Gripes and Grumbles

Like most people, I have all sorts of complaints about the world. That is to say, about some of the people in it.

Like those who don’t know how to disagree agreeably, and consider every holder of a different opinion to be a mortal enemy.

And drivers who don’t bother to signal before turning or changing lanes. Likewise, those who don’t know how to properly double-park. (You have to leave a car’s width plus a half-inch for others to pass.)

And, of course, phone marketers, “survey” takers and politicians who interrupt the dinnertime calm with chain-call messages. Ditto for worthy causes that do the same, and somehow think that shouting in Yiddish will make the recipients more receptive to their cause.

I also have a bimah-ful of gripes revolving around shul.

Talking during davening is wrong. Not just disturbing to others and not just impolite. Wrong. Ditto for literally throwing tzedakah literature in front of people trying to daven. Double-ditto for those who don’t bother to turn off their phones before entering a mikdash me’at, treating it more like a shuk me’at.

The Sdei Chemed (Maareches Beis Haknesses, 21) cites the Magen Avraham and Chasam Sofer to the effect that any behavior considered disrespectful in a society’s non-Jewish houses of worship becomes, as a result, forbidden in Jewish shuls.

Maybe there are churches or mosques where congregants “warm up” for services by discussing business or sports or the stock market.Or who take the opportunity of a pause to schmooze or share jokes. But I wonder.

I have never had aspirations to being a shul Rav. My esteemed and much-missed father, a”h, was one, and watching him over the half-century of his exemplary service to his kehillah disabused me of any desire to undertake the myriad responsibilities that he shouldered so well. Even were I qualified for such a role, I don’t think I would be able to live up to his example.

And it’s probably a brachah for the world that I chose a different path, first, as a mechanech; then, as an organizational representative and writer. Because were I responsible for a shul, I would be a terror.

Not only would davening be stopped at the slightest hint of a conversation, but I would disallow chazzanus at the amud. Spirited, heartfelt singing would be fine, even invited. But “performances” would be canceled mid-concert. The tefillos, sir, just the tefillos.

If a cellphone rang – or beeped or pinged or chirped or played a merry tune – in shul, its owner would be presented with a pre-printed notice advising him that a first offense had been noted and that a second one would result in the gabbai’s confiscation of the offending device and its smashing with the special hammer kept under the bimah for that purpose.

Oh, yes, I would be a fearsome clergyman.

What is more, I would lock the doors once davening began.

Yes, lock them, so that no one could enter.

Some people approach tefillah as something they are supposed to do, which, of course, they are. But without much thought to concentrating on the meaning of what they are saying. There’s a reason for the expression “to daven uhp” something – i.e. to just read it quickly and perfunctorily.

Others are determined to maintain kavanah for every word of tefillah. They are usually the ones who are still davening Shemoneh Esrei when chazaras hashatz is almost completed.

Then there are the rest of us, who are still working on trying to keep our minds focused on what we are saying. Unlike the accomplished group, we are all too easily disturbed in our efforts by latecomers who open and close doors, and plod around noisily.

And so, the doors would be locked. And mispallelim would learn that arriving on time is important.

And, finally, to offend anyone I haven’t yet alienated, I would abolish all candymen. I might be persuaded to permit them to quietly place a (preferably low-sugar) treat in front of a child who’s davening nicely. But to just play Pied Piper, attracting a crowd of kids with a bag of tooth-rotting, empty calorie-laden goodies… not on my watch!

I realize that my dream of a shul is someone else’s nightmare, that the world is probably best off for the fact that I didn’t try to become a shul Rav.

Probably…

Yes, I know the causes of my gripes aren’t likely to disappear.

But could people at least start signaling before changing lanes?

The Emphasis on Empathy

I suppose it’s not so strange that I put the two experiences together. They happened a mere day apart and both involved buses.

The first incident astounded me. As I stood in a line of people waiting to board an end-of-the-day bus at the Staten Island Ferry terminal, a young woman just walked up to the front of the line and, with nary a glance at anyone behind her, boarded the bus. Had she joined the back of the line as is normative, the seat she graced with her occupancy would have gone to someone else, perhaps one of the senior citizens who ended up standing during the ride.

The lady had no obvious physical impairment. She just seemed oblivious to the fact that other people occupy the universe, some even in her immediate vicinity.

