Monday, December 01, 2008

Light versus Darkness

A few days have passed since the tragic end of the Siege of Mumbai Chabad House. For most, it will likely soon be relegated to "old" news, forgotten as one of the many similar stories of terror that we are now "used" to. Not for me. And, I hope, not for you either.

Together with people of good will everywhere, we mourn the deaths of the almost 200 innocents, including two Australians, brutally murdered in Mumbai. Yet the attack on Chabad House was no "ordinary" act of terror. As stated by Israeli Foreign Minister Tsipi Livni, it was a calculated Islamic terror attack against a predetermined Jewish target. As such it represents a new front in the Global Islamic War of Terror that some continue to deny even exists. It has ramifications for Jews everywhere.

I believe that we need to respond in three ways:

1) Displaying heightened vigilance in matters of physical security.
2) Gaining a better understanding of the nature of the threat.
3) Becoming more committed Jews.

1) Heightened vigilance in matters of physical security.

Locally we must support and expand the work of the CSG as well as demand Government assistance in protecting our communal infrastructure. There is however no place, G-d forbid, for fear. Fear is precisely what the Islamic terrorists want and giving into it would grant them an undeserved victory. We must continue to attend shule, school and Jewish social and cultural activities.

2) Understanding the nature of the threat.

After Shabbos, I searched in vain for any sign of protest from the Australian Muslim community. The fact that they are not protesting loudly against this shame perpetrated in the name of their religion, which included at least two Australian deaths, indicates complicity on their part. Islam and the entire Muslim world must be held accountable until they actively uproot this cancer from their midst. The onus should be on them if they wish to be accepted as a civilized people and religion.

Mumbai plain and simply was an attack on the West - which unfortunately is yet to "get" it.

There should be no pussyfooting around the notion that this was an attack on Western and Israeli interests in response to "persecution" of the Palestinians or countless other Muslim "grievances". Anyone who reads Islamic theology comes very quickly to the conclusion that its aim is world domination by the Umah through whatever means are available. They merely exploit local grievances - whether in the Philippines, Bali, Thailand, India or "Palestine". It is patently ridiculous to think that giving Land for Peace (in Israel, Asia or Europe) will satiate the appetite of those who see the Umah and its Caliphate extending throughout Europe and Asia.

Those in the West who continue to insist that the source of the world's trouble lies with the Palestinian issue do so at their own peril. We are already seeing where this is headed. In England Muslims were "offended" by the teaching of the Holocaust - and the authorities gave in and removed it from the syllabus. In Durbin, at the UN Conference Against Racism - most of the world remained ominously silent as the most radically anti-Semitic resolutions since the Holocaust were propagated. History teaches us that while attacks may begin against the Jews, it is never long before the rest of humanity suffers. They should of course not be attending the upcoming Durbin II Conference Against Racism (sic), but should they unwisely choose to do so, we must at the very least demand of PM Rudd and President-elect Obama that they protest vociferously at any attempt to once again condemn Israel and Jews.

The root cause of terror lies not in local issues but in an ideology bent on world domination. Israel and the West wrongly believe that they can placate the beast with gestures, including the release of terrorists and murderers. Daniel Pearl's head was cut off by a terrorist who India released as a "gesture".

It is about time that the West demanded the only gesture that really matters. The reinterpretation of the Koran and Islam as a peaceful religion that disavows force, murder and "martyrdom" as a method of spreading its word or dealing with its "grievances". As long as children are educated to hate the infidels, this war will continue. There is simply no place for debate or discussion with a religion that does not meet this one simply precondition.

c) Recommit to becoming more Jewish

We should follow the example of our holy brothers and sisters who died "al kiddish hashem" in the Chabad House in Mumbai. When Zaka entered the building immediately after it was safe to do so they came upon the bodies of the Kedoshim which were riddled with bullets in a room splattered with blood. Rabbi Holzberg and the two other rabbis lay on the floor with holy books in their hands - they were praying and studying Torah until the moment of their deaths. Nearby was the body of Rivka, the Rebbetzin of the Chabad House. It was covered with a Tallis. Somehow, before being murdered themselves, they had managed to cover her. Such holiness and purity in the midst of bestial carnage. Just as these Kedoshim dedicated their lives, and ultimately gave them, for the love of Jews and Torah, so too must we, each in our way. Choose a Mitzvah and do it. Or commit to a programme of Jewish study - join our JLI Adult Education programme or the new advanced JLI Talmud programme that will commence in February and which I am dedicating to the Holzbergs. In whatever way it is - become more Jewish.

When Fedayeen attacked Kfar Chabad in 1956 killing five students, the Rebbe responded with three Hebrew words, behemshech habinyan tinachemu - "through continuing the work of building (Judaism) you will be comforted."

May we merit the ultimate comfort - the coming of Moshiach - immediately.

With blessings of peace

Rabbi Benzion Milecki

P.S. Please read the following article by Uri Orbach, a prominent religious Zionist spokesperson and journalist. His article appeared in Sunday's Yediot Acharonot.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Evolution versus Einstein

Last week's TIME magazine featured a fascinating debate between the well-known atheist biologist Richard Dawkins and the famous mastermind of the human genome project Francis Collins, entitled "Science versus G-d". In shule last Friday night, I summarized the debate while adding a few insights of my own.

On further review of the article, I found Dawkin's concluding remarks of great interest:

"When we started out... I provided what I thought were cogent arguments against a supernatural intelligent designer. But it does seem to be a worthy idea. Refutable - but nevertheless grand and big enough to be worthy of respect. I don’t see the Olympian gods or Jesus coming down and dying on the cross as worthy of that grandeur... If there is a G-d, it's going to be a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more incomprehensible than anything that any theologian of any religion has ever proposed."

So even the atheist Dawkins is ready to believe in G-d if He is grand and incomprehensible enough. This reminds me of something I once heard in the name of the Kotzker Rebbe, "I cannot believe in a G-d that any Tom, Dick and Harry could understand." Or to quote Groucho Marx: "I don't wish to belong to any club that would have me as a member!"

In the future, I hope to write a series of articles on this intriguing subject. In the meantime, I am reprinting an article that I wrote in 1989 in the South Head publication, "From the Rabbi's Desk". It was titled "Evolution versus Einstein".

As a rabbi, I am often asked, "Does Judaism jell with the Theory of Evolution?" Note: Not does evolution jell with Judaism, but does Judaism jell with evolution.

One wonders: where from this certainty about a theory that has never been scientifically proven?

Fortunately, to answer this question, we need not look far. The famous scientist and philosopher, Aldous Huxley, provides us with the answer:

"I had reasons not to want the world to have meaning, and as a result I assumed the world had no meaning, and I was readily able to find satisfactory grounds for this assumption ... For me , as it undoubtedly was for most of my generation, the philosophy of meaninglessness was an instrument of liberation from a certain moral system. We were opposed to morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom."

And he wasn't the only one. Professor August Weisman, one of the founders of modem genetics, had this to say:

"Though we may never be able to determine the process by which a new species was generated by means of natural selection in the struggle for survival, we are nevertheless obligated to accept the principle of natural selection because it offers the only explanation of a diversified natural living world, without our having to assume that it was created by a force that desired and created it intentionally..."

One could be forgiven for thinking that the Theory of Evolution has less to do with science than it has to do with the quest for liberation from conscience and morality.

If one accepts Creation, one is bound to accept a Creator. This in turn points in the direction of purposeful existence and concomitant moral responsibilities. Enough to cause more than a little discomfort to the self-centred hedonists.

So, to justify their pursuit of pleasure, they devised a theory in which G-d is conveniently absent.

"So what?" you ask. "Why begrudge them the ability to pursue their little pleasures?"

Unfortunately it is not as easy as that. The atheist does not merely sin against G-d. Of far greater concern is his attitude to Man. One who truly believes in G-d respects man as having been created in the image of G-d. To the atheist, however, man is but a link in the evolutionary chain, an animal like all other animals, homo sapiens - an intelligent ape, but an ape nonetheless.

The bankruptcy of this approach was never more clearly demonstrated than in the prelude to the Holocaust. Here is what Hitler, yemach shmo wrote in Mein Kampf.

"In nature there is no pity for the lesser creatures when they are destroyed so that the fittest may survive. Going against nature brings ruin to man ... It is only Jewish impudence to demand that we overcome Nature!"

Jews and Judaism were an anathema to Hitler precisely because, in their belief in G-d, they represented the uncompromising dignity of each and every human being no matter what his station in life. It was this desire to destroy the G-dly in man which led him to become obsessed with the annihilation of the Jews.

On another occasion he wrote:

"It is true we are barbarians. That is an honored title to us. I free humanity from the degrading suffering caused by the false vision called conscience and ethics ... They are Jewish inventions. The war for the domination of the world is waged only between the two of us ... the Germans and the Jews... "

In essence he was no more than giving practical application to the theory of evolution, the law of the jungle, where might is right. Radical as it may seem, by accepting evolution, we grant our arch-enemy a posthumous victory!

(Please note: We are not addressing the issue of whether Torah can be interpreted to include at least some aspects of evolution. There are, in fact, various opinions on this matter. Although I personally do not accept the necessity of interpreting Torah in the light of Evolution, I accept that there are believing Jews who wish to accept that G-d "managed" the evolutionary process. It is with those who omit G-d from the process that I take issue.)

The answer, I believe, is that we have been programmed, nay brainwashed, from a very impressionable age into believing in science and scoffing at religion. This can be the only reason why otherwise intelligent people will laugh when it is suggested that Adam and Eve actually existed as described in the Bible, yet will blindly accept (on the word of "scientists") that one species can evolve from another species in the total absence of any proof.

It is not that true science is in any way evil. Quite to the contrary, it is only through science that we can truly appreciate G-d. The Zohar, that master-work of Jewish mysticism, equates the development of science with the development of our understanding of G-d. As an example of this we need go no further than Albert Einstein. Few men throughout history have revolutionised scientific thought in the manner of Einstein. Yet what lead him to his discoveries? Let us listen to the man himself:

" I have no interest in learning a new language, or in food, or in new clothes ... I want to know how G-d created this world. I want to know His thoughts. The rest are details."

