We learn when we’re young never play with matches. In Parashat Shemini, Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aaron the High Priest, bring eish zarah, strange fire to the altar. They are tragically stricken down as punishment. The Torah provides scant rationale, Rabbis throughout the ages have struggled to find an adequate explanation for this incident. Whatever explanation one chooses, there is no ambiguity of Aaron’s shock: Vayidom Aharon, Aaron was silent. Yet Aaron goes on living, establishing Jewish religious observance for generations to come. In our world, we are bombarded by inexplicable tragedies that often leave us speechless. Our best defiance is to go on living and affirm life.
There’s an old joke: Two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of them says, ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says, ‘Yeah, I know, and such small portions.’ That’s the essence of life —loneliness, misery, suffering, and unhappiness–and it’s all over much too quickly.”
This joke is Woody Allen’s introduction to his masterpiece Annie Hall. It was featured last month in New York Magazine as one of the 100 jokes that shaped modern comedy. It’s noteworthy that no fewer than 50 out of the 100 top jokes were written or performed by Jews, including Woody Allen. The selection I shared, emblematic of Allen’s signature neurosis, is very Jewish. The Jewish psyche tempers joy with sorrow and counters sorrow with hope and yearning for life.
Our celebration of Purim has passed, we are still in the month of Adar about which the Talmud says mi-shenichnas Adar marbim b’simcha, whoever enters Adar increases joy. Purim may be a joyous holiday, yet the scroll of Esther is tinged with our genuine fear of massive harm to the Jewish people. Our history since the time of the Megillah has reaffirmed far too many times the genuine sense of fear in the Megillah story. At the same time, the Esther story reminds us that out of the fear came redemption. We need not despair, the Megillah urges us.
This week underscored the profound challenge in our tradition in balancing joy and sorrow, hope and fear. Once again acts of terror reminded us of the existence of evil in this world. More than 30 people were murdered, and more than 250 injured in a senseless act of terror in Brussels. ISIS launched this attack on the heels of another vicious attack in Istanbul last weekend in which three Israelis were killed, two of whom were also American citizens. Thirty-six people were injured, including 11 Israelis. Tragically, amidst the volatile situation in Brussels in which police are on high alert, the Jewish community there cancelled Purim serices at all synagogues.
Rabbi Danny Nevins describes Purim as either a joyous sorrow or a saddened joy —neither a tragedy nor a clean escape. As it happens, we find ourselves at a point in the Torah reading cycle that reinforces this theme. This week’s Torah reading, Parashat Tzav, describes a seven-day ordination ceremony for Aaron and his sons as the priests of Israel. Next week, we will read about the eighth day in which the ordination is completed, to be followed immediately by the tragic death of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu.
The number seven is symbolic for both joy and sorrow. Seven days are dedicated to celebrate a marriage, and seven to mourn a death. In both cases, seven days are dedicated to a transition of a new phase of life. Amidst these transitions, we temper our emotions. We temper the joy of the wedding with the breaking of a glass, recalling pain and sadness in our history; we offer comfort to the mourner during the shiva period, providing hope and reassurance that life will continue and that the mourner is not alone.
As Rabbi Nevins teaches, the Talmud in Megillah 10b notes that the introduction ויהי, “and then it happened…” always anticipates disaster. This is the opening word of Megillah Esther—“And it happened in the days of Ahashverosh”–and also of next week’s portion, Shmini—“And it happened on the eighth day” (Lev. 9:1). Both texts do indeed include disasters. Indeed, these texts have their share of pain and suffering. One the other hand, both texts have celebration as well. The Megillah story ends in redemption. Meanwhile, the ordination of the kohanim in the Tabernacle paralleled the creation of the world in seven days. According to the Talmud, the day the Tabernacle was dedicated was God’s happiest day since creation.
The period between Purim and Pesah is in a sense the happiest time of year for the Jewish people. We connect one redemption to the other, setting aside historical chronology for the deeper cycle of crisis, loss, rebuilding, celebration and anticipation of the next calamity. Even as Aaron and his sons sit in dedication, filled with joy over their selection to serve God as priests, they are likewise observing an advance shiva, an anticipated loss which is as yet unknown to them. Even with such a fatalistic reading of the text, Aaron and sons were not deterred from affirming life and carrying on with their dedication.
The message of the Jewish calendar at this moment is that in the midst of our celebrations, our joy is tempered by the pain and suffering in the world around us, especially at the hands of evil terrorists. At the same time, even in a week like the one just passed in which we have witnessed horrific violence and bloodshed, we must affirm life.
Purim is over, and Pesah is around the corner. Let us appreciate the true value of this season of redemption so that in spite of the fear and vulnerability that we feel, we will resolve to carry on our lives with confidence and joy.
