No MAS! – Some nurture their young with hatred

As the school year winds down, parents and grandparents of Jewish elementary-age students are treated to… productions! 

Things like Siddur and Chumash presentations accompanied by song and verse. There are plays about historical events and uplifting stories. And depictions of Jewish concepts like tefillah or brachos. This grandparent enjoyed a wonderful one last year that was focused on Shmitta and bitachon. (You and your schoolmates were great, Hadassah!) 

And then there are the end-of-school-year “Ummah Day” productions at the Muslim American Society Islamic Center in Philadelphia, or “MAS.” They are somewhat different from their Jewish counterparts.

In 2017 and 2019, the children in MAS, as per videos posted on its Facebook page, sang “Chop off their heads!” about their perceived enemies, and expressed their eagerness to become “martyrs” in the cause of liberating “Palestine.” One little girl warbled, “I am a revolution that shakes the occupier. I am a wave on the calm sea. I hold my head high, and I will not be humiliated.”

The 2019 production, a joint venture between MAS Philadelphia and something called the “Leaders Academy,” received some 2 million views. After groups like the invaluable Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) and the ADL, along with some American lawmakers, called attention to the issue, Facebook shut down the school’s page.

Subsequently, MAS Philadelphia and Leaders Academy released a statement expressing sadness over its “mistake” and contending that “antisemitism or other forms of bigotry are foreign concepts to us and we are especially saddened that our beautiful children and community continue to face these accusations [of hating Jews].” The groups pledged to “pave a positive future for our community and increase our work with people from all walks of life.”

Somewhat nonreassuring was the groups’ proud announcement at the time that they had “enlisted CAIR-Philadelphia to help us with a number of [sensitivity] trainings.” CAIR’s national executive director, Nihad Awad, has publicly called Israel a “terrorist state” that targets innocent civilians and declared that Israel “is the biggest threat to world peace and security.”  

Which might explain why the sensitivity trainings didn’t work (or, perhaps, depending on the nature of the training, did). Because earlier this month, the little darlings at MAS were at it again.

This time, the children at the school weren’t chopping off heads. But – in a video posted  on May 6 by the Leaders Academy and exposed by MEMRI – they celebrated “One Ummah Day” with a song and performance praising “brave” Palestinian girls who support their “real men” as fighters against Israel. 

One song describes a girl sending her brother off to battle and telling him: “I will saddle up your horse, and I will tie a dagger to your belt – enhance your resolve.” The video was also posted to the Facebook page of the Alhidaya Islamic Center in Philadelphia, another name for MAS.

Last week, a bill to address the problem of endemic anti-Jewish incitement in Palestinian Authority textbooks was unanimously passed in the United States House Foreign Affairs Committee. 

California Democrat Brad Sherman, who introduced the bill, lamented the fact that the PA’s incitement contradicts American values of tolerance and peace, and noted that “For decades, the United States and the American people have been the top donor to the Palestinian people, including to the Palestinian Authority and UNRWA [United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine] – but this is not a blank check.”

“Unfortunately,” he said, “instead of envisioning a Palestinian state alongside Israel, the current Palestinian curriculum erases Israel from maps, refers to Israel only as ‘the enemy,’ and asks children to sacrifice their lives to ‘liberate’ all of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.”

In April 2021, the Biden administration defended its decision to restore financial aid to the UNRWA with the claim that the United Nations agency was committed to a “zero tolerance” policy regarding antisemitism. Unfortunately, that may have been pleasantly hopeful but it was patently false. 

As a report at the time released by the IMPACT-se research institute revealed, schools run by UNRWA continued to teach hatred against Israel.

Incitement against Israel and Jews in Palestinian textbooks is reprehensible. 

It’s even more reprehensible in an American school.

And irony is added to reprehensibility when such hatred sets down roots in the City of Brotherly Love. 

© 2023 Ami Magazine

Naso – Playing Favorites or Paying in Kind

Parshas Naso

Playing Favorites or Paying In Kind

The Divine answer seems to beg the angels’ question.

