Look Up!

We regard the enclosures where we spend Sukkos as, well, sukkos. And they are, of course; the walls comprise a necessary part of a sukkah. But it’s their roofs – the bamboo poles or mats woven for the purpose from slivers of the same material, or branches or leaves or thin, unfinished wooden slats – that give the structures their name.

The roofs, that is, made from vegetation once-alive but now detached from the earth it needs to grow: s’chach.

That word is from the Hebrew socheh, meaning to “cover” or “hover over.”

But there is another meaning to that Loshon HaKodesh word, as various sefarim note, namely “to see” or “to perceive.” That association would seem to imply that a sukkah somehow provides some special perspective. And, of course, it does.

On even the most mundane plane, living in a small rudimentary hut for a week, within sight of, yet apart from, one’s more comfortable, more spacious home, does afford a different point of view.

Like about our vulnerability, and reliance on Hashem’s everlasting rachamim. While our sturdy houses may be nearby, and if it rains hard enough we can – indeed should – return to surer shelter, our exposure to the elements in the sukkah, if we only care to ponder it, just magnifies our exposure to all sorts of threats, even in our “secure” abodes.

Not only are those abodes subject to other natural disasters – which we may not often think about, but should all the same, even if we don’t live in earthquake or flood zones – but there are dangers lurking wherever we are. Bad drivers and bad people, obstacles to trip over and germs with the potential to lay waste to our good health… That is part of the perspective granted the thoughtful sukkah-dweller.

But there is more. What the sukkah allows us to perceive, if we try, is that our homes and their contents are not us. That is to say, our possessions don’t really matter. The mindless man in a fancy car with the bumper sticker reading “The one who dies with the most toys wins” reflects a mainstream conviction, but it’s as far from Jewish belief as east is from west. Sitting in our primitive week-house, we come to know that what we have accumulated is simply not essential. In fact, no matter how much it may have cost us, in the end, it’s meaningless fluff.

Which is why Sukkos is zman simchaseinu.

No, I’m not being facetious. The happiness that is the theme of Sukkos and to which we make much reference in our tefillos on the holiday not only is not antithetical to our “deprivation”; it is born of it.

That’s because attaining true happiness begins with realizing what, despite its promise, doesn’t really make us happy. The “high” afforded by a new possessions dissipates quickly. The moment one first drives a new car, it becomes a used one.

What’s more, possessions only beget the desire, even the need, for yet more of the same, a truth that has come to be called the “hedonic treadmill” – “hedonic” meaning “pertaining to pleasure.” The treadmill mashal conveys the fact that the pursuit of happiness is like a person on a platform moving in the opposite direction, who has to keep walking just to stay in the same place. A person may achieve wealth, in other words, but his expectations and longings only rise in tandem. There’s no permanent net gain in happiness.

Chazal, of course, said it pithily: “He who has a hundred wants two hundred” (Koheles Rabbah 1:34).

And, as Chazal also said in many instances, pok chazi – “go out and look around.” At all the possession-endowed, that is, here: the entertainers, sports figures, best-selling authors, the old-moneyed and the lottery-winners. They may zip around in Lamborghinis and check the time on Rolexes, but is their happiness quotient necessarily greater than that of those who take the bus and keep time with a $5 watch? Are their grand estates more of a home than the simplest, cozy cottage? A cogent case could be made that the precise opposite is true.

In the end, dependency on having stuff is what keeps us from being truly happy. Because authentic joy comes from things unavailable from Amazon.com. Like our relationships with our parents and children and friends, and with our community. And, ultimately, with Hakadosh Baruch Hu.

So the sukkah is indeed a source of “sight,” or, perhaps better, insight. It opens our eyes, letting us better see that, ultimately, what we really have is not what we own, but what we are.

And, fully comprehended, that is the true path to simchah.

© 2018 Hamodia

The Arvus Factor

A mother and father are notified that their darling little boy broke a neighbor’s window. They feel, and of course are, responsible to right the wrong. They are, after all, where the buck stops in their family.