Playing dice is a game of chance. In Megillat Esther, Haman plots to destroy the Jewish people. He draws lots and selects at random the date of 13 Adar on which to carry out his deed. After his plot was foiled through the heroism of Mordecai and Esther, the 13th of Adar was established as a day of fasting (the Fast of Esther), and the next day, the 14th of Adar, a day of feasting, Purim. Purim literally means “lots,” denoting the randomness on which the date was selected.
There’s a story told about a rabbi who was counselling a man in his congregation. The rabbi advised that it was time to start thinking about the hereafter. The congregant said, “No problem, Rabbi, I do that all the time. I walk upstairs and then I think, now what am I here after?”
Shabbat Zakhor is a communal reminder of what we are all here after. On the surface, on Shabbat Zakhor we remember the times that the Jewish people suffered because other nations preyed upon our vulnerabilities. If we dig deeper in the text, however, we find that Zakhor is as much directed at our own behavior as a community as those of other people. The special maftir reading is from Deuteronomy 25:17-19. We are reminded of the wicked machinations of Amalek who attacked the Israelites from behind, preying on the weakest and most vulnerable members of the society. The full text is as follows:
17 Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt — 18 how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. 19Therefore, when the Lord your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!
We read this section on the Shabbat prior to Purim because Haman of the Purim story is a descendant of Amalek and is therefore an archetype of evil. The great irony of the Amalek portion is that we are told simultaneously to remember Amalek AND to blot out the name of Amalek.
There is another odd feature of the Amalek portion. There is ambiguity regarding the phrase in verse 18, v’lo yirei Elohim. The New Jewish Publication Society translation moves this phrase from the end of the sentence to the beginning and says: “[H]ow, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down the stragglers in your rear. The merit of this translation is that it makes clear that the wicked Amalek lacks fear of God, another way of saying they have no common decency. On the other hand, there’s a problem. Another way of reading verse 18, based on the actual phrasing in the Hebrew is: “And you were tired and weary and did not fear God.”
In other words, it is perfectly reasonable to read the text in a way that says the Israelites did not fear God! How can this be? Was it that the stragglers lost faith, thus becoming vulnerable to Amalek? What kind of God would allow such a thing? Furthermore, the command is to remember what Amalek “did to you,” and we get the sense that the concern is not only external—a cowardly attack on the weakest Israelites—but also internal. Our sages have long intuited that Amalek represents, yetzer ha’ra, internal corruption. The verses just before this passage in Deuteronomy 25 speak about unethical business practices—the keeping of uneven weights by merchants, which is an “abomination to the Lord.” The juxtaposition implies that it was our own corruption that made us susceptible to attack. Amalek is the evil inclination, and when we allow its voice to control our conduct, we cheat others and become worthy of attack. If we look back to Exodus 17, the original narrative of Amalek’s attack is preceded by the complaints of Israel, who said, “is the Lord in our midst or not?” In both places internal discord leads to external disaster. This is hardly a coincidence.
We know that there are people in the world who have evil in their hearts and who do not fear God. To a large extent, their moral compass (or lack thereof) is out of our control. What we do control is ourselves and our actions. There is a lot of pain and suffering in the world of which Amalek may be an archetype. In response, we can actively choose to behave in a way befitting people who fear God.
What was true of ancient Israel is true of modern Israel, and also of America. There are very real external enemies such as ISIS, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the waves of lone wolf terrorists in Israel who have carried out savage stabbing attacks in Israel. We remember Taylor Force, an American business student at Vanderbilt, who was stabbed to death in Jaffa. Our community and our country must be strong, vigilant and brave in facing and fighting these real external threats.
At the same time, I am gravely concerned about the danger to both Israel and to America that comes from within. When we abandon our better selves and give in to fear, anger and hatred, then we become weak and unworthy. The recent Pew study of Israel shows that a majority of self-identified religious Jews wish to “transfer” Arabs out of the country. This, I believe, would be a betrayal of Israel’s Declaration of Independence and of the democratic nature of the State. Likewise, I am deeply concerned about the political atmosphere in America. Our political system has been ugly and mean-spirited for years, but never before have we seen blatant calls by a major candidate for President to incite mob violence against his detractors. Until now. Our democracy thrives on disagreement and spirited debate over issues of substance. Without these basic pillars, democracy crumbles.
When we remember Amalek, we not only remember Amalek’s attack, we remember the response of the Israelites to this disaster. At least according to one reading of the text, the response was less than satisfactory. It made the disaster worse instead of less severe. Zakhor et asher asa lekha Amalek, “Remember what Amalek did to you,” rings true today. It’s not just the physical attack, but also the osmosis of Amalek-like thinking into the psyche of the Israelites that dehumanized the most marginal members of their society at the time of their greatest need. Shabbat Zakhor is an annual check-in for us. It’s a reminder of what we’re “here after.” Let us resolve this Shabbat Zakhor, that we will not marginalize others and strive to bring healing and kindness to our community. May our renewed resolve usher in a joyous Purim.