Hashem’s angelic entourage, Rav Avira recounts (Berachot 20b) asked Him: “Master of the Universe, it is written in Your Torah (Devarim 10:17) that You do not show favor or take bribes. And yet, You show Yisrael special consideration, as it is written, ‘May Hashem lift His countenance to you’! (Bamidbar 6:26).”

Hashem replied:”How can I not favor Israel? For I commanded them, ‘When you eat and are satisfied, you must bless Hashem’ (Devarim 8:10), and yet they are punctilious [to say birkas hamazon, the blessing after eating a meal] over even an olive-sized piece of bread.”

Imagine a mortal judge excusing his showing favoritism to his nephew by explaining “but he’s such a good nephew!”

I think the explanation of Rav Avira’s description of the heavenly interaction lies in the words “and are satisfied.” Hashem’s retort was not that Jews say birkas hamazon even when they are not satisfied (which, arguably, would be an unwarranted and thus illegitimate bracha) but rather that they are satisfied with even a paltry meal. 

Jews are called Yehudim, after Yehudah, whose name reflects his mother’s acknowledgement that, with a fourth son, she has received “more than my share” (Rashi, from Midrash Rabbah). The quintessential Jewish characteristic is the conviction that we are unworthy of the blessings we receive.

And so, we are always, inherently, “satisfied,” even if what we are apportioned is limited. 

Thus, as a middah keneged midah, a “measure for measure,” Hashem is “satisfied,” so to speak, with even our limited service to Him. 

His “special consideration” is but a payment in kind.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Shavuos – The Matter of Meaning

The average price paid to climb Mt. Everest – for permits, equipment and guides –  is between $35,000 and $45,000. And hundreds have died in that exploit. 

What impels people to undertake so expensive and dangerous a quest? A misguided search for meaning.

Philosophers argued about what ultimately motivates humans. Nietzsche said power; Freud, pleasure.

Both tapped into something real. The power to, through our choices, change our lives and history, is a manifestation of gevurah, “strength.” In Jewish eyes, though, that doesn’t mean subjugating others; rather, as Ben Zoma in Avos (4:1) defines it, “hakovesh es yitzro,” one who, by force of will, overcomes his nature.

And Freud was on to something too; the Ramchal begins Mesilas Yesharim with the surprising statement that the goal of life is the pursuit of pleasure. Not physical, but rather ultimate, pleasure: “basking in the radiance of the Shechinah.” 

The Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard was insightful. He wrote of the human “will to meaning” – the yearning to achieve something truly meaningful as life’s ultimate goal.

Some imagine “meaning” in climbing Everest. Others envision meaningful accomplishment in meriting mention in the Guinness Book of World Records, for, say, the most slices of pizza eaten while riding a unicycle and simultaneously juggling balls. 

For those who recognize our divine mandate, though, the ring for which to reach is a spiritual one, achieved through Torah and mitzvos

All good fortune to the Everest climbers.

Come Shavuos, we look to a different mountain.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Bamidbar – Life is for the Giving

The Torah’s pointed note (Bamidbar 3:4) of the fact that Nadav and Avihu had no children (according to the Midrash, because they did not marry) is understood by Chazal as having contributed to their deaths. “Contributed,” because the Torah itself states that the reason the two sons of Aharon died was because “they brought illicit fire before Hashem” [ibid]. Leaving the meaning of that phrase aside, though, what role did their having had no children play in their deaths? Not marrying, after all, isn’t a capital crime.

Addressing that question, the talmid chacham and inventor R’ Meshullam Gross, in his sefer Nachalas Tzvi, notes a comment of the Chasam Sofer on the words “And Hashem your G-d will make you abundant for good… in the fruit of your womb” (Devarim 30:9). The Chasam Sofer asserts that there can be a situation where a person’s time on earth has expired but where his death can be postponed by the fact that he is needed on earth to provide guidance to a child or another person dependent on him.

Thus, suggests Rav Gross, had Nadav and Avihu had children, dependents on their elders’ tutelage and guidance, the elders’ deaths might have been spared by that fact. 

