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Tammuz 5766 – The ABC of Evil – by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair

1 Tammuz 5766
The ABC of Evil
by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair

After witnessing the trial of Adolf Eichman in 1963, Hannah Arendt coined a new concept – the banality of evil.1 Arendt hypothesized that people who carry out unspeakable crimes, like Eichmann, a top administrator in the machinery of the Nazi death camps, may not be crazy fanatics at all, but rather ordinary people who simply accept the premises of their society and participate in any ongoing enterprise with the energy of good bureaucrats.

Arendt labored to make sense of how people that seemed so overwhelmingly ordinary, banal, had been capable of such monstrous deeds. To understand this phenomenon, however, she need not have looked further than the Torah that was her neglected inheritance.

Yad Vashem 2005 <http://ohr.edu/seasons/5765/train.html>In the Book of Eicha (Lamentations), the prophet Yirmiyahu catalogues with terrible poignancy the destruction of Jerusalem. Eicha is constructed on the pattern of the alphabet: In the majority of the chapters, the first stanza begins with Aleph, the second with Bet, etc. The Talmud says^2 , Rabbi Yochanan said, Why were they stricken by the Aleph Bet? Because they transgressed the Torah that is given through the Aleph Bet. In other words, why did Yirmiyahu structure the horrific punishments of Eicha according to the alphabet? To which the answer is given, because they transgressed the Torah that is given through the Aleph Bet.

Nothing in the Torah is merely poetic. Why didnt Rabbi Yochanan just say because they transgressed the Torah. Why did he add those words that is given through the Aleph Bet? Obviously the Torah was given by means of the Aleph Bet. How else could it have be given if not through the Aleph Bet? The Torah is a book. No book can exist without the alphabet. What was Rabbi Yochanan communicating with those seven seemingly redundant words that is given through the Aleph Bet?

Everyone is familiar with the train transports that carried the Jewish People to destruction in the Second World War.

To co-ordinate the transportation of millions of Jews along railroad lines and into death camps with timing so precise that the victims were able to walk right out of the boxcar and into the waiting gas chambers called for a computer.

But in 1933, no computer existed.

However, another invention did exist: the IBM punch card and card-sorting system – a precursor to the computer. IBM, primarily through its German subsidiary, Deutsche Hollerith Maschinen Gesellschaft, or Dehomag, made for Hitler 2,000 of these multi-machine sets. Thousands more were shipped throughout German-dominated Europe. Card sorting operations were established in every major concentration camp. People were moved from place to place, systematically worked or gassed to death, and their remains, their hair, their gold fillings, their spectacles and their pets, were catalogued with icy automation. The slaughter of millions, an unthinkable task, had become orderly, banal. The unspeakable had become unremarkable.

Megilat Eicha abounds with events so grotesque that they defy belief. They seem like something out of a nightmare world:

Those who were brought up on scarlet clothing embrace garbage heaps.

Hands of merciful women have boiled their own children.

Should women eat their own offspring, the babes of their care?

Rabbi Yochanan’s question “Why were they stricken with the Aleph Bet?” means why were things that are totally outside the natural world made part of the order of the world? What did they do that caused the monstrous and the unspeakable to become part of the natural order of things? The punishments of Eicha contradict all order in this world. Why then, are those punishments arranged in the most basic order in the world the alphabet?

In other words, the punishments of Eicha are really twofold: Not only did G-d punish the Jewish People with terrible, unbelievable punishments, but those punishments became part of the natural order of the world, part of the alphabet of creation. This in itself was an additional punishment.

The same was true in the Holocaust. That the whole monstrous process ran like a clock controlled by a fledgling computer reveals a deeper level of punishment. Something completely outside all the boundaries of the natural, something monstrous beyond human understanding, became part and parcel of the natural order of things, no different than the organizing of a hotel or a factory.

Why were we punished thus?

In the Sefer HaYeztira, which is ascribed to Avraham Avinu, the letters of the alphabet are referred to as stones. Words, sentences, paragraphs – all the multitude of possible meaning conveyed through those letters – are called houses. Some houses are small, some vast, but all are built on the building blocks of the alphabet. The number of houses that can be constructed from those blocks, those stones, is endless. Think of all the words in every language in the world, and all the possible sentences, paragraphs and books that can be made from them!

Everything, every thought, every emotion can be expressed through those permutations – everything from the loftiest ideas and sentiments to the most debased and repulsive. For everything there is a word. But, just as in architecture, not every building should be built; similarly, not every sentence and sentiment should be expressed.

The building that is supposed to emerge from that myriad of letters is the Torah. The Torah is the true edifice that is supposed to be constructed from those stones. In other words, the Torah is the way that G-d wants the world to be built.