I think I know what the line-cutter would have answered if asked how she would like it if someone stepped in a line in front of her. She would explain that, yes, she would have been angry, but that isn’t what happened; it was she who was entering the line out of turn, not someone else.

Empathy-impairment is an impressive thing.

We don’t start life off empathetic. Rav Yaakov Weinberg, zt”l, once mused aloud to me that there’s nothing more self-centered than a baby, and that’s probably why Hashem makes them so endearing; otherwise we might not properly care for the selfish little people.

But who can – emphasis on “can” – grow into empathic adults.

I remember how, as a little boy, I tested a magnifying glass I had received by focusing sunlight with it onto pieces of paper, charring them. And how I then – ugh – “graduated” to weaponizing my educational tool by using it to incinerate ants. Some experts claim that killing insects as a child presages the eventual emergence of a serial killer. So far, though, baruch Hashem, I haven’t much felt the urge to murder; when I have, have managed to overcome it.

In fact, today, when an insect finds its way into my home, I capture the invader and escort him or her safely to the great outdoors. (All right, not mosquitos; but they are aggressors.)

After all, how would I like it if someone chose to squash or flush me away?

Being concerned with the wellbeing of an insect is a low rung on the empathy ladder. The ultimate and most powerful concern for “the other” is for other people.

Which brings me to the second bus incident. The next morning, I boarded a mass transit vehicle that takes a rather convoluted route. It was the first time, apparently, that the driver had driven the route and before any passenger could stop him, he turned into a one-way street. A dead end.

It was a narrow street, and the “three-way turn” that the driver of a car might execute wasn’t an option. Backing up would be tricky.

I waited for the expected New York reaction, passengers’ grumbling and shouting of insults at the hapless driver. A pleasant surprise, though, awaited me. Not only didn’t my fellow travelers vent their collective spleen, many of them rushed to reassure the mortified man at the wheel not to feel badly. One man offered to stand behind the bus and direct its delicate backing out of the cul de sac, which was successful.

Everyone knew we would miss the ferry we had hoped to catch that morning. But everyone just cheered the driver, who was clearly happy with his lot – of passengers. Who, instead of being self-centered, demonstrated empathy.

People gauge gadlus ha’adam by many things. But the most essential marker of human growth may well be how far one has progressed from the selfishness that defines us at birth toward true empathy. The severely empathy-impaired, like the young woman on the bus line (and psychopaths), are essentially infants.

For members of Klal Yisrael, the import of empathy is evident in Rabi Akiva’s statement (quoted by Rashi) that the passuk “Love your fellow as yourself” (Vayikra, 19:18) is a “great principle of the Torah.” And in Hillel’s response to the man who insisted on learning the entire Torah on one foot: “What is hateful to you do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and study it” (Shabbos, 31a).

But dedication to an “other” is, in its most sublime form, expressed as selfless dedication to the Other. We are born selfish; and meant to strive toward concern for our fellows, but, ultimately, for the will of Hashem.

© 2019 Hamodia

The Hermit Horror Kingdom

To his great credit, President Trump didn’t allow the testimony of his former lawyer Michael Cohen before a Congressional committee to pressure him into making a deal at all costs with North Korea.

It would have been helpful to the president’s image to have upstaged the Cohen hearing last Wednesday with the signing of an agreement with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un – a signing ceremony had in fact been scheduled – pushing Mr. Cohen’s allegations of the president’s ethical and moral turpitude to second place in the day’s news cycle.

But, despite the two days the American and North Korean leaders spent together in Hanoi at their second summit, there was no diplomatic triumph to announce, not even the usual joint statement expected after such talks.

Things apparently broke down when it became clear that the North Korean despot was unwilling to even disclose the number and locations of his country’s nuclear weapon sites until some economic sanctions against his country were lifted. And even then, reportedly, he was prepared to shut down only one of his reactors. Mr. Trump, laudably, would not agree to that, even if it meant that news organizations would be focused on Mr. Cohen’s harsh disparagement of his former boss.

Less laudably, the president responded to a question about the American Jewish college student Otto Warmbier, who was arrested in North Korea for allegedly stealing a propaganda sign and died six days after he was repatriated to the U.S. in a coma, by relating that Mr. Kim denied knowledge at the time of the student’s deterioration in a North Korean prison, “feels very badly” about it, and that he, Mr. Trump, takes the Korean leader “at his word.” (He later said that his words were “misinterpreted.”)