It’s an invaluable thought for every parent, grandparent or teacher, when facing a difficult charge – in fact, for every person with a difficult friend: The very fact that you are being tried by your charge or friend, that you are needed to help with the challenge presented you, may just be affording you the gift of life.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Behar – What’s Special About Shmita

The problem surely occurs to every reader of the first Rashi in parshas Behar. The Rabban shel Yisrael, quoting a Midrash, recounts the famous question, “What does shemita have to do with Har Sinai?”

The reference, of course, is to the Torah’s introducing the mitzvah of letting fields lie fallow every seventh year as what “Hashem spoke to Moshe on Har Sinai.” 

The Midrash’s answer is that the Torah means to teach us that “just as with shemitah, its general principles and its finer details were all stated at Sinai, likewise, all [mitzvos were similarly stated and elaborated upon].”

The problem: The answer seems to not address the question. Why, though, of all mitzvos, is the point made specifically with shmita?

It is brought in the name of the Chasam Sofer that shmita is chosen because it establishes, to the frustration of the scoffer who contends that the Torah isn’t in fact from Hashem, that it is.

Because, logically, shmita is a self-defeating law. Enjoining the Jews in the Holy Land to let all their fields lie fallow every seventh year (and at the end of 49 years, two years in a row) is an assured recipe for economic disaster.  No human lawmaker would be cruel or dim enough to lay down such a law – only a Legislator Who could in fact ensure, as Hashem does, that the sixth year crops will be sufficiently abundant to carry the populace through could decree such a law.

Thus, says the Chasam Sofer, shmita’s having been divinely commanded at Sinai isn’t merely part of our tradition (a powerful enough status in its own right) but, in its very essence, an indication of its source in the divine.

And so, “just as with shemita” – which law telegraphs its source in Hashem – likewise all mitzvos are sourced in Him. 

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Substantially Defamatory

It’s unusual—actually, unprecedented — for Agudath Israel of America or any of its affiliates to communicate with the judges who will choose the recipients of the annual Pulitzer Prizes. But it happens. Or, at least, happened. To read about the communication and what precipitated it, click here.

Emor — Simple Jews

The Baitusim, a sect in Talmudic times often associated with the Tzedukim (or Sadducees), had a congenial approach to establishing the date of Shavuos, which the Torah describes as the fiftieth day from a particular point (Vayikra 23:15-21).

The Sinaic mesorah defines that starting point as the second day of Pesach (designated by the Torah as “the day after the Shabbos” – “Shabbos” here meaning the first day of the holiday), the day the omer sacrifice was brought. Thus, Shavuos could fall on any day of the week.

But the Baitusim seized on the Torah’s reference to that first day of counting as “the day after the Shabbos” as indicating that the fifty days must start after a literal “Shabbos,” on a Sunday, the first one after the omer, ensuring that Shavuos, too, would always fall on an Sunday.

A Baitusim spokesman defended his group’s position to Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai: “Moshe, our teacher, loved the Jews and… established [Shavuos] after Shabbos, so that the Jewish people would enjoy themselves for two days” (Menachos, 65a).

Hashem, he was asserting, certainly wanted His people to have a “long weekend” each summer. 

An enticing thought, perhaps. But not what Hashem commanded. And Judaism is all about doing what He commands, whether it sits well with us or we think we have a better, “improved” idea. It isn’t our prerogative to “reform” divine will.

Our mandate is to be tamim, “simple,” “perfect,” “trusting.” It was, after all, our ancestors’ declaration of Na’aseh vinishma, “We will do and [only then endeavor to] hear [i.e.understand]” that earned us the Torah.

Which declaration, of course, took place, according to the mesorah, on Shavuos.

As Rava told a heretic who ridiculed his alacrity, “We Jews proceed with simple purity, as it says [in Mishlei 11:3], ‘The simplicity of the upright will guide them” (Shabbos 88b).

Notes the Shem MiShmuel: The “seven weeks” that are counted from Pesach to Shavuos are pointedly called sheva Shabbasos temimos – “seven perfect weeks.” Weeks, the word is hinting, for us to grow in what merited us the Torah, our temimus.

© 2023 Rabbi Avi Shafran