There are twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet. There are twenty-two days from the 17th of Tammuz up to and including the 9th of Av. Throughout history, these have been days of destruction in the Jewish calendar. These are the days when the stones of the buildings are taken apart, when they sit on the ground separated, unable to express the true meaning for which they were created.

When we say in our prayers, Torah and mitzvot, You have commanded us, we mean that there are two separate aspects to Torah. There is Torah and, quite separately, there are the mitzvot. The mitzvot instruct us how to realize all our potential in this world (and there is not one word of Torah that does not contain a mitzva^3 ). However, there is Torah that exists apart from the mitzvot. Ascend the mountain, and I will be there, and I will give you the tablets of stone, and the Torah and the mitzva that I have written to instruct them^4 .

Torah and Mitzva are two distinct entities: There is Torah that commands, and there is Torah that reveals. The Torah that commands is the mitzvot of the Torah. The Torah that reveals is the book of the Creation, the blueprint of all that is. This is the aspect of the Torah that is called light, the Ohr Hatorah. For it is the light that reveals existence.

Because we have disobeyed both the mitzvot and the Torah itself, we have been punished by both of them. Not only have we transgressed the mitzvot of the Torah but we have counterfeited the blueprint of the Torah the alphabet of existence. This is the explanation of the appearance of the banality of evil of those Nazi monsters. We, the guardians of the Torah, took those letters and concocted foreign ideas, concepts estranged and inimical to Torah. Thus, those very letters the order of the world itself – turned round and punished us by subsuming the unnatural and the grotesque into the natural order of the world.

____________________________

1. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. 1963

2. Sanhedrin 104a

3. Vilna Gaon

4. Shemot 24:12

JemSem would like to thank Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair and Ohr Somayach International for permission to use this article.

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Sivan 5766 – Paying Our Taxes & Shavuos – by Rabbi Gamliel Shmalo

Sivan 5766
Paying Our Taxes & Shavuos
By Rabbi Gamliel Shmalo

Warren Buffett, widely considered the world’s most successful investor, recently spent over four billion dollars to purchase a controlling stake in a private Israeli manufacturing company called Iscar. This was big news over here, since Buffett is one of the wealthiest people in the world, second only to his friend Bill Gates of Microsoft, and his investment was perceived as a strong sign of support for the Israeli economy in general. Needless to say, on the day after the announcement, Buffett’s happy countenance smiled out from all the Israeli newspapers, giving the entire country a much needed boost.

Next to this famous groom, the photographs featured the even happier bride, Iscar’s chairman, Eitan Wertheimer, now several billion dollars richer. This man definitely deserves to take his victory lap of satisfaction and fame. He and his family quietly built up their private business from its humble origins in a shack by the Mediterranean, to its present day success as the Israeli economic poster child.

Yes, Buffett and Wertheimer have given new meaning to harvest time here in Israel. Wertheimer watered the family investment with the sweat of his brow, and now he is harvesting a bumper crop of good fortune: “When you eat of the labor of your hands, you shall be happy and it shall be good for you.”

And so too for many of us now is the time to reap what has been planted and nurtured. This time of year, college grads are harvesting the fruit of their labors in cap and gown. Men and women from all walks of life are planning their summer vacations, reaping their rewards in Hawaiian shirts and Bermuda shorts. Kids are screaming down the hallways of their schools, through the forbidding doors, and out onto various playing fields, where – like the grain – they will slowly turn brown under the summer sun.

Now is the time to take pride in success; but with satisfaction in achievement comes the need to guard against excessive pride, hubris – the fly in the ointment, the not so secret ingredient of every tragic fall.

The Torah teaches that the time of the harvest is a time of rejoicing before G-d. On Pessach we wave the new barley. On Shavuos we offer the new wheat and the first fruits. By offering some of our bounty as a sacrifice, we begin to recognize that our labor was certainly important, but just as certainly not independent. Our strength, our wisdom, the very oxygen in our lungs are all gifts from G-d.

“And you shall say in your heart, ‘my power and the strength of my arm has produced for me all this plenty’.” According to Rebbeinu Nissim, we are supposed to say this, to recognize our talents and the gifts that they produce. But then we must recall from where these talents stem: “And you shall remember Hashem, your God, for He is the one who gives you strength to produce plenty…” Joy in success, pride in a job done well, but never hubris.

Not only is our labor not independent, but often it is also not sufficient. Many talented people have labored hard and honestly and yet remained poor. In discussing the festivals, the Torah interrupts the laws of the holidays with a tangential discussion of the agricultural gifts to the poor: the corners of the field that need to be set aside; the forgotten sheaves of grain for which the owner must not return. These laws are placed between the joy of Shavout and the awe of Rosh Hashanah, and the message rings clear – no one can fully accept G-d as king, if he considers himself the sole master over his life, property and destiny. By leaving the food in the field for the poor, without even being able to take pleasure in gathering it and distributing it according to his fancy, the farmer must acknowledge that this produce, the land that grew it, and his labor that tended it, are not wholly his own. At the time of his joy, the commandments guard him from hubris and enable him to accept the sovereignty of the Divine.

