Category Archives: Jewish Thought

All The Days of Your Life

I often feel terribly pampered. Especially when I think of my parents’ generation.

At the age when my father, z”l, and several others from the Novardok Yeshiva in Vilna were captured for being Polish bnei yeshivah and banished by the Soviets to Siberia, I was being captured by a teacher for some prank and banished to the principal’s office. When he was trying to avoid working on Shabbos as his taskmasters demanded, I was busy trying to avoid the homework my teachers demanded.

When he was moser nefesh finding opportunities to study Torah while working in the frozen taiga, my mesirus nefesh consisted of getting out of bed early in the morning for davening. Where he struggled to survive, my only struggle was with the mundane challenges of adolescence. Pondering our respective age-tagged challenges has lent me perspective.

And so, while I help prepare the house for Pesach, pausing to rest each year a bit more frequently than the previous one, thoughts of my father’s first Pesach in Siberia arrive in my head.

In his slim memoir, “Fire, Ice, Air,” he describes how Pesach was on the minds of the young men and their Rebbi, Rav Leib Nekritz, zt”l, as soon as they arrived in Siberia in the summer of 1941. While laboring in the fields, they pocketed a few wheat kernels here and there, later placing them in a special bag, which they carefully hid. This was, of course, against the rules and dangerous. But the Communist credo, after all, was “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” and so they were really only being good Marxists. They had needs, after all, like matzah shemurah.

Toward the end of the frigid winter, they retrieved their stash and ground the wheat into coarse, dark flour.

They then dismantled a clock and fitted its gears to a whittled piece of wood, fashioning an approximation of the cleated rolling pin traditionally used to perforate matzos to ensure their thorough baking. In the middle of the night, the exiles came together in a hut with an oven, which they fired up for two hours to make it kosher l’Pesach before baking their matzos.

And on Pesach night they fulfilled, to the extent they could, the mitzvah of achilas matzah.

Perspective is provided me too by the wartime Pesach experience of, l’havdil bein chaim l’chaim, my wife’s father, Reb Yisroel Yitzchok Cohen, may he be well. In his own memoir, “Destined to Survive,” he describes how, in the Dachau satellite camp where he was interned, there was no way to procure matzah. All the same, he was determined to have the Pesach he could. In the dark of the barracks on the leil shimurim, he suggested to a friend that they recite parts of the Haggadah they knew by heart.

As they quietly chanted Mah Nishtanah, other inmates protested. “What are you crazy Chassidim doing?” they asked. “Do you have matzos, do you have wine and food for a Seder? Sheer stupidity!”

My shver responded that he and his friend were fulfilling a mitzvah d’Oraysa – and that no one could know if their “Seder” is less meritorious in the eyes of Heaven than those of Jews in places of freedom and plenty.

We in such places can glean much from the Pesachim of those two members – and so many other men and women – of the Jewish “greatest generation.”

A passuk cited in the Haggadah elicited a novel thought from Rav Avrohom, the first Rebbe of Slonim. The Torah commands us to eat matzah on Pesach, “so that you remember the day of your leaving Mitzrayim all the days of your life.”

Commented the Slonimer Rebbe: “When recounting Yetzias Mitzrayim, one should remember, too, ‘all the days’ of his own life – the miracles and wonders that Hashem performed for him throughout…”

Those who, baruch Hashem, emerged from the Holocaust and merited to see children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, naturally do that. But the rest of us, too, have experienced our own “miracles and wonders.” We may not recognize all of the Divine guidance and chassadim with which we were blessed. But that reflects only our obliviousness. At the Seder, when we recount Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s kindnesses to our ancestors, it is a time, too, to look back at our own personal histories and appreciate the personal gifts we’ve been given.

And should that prove a challenge, we might begin by reflecting on what some Jews a bit older than we had to endure not so very long ago.

© 2019 Hamodia

An American Inconsistency

(This is the original version of my assisted suicide piece, which I adapted and changed considerably for the Fox News one below this posting.)