But they may be responsible in a deeper sense too. If the boy didn’t just accidentally hit a ball through the Feldstein’s picture window but rather carefully aimed a rock at it – and had been influenced in his disregard for the property of others by some remark he heard at home – the responsibility exists on a much deeper level than mere buck-stopping. The parents, in a sense, are complicit in Yankeleh’s act of vandalism.

The concept of “arvus” – the “interdependence” of all Jews – is sometimes understood as akin to the first, simpler, sense of responsibility. Jews are to regard other Jews as family, which they are, and therefore to take responsibility for one another.

But Rav Dessler, in Michtav Me’Eliyohu, teaches that Jews are responsible for one another in the word’s deeper sense too.

When a Jew does something good, it reflects the entire Jewish people’s goodness. And the converse is no less true. Thus, when Achan, one man, misappropriated spoils after the first battle of Yehoshua’s conquest of Canaan, the siege of Yericho, it is described as the aveirah of the entire people (Yehoshua, 7:1). Explains Rav Dessler: Had the people as a whole been sufficiently sensitive to Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s commandment to shun the city’s spoils, Achan would never have been able to commit his sin.

Several weeks ago, we read in the parashas hashavua of the eglah arufah, a ritual that is commanded if a murder victim, presumably a wayfarer, is found outside a city. The procedure, which involves the elders of the city dispatching a calf, is called a kapparah, an atonement, yet there seems to be no sin for which the elders need atone. That’s because part of the ritual is their declaration that they did everything they could to ensure the safety of the visitor. And it certainly isn’t atonement for the killer; if he is ever discovered, he faces a murder charge and its penalty.

Here, too the arvus factor may be the solution. Even if no particular person was directly responsible for the wayfarer’s murder, what could have enabled so terrible an act to happen might have been a “critical mass” of lesser offenses, perhaps things that Chazal likened to murder, such as causing another Jew great embarrassment or indirectly causing a person’s life to be shortened.

In which case, the atonement would be for Klal Yisrael as a whole, areivim as its members are zeh lazeh.

The idea, in fact, is borne out by the passuk itself, which prescribes what the elders of the closest city are to say at the eglah arufah ceremony: “Atone for Your people Yisrael” (Devarim, 21:8).

So, if a Jew commits a financial crime, it may never have been able to happen had all of us been sufficiently careful to not “steal” in other ways.

Every cheder yingel knows that even a small coin placed in a pushke is the fulfillment of a mitzvah. It should be equally apparent, especially to all us grown-up children, that the misappropriation of even a similarly small amount of money is the opposite.

And so Jews, whoever and wherever they are, who cut corners for financial gain – who underreport their income or avoid taxes illegally or are less than fully honest in their business dealings – contribute thereby to the thievery-matrix. And then there is “thievery” of more subtle sorts, like wasting the time or disturbing the sleep of another. Or misleading someone – which Chazal characterize as “geneivas daas,” or “stealing mind.”

That deeper concept of arvus leaves us to ponder the possibility that some less blatant and less outrageous – but still sinful – actions of other Jews, ourselves perhaps included, may have, little by little, provided a matrix on which greater aveiros subsequently came to grow.

On Yom Kippur, Jews the world over will repeatedly recite “Ashamnu” and “Al Chet Shechatanu.” Both, oddly, are in the first person plural. It is a collective “we” who have sinned. One approach is that if any Jew anywhere is guilty of a sin on the list we recount, the arvus of Klal Yisrael obligates us to confess on his behalf. But, on a deeper plane, that arvus implies something else too: That even with regard to aveiros of which we are personally innocent, we may still be implicated.

May our viduyim and teshuvah be accepted Above.

Gmar chasimah tovah!

© 2018 Hamodia

Traffic Jams and the Yom Hadin

As a young teenager davening daily in the shul that my father, a”h, served as Rav, a congregation whose clientele ranged from totally non-observant Jews to fully observant ones, I considered myself something of an expert in Jewish sociology.

I wasn’t anything of the sort, of course, and my assumptions that none of the non-observant shul members would ever one day begin to keep Shabbos or undertake kashrus or study Torah were happily proven wrong. I underestimated the power of my father’s warmth and his standing on principle, and the respect that those things engendered in his congregants. And the ability of people to change.