In some ways, taxes are today’s equivalent of the field corner. In a just society they pay for the welfare of the poor and the health care of the elderly. They pay to protect the country from external enemies and from internal injustices. Like the corners of the fields, we can’t even take pleasure in designating them for the projects dearest to our hearts; even if we don’t give them, they will certainly be taken. For his part, Wertheimer will pay about a billion dollars in tax on his profits – quite a corner! – and in doing so he will recognize that he has the right to be satisfied, but not smug.

And so each of us must, in his or her moments of success, find some concrete way to recall that the fruits of our hard labors are gifts from G-d. Today, you or I may be king of the hill, but we are always subjects before the King of the universe. At harvest time we must find a way to offer some of our fruits in sacrifice, and to share them with those who are less fortunate than ourselves. We must wave them in joy and distribute them with humility, and proclaim as a people that G-d is our King.

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Iyar 5766 – On Being Minimum, Maximum, or Somewhere in the Middle – by Rav Hadar Margolin

5 Iyar 5766
On Being Minimum, Maximum,
or Somewhere in the Middle

By Rav Hadar Margolin

I once heard a brilliant statement from a noted educator. It was said in reference to his institution’s expectations of its students. He said:

“Our minimal expectation – is maximum performance”.

Brilliant! Doesn’t this convey a very clear message to the students?

The implied lesson leaves no doubt. There is no room for complacency, and average performance will not be tolerated. You need to perform your very best. Nothing less.

I really do think this is a brilliant statement. It succeeds in giving a strong message in a few short, well chosen words. However, that’s where the brilliance ends. The content is – in my exceedingly humble opinion – bordering on tragic.

Will it really inspire? I don’t know. Frankly, I have my doubts. That isn’t the point I would quibble about. But one thing I do know – it can definitely be destructive.

What if you don’t give your maximum? How would you define yourself when you somehow give only mediocre output?

The quote we saw above would term this an absolute failure. Is that not clear as a crystal, or as obvious as a frown on the face of a chronic underachiever? Even the “minimum” was not attained! Shame on you, despicable worthless good-for-nothing!

Do you know anyone who actually gives “maximum” output? I don’t. Everyone could – on some level – do more. This approach, therefore, is a sure recipe for perceived failure, and a certain promoter of despair.

When relentless achievement of perfection is the standard for a ‘minimum’, we are all born losers.

Our holy “quote” is not just a sentence someone once said. It is very relevant. It is representative of a common and prevalent source of frustration for so very many people. It is as widespread as disappointment is in underachieving people.

Of course, you should shoot for your best. Give it all you got. That goes without saying.

But please, allow some self appreciation – even when you missed a few good shots.

The minimal expectation is just that – it’s minimal. And maximum is maximum – special for angels and extraordinary people.

And you will be somewhere in the middle – and I hope you learn to celebrate that!


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Nissan 5766 – Tzei Ulmad – Our Special Relationship with Hashem – by Rav Menachem Nissel

8 Nissan 5766
Tzei Ulmad – Our Special Relationship with HaShem
By Rav Menachem Nissel

The Haggada’s choice of the words “Tzei Ulmad”, – “go out and learn” seems strange. Why not just say learn from Lavan, why do I have to “go out” in order to learn?

The Vilna Gaon explains that it is impossible to understand the events in this story without going outside of your personal perspective. On the surface, Lavan seems like your friendly sort of father-in-law. He is concerned for Yaakov, is hurt that he left without saying good-bye, and misses his daughters and grandchildren.

Only if you step outside of the story, can you see Lavan’s true intentions. Lavan wanted to totally destroy Yaakov’s household. Hashem came to Lavan in a dream and warned him not to hurt Yaakov. With this “inside scoop” we can now see that Lavan is worse than Pharaoh, who only wanted to destroy the males. And we see a powerful example of how Hashem constantly protects us behind the scenes.

This segues nicely with another idea of the Vilna Gaon on the siddur. We say at the end of the first bracha of Shemoneh Esrei “melech, ozer, umoshia umagen”, “the King, the Helper, the Savior and Shield”. The King watches over you on three levels. First, you try your best and He helps you. On the second level, you are helpless and He saves you. On the highest level He protects you behind the scenes without your realizing it. This level is called “magen” – shield. Only by stepping outside of what is happening can you see this level of Divine protection.

The first bracha of the Shemoneh Esrei represents the essence of the relationship between Klall Yisrael and Hashem. It climaxes and is summarized with the words “magen Avraham”. Avraham dedicates his life to Hashem and Hashem constantly works behind the scenes – even when He seems hidden – to protect Avraham.

