Yechezkel’s Prophecies, Premature Escape from Egypt, and more!
The first step in spiritual growth
I’d like to begin by reading to you an article from this week’s USA Today:
“The Houston Texans aren’t even bothering with the pretense.
On their website is a photo gallery of the finalists from last weekend’s cheerleader tryouts, and visitors are encouraged to vote for their favorites. Are these action shots of the women that highlight their athletic ability or dance skills? Do they include a list of their qualifications?
Of course not…
Cheerleaders from two NFL teams have filed gender discrimination complaints in the past month, detailing the demeaning ways in which they were treated. Restrictions on what they can and can’t post on social media. Rules that prohibit contact with players, and put the onus on the women to avoid it.”
“Is it any wonder?” continues the author, “The underlying premise of NFL cheerleaders is degrading, presenting women as nothing more than objects to be leered at. With skimpy, suggestive outfits as their “uniform,” their only purpose is to titillate.
This is not a criticism of cheerleading overall. In some forms, it very much is an athletic endeavor, a hybrid of acrobatics and gymnastics. The International Olympic Committee has even recognized cheerleading as a sport and it could some day make an appearance in the Games.
Proponents will say that most women who are NFL cheerleaders are professionally trained dancers who just want the opportunity to do what they love. That they play an important role in maintaining the team’s positive image with promotional appearances and community service.
All of which is true.
But that isn’t the real reason 26 of the 32 NFL teams have cheerleaders, and everybody knows it. They’re there to be eye candy, blow-up dolls come to life.”
And then you have this, about a growing trend in the Orthodox community, from a recent op-ed in the Times of Israel, “Entire magazines are devoid of women. There are children’s books, textbooks, comics, and advertisements in which no mothers and no daughters are represented. Beautifully illustrated Shabbat zemirot booklets have grandfathers, fathers and sons; there are no grandmothers, mothers, or daughters. I even have an illustrated Megillat Esther sans Esther.
It’s a bizarre and sad world in which Jewish women are considered immodest, no matter how modestly they dress and act…
Mishpacha is one of the most prominent publications to omit images of women and girls. When it recently profiled Mrs. Yehudis Jaffe, the article was accompanied by photographs of the educator’s husband and father.
Similarly, in these publications, advertisements show smiling male professionals — real estate agents or dentists, for example — yet their female colleagues are represented by flowers, shapeless icons, or simply a name. The uneven portrayal of men and women doing the same job looks ridiculous, but worse is the fact that, since photographs are worth a thousand words of marketing, the female business owners are at a competitive disadvantage with regard to their market share, with reduced chances for livelihood and clientele.” (Shoshana Keats Jaskol)
When I sent a picture of Rachel Shar to our graphic designer for the invitation to our upcoming dinner, she wrote back, “Would you like me to blur Rachel’s face?” She was joking, of course. But that’s the world we live in.
And it’s a world that is not, in any stretch of the imagination, Halachic. There is no law that states that women’s faces must be hidden from view. There is no law that states that when we wish Mazel Tov to a couple on their baby we only say the man’s name and not the woman – who pushed that baby out!! There is no law that directs us to marginalize women from the world. This is not Jewish Law.
Now, I think, I hope that people who do have such practices acknowledge that. Most of them are knowledgeable enough to acknowledge that this is not Jewish Law. What they will tell you is that it is a chumra, a stringency. Not Jewish Law but an adopted practice, taken on voluntarily, for one purpose or another.
Now in many circles, ours included, the word chumra has a dirty connotation. And I understand why it does, but I don’t think it should. Because chumras do have a place in Judaism. There is an important principal that we learned today from the Metzora – the man or woman, who according to our Sages, has a talking problem. He or she simply cannot resist gossiping. So how do we rectify such behavior? How do we get it out of our system?
The Torah’s approach is by being a little stringent, maybe even a little extreme. The gossiper is excommunicated for a short and sometimes long period of time. They live in complete solitude and don’t get to speak to anyone. And yes, no social media.
The principal is that by going to the opposite extreme, by not speaking at all, one ultimately finds their way back to a healthy way of living.
We find this principal in many places. Maimonides, in his work on ethics writes, “A person who has a bad temper should act as follows: If he is struck or cursed, he should not take it to heart at all. He should continue to act in this manner for a long period of time until his trait of anger is uprooted from his heart. [So too o]ne who is arrogant should degrade himself greatly. He should sit in the least honorable seat and wear worn-out clothes which shame their wearer. He should do the above and the like until the arrogance is uprooted from him…So too should a person behave regarding all character traits. If he is on one extreme he should move to the opposite extreme and accustom himself to such behavior for a good while until he may return to the proper middle path.”