And on another occasion:

"... to know that what is impenetrable for us really exists and manifests itself as the highest wisdom and most radiant beauty whose gross forms alone are intelligible to our purest faculties ... this knowledge, this the core of true religious sentiment."

Or in the words of his biographer, Banesh Hoffman:

"Einstein's search for a unified field theory was sustained by his profound conviction that there ought to be such a theory that, as the ancient Hebrews put it, the L-rd is one."

As did our father Abraham before him, Einstein saw a beautiful, ordered world and peering through the shades saw the Master of the House staring down at him.

True, Einstein did not confess to a belief in a personal G-d. For that, one requires a tradition of revelation. And, not having been brought up in a family which bore that tradition he was not privy to It.

(To me, it would seem, that in not having had that opportunity he missed an important link in his unified theory; the fact that not only the celestial spheres but the actions of man, too, must reflect the universal unity.) Be that as it may, Einstein was a scientist for whom, in the tradition of the great Jewish thinkers, science and G-d were a symbiotic whole: science led to G-d and G-d led to science.

The Baal Shem Tov taught us that Creation was not a one-time occurrence. Rather G-d's creation of, and involvement with, His world continues every single moment. He also taught us that we can learn something of G-d in everything we hear and see. Science is no more than the microscope, the listening device, through which we extend our senses to see what is otherwise hidden. As such science enables us to see more of G-d.

There is one prerequisite however. Like Einstein we must believe that G-d is there to be discovered. More than Einstein, however, we must also believe that we too are worthy of G-d's love, care and concern.

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Great World Cup - South Head Division - Debate

A few days ago a congregant wrote saying that there had been a family discussion regarding the appropriateness of praying for one's national team and wondering whether I had an opinion on that.

Well, as a Jew I decided to answer with some questions of my own, "First you tell me why everyone is getting so excited about a bunch of people fighting over an inflated piece of leather. Is this a reason for a good Jewish boy to go without sleep for an entire month? And this team sport euphoria I really don't understand - what's this tribal thing about my team winning? Does it make you feel like you are part of the winning team? Would you want to be - judging by the low-life behaviour of some famous sports teams?"

Well, I got more than I bargained for. Instead of a single response, I got, you guessed it, a team response. Each of the Kalish team members took the opportunity of lobbing a reply. And to be honest, they were good. Then off I went to my dentist, Dr David Rutner, an avid soccer fan and veteran coach for Maccabi indoor soccer. In between drilling, fitting a post and cutting through my gum, we managed to discuss, albeit briefly, the issue occupying the minds of at least half of all humanity - the World Cup.

So I thought I would share some of these discussions and responses with you, and see if anyone else would like to weigh in to the World Cup - South Head Division debating event.

On international soccer:

Peter Kalish: Team sport, particularly soccer, is a fascinating study as it has literally become a religion in many parts of the world - it was said that Pelé, the greatest footballer of all-time from Brazil, was idolised and revered more than JC. Losses in the world cup have almost brought down governments because of their interference in the team selection or coach appointments that go wrong. It is a passive manifestation of competition or war between countries and soccer has the largest following of any sport in the world.

David Rutner: In poorer countries soccer is the great equalizer. Countries not renowned for their advances in medical science or technology hit the world stage through their prowess at soccer. It's the only arena in which Third World countries can dominate First World countries. If not for soccer, how many people would even know where Brazil was?

Lance Kalish: With its global appeal, it has become one of the only feasible and non-violent methods for social groups, cities, states or countries to compete on an even-handed ground without dire or lethal consequences (although unfortunately this is not always the case!). A hundred years ago, if a nation or people wanted to exert dominance over another nation, they would enter into war. The winner would be the side with the most people still alive! Through soccer and other sporting competitions, you have a winner and a loser, no loss of life, and temporary dominance over your competitor until the next meeting - it is the civilized world's remedy to the age old human qualities of aggressiveness, egotism, and dominance. What I find most incredible is that the World Cup is a competition that brings every country into equilibrium. When the players get onto the field, it doesn't matter how rich or poor their respective countries are, how developed or undeveloped they are, how big or small their populations are- all that matters are the 11 players representing your nation and how best they can apply their skills at the same game with the same rules.

Rabbi Milecki: If I understand this correctly, soccer at this level is a proxy for the "male" need to wage war and conquer territory. There doesn't have to be any purpose in it; the thrill of conquest is what it's all about. And just like in war, you get a big kick out of your side winning, because they are "our" soldiers, etc. so also in sport. It is all about identifying with the group, which is another deep human need. But what is so positive about the World Cup is that it channels potentially negative human traits into something far more benign while at the same time bringing the whole world together, certainly a positive value in itself.

Lance Kalish: Correct, the World Cup strives to bring the nations of the world together in the most peaceful of means on the most even handed terms - even if it is on the lowest common denominator of sport. It may just one day lead to something greater.

On Identification with teams and sportsmen:

Stacey Kalish: When people support a team, whether it be a local soccer club or the national representatives, it allows them to feel a sense of identity. I support 'X' team therefore I am part of 'X' group, therefore this makes me an 'X'. I have a sense of self and more importantly, a sense of purpose. If i am a part of a collective, I become an extension of a greater body that is trying to achieve this goal. Therefore, I feel a sense of that purpose. And as we know, this is truly what people are looking for in life. If i cannot be the single greatest player in the world, then i can support that person/team, wear their colors, pledge my allegiance, pour my time, energy and emotion into them and feel like I am a part of achieving that dream and mission. I am apart of a greater cause. Something that is greater than myself.

Lance Kalsih: I can best explain the belonging feelings with a real life example I experienced when I traveled for the first time to England to watch Manchester United (whom I have supported since childhood) play in a finals in London. After the game when I got onto a train packed with drunk football supporters, I was squeezed up next to a guy who was built like a gorilla and looked like he had just stepped out of prison prior to coming to watch the game. He looked me in the eye with a cold, scary glance and I was actually nervous just standing next to him. Then I noticed a bold tattoo on his shoulder emblazoned with the Man United emblem. To break the ice I complimented him on the tattoo, which led to a short conversation about where I was from, how I had followed Man United since I was a child, and that I was heading next to Manchester to visit Old Trafford- the home of Man United for the last 90 years or so. All of a sudden this supposedly terrifying hooligan's face lit up with excitement and joy that he had met an Australian that supported his beloved team from his home city of Manchester. He was so overjoyed that he immediately gave me his contact details and cordially invited me to call on him when I get there so he could show me around Old Trafford and Manchester town. Through a quick chance meeting and confirmation of allegiances, I had had an experience that I could only describe similar to meeting a fellow Jew when you are traveling the world and think you know no one. I never actually took up the offer (he still scared the living daylights out of me) but it gave me a first hand experience about the strength of following a team and the sense of belonging.

David Rutner: Within poorer countries especially, soccer is a great inspiration. Many soccer greats, for example Pele in Brasil and Maradonna of Argentina, came from poor backgrounds. Kids whose only asset were their feet were inspired to know that there was a chance that they too could make it; at the very least, they could live through their hero who came from very similar circumstances to their own.

Rabbi Milecki: OK, so if I understand this correctly, identification with a team or sportsman enables the individual to step out of his small world and become part of something far greater than himself.

Could there perhaps be something negative in this level of identification?

Rabbi Milecki: I think that most people probably feign far more interest in their national team than they really have, just because everyone else is doing the same and they want to be part of the group. I also think that those people who really do take it very seriously, the die-hard fans and groupies, have got serious insecurity problems.

Peter Kalish: There are the pure gang-like attitudes where lost soles seek security in “belonging” to the supporters' club and this is one of the reasons behind the hooliganism that is rife in Europe, particularly England.

Lance Kalish: The die hard fans and groupies you find generally come out of countries that are lacking something - I find the worst of them are countries like England and Germany where the anglo wasp culture has to be one of the driest and dullest existences on earth - so no wonder these people are craving for a sense of belonging - in this case the football teams literally become their religion and they use this context to express all their personal feelings which includes those violent and discriminatory qualities.

What's with the great Jewish interest in the World Cup? Jews have never enjoyed war, so why do they need this proxy for war? And they are certainly not trying to achieve "completion" through the sporting conquests of others?

Peter Kalish:The skill involved in soccer is admirable and I think can only be appreciated once one has tried to play the game - the recognition of the popularity of the game and the skills required are manifested by the huge salaries paid to the players - the top players all earn around $150,000 per week.

David Rutner: I enjoy the skill and I enjoy analyzing a game, but the salaries are obscene. Although many of the soccer greats do charity work, including training and encouraging their young countrymen, much of the ridiculous salaries they are paid are squandered by unscrupulous "friends" and "relatives" to the extent that they die in poverty.

Rabbi Milecki: I think that this is a) part of Jewish assimilation into the general culture and our need for acceptance; b)perhaps more importantly I think that many Jews do really get enjoyment viewing the "skill" of the game more than just the ego trip of "my team wins" and finally c) when real life is too hard to cope with, people do seek to live their lives through others, and this includes Jews. It's why we go to the movies, it's why we watch sport. It's certainly better than taking drugs or turning to drink. It's a diversion and an escape.

I think that in moderation it cannot do much harm. But we ought to keep in mind that there really are other human, Jewish and G-dly endeavours that can give us a sense of fulfillment and mentally stimulate us. By immersing ourselves in these we can minimize the time we invest in alternate escapes.

Should we pray for the Socceroos?

Peter Kalish: I enjoy it immensely and am patriotic but not enough to include it in my davening or ever contemplate doing so - I believe that would ridicule and belittle my faith and after all, it still remains a game and nothing more and should never be regarded as anything more.

Rabbi Milecki:With regard to praying I agree with Peter. It trivializes prayer, G-d and the person praying. I don't think I am lacking in a sense of humour, but composing prayers for the socceroos by rabbis is ridiculous. What kind of G-d is going to favour your team over another team just because you prayed for it? Is there more justice or righteousness in one team over the other? And how do you come to shule to pray for your team, when the person next to you is praying for their sick child? It's obscene.