Pekudei means “records.” Rashi explains that the records of this portion introduce an accounting of the metals used in the construction of the Tabernacle. A midrash posits that Moses overheard some Israelites speculate that he had derived financial benefit from the donations for the Tabernacle because he was the treasurer in charge. Upon the completion of the Tabernacle, Moses called for an accounting to show that he had not personally profited from the contributions of the people. Based on this midrash, the Rabbis derived that we must not appoint less than two people with control over the finances of a city or community.
On Shabbat Shekalim, we read the special section from Exodus instructing the Israelites to collect a half shekel from rich and poor alike. The collection serves the spiritual needs of providing funds for the Temple and the pragmatic need of taking a census, particularly of adult male soldiers. The collection of the half shekel in ancient Israel would normally occur in Adar, but would be in Adar II in a leap year. Its collection coincided with a number of community centered projects. The Mishnah Shekalim describes that in the month of Adar, they would repair roads and highways and mikvaot, and they would carry out all public requirements, such as make new cisterns and make sure all graves were properly marked. Infrastructure may not be the most exciting topic for most of us. But the Mishnah’s linking these duties to the half shekel, I believe, spiritualizes these acts to a point that they’re part of the ongoing task of building and strengthening the nation.
The word “infrastructure” is relatively new to the English lexicon. It came in to popular use in the 1980s to describe the complex web of public works. Infrastructure refers to the fundamental facilities and systems serving a country, city, or area, including the services and facilities necessary for its economy to function. It typically characterizes technical structures such as roads,bridges, tunnels, water supply, sewers, electrical grids, telecommunications, and other services that provide “the physical components of interrelated systems providing commodities and services essential to enable, sustain, or enhance societal living conditions.”
The way our society works is that we pay taxes to the government who are charged with the task of maintaining our public works to protect our health, safety and well-being. When our infrastructure works well, we all succeed. When it fails, we all suffer.
The newest frontier in infrastructure centers around the Internet, cellular phones and cyber-security. Due to the relative newness of this field, lawmakers, law enforcement agencies and courts are grappling with the extent to which government should have access to the personal digital data of individuals. The struggle between government and the private sector has come to a head in recent weeks. The FBI wants access to the cell phone data of Syed Rizwan Farook who, along with his wife, murdered 14 of his co-workers in a San Bernardino, CA, social service agency. With evidence suggesting that their terror act was at least inspired by ISIS, the FBI is interested in unlocking Farook’s iPhone to access the data that may be vital to the investigation. However, Tim Cook, CEO of Apple that manufactures the iPhone, has resisted working with the FBI to unlock the phone. He cites the company’s needs to protect the privacy of its customers and fears that if government can access personal data that opens the door for improper surveillance by government and hacking of data by bad actors.
I own Apple products and find that they have created great tools to enhance my life. However, I believe Tim Cook is wrong. It is the government’s job to protect us. As taxpayers we pay for this protection. In a world that has gone mad, I want the FBI to have all the tools that it can lawfully have at its disposal in order to protect us.
When Target had its servers hacked exposing personal data of 70 million customers, there was understandable outcry by the general public. Yet, what the scandal showed about our society is that many of us willingly entrust our personal data to for-profit corporations whose main interest is not to protect us but to make money for their shareholders. With respect to the government, however, I find it is a sad commentary on our society that there is less willingness to entrust personal data with the government whose sole purpose is to protect the public.
Government is imperfect, and checks and balances must exist to ensure that the covenant between the government and people is not broken. Abraham Lincoln said: “This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or exercise their revolutionary right to overthrow it.” I would add that at the same time constant revolution and weak government institutions are dangerous to our republic. Checks and balances, yes. “Trust but verify,” yes. But the the wholesale disempowerment of government institutions? No. We as a society invest in our public institutions to protect us, and when they fail, we must hold them accountable to uphold their highest duty. We entrust our government to require us to wear seatbelts and obey speed limits. We accept reasonable limits on our freedom like not yelling fire in a crowded theater. At airport security check points, we agree to take off our shoes and belts and throw away water bottles because we entrust authorities to screen for terrorists. In this light, I believe we need to accept a reasonable limitation on privacy in order empower our government to deter terrorism. The FBI needs access to Farook’s phone, and Apple and other industry leaders need work with government to protect the people not only their profits.
Our sages interpreted the half shekel as symbol that everyone in society has an equal stake in building a strong, secure, prosperous and peaceful nation. On this Shabbat Shekalim, may we be inspired to do just that.