It’s true for character flaws and it’s true for mitzvos and aveiros. If one finds themselves slipping in one area or another of Jewish Law, and let’s say for our intents and purposes, in an area that relates to sexuality, and in order to combat their weakness they do something a little extreme, something out of the ordinary – all the power to them.
Where it gets complicated is when that stringency impacts more than myself; when my spiritual growth is paved on someone else’s expense. Which is why I am not a fan of blurred faces or omitted names becoming the standard in Orthodox Jewish circles. To me, although they are radically different, it has too much in common with the cheerleaders we spoke of earlier. We have the objectification of women by showing too much and the objectification of women by showing too little. Both objectify women. Both present an unhealthy view to men and women alike. Both impact impressionable girls trying to understand themselves and who they are, damaging their self-image. And both impact impressionable boys trying to understand the other gender, paving the way for all sorts of problems in their future relationships with the other gender.
Now I showed this paragraph to someone before I spoke and he said, “You know, the only thing people will walk away with is that you told them that magazines like Mishpacha, that blur faces are no different than magazines like…” Well, you know what he was referring to.
Well, I guess I sort of did say that. Didn’t I?
But to be perfectly clear, the oversexualization of women and the erasing of women are coming from very, very different places; different universes to be exact. Underexposure, the blurring of faces and all that it’s associated with, while I disagree with it, is coming from a place of holiness; an extreme sensitivity to sexuality in a world that pretends no such thing exists. I have sympathy for where they’re coming from, but I don’t like the solution.
Overexposure is coming from a place of hypocrisy, a place that speaks loudly of women’s progress and behind closed doors and not even behind closed doors, demeans women through and through.
But both of them, as different as they are, in my opinion have consequences that I would like to avoid. Both of them objectify and marginalize. The good does not outweigh the bad.
And here’s where I’d like to add a few qualifications:
One, we are talking about chumros, stringencies, self-imposed additions to Jewish Law. This would be entirely different if we were talking about Jewish Law. As you know, there are certain laws which are uncomfortable to some, at times painfully so. When we encounter such laws, we try as best as we can to be sensitive, to search for leniencies if appropriate, but at the end of the day we abide by them, because it is the law. The same is not true for chumras, which are not obligatory. Before accepting or imposing such stringencies we want to be really sure that it’s a good idea.
The second qualification is this – when we throw away the bathwater, when we protest, when we speak up about the marginalization of women, let’s not throw away the baby. Meaning, let’s not institutionalize a chumra with negative ramifications. But the person, the individual who says they don’t want to have a smartphone because they’re afraid of all the stuff that’s out there – cool. The individual who doesn’t frequent certain places because of what they’ll see – that’s great. The person who is a little stiff in their interactions with those of the opposite gender because they’re afraid of where it may go – all the power to them.
Those are chumras (and some of them many not even be!) that I applaud. If done correctly, with wisdom and with sensitivity, they could only serve to enhance one’s life. And when we see such an individual, or maybe, yes maybe even a whole group of such people who choose to opt-in to a certain, more stringent lifestyle; people, or groups of people who have made a conscious choice to do something or to not do something, we should look at them, not with scorn, but with envy – here is a man or woman who chooses to go above and beyond.
As a society and as a community, we don’t have to choose between cheerleaders and blurred faces. We could just do what’s right. We could study the beautiful laws that we possess that recognize the power of sexuality on the one hand and the dignity of every man or woman on the other. As individuals, there is room for the personal chumra; we can do more, and frankly, we should do more, in this area or in any, as long as it’s done with self-awareness, with wisdom, and with a deep sensitivity to the people around us.
Undeserving Tzedakkah collectors, the impact of pornography, the never-ending Mitzvah, and the world may really be coming to an end.
In memory of my uncle, Avreimi Motzen, hy’d, a brave soldier taken too early in life, who embodied this idea of individual greatness through community
About five years ago, a man by the name Aharon ran the New York City Marathon in four hours, fourteen minutes, and thirty-one seconds. That in it of itself, that’s pretty impressive. But even more impressive was the fact that Aharon was pronounced dead five years earlier. A building had collapsed on him and the first medic to reach the scene didn’t feel a pulse. Turns out he was wrong. There was a very, very faint pulse. However, there were eight pieces of shrapnel lodged in his head, all of his teeth were knocked out, his nose was dislodged, and his stomach and upper left side of his body was completely crushed.