Lance Kalish: Re the prayer, I do agree with your statement there, although I can still understand why someone would want to pray for the socceroos- not because of the justice surrounding it, but because of the immense consequences that can result from winning the World Cup (once again, you have to understand the world cup and its economics to really appreciate this argument- for example, the Brazilian national pride almost entirely is built through its global dominance in soccer- without it I don't think most of the world would even know where Brazil was!). Countries like Australia do not spend hundreds of millions of dollars on elite sporting academies and individual sportsmen because they want Australians to be more recreational, its because they are investing in national pride and a branding of Australia around the world. Yes, believe it or not, the most common international “language” around the world is not mathematics or science, its sport and in particular soccer!

Which brings me to my final point about prayer- if someone can say a prayer for the queen (a complete figurehead with no real influence or power) why cant they say a prayer for their national representatives on the world's greatest stage, without trivializing prayer in general?

Rabbi Milecki: Good question! But there is a difference. We pray for the Queen not as an individual but as the embodiment of the Government. She is the Head of State, and it is in her person that the concept of the State lives. This is why it is only when her representatives - the Governor General or Governers of the States - ascent to legislation that it becomes law. The Talmud tells us that we must pray for the State - "Pray for the peace of the sovereign for without it anarchy would reign supreme".

One can and should pray for the economic welfare of the State. Prayer is a very powerful tool that humbles us before G-d when we realize that it is He and only He in Whose hands lie success or failure. But I don't think it is our business to tell G-d how to enable the state to prosper. Perhaps it will be through the victory of the national sport team, perhaps through other means. It is hard enough for us to negotiate through the variables in our own lives; let's leave running the world to G-d.

Famous Last Words:

Rabbi Milecki:The Rebbe once used soccer as a metaphor for life. The two goal posts on each side, represent the Gates to Gan Eden and the Gates to Hell. The round ball represents the world. The teams represent the collaborative effort to drive the world to where it really belongs - Gan Eden - and keep it away from where it doesn't - Hell. Now that sounds like a game of soccer that we can all identify with!

Friday, June 09, 2006

Convergence: Julia Roberts and the New Israel

On Shavuot night I participated in a panel comprising Chemi Shalev (Associate Editor Australian Jewish News & Ha'aretz writer), Jeremy Jones AM (Director AIJAC) and David Bierman (Former Director Israel Govt Tourist Office), on the subject of "The New Israel andi its Future Borders". The following is the text of my presentation:

I have been asked to speak tonight on the subject of “The New Israel and its Future Borders”. When presented with the topic, the first thing that occurred to me was that we are living in an era of Orwellian Double Speak. The New Israel and its Future Borders! The borders that are now being contemplated are those of the Old Israel, the Israel of pre-1967, or worse, the Israel of the UN partition plan. These are the borders which then Foreign Minister Abba Eban was fond of calling the “Auschwitz borders” because they left Israel with a waist of no more than 10km—making Israel easy prey for the Arab armies keen on “driving the Jews into the sea”.

But this of course is not the worse of the double-speak. The doctors of spin are in a wild race to see who can create the most outlandish terms—those that transform snails into delicacies worthy of the finest French restaurant. Or as Jackie Mason once said concerning cockroaches, “Just call them Coche RochĂ©, put them on the menu, and then see how much you can charge!”

Instead of simply saying that Israel is unilaterally withdrawing under pressure (the nature of which will be discussed later) the more sanitized “disengagement” was used. But even disengagement has negative connotations, so it too has been replaced by the more positive sounding—you may even say scientific—term, “convergence”.

Now in this post-modern world, who on earth could be against convergence? Isn’t that what is happening all around us—Palm Pilots, iPods, still cameras, video cameras and telephones all converging into one device. Isn’t that what we all want?

You really have to give it to the Prime Minister. He really is a master of spin.

In 1989, Prime Minister Olmert visited his friend, movie producer Arnon Milchan, in Hollywood. The two sat at a Warner Brothers’ sound studio with the film’s director Gary Marshall and listened to the soundtrack for a new romantic comedy starring a 23 year-old unknown actress (Roberts) and a movie star whose fame has already began to fade (Richard Gere).

After about half-an-hour of listening to the soundtrack, an old song by Roy Orbison called “Pretty Woman’ started playing. Olmert, who was listening to the music with his eyes half-shut, suddenly turned to Milchan and Marshall and said: “Listen, I have an idea for you – why don’t you call the movie ‘Pretty Woman,’ after the song?”

“Forget it,” Marshall replied, “it’s too kitschy.” Milchan, on his part, also had his doubts. But Olmert, already an experienced politician, managed to convince the two his idea was not so bad.

The rest, as everyone knows, is history. ‘Pretty Woman,’ which debuted in 1990, earned USD 463 million across the world and marked the starting point for Roberts’ meteoric rise to stardom.

You have to admit that when it comes to spin, the Prime Minister really does have what it takes!

So it’s not surprising that Prime Minister Olmert has managed to convince much of the world, even those parts of the Jewish world that should know better, that he is doing something fantastically new and original. And hence the topic of tonight’s panel discussion is not the “Return to the Auschwitz Borders” but “The New Israel and its Future Borders”. And it’s not “unilateral withdrawal” but “convergence”.

Viva La Holliwood! Viva the power of spin!

We are told that we have to “converge” because of the demographic threat. We are told that if we don’t converge—meaning unilaterally withdraw into a smaller Israel—then by the year 2020 or thereabouts there will be an Arab majority in the area between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. And so, in order to ensure a Jewish democratic state we have no choice other than to make these “painful” concessions.

We are told this by the Prime Minister based on statistical data supplied by Israeli demographers including University of Haifa’s Arnon Soffer and Hebrew University’s Della Pergola.

But what happens if this data is wrong?

In a study prepared by the Begin and Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies, and presented to the US House of Representatives, an American and Israeli team of demographers found that the current figure of 3.8 million Arabs living in the West Bank and Gaza is an obscene exaggeration based on false data supplied by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics. They also found that in doing their future population projections, the Israeli demographers were relying on this faulty data. That instead of 3.84 million Palestinians there are only 2.49 million Palestinians—a difference of some 1.3 million people!

The main figures included in the condensed BESA report to the US House of Representatives can be found in the side bar. The full report is well over one hundred pages long, so I will include a few salient points from the study as quoted in an article by Caroline Glick in the Jerusalem Post in January 2005.

· “Indeed, the total fertility rate of Palestinian women has been trending downward in recent years. Palestinian women in Judea and Samaria averaged 4.1 children in 1999 and 3.4 in 2003. Palestinian women in Gaza averaged 5 children each in 1999 and 4.7 in 2003. The multi-year average of Israel’s compound growth rate from 1990-2004 is 2.5 percent.”

· “The report also shows that while the Israeli Interior Ministry announced in November 2003 that in the preceding decade some 150,000 residents of the Palestinian Authority had legally moved to Israel (including Jerusalem), these 150,000 residents remain on the Palestinian population rolls. Parenthetically, this internal migration is largely responsible for the anomalous 3.1 percent annual growth in the Israeli Arab population. Absent this internal migration, the Israeli Arab natural growth rate is 2.1% – that is, below the Israeli Jewish growth rate.”

· “The study, which has been accepted by prominent American demographers Dr. Nicholas Eberstadt and Murray Feshbach, shows that contrary to common wisdom, the Jewish majority west of the Jordan River has remained stable since 1967. In 1967 Jews made up 64.1 percent of the overall population and in 2004 they made up 59.5 percent.”

These facts are backed up by Yoram Ettinger. Ettinger is a former Israeli Consul General for the Southwest U.S. and consultant to Israeli cabinet members, Knesset members and various Israeli and US organizations on US-Israel Affairs. He is also chairman of Special Projects at the Ariel Center for Policy Research in Israel.

Ettinger rejects the demographic theory advocated by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his Kadima party, which now serves as the premise for his “Convergence Plan,” that calls for the removal of nearly 100,000 Jews from Judea and Samaria, thus creating the contiguity for a future Palestinian State. The Olmert plan is predicated first and foremost on the premise that in order to retain a Jewish majority and a democratic state, Israel must apply the “convergence plan” that would remove Jewish settlements and settlers from most of the West Bank and relocate them in Settlement Blocks adjacent to the Green Line (June 4, 1967 lines). In Olmert’s view and that of his advisors, refraining from implementing his plan would cause Israel to lose its Jewish majority.

“At this stage” Ettinger argues, “the Jewish demography is more robust than it has been in recent years. Contrary to conventional wisdom, we have today between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, a durable Jewish majority of 60%. To put it in perspective, in the year 1900 Jews accounted for only 8% between the River and the Sea, in 1947 the percentage was 33% Jewish minority, in 1949 the Jewish accounted for 45% of the population.” “This sustained growth, Ettinger maintains, “indicates an enhanced Jewish majority between the River and the Sea.” Ettinger is ready to prove that there is an increase in Jewish birthrates and a continuing Aliyah. “The evidence, since 1995, has shown a sustained annual decline in Palestinian fertility rates and birthrates” and, he asserts, “this will continue for the foreseeable future.”

What’s really interesting is that although Prime Minister Olmert has come up with a new meaning for convergence, the real meaning of convergence in demographic terms is quite different. It means that over the past hundred years all developed countries and developing countries, including the Arabs, are converging to similar birth rates.

According to Ettinger, a March 17, 2006 Gallup Poll, suggested a convergence in fertility rates between Palestinian-Arab and Israeli-Jewish women within just a few years. Currently, the fertility rates for Palestinian women average at 4.7 per women, while the average among Jewish women is 3.7. Jewish birthrates are on the rise whereas those of the Palestinians are declining. He pointed out that this pattern of decline is pervasive throughout the Arab-Muslim Middle East. “In Iran,” Ettinger pointed out, “the fertility rate for women has declined to 1.98 births per woman, down from 10 births per woman only 20-25 years ago, and, “In Egypt it is 2.9 births per women compared to 8-9 in the past.” Ettinger said that in Israel, among the immigrants from the Former Soviet Union, the fertility rate has increased from what it was in Russia (1.0) and that they are now having 2-3 children and, the orthodox Jewish community is catching up with the ultra-Orthodox.

