Genesis 45:3]. Recognizing that not only had Joseph survived and even flourished in Egypt, but was even the Viceroy seated before them, was simply too much for them.

The Medrash says something more. Their disorientation was because all the various excuses that they had made and told themselves about why they had treated Yosef as they had — they all fell away. They knew they had no answer. They had nothing to say.

All of us have situations in our lives where we know we are not doing the best thing we could be doing. We often give ourselves reasons why we aren’t meeting our own standards. But we should also know that those reasons are merely excuses. They will melt away under the harsh light of truth.

Rabbi Yaakov Galinsky tells a story from the Tana D’vei Eliyahu, in which the prophet Elijah meets a person in his travels, and can tell that this person has not studied the Torah and Jewish ethics. He says to him, “my son, what are you going to tell your Father in Heaven at the end of your life?”

The man responds, “Rebbe, I have an answer to give Him, for understanding and knowledge were not given to me from Heaven in order that I should be able to read and study.”

“My son, what job do you have?”

“I am a fisherman.”

“My son, who taught you and told you that you should bring flax and weave it into nets, and toss the nets into the water, and bring up fish from the sea?”

“Rebbe,” he answered, “in this, understanding and knowledge was given to me from Heaven.”

And then Elijah said to him, “To bring flax and to weave it into a net, and toss it into the water and bring up fish, in all of that you were given understanding from Heaven, but in words of Torah, about which it is written: ‘for this thing is extremely close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it’ [Deut. 30:14], you were not given understanding from Heaven?”

Immediately, the fisherman began crying, for he knew that he had no answer.

We should learn from what happened to Joseph’s brothers when he identified himself. If we know that we could be doing better in a particular area, let’s dispense with the excuses. We should take the opportunity to do better, instead!