But before I saw the power of an unabashed but warm presentation of Jewish right and wrong, I looked down at the shul members who expressed their Jewishness only on the “High Holidays” – “three day Jews,” some called them – and yahrtzeits, and I considered them to have missed the point of the Jewish mission. Judaism, after all, can’t be “compartmentalized” and “practiced” only in shul. It’s an all-encompassing, non-stop way of life.

Around the same time I stopped looking down my young nose, I started looking into my young heart, and realized that I, too, compartmentalized Yiddishkeit, living it fully at times and places but… less fully at other ones.

The truth is that it’s a problem many of us, young or old or in-between, regularly need to confront. We may live observant Orthodox lives, doing all the things expected of a frum Jew – eating only foods graced with the best hechsherim and wearing whatever de rigeuer head-covering our communities expect of us, avoid things that must be avoided – but may still, at least to some degree, in other environments or areas of our lives… compartmentalize. It’s a challenge to keep foremost in our consciousnesses that the Creator is as manifest on a July Tuesday in a traffic jam as He is in shul on Yom Hadin.

Compartmentalization explains how it is that an otherwise committed Orthodox Jew can, in his workplace, engage in questionable business practices, or mistreat a child or a spouse. Or, more mundanely but no less significantly, how he can cut others off on the road, speak rudely to another person, or blog irresponsibly.

It’s not, chas v’shalom, that such people don’t acknowledge Hashem’s presence or their responsibilities. It’s just that, while going through the daily grind, they don’t always include Him in their activities.

Even many of us who think of our Jewish mindfulness as healthy are also prone at times to compartmentalize our avodas Hashem. It’s painful to ponder, but do we all maintain the Hashem-awareness we (hopefully) attain in shul on a Shabbos at all times, wherever we may be? Do we always, wherever we may be, think of what it is we’re saying when we make a brachah (or even take care to pronounce every word clearly)? Do we stop to weigh our every daily action and interaction on the scales of Jewish propriety? Do our observances sometimes fade into mindless rote?

When it comes to compartmentalization, I suspect, there really isn’t any “us” and “them.” All of us occupy a point on a continuum here, some more keenly and constantly aware of the ever-present reality of the Divine, some less so.

Rosh Hashanah and the rest of Aseres Yemei Teshuvah are suffused with the concept of Malchiyus, or Kingship. The shofar, we are taught, is a coronation call, and we say Hamelech Hakadosh in our tefillos. We might well wonder: What has Kingship to do with teshuvah?

Consider: a king rules over his entire kingdom; little if anything escapes even a mortal monarch’s reach, and no subject dares take any action without royal approval. All the more so, infinite times over, in the case not of a king but a King.

And so, we might consider that kingship (or, at least, Kingship) is diametrical to compartmentalization, to the notion that the Monarch rules only here, not there; only then, not now. There are, ideally, no places and no times when Hakadosh Baruch Hu can be absent from our minds.

Rosh Hashanah is a yearly opportunity to internalize that thought, and to try to bring our lives more in line with it.

And, no less than some of those once-“three day Jews” did, to change our lives.

Ksivah vachasimah tovah.

© 2018 Hamodia

Impartial is Impossible

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, back when Donald Trump was a mere businessman building casinos, not an embattled president haranguing the press, I was already dealing with what has since come to be called, at his suggestion, “fake news.”

The media bias with which I was confronted as Agudath Israel’s public affairs director largely concerned Orthodox Jews, not political matters, but my frustration then was similar to the president’s current pique.

At the time, of course, computers were fairly new, social media nonexistent and tweeting, blessedly, was limited to birds.

All the same, though, I tried to raise a hue and cry, fantasizing that I might change the world, or at least the media world. Needless to say, I didn’t.