Convergence should lead to holding onto territory, not ceding it!

(You can find Ettinger’s website and associated articles
here. I urge you to look at the source materials yourselves before listening blindly to the politicians or to me!)

It has been known for some time that Oslo’s Land for Peace formula was a sham. It now turns out that the demographic time bomb is also a sham.

The amazing thing about Jewish people is that although so many of us are independent thinkers with above average IQs when it comes to matters of our security and future we place almost blind faith in the politicians and the spin doctors. The figures included here have been around for over 18 months, but nary a word of debate can be heard in the Jewish community.

Furthermore, Yossi Olpher, writing in HaAretz, gives six indications of the failure of the Gaza withdrawal:

1) it did not bring security—the Qassams and suicide bombings continue (in fact, the IDF was forced to re-enter Gaza last week for the first time since the withdrawal and a Kassam rocket fell near Amir Peretz’s home in Sderot;
2) it did not relieve Israel of legal responsibility for the Gaza Strip under international law; (last week, the huge British teachers union and one of Canada’s largest trade unions voted to boycott Israeli academics);
3) it emptied Israel’s coffers without producing a “reward”—the United States in the end did not give Israel two billion dollars “for development of the Negev and Galilee”, generally understood as funding for settler resettlement;
4) it did not bring peace any closer;
5) it encouraged Palestinians to vote for Hamas, which trumpeted the withdrawal as its victory; and
6) it left many hundreds of Gazan settlers homeless and jobless to this day.

Israel’s security borders are to be seriously eroded, the IDF predicts increased terrorism (see
here), 10,000 of Israel’s best have already been expelled from their homes, many of them until this day without adequate shelter, schooling or work prospects, and yet there is a serious plan on the table for further unilateral withdrawals.


Unfortunately, I have come to the conclusion that there is a reason for this. Perhaps it is not the only reason, but it is certainly a very powerful one. It is the deep-seated Jewish need to be accepted by the world at large, to be seen as normal. With all the bravado of saying that we will fight and not give into terror, we are a sovereign state that makes its own decisions based on what is best for us, etc. etc. there is a deep need among the Israeli leadership of all persuasions to be accepted in Washington, and even in the European capitals. To be considered part of the civilized world, even though no part of that civilized world would even think of making the concessions that are asked of Israel. It stems, I believe, from a deep-seated insecurity based on our numerical inferiority and our historical need to “negotiate” our way out when the odds were stacked overwhelmingly against us.

Of course the situation has changed. Israel is one of the most advanced nations of the planet. Although numerically small, we produce a quality that belies our numbers. Whether in military technology and know-how, IT, irrigation, or a host of other areas Israel surpasses Western nations many times it size. There should be no reason to accept the world’s double standards towards us. We should be able to laugh off the self-righteous moral indignation of a world that tells us to turn the other cheek, when they would never do the same. The same France that makes it illegal for a Muslim to wear a burka, has the audacity to claim that Israel should remain silent when attacked with rockets. But, although Israel may loudly protest France at the UN, subconsciously it absorbs the barbs, thinking yes, we too are to blame—we deserve what we get because of our sin of “occupation”, for our “ill-treatment” of those who would sooner see us dead.

Ben Gurion may have spoken of the new Jew and the new Israel, the Jew who, unlike the “exile” Jew, walks tall. But it takes more than a country, economic and even military success to make a Jew truly walk and feel tall. It takes an inner spirit. Yes, there were “exile” Jews who trembled when they saw a Russian anti-Semitic policeman. But there were also “exile” Jews who although they may have moved off the footpath when they saw him come—he could after all have them thrown in prison on some trumped up charge—held him in deep contempt. They were the Jews who around the Shabbos table knew that they were the most blessed people in the world—and no one could take that away from them. They were the Jews who when the Nazi asked them what they were praying as they marched into the gas chamber said with cold derision, “I am thanking G-d for not making me a gentile beast like you.” They were the true Jewish soldiers who like my wife’s grandfather, armed with nothing but a knife, risked (and ultimately gave) their lives not to kill, but to circumcise Jewish children in Soviet Russia.

It is. as Noam Arnon, spokesman for the much vilified Jewish community of Chevron, once told me, “Only one who truly believes can be Prime Minister of Israel”.

As for the settlers—they are the greatest heroes of the Jewish people today. But they made a serious mistake. In their tremendous faith, they believed that not only would they settle the land, but that the Holy People of Israel would in the end follow and support them. In their great belief they just didn’t understand that for those Jews with less belief than them, the world is a fearsome, overwhelming and perhaps even enticing place—a place worth the sacrifice of that which is most holy to us.

Together with the settling of the Land, there also needed to be, and now most certainly needs to be, a settling of the Jewish heart. A large movement aimed at bringing Jews closer to G-d and closer to Torah. Only such people will have the wherewithal to withstand the pressures of that “big and scary” and at times “overwhelmingly enticing” world.

And so, returning to the topic, the “New Israel and its Future Borders” needs to be a place where there are no longer borders between religious and non-religious. Most Jews, apart from the die-hard secularists, want to believe. We need but find the spark and ignite it. And this movement is not only relevant in Israel. It is also relevant outside Israel. Judaism must precede Zionism. Being Jewish must proceed being Israeli.

Indeed the Torah was given outside Israel, the Talmud was written outside Israel, most Jewish literary creativity took place outside Israel. The Jewish nation precedes in every sense the Jewish Land. And only with such faith can the Jewish Land continue to exist. Not as a value in itself, not as a political entity, G-d forbid, but as the outcome of a love of our heritage.

As a political entity, we are vastly outnumbered. As a spiritual entity, we are the most powerful idea that the world has ever seen. If we would only know this, nothing could ever scare us, nothing could ever defeat us.

BESA Report-Brief Synopsis

The 1997 PCBS beginning population base for de facto residents was inflated by:
* Inclusion of Non-residents: The 1997 PCBS Census base included 325,000 Palestinian Arabs living abroad, even though these individuals had lived outside the Territories for many years. This group comprised 13% of the PCBS' reported population base. This fact was fully acknowledged by the head of the PCBS when the Census Results were released in 1998. Reduction: 325,000;
* Inclusion of Jerusalem Arabs in West Bank Figures: Jerusalem Arabs who were already counted in Israel's population survey were also counted in the PCBS population estimate for the West Bank. Reduction: 210,000;
* Unexplained Increase over ICBS Records: The 1997 PCBS census included an additional 113,000 rise above the last ICBS figures for the Territories. Yet, PA Central Election Commission reports for adults voting in 2005 substantiated the ICBS population records from the mid-1990s. Reduction: 113,000;
Furthermore, the PCBS Model's projections with respect to births and immigration were not met in any year between 1997 and 2004:
* Fewer Births: According to reports current through January 2005, the PA Ministry of Health recorded fewer annual births between 1997 and 2003 than the PCBS had predicted for each of those years. These lower birth figures are consistent with PA;
* Ministry of Education figures for students entering school six years later. Reduction: 238,000
Alterations of Recorded Birth Data: In its more recent reports, the PA Ministry of Health retroactively raised the number of births it had reported prior to the release of the 1997 PCBS census. Using data at originally reported levels lowers the number of births even further. Reduction: 70,000;
* Net Immigration and Emigration Error: Instead of the large immigration originally forecast by the PCBS, the Territories experienced a steady net emigration abroad. The PCBS predicted 236,000 would move into the Territories between 1997 and 2003. Instead, 74,000 left. Reduction: 310,000;
* Migration to Israel: Many residents of the Territories moved to pre-1967 Israel and Jerusalem. No adjustments were made for unofficial immigration as there is little data on this group. However, immigrants who legally received Israeli IDs according to Israel Ministry of Interior reports from 1997 to 2003 were removed from the PCBS count. Reduction: 105,000.

The above is a brief summary of the BESA (Begin and Sadat Centre for Strategic Studies) report as presented to the House of Representatives and can be obtained here. The full report can be downloaded from here

Thursday, April 21, 2005

The Jew Beyond the Natural Order

he preparation for Pesach, more frenzied than that for all other festivals combined, finds its culmination as family and guests gather around the seder-table. Tranquility and calm replace the mad rush of the previous weeks. Seder (order) has been restored... or so we think. Just as we are ready to commence this much anticipated meal, a tiny squeak is heard from the direction of the youngest of the fraternity. And with the question "Why is this night different? " attention is drawn to the strange assortment of foods and relishes on the table.

"Order, is this what you people call order? What normal people eat matza, charoset and maror or do any of the other weird and wonderful things you are gearing up to do this evening?"

There is an old Yiddish folk-saying "Bei Yidden es is nishto kein seder." There is no seder (order) amongst Jews. They no sooner embark on the seder (order), and the child asks "Why is this night different?"(1)

There would seem to be more than a grain of truth in this saying. The Talmud says, "This nation is compared to the stars and compared to the dust, when they rise, they rise to the heavens; when they sink, they sink to the dust."(2) Greater than others, less than others... yes! Equal, normal,!

During our glorious, yet tortuous, history we have risen to heights unequalled by any other nation or people...but we have also been trampled underfoot by all other nations and people. We are a nation which has given the world so much, yet has suffered so much in return.

If the lofty concept of morality exists, it is due to the Jews; and if the degrading concept of holocaust exists, then that too is due to the Jews.

In his mad rantings to his friend Rauschning, Hitler, yemach shmo, put it this way:

"It is true we are barbarians. That is an honored title to us. I free humanity from the degrading suffering caused by the false vision called conscience and ethics... They are Jewish inventions. The war for domination of the world is waged only between the two of us...the Germans and the Jews..."(3)

Nietzsche, the 19th century German philosopher, saw Jews as the cultural force that had overthrown the natural order of might makes right, the law of the jungle. What is known as Western civilization and morality, he claimed, are in reality perversions of natural law and a violation of the ideal human order of domination of the strong for no other reason than the fact of their strength (4).