Mere hours later, true to form, Nikki Haley, Mr. Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, tweeted starkly that “Americans know the cruelty that was placed on Otto Warmbier by the North Korean regime.”

The president, of course, may have just been trying to be diplomatic, with the goal of achieving some future actual progress on North Korea’s nuclear disarmament, and may harbor very different feelings about his summit partner than he verbally expressed. If he does, he is justified.

Shortly before the summit, a collection of accounts from North Korean defectors and North Korean officials in China was released, under the title “Executions and Purges of North Korean Elites: An Investigation into Genocide Based on High-Ranking Officials’ Testimonies,” by the Seoul-based North Korean Strategy Centre (NKSC).

It offered chilling accounts of utter contempt for human rights and numerous murders, claiming that Mr. Kim has had 421 officials executed and exiled since seizing power in 2011. Some victims, it reported, had been thrown unclothed to vicious hunting dogs; others were killed with shells; others still, burned alive with flamethrowers.

In some cases, the report asserted, entire families of officials have been executed or were imprisoned in concentration camps and “erased from society.” Officials faced death or imprisonment, the report alleges, for minor infractions like improper posture at an event attended by “supreme leader” Kim.

Mr. Kim is also said to have ordered the execution of his own family members, including his uncle Jang Song Thaek, who was killed along with his associates in 2013 (for having “sold the country’s resources to foreign countries at a low price”), and his half-brother Jong-nam, who was assassinated at a Malaysian airport in 2017.

A former student at Pyongyang Commercial College, identified only as “Moon,” is quoted in the report as claiming to have witnessed a 12-man public execution by soldiers using anti-aircraft guns. Armored vehicles then reportedly crushed their remains.

Evil tends to dovetail with Jew-hatred, of course. And that may be why North Korea sent pilots to Egypt during the Yom Kippur War, more recently helped Syria construct a nuclear reactor and recognizes the sovereignty of the non-existent “State of Palestine” over all of Israel, except for the Golan Heights (which it considers as part of Syria).

There are, of course, despots at the helm of other countries with which the U.S. has made strategic alliances over the years. And such associations, disturbing as they are, are not always the worst of the available options.

But it is hard to find a parallel, outside the example of Nazi Germany, to the sort of flagrant monstrousness that credible witnesses have described as an essential characteristic of the Korean peninsula’s hermit kingdom.

Iran, still abiding by the 2015 multi-nation deal, isn’t currently an immediate nuclear threat to others.

North Korea, though, is. And President Trump should not rest until it, too, is constrained.

© 2019 Hamodia

I’m In!

There’s no point in further delaying the news. I will soon be officially announcing my candidacy for the presidency of the United States. Most everyone else has done so and I don’t want to be left out.

The official throwing of my hat (my weekday one, as it needs replacing anyway) into the presidential ring will take place at Hamodia’s sprawling Borough Park offices at a date and time to be announced.

I will be running on the Purim Party ticket, and am currently accepting applications for the position of running mate. My life mate, unfortunately, does not qualify, as she was not born in the U.S.; in fact, she obstinately remains a Canadian citizen, an alien (in more ways, perhaps, than one, since, as numerous immigration officials at Newark airport can attest, she lacks detectable fingerprints).

My personal qualifications are well-known. I was a candle in my kindergarten Chanukah production, and graduated both elementary and high school. And I have no felony convictions.

I have never knowingly employed undocumented domestic help, and have never worn blackface. There was that do-rag a few Purims back, yes, but there are no photos that I know of. (Should you have any, please be in touch with my fixer, the aforementioned Mrs. Shafran.)

My closet, although it’s cluttered, holds no skeletons, only an assortment of old ties biding their time until they are once again of fashionable width.

And so, I feel that I am eminently qualified to occupy the seat once occupied by the venerable likes of Millard Fillmore and Warren Harding.

My platform? Thank you for asking. I support universal health care, universal child care and universal common sense training, something I’ve long felt has been sorely lacking in American society.

I have no position on minimum wage, but support a maximum one.

The Middle East will be one of my top priorities, of course. I have a secret peace plan. No, of course I can’t offer it; if I did, it wouldn’t be secret, would it? (Common sense training would have made that explanation unnecessary.)

I also look forward during my tenure, to appointing Supreme Court justices who are practicing Orthodox Jews, ideally kollel-leit and BJJ graduates.