So many media, so much misinformation. Like demonstrably false assertions in news stories across the nation about Orthodox Jews, like the New York Times’ description of a large Tehillim rally in Manhattan as “40,000 Orthodox Jews vent[ing] anger…”

Or its story on the twelfth Daf Yomi Siyum Hashas focusing not on the incredible turnout and enthusiasm of those present but on the fact that Orthodox women don’t traditionally study Talmud. Or its characterization of the 1991 Crown Heights riots, years later, as “[violence] between blacks and Jews,” when the violence was entirely one-sided.

There were many other errors of fact over the years, not to mention a dearth of Orthodox voices in stories that cried out for them. Agudath Israel made countless efforts to correct the record in calls to reporters, letters to editors and other interventions.

But clear, demonstrable mistakes were one thing. More slippery fish were the subtle misleadings: the emphasis on one aspect of a story at the expense of a larger picture, the omission of important pertinent information, the clever but deceptive opening or closing lines, the headlines that misrepresented what the articles beneath them actually said, the choice of photos that impugned Orthodox Jews. Those sorts of things were what really rankled, because effectively countering them was like nailing ptcha to a wall.

What I came to learn over time, though, was that the shortcomings of news organizations didn’t have to lead to frustration, nor to seeing media as “the enemy of the people,” as the president not long ago asserted, to much criticism. Nor even, for that matter, to the conclusion that the media are “fake.” They are simply… well, media – from the Latin word medius, by way of the English word medium, in its sense of “an intermediary” or “channel.”

News media are not final arbiters of truth or facts; they are, rather, lenses through which information is channeled to us. And every lens has its particular shade, warps and flaws; every reporter, no matter how cautious, his or her inherent biases. Trying to deny or resist that undeniable truth, imagining that media can in fact be totally dispassionate, is what leads to frustration. But being angry about a news organization’s reportage’s lack of balance is like being angry at your refrigerator for not washing the dishes.

News, at least at its core, is views. All media are, to one or another degree, biased. A medium like Hamodia is entirely open about its prejudices. The paper you are holding makes no bones about the fact that it is proudly partial – in favor of Torah and Yiddishkeit, against all that is diametrical to those ideals. Media that purport to be impartial, by contrast, are neither that nor truthful.

In a perfect world, perhaps, artificial intelligence would provide us the news, in the form of simple, cold facts. There would be no human bias tweaking it this way or that. But, minus the human element, foibles and all, such reportage would be utterly boring. The price we pay for interesting is acceptance of the human, and thus imperfect, factor.

We must of course continue to call the media out for their demonstrable errors of fact. But, when it comes to their subtle biases, all we can do is adjust for them. And the most a news organization aspiring to reportorial objectivity can do is to assign reporters to stories in which they are as disinterested (“without personal interest or advantage”) as possible.

So if a Jewish newspaper wants to claim to offer impartial reportage, it should have only non-Jewish reporters on staff. Every Jew, after all, has a personal backstory, and his or her reportage will, willy-nilly, be informed by that history. Don’t hold your breath.

In the end, we are stuck with the Jewish, and general, media we have. Not enemies, not fake.

Just, like all their reporters, and for that matter most people, a bit biased.

© 2018 Hamodia

Letter in the New York Times

A letter of mine was published in the New York Times on Shabbos:

To the Editor:

In his essay “Israel, This Is Not Who We Are” (Op-Ed, Aug. 14), Ronald S. Lauder sees the Israeli sky falling, as a result of Israel’s “destructive actions” like the maintenance of traditional Jewish religious decorum at the Western Wall, which Mr. Lauder criticizes as coming at the expense of a planned egalitarian prayer space, and a new Israeli law that establishes Israel as a state with a Jewish identity, which he says “damages the sense of equality and belonging of Israel’s Druze, Christian and Muslim citizens.”

But Israel, as a self-described Jewish state, needs a Jewish standard for public behavior at religious sites and to inform religious personal status issues. The standard that has served the state since its formation has been the Jewish standard of the ages — what the world calls Orthodoxy.

And, whether or not the nation-state law was necessary or wise, it does not impinge in any way on the equality before the law of any Israeli citizen.