The Jew tries to raise Man from the ugly "natural order" of the survival of the fittest to a "superorderly" morality which alone can make him Human. But Man, not yet ready to be elevated, denigrates the Jew and subjects him to a "suborderly" existence. Either way, the Jew knows no order. Superorder, suborder...yes!!

And yet, in spite of all the above, in spite of millennia of historical precedent, the Jew still persists in a stubborn struggle for acceptance, for normalization, for order.

The assimilationist Jews of Germany saw the baptismal font as a carte blanche for their integration into society. It was an acceptable price to pay for "normalization", for "order" . The assimilationist Jews of Russia saw the "Jewish Problem" as a product of a bourgeois class system. Once we break down the barriers, they said, the Jews will be like everyone else...normal.

The capitalist Jews of Germany and the communist Jews of Russia each sought to solve this so-called "Jewish Problem" in their own way, the Germans through making the Jews "ordinary" Germans, the Russians through making the Jews "ordinary" people. Certainly they achieved something. People ostensibly stopped being anti-Jewish, Jewishness being associated with a religious system to which the Russian and German Jewish assimilationists no longer adhered. This was instead replaced with a hatred based on stock and race - antisemitism . And with this new label came a level of suffering and degradation which within a few years surpassed that of all of the previous three and a half millennia of Jewish suffering combined.

The German Jews and the Russian Jews had each forgotten that for Jews there is no "order".

But there have been highs as well as lows. After our extraordinary survival of two thousand years of dispersion, we were finally able to re-establish sovereignty on Jewish soil. In a miraculous string of victories, Israel, that mite amongst the nations, has proven herself superior to the might of over a hundred million Arabs. "When they rise, they rise to the heavens.(2)"

What a glorious opportunity for Jewish revival, for Jewish self-expression, for Jewish development!

Yet in spite of the extraordinary heights and depths of the last half-century, heights and depths which prove beyond all doubt that we are not an ordinary people, there are still those of our brethren clamouring for us to become a nation like all other nations (5), that Israel become a secular country where Jews happen to reside, rather than a Jewish country. People who, like Gershon Shocken, one-time editor of the well-known Israeli daily "Ha-aretz", say that for Israel to survive there must be a removal of the prohibition against intermarriage, there must be a complete integration of Jews and Gentiles. Only this, they claim, is consistent with the spirit of the New Israel.

They say this in the hope of "normalising" the Jews, of solving what to them is the "Jewish Problem". They take no heed of the fact that what was once anti-Jewishness and later replaced by anti-semitism, now goes under the guise of anti-Zionism in absolute defiance of any attempts at normalisation. When the Jew attempted to assimilate religiously and socially his escape was blocked by anti-Jewishness being replaced by anti-Semitism. When the Jew attempts to assimilate nationally, "to become a nation like all other nations", his escape is blocked by anti-Zionism. The pariah status of the Jew as an individual has been replaced by the pariah status of Israel as state. The Jews are simply not a normal people. Amongst Jews, there is no order!

So let us learn the lessons of history, let us forsake this quest for "normalisation, for "ordinariness", for "acceptance" amongst the nations, and let us accept instead our role as G-d's "special people(6)", as "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation(7)". Let us accept our role as a special and separate people with a special and separate Torah, while at the same time continuing to impart morals and ethics to all of mankind so that Man can eventually discover his Divinely human image. It may be a role which has at times been plagued with tragedy and frustration, but it is our role, and the only (8) possible role for a Jew. It may be an extraordinary goal, but let us not forget that we are an extraordinary people.

On this festival of Pesach, this occasion of the birth of the Jews as a nation (9), I wish all of you increased sense of Jewish identity, speciality and mission.


1. In Torah, too, the written as well as the oral law, there Is no order. Talmud Pesachim 6b, Bava Kama 102a. Cf. LaTorah U'Lamoadim, Rabbl S. Y. Zevin, p349.

2. Talmud, Megillah, 16a

3. Sparks of Glory, Prager. M. pXIV

4. Ibid pXIII

5. Cf. Ezeklel 20,32.

6. Exodus 19:5

7 Exodus 19:5

8 "The thought which enters your mind shall never come to pass, that which you say "we will be as the nations, as the families of the world"...' By my life", says the Lord G-d, "I will rule over you with a strong hand, and an outstretched arm..."" (Ezekiel 20:32).
9. Ezekiel 16:4,5 s (Rashl, Metzudot).

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Is the Kashrut Authority at a Crossroads?

After being threatened with legal action, I have removed the comments section from the blog site for the time being. In doing so I erred on the side of caution. My intention in publishing the article and inviting comments was to bring to the attention of the KA the depth of feeling in the community, not to embark on a protracted legal wrangle which would also involve the shule.

I urge people who wish to comment on this very important issue to do so through the pages of the Jewish News. I would also appreciate it if you would send me copies of your letters to the editor as well as any general comments you may have on the Kashrut situation here in Sydney. Please click here to email.
Concern regarding Kashrus and its availability is reaching a crescendo in Sydney. In this week's Australian Jewish News I have written an op-ed which appears below.

In addition, Isabelle Shapiro, Woollahra Councilor and member of South Head, has written a petition. There has already been an overwhelming response from members of the community who have seen it. If you are as concerned with the availability of a high and affordable standard of kosher products as I am, I urge you to download it from
here, sign it, encourage your family and friends to sign it, and return it to Isabelle as soon as possible. Although Isabelle would prefer hard copy, if this will lead to a delay, please feel free to copy and paste it into an email to Isabelle.

I would also like to hear your thoughts on Kashrut here in Sydney and publish them. You can either post these on our blog by clicking the link at the end of this article, or you can email them to me directly by clicking here. While I understand that this is a highly emotive issue, I do ask that all correspondence be civil and non-personal - we must be as careful of what goes out of our mouths as what goes in!

AS the rabbi of one of Sydney's largest congregations it is my duty to report that there are concerns about the Kashrut Authority (KA).

This should not be taken as meaning that the KA has acted inappropriately. What it does mean is that the KA has not enunciated its policies clearly and succinctly in a manner that both ordinary laymen and rabbis can understand. It may also mean that the KA has bitten off more than it can chew.

For example, outside the KA itself, I have not met anyone who really understands why certain kosher caterers and restaurants are permitted to buy meat from Melbourne whereas others are not. When challenged with this, the KA first attempts to give an explanation which for most is just too esoteric.

We are then told that due to this lack of community understanding, the KA is now working on a plan to increase the number of butchers here in Sydney under KA supervision, the intention being to eventually force all kosher suppliers to only purchase meat under KA supervision.

Frankly I don't understand this. If meat from Melbourne is currently acceptable by the KA, then surely the KA should facilitate its availability rather than attempt to block it. There are currently three hashgaschot (supervisory authorities in Melbourne) all of which are of a Charedi standard. Both caterers and the general public want freedom of choice.

Another issue is the cost of kashrut supervision at kosher establishments. In order to maintain the highest standards of kashrut, it is imperative that certain establishments have constant supervision. This is a given according to accepted standards of halacha. The question here is who is responsible for this cost -- the KA or the kosher establishment? The KA says that it is the responsibility of the establishments whereas the establishments say that they cannot possibly absorb this cost without making the cost of their product prohibitively expensive. As no-one expects the supervision to be without cost, this presents a dilemma.

I do not believe that this dilemma can be resolved within the current structure of KA here in Sydney as it may require subsidisation by the community. The community in turn would only be prepared to subsidise kashrut if the organisation was fully open and accountable.

I have the utmost respect for Rabbi Moshe Gutnick as a talmid chochom and someone extraordinarily well-versed in commercial kashrut, and I believe that we are very lucky to have someone of his calibre at the head of the rabbinic arm of the KA.

However it does seem to me that the KA has two quite distinct roles. One is the supervision of kashrut to the highest standards as should be expected by the community. The other is facilitating an open-market approach to kashrut and making kosher products available to as many people as possible at affordable prices, which may require subsidisation, and/or the input of experienced business leaders. I am not convinced that these two roles are best served by the same person, or indeed even by people sitting on the same board. It would be wise to take a page out of the book of Kosher Australia (formerly Melbourne Kashrut), a newly constituted community body which comprises strong rabbinic and lay leadership from across the Orthodox community. Better still, perhaps amalgamation with Kosher Australia should be considered. In a small market such as Australia, there appears to be great advantages in that.

The issue of kashrut is of utmost importance. There are many people in my community, and in communities across Sydney, who are "borderline" kosher. If they perceive things as being unfair, or just too hard, it won't take a lot for them to be pushed over the edge. And the current situation is certainly not conducive to more people adopting kashrut. It must be a major part of the role of a community-based kashrut organisation to ensure that keeping kosher is as easy, simple and affordable as possible that everyone will want to do it.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Work the Dough!

It seems to never end.

Throughout the United States, school yards are bloodied with young corpses.

In another American city, a teenager trashes her newborn child in the bathroom and returns to the high school Prom. No child is going to ruin the best year of her life.

Nor are we immune in Australia. A ten year old boy pushes a six year old over a precipice – for fun and a thrill.

Children murdered. Children the murderers.

Children who in Western thought and literature are synonymous with innocence.

Children in whose faces we see the faces of angels.

How? Why?

While Judaism certainly does not subscribe to the notion that Man is irretrievably born in sin, it does posit that man is born with a propensity towards selfishness and self-absorption.

It can be reined in. It can be transformed. But only with education, with discipline and with effort.

From a Jewish perspective, the notion of angelic childhood innocence is no more than childish simplicity.

Children are certainly innocent in the sense that they are not mature enough to be held culpable for their deeds; nor wise enough to understand the full implications of their actions. They are however hardly paragons of selflessness and purity.

When a child is born it is his animal soul which is predominant. A child is exclusively interested in himself and his own needs. A baby cries when its demands are not immediately met. A toddler wants the whole world to be at its beck and call. As G-d said to Cain after he killed Abel, “At the entrance (of the womb) sin lies in wait.”

Concern for the other – for a person or thing outside of the self – needs to be taught directly and by example. It needs to be nurtured and developed. Indeed our sages explain that it is only at the age of barmitzvah when, if proper preparation has been made, the G-dly soul becomes manifest and dominant. Even so, the conquest of selfishness remains a life-long struggle; “losing oneself” to something higher the major challenge of life.