But my campaign mantra, with which I expect my supporters to drown me out at rallies when I start rambling incoherently, will be “Build the Wall!” No, it has not been copyrighted (I checked), and, in any event, it’s not a southern border wall I will be urging, but a northern one.

Yes, as you know, there is an urgent need for a 3000-mile-long impenetrable barrier between our mainland and Canada, to protect our beloved country from the dire threat poised to invade from the north – the forces of civility and polite discourse.

Now, Canadians are welcome to embrace such un-American practices in their own country if that’s really what they want. Hockey pucks to the head and beer overconsumption take a toll on a society. But the peril posed by an import of politeness to our own political sphere is frightening.

Name-calling and personal insults, after all, are part of the republic’s DNA. We must never forget our twin guiding principles, e pluribus unum and argumentum ad hominem.

When Thomas Jefferson called John Adams a “repulsive pedant” and a “hideous… character,” the gauntlet was thrown, and it was picked up by Mr. Adams, who labeled Mr. Jefferson a “G-dless atheist” and cast crude aspersions on his parentage.

Adams’ son John Quincy played the genealogy card himself, against Andrew Jackson, disparaging the latter’s mother; and Mr. Jackson made sure that the media, which wasn’t yet fake, called JQA’s moral behavior into question.

Memorably, Stephen Douglas’ supporters called Abraham Lincoln a “horrid-looking wretch” who was “sooty and scoundrelly in aspect, a cross between the nutmeg dealer, the horse-swapper, and the nightman.” (“Nutmeg dealer”? I have no idea.) For his part, Honest Abe compared Mr. Douglas to an “obstinate animal.”

Teddy Roosevelt famously referred to William Howard Taft as “a rat in a corner.”

More recent examples of the glorious rudeness that imbues the American political realm from all its corners are readily available from news organizations, Twitter and local bars.

And, so, it is clear that we must do all we can to avoid a slippery slide into civility. Invaders from the north may only be targeting mudslinging today, but tomorrow it will be baseball, and before we know it, they’ll be coming for our guns.

So, if you care about the U.S.A., you know your choice!

© 2019 Hamodia

Is Socialism Looming?

Back in 1947, a public relations firm called Whitaker and Baxter, hired by the American Medical Association, created a term to disparage President Harry Truman’s proposal for a national health-care system.

It was a stroke of PR genius, at the dawn of the cold war between the U.S. and the communist Soviet Union, when many Americans feared communist infiltration of the republic, to label Truman’s plan for universal health care “socialized medicine.” Nearly thirty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the phrase endures, along with at least some of the accompanying disdain it was designed to evoke.

The A.M.A. ran with the medicine ball and distributed posters to doctors with slogans like “Socialized medicine … will undermine the democratic form of government.”

Fast-forward seven decades. Universal health care is shaping up to be one of, if not the, defining issues of the 2020 presidential campaign, and in some circles is being labeled “socialist.” And indeed it is, at least in the word’s more benign definition.

Some words or phrases, of course, don’t always mean what they might seem to on the surface. Like “Important!” in the subject box of an e-mail, which almost always means the opposite. Or “a service representative will be with you shortly” on a phone call, which usually turns out to be a bald lie. “Socialist,” too, doesn’t necessarily mean what it once did.

Back in the day, a socialist was a close ideological cousin of a communist. Socialism as a governmental system may have lacked the communist element of totalitarianism and total control of people’s lives; but it still placed ownership of all means of production in the hands of the populace, with members of society receiving what they need but having no incentive to work hard to achieve anything more.

But socialism as an all-encompassing, coercive system of government is something distinct from governmental programs aimed at providing safety nets to citizens. Like Social Security, for example, or Medicare or, for that matter, the public school system. All are “socialist” creatures, at least in the sense that they are government-run and aimed at ensuring certain benefits for the entire citizenry.

Universal health care, which has been endorsed as a desideratum by a number of Democratic candidates for the nation’s highest office, is “socialist” too, for sharing the same aim – here, to ensure that all Americans have access to doctors, hospitals and medications.

As it happens, though, even “universal health care” – reflected in the increasingly popular mantra “Medicare for all,” which is becoming the Democratic counterpart to Republicans’ “Build the wall!” – has different meanings. Or, at least, there are very different vehicles for achieving that goal.

