Days of Deceit

Fact-free fantasies are all the rage

Shameless charlatans and flagrant fabulists are nothing new. But they seem to be proliferating rather wildly these days.

In only the latest of a slew of recent such scams, a man was just sentenced to five years in prison after raising $400,000 in a GoFundMe campaign, ostensibly for a homeless veteran. He and his companion spent much of the money on gambling, a BMW, a trip to Las Vegas, a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon and designer handbags.

Then there’s Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist radio host and operator of the website InfoWars, who, after a Texas jury’s ruling this month, must pay $45.2 million in punitive damages, in addition to $4.1 million in compensatory ones for spreading the lie that the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a hoax “staged” by the government so it could “go after our guns,” and that none of the 20 children killed in that attack had actually died.

He called those all-too-real childrens’ parents, who had to identify and bury the bullet-riddled bodies of their young ones, “crisis actors,” resulting in their being retraumatized, and harassed and hounded by some of Jones’ faithful followers.

Previously, the popular fabler endorsed the “Pizzagate theory”—that Democratic Party operatives ran a global child-trafficking ring out of a DC pizzeria—and implied that a yogurt company was linked to an assault case and helped spread tuberculosis, both of which fact-free fantasies he was later forced to apologize for promoting.

Apparently inspired by Mr. Jones, Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene suggested that the man who opened fire on a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Illinois, this year, killing six, might have been part of an orchestrated effort to persuade Republicans to support gun control measures.

Millions of Americans believe, without evidence, that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen”; and millions, too (though there’s likely considerable overlap), that the 9/11 attacks were perpetrated by US government agents. Among the latter group is Michael Peroutka, the Republican Party nominee for Maryland attorney general.

According to a new study by UNESCO, approximately half the public content related to the Holocaust on the Telegram messaging service denies or distorts facts about the extermination of millions of Europe’s Jews.

And, with each year leaving us with fewer human witnesses to that evil, the noxious weeds of Holocaust denial are bound to infest the history garden.

Poised, too, to become a powerful engine further impelling our era of lies are “deepfakes.”

Those are videos produced with special software that makes it seem that an identifiable person is saying or doing something he or she has, well, neither said nor done. Photoshop on steroids.

The software, readily available and being constantly refined, can alter the words or gestures of a politician or other public figure, yielding the very fakest of fake news.

In 2019, 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.”

According to a report released last week by technology company VMware, attacks using face- and voice-altering technology jumped 13% last year.

“Deepfakes in cyberattacks aren’t coming,” the company’s Rick McElroy said in a statement. “They’re already here.”

In March, for one example, a video posted to social media appeared to show Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky directing his soldiers to surrender to Russian forces. It was a deepfake.

The 24-hour news cycle and expansion of social media platforms only compound the problem. “A lie,” as the saying often attributed to Mark Twain goes, “can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” Today, it’s gone all the way around the world before truth even finds its shoes.

So there is ample cause for despair. Lies upon lies exposed, many more still claiming the gullible and a likely empowering of falsehood-promotion in the not-distant future.

But cause, too, perhaps, of hope.

Because Chazal (Sotah 49b) foretold that ha’emes tehei ne’ederes, “truth will go missing” one day: When the “footsteps of Moshiach” are approaching.

(c) 2022 Ami Magazine

Parshas Re’ei – Non-Prophet

“Can’t you jus’ see ‘im walkin’ on that water?” an elderly lady with a large hat, standing next to me on the foredeck of the Staten Island ferry and holding a bible, once asked me on a glorious spring day.

“Sure,” I responded with a smile, pretty sure that she had only meant to address someone she saw as a fellow religious person and had no missionary goal.

The Rambam states that “miracles” prove nothing. They can be sleights of hand, optical illusions or actual magic. He explains that all the miracles our ancestors experienced in Egypt and the desert were divine ways of addressing their needs, not intended as “proofs” that Hashem was behind them. Only the actual and direct interaction with Him at Har Sinai cemented Klal Yisrael’s belief in Hashem and Moshe’s reliability.

Which is why the performance of a wonder cannot, at least alone, establish a prophet’s credentials. In fact, as our parsha notes, a self-proclaimed prophet’s miracle can be totally meaningless.

If there appears in your midst a prophet or a dream-diviner, who gives you a sign or a portent, saying, ‘Let us follow and worship another power’… and the sign or portent comes true, do not heed the words of that prophet or that dream-diviner. For Hashem is testing you… (Devarim 13:2-4). 

In fact, when I was once asked by an actual missionary whether I knew that Christianity’s object of veneration is hinted at in the Torah (with the questioner ready, I knew, to offer mistranslated and misinterpreted pesukim in Yeshayahu), I readily answered yes. And pointed out the pasuk above – and the one immediately preceding it: “Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you: neither add to it nor take away from it” (13:1). 

In fact, the Baal HaTurim, in non-censored editions, offers a poignant gematria. The numerical value of the phrase “in your midst,” he notes, equals that of the phrase “this is the woman.” And that of “prophet,” the next word, “and her son.”

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Eikev – Mandate and Magnificence

Carl Sagan once observed that “If you wish to make apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”

There was a long period of history when the idea that the universe had a beginning was shunned by philosophers and scientists, when apple pie didn’t require any universe-inventing.

The upshot of (and perhaps impetus for) believing in such a “steady state” universe was that, without a creation, there was no need for a Creator.