 If we abdicate our responsibilities as parents in the mistaken belief that everything will work out well without any investment on our part – at best, we run the risk of producing a self-seeking, mercenary generation for whom there is but one question, “What’s in it for me?” At worse, a proliferation of violence which numbs the senses.

It must never be assumed that goodness is the natural state – that without adult intervention, children will tend towards goodness.

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, a favourite in school curriculums for generations, illustrates most graphically that this is simply not the case.

As parents it is our duty to form the characters of our children so that they grow up to become responsible adults. We must realize that our involvement and example are indispensable to the development of our children.

We are about to  celebrate Passover.

Passover is the festival of Matza – the non-rising, unleavened bread that our forefathers were commanded to eat during their Exodus from Egypt. Matza contrasts with Chametz – the rising, leavened bread which we eat the whole year round.

Pesach is also the festival of children.

And indeed both – Matza and children – are interrelated.

Matza – non-rising, “humble” bread represents righteousness.

Chametz – rising, “arrogant” bread represents evil.

Both Chametz and Matza are made of the same mixture of flour and water.

With Chametz the leavening process is allowed to proceed uninhibited.

With Matza the process is arrested by placing the dough in the oven within eighteen minutes of the flour being mixed with water.

Dough naturally progresses towards chametz. It is only human intervention and human involvement which can prevent chametz from forming.

So too, the human being: our natural propensity is towards selfishness, self-absorption, self-gratification – the root of all evil.

It is only when we “guard the matzot” – when we are vigilant and protect our children from both the outside evil and their own proclivity towards “Me above all else”, when we intervene in the otherwise inevitable downslide – that matza, “righteousness”, is formed.

But it is not possible to always stand guard over our children. And so the Torah gives us an alternative method of producing matza from dough which would otherwise become chametz.

If you continuously kneed the dough, not allow it to stand idle, work it so that it is “occupied” – then even if an entire day passes it will not become chametz.

And so too with our children.

Work them. Get them involved. Give them so many mitzvot that they are too busy to sin.

As one of the great Chassidic Masters once proclaimed:

“I do not want my students to avoid sin merely because they have controlled the urge to sin. I want them to avoid sin because they have no time for sin.”

“Don’ts” certainly have their place – and on occasion are indispensable. But they are only a small part of responsible parenting. It is the “Do’s” which are really important. It is the “Do’s” which create a positive personality.

So teach them to do mitzvot. Teach them to express care and concern for others. Teach them to pray and study. And by all means involve them in recreational activities, for as Maimonides says, “maintaining a healthy and perfect body is a manner of Divine Service”.

Listen to the Master; ensure that they are so busy doing good things that they have no time to sin.

And that’s good advice for adults too.

Friday, March 04, 2005

A Crown of Gold and Sackcloth

Moses descends the mountain, sees the golden calf, and smashes the holy Tablets, placed in his hands by G-d A-lmighty Himself.

After eighty days of negotiating, pleading and begging, the Israelites are given a second chance. A new set of tablets replace the first, shattered set.

But whatever happened to the broken pieces of the first Tablets? Were those holy pieces of stone, carved with G-d's own hand, swept away as just so much rubble?

Not at all, explains the Talmud. The shattered stones were given a place of honour in the Ark right next to the second set.

"The tablets and broken tablets lay side by side in the Ark".

Hey - I hear you ask - that seems to be going too far. Sure, the broken pieces should be treated with respect. But to put them in the Holy Ark right next to the "real", "whole" tablets? Isn't that a bit extreme?

Mordechai, the leader of the Jews, was famous even before the story of Purim. However this was nothing on the honour that he received after the Jewish victory. Now "his fame went forth throughout all the lands".

Wherever he went, Mordechai wore a large crown of gold. A Jew, said Mordechai, should be proud of his Jewishness. He also had no reason to be embarrassed by his success.

As befitting a person of great stature, Mordechai minted coins upon which his image was prominently displayed - Mordechai was no "shemediger" as they say in Yiddish. He certainly wasn't one to shy away from fame.

A cursory look at these coins would reveal something very strange indeed. Instead of a single image of Mordechai on one side of the coin, as is common practice, there were two, one on each side!

Going a little too far, no?

Your curiosity piqued, you may take a closer look. You would then find something of even greater interest.

On the one side - an image of Mordechai with a great crown of gold.

On the other - an image of Mordechai with sackcloth on his head. (The same sackcloth he wore when the decree of annihilation hung over the heads of the Jews.)

What was Mordechai saying with his coin?

Reb Yisroel Rhuzhin was a famous Chassidic Rebbe. He too was not the embarrassed type. Every day he would ride in the countryside with his private regal coach harnessed to four horses. Never mind a crown, he wore shoes of gold. Reb Yisroel believed that Jews should live in style.

One day the Chassidim snuck into his bedroom. They wanted a better look at those shoes.

Imagine their shock when they discovered stones in their shoes? Their Rebbe may be projecting an image of royalty to the outside - inside, however, he was in deep pain.

In another generation, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, wrote to a friend from a posh hotel, "as the custom of the Schneerson family, outer opulence: inner brokenness".

The above contrasts can be understood on many levels - some with deep mystical connotations. Here I would like to suggest an insight that is both simple and relevant.

No matter what successes we enjoy in life - and we all experience successes in one or more areas of our lives - it ill behoves us to take them for granted. We need to maintain a sense of balance - a sense of the transience of our current situation. An understanding that what is may not always be. That what is should be viewed as a precious gift for which appreciation must be constantly expressed.

This applies to one's health, one's relationships, one's financial situation, and even to one's spiritual level.

When we don't take things for granted, we automatically become more refined, appreciative human beings. We also become more spiritual. We begin to see the wonder, the magic and the beauty - indeed the Divine - in our relationships, in our successes and in the world around us. What for others is common, everyday and unexciting - is to us nothing short of miraculous.

When we don't take things for granted, we don't fall into the trap of being careless with those things that are most precious to us. We realise that maintaining them takes almost as much effort as gaining them in the first instance.

If the above is true generally, it is certainly true in the spiritual arena. Attaining a spiritual level - a level of refinement, goodness, of care and concern for G-d and one's fellow human being - is not something that just happens. You are not born good or bad, refined or course. You have to work on self-improvement. And even should you achieve a level of spiritual enlightenment - without constant effort, you may just as easily lose it. This indeed is one of the central themes of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi's magnum opus, Tanya. Rabbi Schneur Zalman explains that whereas a person must have a positive self-concept, viewing himself in a good and positive light, he must at the same time see himself as on the edge of a spiritual precipice. He must understand that without due effort on his part he could quite easily fall.

Thinking well of oneself is an indispensable ingredient of success without which a person would be plagued with depression. Taking for granted one's goodness leads to complacency and inaction.

Developing a sense of our innate goodness, one the one hand, and of our delicate state of balance on the other, is essential for our spiritual growth.

And so:

* A golden crown on one side, but sackcloth on the other.

* Complete tablets in one half of the Ark, broken tablets in the other.

* Golden shoes on the outside, stones within.

* Outer pomp, inner brokenness.

King Solomon possessed a ring upon which he engraved the words: "This too will pass".

When things were at their height, he looked at those words. They reminded him to neither take his successes for granted, nor allow his successes to go to his head.

The words on the king's ring, served another, perhaps even more important purpose - one which is highly relevant to many of us.

When at a certain period of his life, King Solomon was deprived of his kingship and all hope seemed lost, he again looked at his ring and was reminded: "This too will pass".

There may be sackcloth in the present, but the hope of a golden crown in the future lives on.

The tablets may now be broken, but they will soon be repaired.

The stones will again give way to golden shoes, the brokenness to wholesomeness, the sinfulness to righteousness.

"This too will pass".

Friday, February 25, 2005

The Fiery Coin

It was just after the Exodus that Moshe commanded the Israelites in the name of G-d to give the half shekel contribution, "the rich shall not give more, nor shall the poor give less, to atone for their souls".

The Midrash records that as Moshe was puzzled by this command, G-d pulled out a fiery half-shekel coin from under His Throne of Glory and announced, "This they shall give".

But what is so hard to understand about a command to give a coin towards the Temple? And if there is some difficulty, how is it resolved by a "fiery coin from under the Throne of Glory"?

In explanation of this Midrash, the Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that what bothered Moses was how could money, the archetype of materialism, atone for a sin as serious as the worshiping of the golden calf.

By showing him a fiery coin, G-d was saying, "Moshe, you are right. It is only money, and money on its own cannot achieve atonement. However when it is a fiery half-shekel, a half-shekel given with soul and enthusiasm, then even money can reach right under the Divine Throne of Glory."

But note: G-d didn't show Moshe merely fire, He showed him a coin of fire.

It is true than one requires fire, but one only also requires the coin. And a very specific coin at that. Not a shekel, not a quarter of a shekel, but a half a shekel. The rich were not permitted to give more, nor were the poor permitted to give less.


Herein lies one of the great truths of Judaism.

There are many people who think that Judaism is all about feelings, that emotions speak louder than actions, that religion is all in the heart, "I'm a Jew in my heart", goes the common refrain.

We often hear the Jew say:

I acknowledge that in order to make my life meaningful there needs to be a point of contact between me and G-d. There are times when my heart spontaneously overflows with a love of G-d, a love of being Jewish, and a love of all creation. But what makes it real is the fact that it is unrestrained, that it is spontaneous. I cannot identify with these so very specific religious practices. Eat precisely this amount of matzah, make sure your tallit is the right size, light Shabbat candles at exactly the right time. It's in your heart, man!

What this Jew fails to understand is that when you do things merely because you feel like doing them, and when and where your emotions dictate, what you are actually saying is that you want G-d when and where you want Him, but you don't want Him to define YOUR when and YOUR where, your time and your space. What you are saying is I want G-d to be there for ME, to fill my spiritual needs, but I don't want Him to invade my time and my space, and certainly not my body.