The idea of providing health care to all Americans is simple enough. But there is a den of devils in the details.

For some, like Senators Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, the way to go is a national, “single-payer” health system, in which private insurance is abolished. (As you might imagine, insurance companies are not fans of such a plan.) All sorts of costs born of the way insurance interests operate would presumably be eliminated, and medical care streamlined.

That’s the upside. The downside is that the insurance companies’ replacement would be the federal government. Frightening as that may be to some, and imperfect as such systems are in places like Great Britain and Canada, most Americans feel that the feds have done a decent job running Medicare. Back on the other hand, though, a “single payer” approach would likely mean higher taxes.

Other plans are mixtures of government and private insurers. In Switzerland, for instance, citizens buy insurance for themselves and pay deductibles, but the government subsidizes health care on an income-based graduated basis,

Then there is the approach of offering citizens discounts on government-sponsored health insurance plans, and expanding the Medicaid assistance program to include more people who can’t afford health care. That is the essential feature of something called Obamacare, the current system in place.

As in all large governmental efforts, achieving universal health care in the U.S. is a stupendously complex undertaking. But six out of ten Americans say it is the federal government’s responsibility to make it happen. The U.S., in fact, is the only wealthy industrial country in the world lacking such a system.

I’m not sufficiently proficient in assessing the necessary calculi to offer any opinion about which health-care path is the best way forward. What I do know, though, is that whatever approach ends up being chosen by the electorate, it won’t be the sort of socialism Americans once feared was lurking under the bed.

© 2019 Hamodia

Off-Color

Many of us pale-skinned Americans are puzzled by our darker-skinned fellow citizens’ strong negative reaction to the practice of “blackface” – Caucasians putting on black makeup to portray African-Americans.

The issue burst into the news cycle with the admission of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam that he had once applied such coloration in a contest where he was imitating a black entertainer. Mr. Northam’s 1984 Eastern Virginia Medical School yearbook page also featured a photo, among several anodyne ones, of a blackfaced person standing next to someone wearing a makeshift costume meant to evoke a Ku Klux Klan robe. Although the governor initially apologized for that image, he later denied that either man was him.

Calls for Governor Northam’s’s resignation came fast, furious and loud, and from multiple directions, including from Mr. Northam’s fellow Democratic elected officials. Improbably, the second in line to succeed the governor should he step down (the first in line, the lieutenant governor, stands accused of assault), the state attorney general, also confessed to wearing blackface in the 1980s.

The vehemence of the reaction to the governor’s admission was striking. The yearbook photo seemed to be from a costume party and, while in bad taste, didn’t seem to be overtly racist or threatening; and he insists he is not even in it. As to the contest imitation admission, well, he was imitating a black performer. Was the smear of makeup really so terrible?

For those of us who don’t carry the weight of America’s racialist history and the undeniable challenges, and dangers, of black life today, there’s much to unpack here.

And Chazal provide instructions for the unpacking, in Avos (2:4), directing us to “not judge another until you have come to his place.” Whether or not that directive applies universally, it is a logically compelling admonition in any context, and no one who hasn’t experienced what blacks do daily can claim to fully understand their feelings.

As to blackface, while it has been used innocently in productions over many years – as recently as 2015, a white singer for the Metropolitan Opera used it to portray a Shakespearian character – it also has a sordid history of being used to demean and mock black people. Minstrel shows, where white performers wore blackface to depict African-Americans disparagingly, were once immensely popular, particularly in the south.

An imperfect comparison might be how we Jews might feel about an even innocuous use of a swastika at a party or contest. Swastikas, too, can be used innocently, and a Thai entertainer recently sported one, knowing it only as an ancient Asian symbol of good luck.

But even those of us who would not recoil at the casual use of that horrific symbol and regard blackface as similarly unobjectionable would do well to consider another statement of Chazal, in Chagigah 5a, where Rav and Shmuel both consider it a sin to do even something that is inoffensive to many people – like squashing a bug or spitting on the ground – in front of someone who finds the act repulsive. It makes no difference, in other words, that the doer considers an action unobjectionable; if others who witness it will be offended, that’s reason enough to not act.

Mr. Northam isn’t likely familiar with Chazal. Perhaps he should have, on his own, recognized that blackface, even in a lighthearted singing contest, causes many blacks to feel pained and insulted. But that fact wasn’t as widely recognized decades ago as it is today.