Current scientific belief, based on observational evidence from the 1960s, is that there was indeed a beginning, confirming the truth of the Torah’s very first sentence.

Those bent on keeping a Creator out of the picture resort to fantastical ideas like an “expansion-contraction” model or a “multiple universe” one. They “fear Hashem” – the idea of Hashem.

But objective human beings naturally understand that Hashem exists. Just looking around us, at the miracle called nature, is sufficient proof.

The mitzvah of loving Hashem is repeated in our parshah (Devarim 10:12). And the Rambam (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 2:2) explains that it is fulfilled when one meditates on what Hashem has created, on our surroundings and their wonders.

But in Sefer HaMitzvos (Asei 3), he describes love of Hashem as resulting from meditating on His mitzvos. So, is “the way toward love of Hashem” to contemplate His universe, or His commandments?

Rav Mordechai Gifter, zt”l, explained that one statement might be describing the lens; the other, the view. As Rav Mordechai Pogramansky, zt”l, put it in a parable: A visitor to a museum is shown beautiful works of art but is entirely unimpressed. Until someone wipes the thick dust off the fellow’s eyeglasses. Then he’s in awe of the art.

Before one can perceive Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s grandeur in the astounding magnificence of His creation, one must first approach Creation as something other than an accident, as something containing meaning. And the way to attain that foundational, vital recognition is to understand the concept of… mitzvos. That is the lens.

Once we recognize that we have a mandate, it is obvious that there must be a Mandator.

And then, peering through that clear lens at our Mandator-created world, we can perceive its astounding wonders. And thereby come to love the One who created it.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Vo’eschanan – No Mere Miracle

The centerpiece, if such a word can be used in the context of a parshah, of Vo’eschanan is generally assumed to be the Aseres Hadibros, the Decalogue.

But I think that the even more fundamental element of the parshah is the recounting of history at 4:32-36, beginning, “For ask now about the early days that preceded you…” In particular: “Has any people heard a Divine voice speaking out of a fire, as you have, and survived?” and “From the heavens [Hashem] let you hear the Divine voice to torment you…”

Every religion on earth touts a miracle or miracles as its basis. Judaism is different, something the Rambam explains in Mishneh Torah (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 8:1-2). 

While there were many miracles in Egypt and the desert, he notes, only the revelation at Har Sinai truly cemented, without reservation, in the minds and hearts of the Jews, the fact that Hashem was real and had been the author of the miracles they had experienced.  Because, the Ramban observes, any “miracle” could in fact be trickery or sorcery, engineered by a talented magician or sorcerer.

So what made Har Sinai qualitatively different from the splitting of the sea or the mon? The fact, it would seem, that our ancestors directly interacted with the Divine there. The Sinaic experience wasn’t mediated by the senses. The Jews “saw” the thunder; the normal senses were bypassed (See Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 20:15:1). 

It was a meeting, so to speak, of the minds – or, better, minds and the Mind.

Which is what the phrase “to torment you” above refers to. The experience – “Face to face Hashem spoke to you” (5:4) – was so wrenching to mere mortal men and women that the nation, after the first two dibros, begged Moshe to continue receiving the revelation, with the people continuing as bystanders, witnesses, but not direct recipients (See 5:22-24). The need for the initial “torment” or “torture” was to establish, which no mere miracle could, Hashem as Hashem. 

And that establishment of relationship is absolutely singular. No similar claim to a mass Divine-to-mortals revelation is, or can be, claimed by any other people or faith. 

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran

Devarim – Starry, Starry Night

It’s rare for city dwellers to truly see the night sky. Only once, many years ago, driving on a moonless night in West Virginia, did I fully perceive the vast number of stars – nearby planets and distant suns – that were a regular part of people’s lives before the advent of electrical lights.

Although I also (to my shock and delight) saw the Milky Way, the galaxy of which our solar system is part, the billions of individual stars within it cannot be differentiated by the naked eye.

How many stars can be seen with the unaided eye? Hundreds, for certain, maybe even thousands. 

Which leads me to a puzzle. Why are the “stars of the heavens” used by the Torah to mean truly huge numbers? Like in Beraishis 22:17 and Devarim 28:62 and in our parshah (1:10)?

Rashi makes the puzzle even more puzzling: “But were they [the Jewish people] on that day as [many as] the stars of the heavens? Were they not only six hundred thousand?”

In fact, including women and children, they were at least two million. Certainly many more than the stars that our eyes can make out on the starriest of nights.

There are midrashim and commentaries that see the Torah’s star/Jewish People comparisons as indicating something qualitative, not quantitative, like the midrash cited by Rashi on the pasuk in our parshah, which sees the reference indicating Klal Yisrael’s eternal nature. Or Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook’s suggestion that, just as stars are used for navigation, so are the Jews to live lives to guide other nations, to be a “light unto” them. Perhaps he saw the word larov, “in abundance,” as implying larav, “as a teacher.”  But the word’s simple sense cannot be ignored.

I don’t have an answer to the puzzle, only an observation. Namely, that today we know the Milky Way isn’t a “heavenly river,” as might be the meaning of Nehar Dinur (the “river of light” referenced in Chagigah 14a), some undifferentiated band of light, but rather a collection of billions of stars. And that science, most recently the Webb space telescope, has already revealed unimaginable numbers of stars in untold numbers of galaxies far, far beyond our own.

© 2022 Rabbi Avi Shafran