Says G-d, "I want your heart, I want your enthusiasm, I want your warmth. Your feelings are so very important to me - performing a mitzvah without feeling is like having a soul without a body.

"But I also want your body. And I want your feelings to be translated into real time and real space. I want you to mould your world around me. I want you to define what's good for your body on my terms - eat kosher - and hence create a consecrated body. I want you to define your time along my lines - keep Shabbos precisely when I say so - and hence create consecrated time. I want you to have a tallit of the right dimensions - and hence create consecrated space."

Says G-d: "I want the fire, but I want the half-shekel, too."

Friday, February 18, 2005

On Being Jewish and Democratic

Those in shule last Friday night heard Major General Uzi Dayan, a nephew of the famous Moshe Dayan, and a formidable military man in his own right, speak on the Security Fence.

Actually, he was supposed to speak on the Security Fence. Instead, the General chose to speak on what he called the bigger strategic issue. Terrorism, he explained, was not an existential threat to Israel. There would be casualties but it could be dealt with. The real threat was the demographic time-bomb. By 2020 there would be an Arab majority between the Mediteranian and the Jordon River. To counter this, Israel had only one choice - to shrink to a size that assured a Jewish majority within its borders.

The reason why Israel should withdraw from the territories, explained Dayan, had absolutely nothing to do with the Arabs or reducing the threat of terror. Abbas could not be counted upon to control the terror in the long term and it was not in his interest to do so. The only hope Israel had of dealing with the threat of terror was an exceedingly strong IDF.

Israel must unilaterally withdraw from the territories for one reason only - so that it's Jewish Democratic integrity could be maintained. Dayan then went on to explain that it was he who convinced Sharon of the need for unilateral withdrawal in 2002.

The above is a brief but, I believe, accurate summary of what Major General Dayan said.

The rest is commentary...

For three decades we heard from the left the mantra of "Land for Peace". After Oslo, after the withdrawal from Lebanon and after Barak's attempt to give away the Temple Mount led to the murderous intifada, the bankruptcy of this slogan became patently obvious to all. You would have expected the architects of withdrawal to move shamefacedly and quietly into a corner. And we would have had to forgive them for making a sincere but fatal mistake.

But no. They have miraculously managed to reappear with greater force than before, but with a slightly altered slogan. "Land for Democracy".

Of course, there is nothing new or surprising in this. Prime Minister Sharon has convincingly demonstrated that the only way to deal with Arab terror was by crushing it, not by negotiation or giving land, and he has been eminently successful. Indeed so successful that other countries now seek out Israel's expertise in this area. Similarly, the mantra of "the need to maintain a Jewish Democratic State" has been endlessly repeated for the last couple of years.

Still I wonder how many people fully grasp what is being said: The withdrawal from Gaza has nothing to do with security and everything to do with maintaining a Democratic Jewish State.

To put it bluntly: the withdrawal from Gaza is for ideological reasons. It is taken as a given that the Palestinian Arabs should all be given the vote - something that they have nowhere else in the Middle East (with the exception of Iraq...). And because giving them the vote will overturn the Jewish majority in Israel, we must shrink Israel. (Question: What happens when the Arab majority in the Gallillee democratically votes to secede and join the new Palestinian State?)

No one deems the moral question of giving the vote to our sworn enemies even worth pondering. Rather than how can we give murderers and terrorists the vote, the question asked is how can we not give them the vote. Doesn't it occur to the government to put first things first? First let them educate their children for peace, first let them put an end to the media, educational institutions and text-books nurturing hatred, anti-Semitism and murder. After that we can deal with democracy and borders. Wasn't there de-Nazification after WWII before Germany was given democracy?

Why is it that Jews do what gentiles would never dream of doing? What are we trying to prove and to whom? Does anyone really believe that someone is going to applaud us?

So then we hear the argument that we are not doing it for them. We are doing it for ourselves. It's about our need to maintain the moral high ground.

The moral high ground? Jews telling Jews that there are certain places that they may not live is moral and ethical? If a non-Jewish government would say that Jews cannot live in certain suburbs of Sydney there would be an outcry. But it's OK for Jews to force Jews out of parts of Israel?!?!

And even if you believe in democracy above everything, is what is being put forward here democracy? It is part of the democratic tradition in all normal countries that individuals are protected against unfairness from government. That if people are attacked, robbed and murdered, they are not told by government to move to another area and give their homes, lands and businesses away to their oppressors - but are rather protected by their government. Indeed it is the very first responsibility of any government to protect even individual citizens. That is the democratic tradition!

What is being put forward here is not democracy at all, but a perversion of democracy. It's a case of Jews doing what we have historically done all too often. Making nice for the gentiles at the expense of our own.

And to think that it is those who wish to maintain possession of the territories for religious or nationalistic reasons who are called the ideologues!

Let no one say that religion is dead. It's just got a different name - Secular Democracy (or a perverted version of it) - and those who pursue it, do so with a passion and irrationality that would put many traditionally religious people to shame.

We believe and trust that "the Guardian of Israel neither sleeps nor slumbers." But as so often in the past, we have given Him a really tough job - protecting us against ourselves. Let's pray that He does a good job of it!

Friday, February 11, 2005

Aristotle and Maimonides

When the Jewish People were offered the Torah on Mount Sinai, they responded, “We will do and we will understand.”

But what is more important, unquestioning doing or meaningful understanding?

The two parashiot that refer to the giving of the Torah are Yitro and Mishpatim. Yet there is a difference between them. Whereas Yitro primarily discusses the Great Sound and Light Show that occurred on Mt Sinai, and the Revelation of G-d as He spoke the Ten Commandments, Mishpatim mainly deals with the intricacies of Jewish civil law. Indeed, Mishpatim is the foundation of the major Talmudic tractates Bava Kama, Bave Metzia, Bava Batra and Sanhedrin upon which the entire body of Jewish jurisprudence is based. Now although everything that is stated in these tractates is Divinely inspired, and we are mandated to follow them as if they were given directly by G-d, it was human beings who, based on the Torah’s rules and principles, created this awesome body of work.

The reason why the Jewish sages of old were able to develop the relatively small parasha of Mishpatim into an entire legal framework is because it was based on sound logical principles. This is different to the commandments of Kashrut, or Shatnez and Impurity, which we accept as Divine decrees, but which we don’t truly understand. (In Torah terminology, laws that lend themselves to human understanding are called mishpatim; those that don’t are called chukim.)

So put it in another way: Yitro deals with G-d’s gift of the Torah, whereas Mishpatim deals with the Jewish People’s understanding and development of it (or at least of those parts of Torah that are humanly accessible.)

Interestingly, parashat Mishpatim is the eighteenth parasha of the Torah, whereas parashat Yitro is the seventeenth.

Is there perhaps some significance in this?

The Lubavitcher Rebbe points out that eighteen – chai – refers to life, whereas seventeen is the gematria of tov – good.

The ultimate good is G-d, as is understood from the English word for G-d.

Life, on the other hand, refers to something that you can grasp, something that you can understand, something that you can really enjoy - to the extent that it becomes part and parcel of you. It is interesting that the Hebrew word for taste is the same as the Hebrew word for reason – Taam. If you understand something it has taste. It is, as we say in Yiddish, gishmak! And it is certainly alive.

However at the beginning of Mishpatim there is a Vav, meaning AND. The AND connects the two parshiot of Yitro and Mishpatim. Rashi points out the deep significance of this. Don’t think that your understanding can be independent of G-d. Rather just as you acknowledge the Divine Source of those laws that you don’t understand, you must similarly acknowledge the Divine Source of those laws that you do understand. It is just that in some cases G-d has allowed His Wisdom to be understandable by us, and in some not. It all however comes from the same source – G-d.

This is an important principle not only in understanding the source of Jewish Civil Law, but in understanding both the greatness and limitations of human understanding.

The Hebrew word for Wisdom is Chochmo. And the Kabbalists point out that this word contains within it two words: Koach Mah, literally “The Power of What”. To be truly wise, one has to have the power to see beyond Wisdom, to stand in amazement and wonder as you are overwhelmed by the “What”. And to understand that Wisdom itself is sourced in that which is above it.

Even mathematicians now acknowledge that there are certain things that they just have to accept, as they can never be proven. In Chassidic Philosophy we find it stated that the hanachot rishonot - the axioms - of any scientific discipline are beyond logic and can never be proven. This is an indication that intellect and logic has a source beyond itself.

Early in the twentieth century there were philosophers – Bertrand Russell among them - who were very uncomfortable with this. They just did not want to accept that there were things beyond human comprehension in as an exact a discipline as mathematics. However the German mathematician Kurt Godel proved it once and for all. (You can read about all about this in Simon Singh’s amazing best-seller, Fermat’s Last Theorem).

Both Aristotle and Maimonides were great philosophers and both believed in G-d. But as Rabbi Sholom Ber of Lubavitch points out there was a big difference between them. He explains it by way of a metaphor. Belief in G-d is a non-dimensional point. Logic is the circle drawn around that point. Maimonides commenced with the point and drew the circle around it. The centre was clear and the circle even and beautiful. Aristotle commenced with the circle and tried to reach the point. The circle was uneven, and he never truly reached the centre.

Accepting that there is something beyond our logic, being able to stand in amazement at the awesome WHAT, not only humbles us and centres us in Truth, it enables us to think clearly and logically as well. When, however, we commence with logic that is devoid of belief in the hope that we will work it out for ourselves, even should we be as wise as Aristotle, both our logic and our faith will be flawed.

Let us return to our original question. What is more important; the unquestioning doing or the meaningful understanding?

Both of course. This is why the angels placed two crowns on the head of every Jew at Sinai – one for Naaseh – we will do and one for Nishma – we will understand.

However that wise generation of Jews understood that the Naaseh must always come before the Nishma. For it is in the Naaseh that the Nishma is ultimately rooted.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Fire and Water!

Fire and Water: the two staples of human life and development.

Without water, nothing can live; with water, the possibilities are endless. This is why so much effort and money is being invested into discovering whether there is or was water on Mars.

And fire: at the very onset of civilization, what distinguished Man from all other creatures was his mastery of fire. Fire is energy in its rawest state. And to control fire, was to be control the world.