People who attended medical school with Mr. Northam have asserted that he was not a prejudiced person. One of them, Dr. Giac Chan Nguyen-Tan, said that his former fellow student was “the furthest thing… from someone who is a racist or bigot.” Moreover, the governor’s record as an elected official on civil rights issues has been spotless.

Which has led a few commentators to take issue with all those calling for the Virginia governor’s resignation.

Former Senator Joe Lieberman, for example, suggested that, despite Mr. Northam’s blackface admission, “really, he ought to be judged in the context of his whole life” and not “rush[ed]… out of office…”

That strikes me as a most reasonable stance. Whether Mr. Lieberman’s approach, though, or that of those calling for Mr. Northam’s political head will ultimately prevail isn’t known at the time of this writing.

But regardless of whether Mr. Northam continues as Virginia’s governor, his travails have brought some healthful attention to the broader truth that people have sensitivities that others may not always be able to relate to personally. And the fact that we need to take care in our interactions, with fellow citizens, and with friends and family members, to accommodate them as best we can.

© 2019 Hamodia

Polar Vort

“Not as cold as Siberia.”

That’s what my father, a”h, would say with a laugh if I complained over the phone about the frigid weather in Providence, where my family lived in the 1980s. And indeed it never was that cold. In the work camp east of Irkutsk where he and a small group of Novardok talmidim and their rebbe, Rav Yehudah Leib Nekritz, zt”l, had been exiled by the Soviets, winter temperatures could reach minus-40 Celsius.

When I was transcribing the memoir I convinced my father to write, some ten years ago, I asked my wife to check what that would be in Fahrenheit, the system we in the U.S. use. I imagined it was somewhere around zero, when, after a few minutes, my ears, and even gloved fingers, lose all feeling.

After some research, she reported back: “That’s where both scales converge. Minus forty Celsius is minus forty Fahrenheit.”

I write as the edges of the polar vortex have chilled the air outside to single digits (as I set out for Shacharis this morning, the thermometer read zero), and 27 below was what my friends and nieces and nephews in Chicago were enduring.

As you read this, the weather will have warmed. But unless you live in Australia (where it was recently 99 degrees Fahrenheit), you will recall last week’s deep freeze with a shiver.

Arctic blasts always recall to me not only my father’s droll comment but the experience that qualified him to make it.

The ten young men – boys would better have described them; my father was all of 16 – and Rav Nekritz, his wife and their two daughters reached the work camp at the end of July, 1941. They thought the Siberian summer was insufferable, with its hordes of stinging gnats and mosquitoes (though my father, always seeing the good, remembered beautiful butterflies too). And, as the exiles felled trees and harvested potatoes and onions, the brown bears in the forest were also on their minds.

But when the first winter arrived, well before Rosh Hashanah, the new arrivals discovered what “Siberia” conjures in most minds.

When I picture the Jews whom the Soviets forced to work outdoors in horrific cold, I can never avoid thinking about what I was doing at 16 years of age, when my biggest challenges were things like being unprepared, through every fault of my own, for a bechinah or math test. The contrast is always, pun intended, chilling.

In keeping with the Novardok derech, the yeshiva bachurim would try to find a few minutes to spend isolated in a far corner of a field, or among the trees of the forest, to think about who they were, who they should be, and how best to journey from the one to the other.

My esteemed friend Rabbi Hillel Goldberg, who has written about Novardok and the Siberian chaburah, has recounted how a non-Jewish resident of the work camp once asked Rav Nekritz why he thought that a respected rabbi and teacher of Torah like him had been reduced to the life of manual labor in the Siberian wastelands.

His response was: “So you and your friends would see that there is a G-d in the world.”

Novardoker that he was, he then added, perhaps to himself as well: “And so that we, too, would see that there is a G-d in the world.” And indeed, Hashem protected the group; all its members survived the war to rebuild their lives and establish families.

Rav Nekritz also once shared a thought with the young exiles.

“The Amora Rav Yitzchak Nafcha,” he pointed out, “was a blacksmith, a lowly job.”