Israel is not, as Mr. Lauder says some think, “losing its way.” It is the vast majority of the world’s Jews, those who do not regard their religious heritage as important, who are in danger of being lost — to the Jewish people. And it is those indifferent Jews who have the most to gain from the example of Israel preserving the traditional Jewish standards and values that have stood the test of history.

Avi Shafran

New York

The writer, a rabbi, is the director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.

First Amendment and Ninth Commandment

Most of us born and raised in this great country, an outpost of galus that offered our immigrant forebears unprecedented freedoms and protections, deeply appreciate not only those gifts but the Constitutional principles on which these United States stand. Among them, the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech.

The issue of that guarantee’s limits is currently a thing, thanks to one Alex Jones.

Mr. Jones is an extremely popular radio program host and the proprietor of a number of websites, most notably one called Infowars. He traffics in unfounded “reports” of conspiracies and nefarious actions by government and “globalist” agents.

He famously averred that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax, an assertion that resulted in threats against bereaved parents of some of murdered children. He has also propagated the notion that Democratic lawmakers run a global child-trafficking ring, and that the U.S. government was involved in both the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and the September 11 attacks. He has also claimed that the moon landing footage was fake, and that NASA is hiding secret technology and the deaths of thousands of astronauts.

Mr. Jones is in the news these days because of pending lawsuits by Sandy Hook victims’ parents and others against him, complaints by former staffers of his alleged racist or anti-Semitic behavior and, most recently, because of the removal of his posts and videos from top technology companies’ media platforms.

Enter the First Amendment.

Characterizing the tech companies’ decision to not host his misinformation as “censorship,” he says the move “just vindicates everything we’ve been saying.”

“Now,” he proclaimed in a tweet, “who will stand against Tyranny [sic] and who will stand for free speech? We’re all Alex Jones now.”

No we’re not.

To be sure, distasteful opinions are legally protected in our country. In 1969, the Supreme Court held that even inflammatory rhetoric is protected unless it “is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.” Revolting as some of Alex Jones’ rants have been, they likely fall on the mutar side of that legal psak. But the rabble-rouser’s lament that, with the curbing of his exposure, the citizenry has been deprived of their last defense against tyranny (upper-cased, no less) is as hollow as the heads of his fans who act on his wild speculations.

In the end, though, no one is preventing Mr. Jones from promoting his untruths (or his products – the diet supplements and survivalist gear he profitably hawks between diatribes) from other rooftops, literal or electronic. The First Amendment limits only the actions of government, not private companies.

Jones, though, is also using the right to free speech as a defense against the lawsuits he’s facing.

One concerns Brennan Gilmore, a former State Department official who attended last summer’s violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Mr. Gilmore was present when a man drove his car into a crowd of protesters, killing a woman.

After Mr. Gilmore posted a video of the episode and spoke about it, Mr. Jones accused him of being a C.IA. plant employed by the billionaire George Soros, and as having possibly been involved in the attack on the woman to bring about what he described as “the downfall of Trump.”

In March, Mr. Gilmore sued Mr. Jones for defamation, arguing that he had suffered threats and harassment as a result of the unfounded claim.

Do such public speculations and conspiracy theories merit First Amendment protection, even when they cause harm to others?

In a recent court filing, four law professors specializing in free-speech issues said no.

“False speech does not serve the public interest the way that true speech does,” the scholars wrote. “And indeed, there is no constitutional value in false statements of fact.”

For what it’s worth, Donald Trump Jr. feels differently. He reacted to criticism of Mr. Jones by asserting that “Big Tech’s censorship campaign is really about purging all conservative media. How long before Big Tech and their Democrat friends move to censor and purge… other conservatives [sic] voices from their platforms?”

Judges will decide, at least with regard to American law. As believing Jews, though, we know that there really is no hallowed ideal of “free speech.” The unique ability with which the Creator endowed us, the ability to communicate ideas, is not an “inalienable right” but a formidable responsibility. “From a word of falsehood stay distant” (Shemos 23:7) and “Do not give false testimony against your neighbor” (ibid 20:13) comprise our duty.

Would that American jurisprudence, even as it protects unpopular opinion, recognize the import of that charge.