In Kabbalistic thought, Fire and Water represent G-d's first tools of Creation. The Talmud in tractate Chagiga explains that the Hebew word "Shamayim" (=heavens) is made up of two words: Esh (=fire) and Mayim (=water). According to Kabbalah, Water represents Divine Kindness (Chessed) whereas Fire represents Divine Judgement (Gevurah). Indeed the two most common names of G-d represent His acting in a manner of Chessed (Hashem) and Gevurah (Elokim).

Yet while fire and water are indispensable for Creation and the success of human life, they can, as we have recently seen in the Tsunami and the Australian bush-fires, be responsible for Destruction on an enormous scale.

Indeed this is the manner in which G-d had created the world - the greater the potential for good, the greater the potential for evil. "This (referring to good) parallel to this (referring to evil), G-d did make."

Another example of this is the drive for sexual gratification. On the one hand, it is the most infinite, creative and beautiful power which the human body possesses. Infinite and creative - because it gives us the power to live on forever through progeny which are unique to us. And beautiful because it enables us to bond with the deepest intimacy with another human being.

But that same power which contains so much good, can also be the cause of much evil and suffering.

The Rabbis put it very well. They explain that the Hebrew word for Man is Ish whereas the Hebrew word for Woman is Isha. Both these words contain the Hebrew word for fire - Esh. However the Hebrew word for man also includes a Yud, whereas the Hebrew word for woman also includes a Heh. When combined Yud and Heh make up G-d's name. And so the Rabbis explain: If a Man and Woman merit - the Divine Presence (represented by the letters Yud and Heh) rests between them. If they don't merit - a fire consumes them.

The very power that can make their lives Divine can destroy them.

In our own time we are in the midst of one of the greatest technological revolutions of mankind - the internet. On the one hand it creates global links between human beings, grants unprecedented access to information and gives unimaginable power to the individual. On the other, if abused it can be the cause of great physical and spiritual destruction, may Hashem protect us.

And when it comes to human beings, our rabbis quite clearly state: "the greater a person is, the greater his evil inclination is". After all, it's only fair that a person with the potential for greatness, should have an equal potential for it's opposite. Otherwise, there would be a lack of balance, an absence of free choice, in the world.

Although all human beings are special, we Jews possess a unique Divine Spark - Chelek Elokah Mimaal Mammash - literally a portion of G-d. It is because of this that G-d calls us in the Torah "A Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation". With this spark we can achieve what no one else can achieve. And indeed we have. But we need to choose wisely, for as our Rabbis say concerning the Jewish People: "They are compared to the stars and they are compared to the dirt of the ground. When they rise, they rise higher than the stars, but when they fall, they fall lower than the ground."

Let's not kid ourselves. As human beings and especially as Jews, each of us has enormous, infinite and unique potential. We do however have a choice: to use it or abuse it. And although most people would not choose to actively abuse their potential to do evil, many simply waste it.

And what could be more abusive than a person with the potential to become a spiritual giant choosing to become a midget?

Friday, January 07, 2005

Tsunami: An Act of G-d?

I received this week a letter from a survivor of the Tsunami who was deeply shaken by his experience. He asked me what can best be described as a number of theological questions. Although I am currently on vacation, the questions are so significant , and are so widely relevant, that I have decided to respond right away. Below you will find both the original question and my reply, although to protect his privacy I have changed his name to Netanel.

Please remember what I wrote last week: understanding all the theological responses in the world doesn't excuse us from doing what we need to do both as individuals and as governments. To give support and to lend a hand. Governments also need to do all that is humanly possible to ensure that this kind of disaster doesn't happen again.

Should you wish to respond to this article, please scroll down to the end and click on the word Comment.

Dear Rabbi,

Just thought I would let you know that 6 hours before the tsunami struck I was at Patong beach and left at midnight to go to my hotel on the eastern side of Phuket island so by sheer luck I survived. Why was I not killed? Why was I staying on the east of the island away from the disaster as opposed to the west where there was so much carnage? Why did this happen? What do we as jews do with such an event in terms of our beliefs? Did others deserve death and not me?

Perhaps what happened to me was a miracle so there are some positives to come out of this tragedy. I don't know . I simply write to you to say I am alive but very shaken.

My love to the family,


Dear Netanel,

Wow, thank G-d that you were one of the "lucky" ones who managed to escape the devastation.

But was it really luck?

Why indeed did you decide to stay on the east of the island? Was it really your decision based on perhaps the quality and availability of accommodation or nearby tourist spots? Or did it merely seem like your decision?

According to Judaism, "Everything is in the hand of Heaven apart from Fear of Heaven". This means that every decision that we make that doesn't have a moral or religious dimension is not really ours at all. Human beings are certainly autonomous - but only in the moral and religious sphere. All other decisions are made by G-d and are merely implanted into our minds. Where we decide to live, the kind of career we pursue, or even where we vacation - these are all decided by G-d. As the prophet says, "From G-d, the footsteps of man are directed."

Therefore there was no luck at all involved in your decision to stay on the other side of the island. It was G-d's plan.

You ask whether others deserved death more than you. Your question is based on a false paradigm. It implies that people who die deserve to die as some form of punishment. This is clearly not the case. It is decided at the time of birth, and confirmed each Rosh HaShana, how long a person will live in order to fulfill his life's purpose. It is possible through one's actions to lengthen or shorten this time, but this requires either extraordinary good behaviour or extraordinary bad behaviour on the part of the individual. For the most part, people live as long as it was determined that they are going to live. It may appear to be unjust to us puny human beings who judge everything on the scale of our lifetimes here on earth - but on G-d's scale where our life on earth is only a small part of our spiritual existence, and where even human history on earth is not viewed from the perspective of one generation, justice takes on an entirely different meaning. There are souls for whom just a few short years is enough to achieve their life's purpose, perhaps because they were here before and are only tying up loose ends, while there are others who require entire lifetimes.

Belief that life and death are from G-d does not excuse us from reacting with deep emotion. From our part, we must mourn the great loss of life, and even cry out to G-d in great dismay at His actions, just as Moses did when faced with the sufferings of the Jews in Egypt. This is what G-d wants us to do. He doesn't want us to merely accept His decrees, because although from His perspective it may be understood, from ours it is extraordinarily painful, and we must give vent to that pain. Indeed we are told that if a person doesn't cry when hearing of a death, he is considered cruel and callous.

Nevertheless, G-d's response was that it was due to Moses' limited vision that he didn't understand - this in spite of the fact that he was the greatest of all prophets. How much more so when it comes to us. This is similar to a young child who cries when he perceives that his parents are unfair to him. Even after all of all his parents' explanations as to why their actions are really for his own benefit he is not consoled. Both the parent's actions and the child's reaction are understood; they are not contradictory but are operating on different planes of knowledge and experience.

Therefore just as no good luck was involved in your decision to stay on the opposite side of the island, no bad luck was involved in the decision of those who were on the west side. It was all Divinely ordained.

The same applies to thousands of villagers who perished around the Indian Ocean rim. Although it may be difficult for us to understand, each one of those people were where they were because that is where they were meant to be. Whether it was the person swept out to sea, or the person who survived by clinging onto a log.

There was no general disaster, although it may appear that way, but rather as we say on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur in Unesaneh Tokef: G-d is like a shepherd who counts his sheep individually. Each person is observed and led by G-d in a unique way - according to that person's individual destiny.

Earlier this week I read in the Sydney Morning Herald that a rabbi agreed with a Christian cleric that G-d had nothing to do with Tsunami. He was further reported as saying that to think differently causes unnecessary theological problems. Apart from being in conflict with Jewish thought - even Maimonides who says that Divine Providence does not apply (and this too needs elaboration) to individual animals, agrees that it applies to individual humans - I find this notion appalling. It implies that G-d has no control over what happens in His world. Rather than let G-d off the hook, this view leads us to conclude that on the individual level there is no judge and no justice. If you chance to be in the way of the Tsunami, your number is up and not even G-d can help you. There is no significance in your death, and no significance in the lives of those who were saved. In fact there is no significance in anything. Now that is a serious theological problem.

It is as a clever man once said: for one who believes in G-d, evil may be a problem; for one who doesn't everything is a problem. We need to remember that every person, and every family that faces what appears to be a premature death is facing it's own individual Tsunami. Are we to say that these deaths too are just random occurrences? It just happened that his heart gave way. It just happened that she contracted cancer. It's just statistics that a certain proportion of the population will contract these diseases - too bad it had to be him or her. There is no real meaning behind either their lives or their deaths.

G-d forbid!

I don't have to believe that the Tsunami was punishment for me to believe that it came from G-d. I also don't have to understand the Divine reason behind the Tsunami to believe that it came from G-d. As another wise man once said - I wouldn't want to believe in a G-d Who is so shallow that every Tom, Dick and Harry can understand Him.

I really don't know what G-d had in mind when He unleashed this Flood. What I do know is that, on balance, there is far more order in the world than disorder; that in spite of the inevitable hickups and backsliding, the world is steadily becoming a better place.

We human beings tend to take good and order for granted, and are shocked by what appears to us to be evil and disorder. In a godless world we should be accepting of evil and disorder and be amazed when confronted with good and order. This seemingly irrational response is itself testimony to the deep and innate belief in a Divine Being which all human beings have.

Or to quote Einstein: I cannot believe in a G-d who plays dice.

Unfortunately, it is only when confronted with apparent evil and disorder that we stop taking the good and order for granted, and realize how appreciative we ought to be. And because there is so much order, we ought to understand that even when we are struck by what appears to us to be disorder - that is all that it is - it's appearance to us.

In your individual case, I would suggest that you take note of the fact that G-d made a decision uniquely pertinent to you. He chose you to live because Your life here on earth has great significance to Him. And if He chose you to live, it is because He has expectations of you which you are yet to fulfill. Don't squander the great gift of life that has been given you. Study G-d's Holy Torah, His Guide for Life, and learn what still remains to be done.

May Hashem protect you always,

With best wishes for a G00d Shabbos,

Rabbi Benzion Milecki