On seder night we reconnect to this special relationship with Hashem. And it can be understood through the word “Tzei”. Perhaps these two ideas of the Vilna Gaon are alluded to by the use of the word “Tzei”. The gematria of “Tzei” is 91. When you add the two letters (a valid gematria method known as “kollel”) you get 93, which is the gematria of the word “Magen”.

Too often we feel lonely and sometimes abandoned by HaShem. Our lives are filled with stresses and challenges and HaShem seems distant. On seder night we are challenged to step out of our self imposed boxes and make an effort to observe hashgachah pratis. Then we see HaShem is everywhere. And even in our darkest moments he has been there all along, lovingly nurturing and protecting us.

Chag Kosher V’Sameach!

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Adar 5766 – Stumble Seven Times – But Rise! – by Rav Hadar Margolin

3 Adar 5766
Stumble Seven Times – But Rise!!
By Rav Hadar Margolin

One of the most precious capabilities you will ever need to acquire, is the ability to deal with defeat. It is an absolute necessity for attaining simcha, happiness. Who does not yearn to always have only success, a calm life of never-ending pleasure, a continual flow from the blessed wellsprings of the sublime and inspirational?

All the problems we inevitably deal with, would seem to us, somehow, unnecessary. We could have – sort of – done better without them.

Nevertheless, reality is sometimes cruel. Our pink dreams end up with other colors. Sometimes blue (actually not so bad!), sometimes grey. Frustratingly, all too often we get black. We experience difficulties, setbacks, troubles of all shapes and forms. How do we deal with them?

What we will be now presenting is a radical change of perspective. A transformation in the way we look at things, one that alters the whole definition of “failure” and “success”.

Imagine if you will, someone who erroneously assumed that he failed miserably. One who thought – mistakenly! – that he truly botched up. Meaning, that he really was successful, although he knew it not. He simply got the facts wrong. Perhaps, as an example, we can talk about a student who got an 80 on the test. He’s upset about such a low mark. Unbeknown to him, it was an unusually hard test, and the mark he got was actually no less than outstanding, an unqualified success. What a shame, that he be walking around with a frustrating feeling of being a failure, when the reality is so different, so opposite!

Having said that, let’s offer a new definition of success – and of failure. So numerous are those who tumble and fall, who walk around depressed by their low self perception, and they got it totally wrong!

Let’s elucidate.

Rav Yitzchak Hutner zt”l writes in a famous letter (Igros Pachad Yitzchak 128):
“The wisest of men (Shlomo Hamelech) writes:’A tzaddik will stumble seven times – and rise’. Fools understand that to mean that even though he stumbles 7 times he will nevertheless rise… wise men know well that the essence of rising is only after – and through – stumbling 7 times”.

Let’s analyze this, for it is a deep and startling insight.

There is no success without a prior failure. Such is the nature of creation, this is how Hashem set up the world. Nothing worthwhile ever comes easy. Hashem wanted this to be so, because only as such do things have a true value.
There is a purpose to failure, and difficulties do not come about by chance. Actually, they are intended. This principle requires elaboration, and here is not the place for it. But so we have learned.

Looking deeper, contained within this is a new definition of ‘failure’. It is no longer viewed as an unneccesary event which regrettably occurred. Rather, it is an integral part of the natural process of growth and progression, one that we cannot do without. “…wise men know well that the essence of rising is only after – and through – stumbling 7 times.”
Therefore we can further conclude: the ‘failure’ was not a real failure; rather, it is a part and parcel of growth, of progression. This is a new definition of the difficulties of life!!

What was until now viewed as so negative, so problematic, is suddenly seen as an essential element in the chain of success and growth, one which we cannot do without! What a topsy-turvy world!

The moral to be learned from all this is, to never give up. Despair comes from repeated failure. But since it’s really not failure at all, but rather just difficulty which is intentional, with a clear goal to bring out the best from within you – it is therefore not failure at all!

As Rav Hutner writes in that same letter:
“You certainly did slip and fall; you will even continue to do so (this is not ‘wishing you bad’, it is a reality), and you will find that some battles leave you vanquished. But I promise you that at the end you will emerge with the wreath of victory crowning your head”.

This is a conceptual revolution. If “stumbling seven times” would have been just a happenstance, an occurance which may or may not come, it would be difficult to deal with the failure it indicates – for failure it would truly be. But if this is the proccess of success and an essential element of growth, then what we have accomplished is a 180 degree turn in our interpretation of many of life’s events.

A great lesson is contained in what we have learned today, a new look at life’s supposed failures. Don’t let them stop you, or even slow you down. Continue to progress, march forward non-stop, for this is the ultimate path to success.
And “I promise you that at the end you will emerge with the wreath of victory crowning your head”.