When a 79-year-old man stopped his car and exited it last week in the middle of the Verrazzano Bridge connecting Brooklyn and Staten Island, he was determined to leap more than 200 feet into the New York Narrows’ waters below.

But a driver, an Orthodox Jewish man named Tuli Abraham, saw the would-be jumper, stopped his own car, and approached the older gentleman to see what was wrong. When the elderly man announced his intentions, Mr. Abraham grabbed him and held him back. The suicidal man proved quite strong, but, eventually, Mr. Abraham, along with other civilians who had stopped and several law enforcement personnel who had been summoned, managed to pull the man to safety.

Suicide had been prominent in the news mere weeks earlier, when, over the course of mere days, a young survivor of last year’s massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, took her own life, as did another student at the same school. And Jeremy Richman, the 49-year-old father of a six-year-old who was murdered in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting ended his life too.

In light of the fact that tens of thousands of Americans kill themselves each year, and that the suicide rate continues to rise, news reports of those deaths responsibly included public service addenda providing readers and viewers contact information for groups like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Inconsistent is somehow inadequate to describe American society’s attitude toward suicide.

Consider that the very day of Mr. Richman’s death, New Jersey’s legislature voted to allow doctors to help patients kill themselves. If the state’s governor, Phil Murphy, signs it into law as he has pledged to do, New Jersey will join several other states and European countries that already allow physician-assisted suicide. It seems almost inevitable that other deadly dominos will fall, with other states following those unfortunate examples.

So, which is it, America? Is suicide something we need to try to prevent, even if it means tackling a man on a bridge and supplying the public with suicide prevention hotlines? Or is it a simple and respectable expression of personal autonomy, a “human right” that must be accepted, even aided?

We believing Jews know well that life isn’t about “rights,” of course, but rather about right – in the sense of right and wrong. And that it is wrong to take an innocent life, even one’s own. We know, too, that an Olam Haba and a reckoning await us all, and that every moment of Olam Hazeh is invaluable, since only here on earth can we accomplish anything.

But even those who choose to not recognize those truths need to be consistent. What explains how otherwise reasonable people can insist on intervention, counselling and treatment when someone in pain and distress shows suicidal tendencies but, should the same person experience pain and distress while lying in a hospital bed, consider it proper to help the patient kill himself?

Proponents of physician-assisted suicide will respond that the laws they support, and that have been enacted, require the patient to have been medically judged to have less than six months to live. But life itself, after all, is terminal. What makes the arbitrary time span of five months and 29 days so significant, so – quite literally – life-changing?

The person lying in the hospital might be distraught and convinced that he will be better off leaving living to others. But it can’t be denied that even a tiny slice of time can be used to accomplish much. Even someone with no comprehension of the immense power of a mitzvah or teshuvah has to admit that a smile can be shared, a kind word spoken; an apology offered, or a regret confronted; thoughts can be thought and reconciliation with an alienated friend or relative achieved.

New Jersey and its fellow assisted-suicide-sanctioning states seem to feel that a diagnosis of “terminal” and mental anguish are sufficient for a life to be considered void of worth. But the truth is that no life is worthless and no moment of life without value.

Voters and those who represent them would do well to consider that instead of offering terminal patients – a label, again, that applies in a broad sense to us all – the means to end their lives, we should feel charged to convince them of what they can yet accomplish, whatever their medical, mental or physical states, in whatever months, days or even moments left them on this earth. We need to treat the man in the hospital bed no differently than we treat the man on the bridge.

© Hamodia 2019

Blessed Bang for the Buck

Across an ocean but hot on the heels of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s not-so-subtle invoking of the hoary stereotype of Jews’ wily wielding of wealth – “It’s all about the Benjamins,” she contended, referring to $100 bills and pro-Israel influence on Congress – comes an exhibit at London’s Jewish Museum titled “Jews, Money, Myth.”