© 2018 Hamodia

Haley’s Comment

You likely haven’t heard of Bryan Sharpe. He’s a black activist who, in the grand tradition of Louis Farrakhan, has demonized Jews (whom he calls “Jutang Clan,” an unimaginative play on the name of a rap group). “Trump don’t run America,” he tweeted in March. “He’s just a figure head [sic]. Jutang run America.”

For good measure, Mr. Sharpe has explained that “Holocaust denier” is a term “created to hide the truth.” He uses the triple-parentheses favored by white supremacists as a way to denote Jewishness.

“People in power is always (((them))),” in another tweet, for example.

You may also not be familiar with Charlie Kirk. But the 24-year-old is a hero to 130,000 high school students, undergraduates and recent college graduates, who appreciate his quest “to save Western civilization.”

Six years ago, the then-teenaged Mr. Kirk founded a politically conservative group called Turning Point USA, and it has experienced phenomenal success attracting followers. The group holds conferences and operates a website “dedicated to documenting and exposing college professors who discriminate against conservative students, promote anti-American values, and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”

Critics have charged that the site has misquoted and mischaracterized comments by academics and, in May, a leaked internal memo written by the more traditionally conservative Young America’s Foundation (YAF) accused Turning Point USA of “lack of integrity, honesty, experience, and judgment,” and bemoaned “the long-term damage TPUSA could inflict on… the conservative Movement.”

But Mr. Kirk has pressed on, and believes his group, whose revenues in 2012 were $78,890, will raise close to $15 million this year.

What do Mr. Sharpe and Mr. Kirk have to do with each other? They certainly make an odd pair. But a pair they have become, with Mr. Kirk’s embrace of Mr. Sharpe, including him in meetings and inviting him to a retreat for “black influencers.”

Although Turning Point USA has not exhibited anti-Semitic sentiments and is resolutely pro-Israel, those positions seem to take second and third places to the desire to attract what its leader imagines to be a potential conservative black membership for his group.

And Mr. Sharpe seems enamored of even the far fringes of the politically conservative world. “Alt right,” he remarked in a February, 2017 video, “isn’t afraid to call out the Jews and their implications in the destruction of the black community in America. It’s just the truth.”

The coddling of Mr. Sharpe by Mr. Kirk is a reminder that, although we tend these days to see animus for Jews mostly on the far left (often poorly disguised as objections to Israeli policies), neither end of the political spectrum is without its haters.

Turning Point USA didn’t respond to media requests for comment about its relationship with Mr. Sharpe, and the latter declined to comment, although he deleted many of his tweets about Jews shortly after being contacted by a news organization.

On July 23, hundreds of students gathered at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., for the conservative group’s fourth annual High School Leadership Summit. The four-day event included workshops on campus activism and student leadership, and featured speeches by prominent conservatives, including Sebastian Gorka and Anthony Scaramucci. Attorney General Jeff Sessions addressed members of the group.

As did U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, and what she said to the students was characteristically incisive and impressive.

She asked attendees to raise their hands if they “ever posted anything online to ‘own the libs’ ” – to get the goat, that is, of Americans who don’t agree with them. Most of hands in the audience proudly shot up, and there was much laughter and applause.

But then she closed in to make her point. “I know that it’s fun and that it can feel good,” she says. “But step back and think about what you’re accomplishing when you do this. Are you persuading anyone? Who are you persuading?… But this kind of speech isn’t leadership – it’s the exact opposite.”

“Real leadership,” she continued, “is about persuasion. It’s about movement. It’s bringing people around to your point of view. Not by shouting them down, but by showing them how it is in their best interest to see things the way you do.”

Ms. Haley seems to never disappoint. It isn’t likely that she had any inkling of the group’s leader’s outreach to an anti-Semitic rabble-rouser. She is an open book, and its pages so far have all been inspiring. Her call to, in effect, eschew political machinations and tactics – which would include, presumably, trying to leverage the popularity of a hater in order to gain supporters – was a message one hopes was well heard by all present, including Charlie Kirk.

© 2018 Hamodia