“When we picture a blacksmith,” he continued, “we imagine someone with grossly muscular arms and an unrefined soul. Yet Rav Yitzchak Nafcha was an illustrious chacham, possessed of no less holiness and refinement than any sage whose good fortune was to spend his days in the beis medrash

“Yes, our situation here is very different from what it was in yeshivah. But we can strengthen ourselves so that our surroundings and labors do not negatively affect us. One can be a woodchopper and simultaneously develop an exalted, refined soul, as exalted and refined as that of anyone who spends his entire days in deep introspection. Hatchets and saws need not leave their marks on our neshamos.”

It’s a message not bound to any time and place. For those of us today who are no longer ensconced in yeshivah or seminary, it’s as important to hear as it was for the Novardokers in Siberia.

© 2019 Hamodia

Vanishing Truth

Whiplash was a distinct risk for anyone trying to follow the story – or, perhaps, non-story – of the faceoff the week before last between Kentuckian high schooler Nick Sandmann and a 64-year old Native American, Nathan Phillips, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. Each was in town for a rally, Mr. Sandmann, a “Pro-Life” gathering; Mr. Phillips, an “Indigenous Peoples March.”

A short video of the younger man silently smiling at the older one as the Native American chanted and banged on a drum was offered to the public, with the smile characterized, and harshly criticized, as a disrespectful smirk.

Then a longer video emerged, indicating that the smile was benign, and that the two principals were not in conflict.

Or that they were even principals at all, as it became evident that both of the men were reacting to, and at least one of them being crudely insulted by, a group of “Hebrew Israelites.”

Those are black racists dressed in colorful caps and robes adorned with Jewish symbols who try to achieve a sense of self-worth by pretending that they are the “real Jews,” and white people “Edom.” They often appear with display boards inscribed with the English renditions of the names of the shevatim; they imagine that each of various African or Caribbean populations stem from a particular shevet.

Native Americans are assigned the designation of “Dan” by the befuddled members of the racist group, and members of the group, the later video showed, were rudely berating the high school boys, perhaps because some were wearing “Make American Great Again” caps. The “Hebrew Israelites” also tried to enlist Mr. Phillips, a member in their fantasy of the “tribe of Dan,” in their verbal attack on the boys and, at one point, berated him too.

Even after longer depictions of the interaction were available, the debate among partisan players continued, with some trying to sully the boys’ and their religious school’s reputations, and others gleefully attacking the many media that fell hard for the first, incomplete, narrative.

What emerges from the fracas is something that has been increasingly evident in recent years: truth is elusive.

The kernel of the problem is that facts are mediated by people, and people are subject to biases.

Reports tinged (or, at times, saturated) with writers’ prejudices have been colorfully labeled “fake news” by the president; for their part, fact-checkers have catalogued literally thousands of his own contentions that aren’t true over the past two years. It’s hard to know what can be believed and what cannot.

That’s always been the case, of course, but it’s getting worse. Much worse. Incomplete videos are one thing. Deepfakes, quite another.

If you don’t recognize that word, you’re not alone. It’s been around for a while but only entered the larger populace’s lexicon in the past year or two. Deepfakes are videos made with the use of special software that makes it seem that an identifiable person is saying or doing something he has not said or done. Sort of Photoshop for video on steroids.

The software, which is readily available and being constantly refined, superimposes existing recordings and images onto others, creating a realistic, but entirely unreal, action, speech or expression. The technology can be used to alter the words or gestures of a politician or other public figure, yielding the very fakest of fake news.

Last year, a doctored image circulated by gun rights activists and Russian discord-sowers purported to show a Parkland high school shooting survivor and gun control advocate ripping up a copy of the Constitution. What she had actually torn up was a bulls-eye poster from a gun range.

And Myanmar’s military is believed to have used deepfakes to ignite a wave of killings in that country.

Legislators have taken note. Senator Marco Rubio, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, warned that “America’s enemies are already using fake images to sow discontent and divide us. Now imagine the power of a video that appears to show stolen ballots, salacious comments from a political leader, or innocent civilians killed in conflict abroad.”

Technology expert Peter Singer predicted that deepfakes will “definitely be weaponized” whether it is for “poisoning domestic politics” or by hostile nation-state actors to gain an edge on the battlefield.

The 24-hour news cycle and expansion of social media platforms only compound the problem. “A lie,” as the saying goes, “can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.”

Chazal teach that, when the “footsteps” of Moshiach are close, ha’emes tehei ne’ederes, “truth will go missing” (Sotah 49b).

Seems there’s cause for optimism.

© 2019 Hamodia