It features, well, a wealth of anti-Semitic imagery, from an 1807 British board game called “Game of the Jew” to a money-dispensing figurine of an Orthodox Jew sold last year in Poland. Other awful offerings include the opening sentences from a Nazi-era children’s book. “Money is the god of the Jew,” the Teutonic tykes were tutored. “He commits the greatest crimes to earn money. He won’t rest until he can sit on a great sack of money.” And a helpful cartoon of that image ensures that the lesson was learned.

Greed, of course, is a pan-human phenomenon. But if any lives are lived in obsession over possessions and the means of acquiring them, it’s those of the typical westerner, craving cars, music, jewelry, clothing and high-tech toys. Most Orthodox Jews – who are those usually depicted in the ugly imagery – have always had more rarified priorities in life.

And yet it is the Jew who is accused of obsession with money. Jewish success born of business acumen and, more importantly, divine blessing has for centuries been twisted into the ugly trope that Jews are more prone to greed and malfeasance than other groups of humanity.

We aren’t, of course, but since when has anti-Semitism ever been linked to logic?

There’s an “on the other hand,” though, here. Because there is a kernel of truth to the charge that we believing Jews have a special relationship with money.

Rabi Elazar informs us (Chulin 91a) that Yaakov Avinu was dangerously “left alone” at Nachal Yabok because he crossed back over the river to retrieve some pachim ketanim, small jars. A lesson to us, the Tanna explains, that “the property of the righteous is dearer to them than their bodies.”

That comment is not meant to counsel miserliness; it conveys an important Jewish thought: Every penny has true worth, for it can be turned into something meaningful. We might think of someone who rinses out and re-uses foam cups as some sort of miser; and maybe he is. But the cups might also be his pachim ketanim, and he might also be a righteous man, reluctant to waste something usable. If he’s generous to the needy, we know which one he is.

And so, while stinginess is ugly, frugality is not. It is a meaningful Jewish trait.

Money’s worth is not only a function of what Rabi Elazar observes elsewhere, that “Each and every penny contributes to a large sum” (Bava Basra, 9b), but because there is inherent value in every thing. As Rabi Yitzchak reveals (ibid), “One who gives a penny to a poor person is blessed with six brachos.” Pretty good deal.

Money, moreover, offers us opportunities for honesty. A believing Jew carefully keeps an accounting of his assets and obligations – including his debts and charitable responsibilities.

And cash can yield great Kiddush Hashem as well.

My wife and I had the pleasure several weeks ago of spending a Shabbos in the lovely community of Scottsdale, Arizona, as guests of the local shul, Ahavas Torah, and its esteemed Rav, Rabbi Ariel Shoshan.

We stayed in the home of a Rebbi at the Torah Day School of Phoenix, Rabbi Noach Muroff, and his wife and family. Back in 2013, the Muroffs lived in Connecticut and Rabbi Muroff, an unassuming, modest person, found himself the subject of incredulous reports in international media. He had purchased a desk and discovered $98,000 that had fallen into the back of the piece of furniture. (During our stay, I wrote a Hamodia column on the desk!)

He decided to return the money to its owner, and a Gadol to whom he confided the story told him that it was an opportunity for a Kiddush Hashem that shouldn’t be squandered. And so a member of the media was apprised of the happening, and the rest was, as they say, history.

Many might have counseled the Muroffs to just keep the windfall. After all, they had bought the desk “as is.” But farther-seeing eyes counseled otherwise. And the world saw a true picture of how a Jewish-minded Jew looks at money, as a valuable means, not a meaningless end.

He may have forfeited a large sum, but, actually, he got a really great deal.

© 2019 Hamodia

The Essence of Israel

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got into a dustup with a television personality and a movie star, many of us felt reasonably secure assuming which side was likely more Jewishly authentic. And since the disagreement involved Israel’s relationship to the Jewish people, all the more so.

Sometimes, though, reasonable assumptions must give way to history and hashkafah.

The ruckus began with Mr. Netanyahu’s statement that Israel is “the national state, not of all its citizens, but only of the Jewish people.” That declaration – like the Knesset’s passage last year of a new Basic Law titled “Israel as the Nation State of the Jewish People” – was regarded by some as compromising Israel’s democratic spirit. And it drew fire not only from the political left and celebrities but even from people like Israeli President Reuven Rivlin.

In his dissent, Mr. Rivlin emphasized Israel’s “complete equality of rights for all its citizens,” and that “there are no first-class citizens, and there are no second-class voters… We are all represented at the Knesset.”

On one level, the argument is mere semantics. Mr. Netanyahu does not deny Arab Israelis’ right to vote or be represented in the Knesset. And Mr. Rivlin surely subscribes to Israel’s foundational self-definition as a “Jewish State.”

That self-description, of course, is no more a violation of democratic principles than Tunisia’s or Morocco’s self-definitions as Muslim states; or Argentina’s or Sweden’s or England’s as Christian ones.

But it’s election season in Israel, and it is to Mr. Netanyahu’s advantage to portray himself as an adversary of Arabs. His camp has popularized the phrase, “Either Bibi or Tibi” – a reference to Arab Knesset member Ahmed Tibi – even though the prime minister’s actual challenger is the Blue and White Party’s Benny Gantz. (I’m personally rooting, as are Israel’s religious parties, for Bibi, just describing a campaign reality.)

And yet, the “Jewish state” controversy touches on an important issue worth some renewed contemplation by Jews committed to mesorah.

Before the founding of Israel, there was opposition among Gedolei Yisrael to the idea of Zionism, the quest to establish a Jewish state. The reasons for the opposition were several and compelling; here is not the place to expound on them. After Churban Europa, though, the horrifically altered situation brought the Gedolim who guided Agudas Yisrael to adopt what might best be characterized as a non-Zionist stance.

With Israel’s declaration of independence in 1948, those Gedolim decided that the state should be appreciated for what it was but essentially regarded as a political state like any other, even if one founded by and for Jews. Rav Reuvain Grozovsky, zt”l, eloquently expressed the Agudah philosophy in his concise but persuasive kuntres Ba’ayos Haz’man.

Thus, followers of Agudas Yisrael voted, and vote, in Israeli elections, and the movement sponsored an official political party in Israel that, to this day, plays a role – often pivotal – in the formation of Israeli governments. The party, today part of Yahadus HaTorah, or United Torah Judaism, is largely focused on defending the religious status quo agreed to by Israel’s future leaders in 1947, and on advocacy on behalf of Israel’s religious Jewish community.

Eretz Yisrael, precisely as the phrase translates, is the land of the Jews – the territory promised by Hashem to Avraham Avinu and populated by his descendants in the time of Yehoshua. The connection of Klal Yisrael to Eretz Yisrael is undeniable, unmalleable and eternal.

But the modern state of Israel, at least to the followers of the Gedolim who have guided Agudas Yisrael, is a political state in an era of galus, not some semblance of Malchus Beis David.

A non-Zionist “Agudist” Jew can embrace a hawkish attitude toward Israel’s defense; fully recognize radical Arab groups’ threat to Israel; condemn the Palestinian Authority’s detestable incitement against Israel; have and express deep appreciation of Israeli soldiers; and support Israel morally, politically and financially. But, unlike his national-religious counterparts, he sees Israel as a largely praiseworthy country, a refuge and protector of Jews, but not as an inherently hallowed entity.

Proponents of both a religiously-motivated embrace of political Zionism and a mesorah-based worldview agree that Israel is a country for Jews in the Jewish homeland that maintains respect for aspects of Jewish tradition.

But it seems to me – and, as always in this space, I speak only for myself – that the mesorah-based outlook on Israel does not comport well with any message, however motivated and however subtle, to Israel’s Arab citizens that they are in any way lesser parts of the country’s body politic.

© 2019 Hamodia

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

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