The first of many surgeries lasted eighteen hours. After the surgery he lay in a coma for ten days. After waking from his coma, because of the trauma to his head, he had to relearn how to talk and he had to relearn how to move his body. His mind would say, move your finger – but it didn’t move. He wanted to say, I love you, to his wife – but the words couldn’t come out. With time and a lot of work, he did learn how to speak again and he did learn how to walk and move. So with six years of intensive rehab under his belt, Aharon decided to run the New York City Marathon. And he did.
Here’s a guy who could have just been extremely content with the ability to get around; to talk, to walk. But he wasn’t content with that. And so he pushed himself and pushed himself and pushed himself until he was able to do things that in the words of one of his doctors was nothing less than miraculous. He transcended his regular physical limitations and became someone else.
And this idea of transcending ourselves is an important one. Polonius has never been more popular – as a society, we love the idea of being true to thyself. Or in the words of Oscar Wilde, “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.” Right?
Nowadays, it’s all about being authentic. Being real. Telling people the truth about what you think of them. Acting the way you feel like acting and not holding back in any way. And it’s very liberating to be authentic, to not have to hold back and push yourself and all that difficult stuff… but it’s also a terrible, terrible idea. Why would I want to just be myself when I can actually be so much greater? As someone recently told me, “I wish people would stop being so real and instead, would just be nice.”
Rav Tzadok HaCohen, one of the most profound Jewish thinkers of the 20th century, writes that although we are generally not allowed to lie, when it comes to growth, the only way to grow is to lie, to pretend. Because if we don’t act better than who we are inside, we’ll never become greater than who we are today.
That’s transcendence. That’s living beyond yourself. Pushing yourself. Being inauthentic for a higher cause. You don’t have the energy to run a marathon, run anyway. You’re too tired to get up for minyan, pull yourself out of bed and take a second shot of espresso. You’re itching to say something sharp in response to someone else’s behavior, bite your tongue. You don’t really have the time to study Torah, make the time. Don’t be yourself. Be better. Transcend yourself.
But there’s also an inherent danger in this type of mindset. Sometimes we are so focused on our own personal growth and self-perfection that we lose sight of our surroundings. In this week’s parsha we read the tragic story of Nadav and Avihu, two of Aharon’s sons, who tragically died by a Divine fire on the day the Mishkan was inaugurated. What they did to deserve such a death on such a day is entirely unclear and so our sages struggle to come up with suggestions.
One possible reason, listed in the Medrashim, is that Nadav and Avihu sinned because they chose not to get married. It wasn’t that they didn’t find the right mate. They felt that a wife would hold them back, that having a family would get in the way of their pursuit of greatness. And although the greatness they pursued was spiritual in nature, G-d wanted to make it abundantly clear, most especially on the day that the holy Mishkan was built, that this is not Judaism’s idea of greatness.
Judaism stands between two conflicting values. On the one hand, our Sages (Sanhedrin) teach us that one should constantly remind themselves that bishvili nivra ha’olam, the world was created for me. What this means is that the entire beautiful world around us, the galaxies, all of it, would have been worth creating just for moi! I am that special.
Taken to the extreme though, this hyper-focus on the individual breeds a mentality shared by Nadav and Avihu. In modern terms, and in more secular terms, it breeds the rugged individualism of Ayn Rand, of the Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. It’s a world where I stand at the center and everything is filtered through me.
This extreme is clearly not Judaism’s worldview.
Standing diametrically opposed to the idea of bishvili nivra ha’olam we have the idea of the tzibbur, of seeing ourselves as part of the whole. However, this too, in the extreme, movements like socialism and communism are also not what Judaism stands for.
And so throughout the ages, and most specifically over the past hundred and fifty years, Jewish scholars have grappled with these two poles; individualism and community, and how to reconcile them.
Rav Shimon Shkop (introduction to Shar Yosher) suggested that we never lose our identity of self but as we grow our sense of self expands to include more people. First, as we mature our identity is tied up with family. As we grow further it’s our immediate community. And further and further until our self-identity is not lost but rather is expanded to include so much more.
Rav Soloveitchik would often speak of the tension that exists between these poles and suggest that we live with that tension, vacillating back and forth between the two, a dichotomous identity of the individual and the world.
But today, I’d like to focus on the approach of Rav Aharon Lichtenstein. He suggested that it is through the community that our greatness is expressed. There is no contradiction. We find ourselves by recognizing our bond to those around us.
This sounds rather abstract. Allow me to share with you a story that will explain.
It’s actually not a new story, it’s the first part of the story I started earlier. You see, I never told you how he got stuck under the rubble of that building. Aharon is an Israeli. His full name is Aharon Karov. He was a platoon commander and 2nd Lt. in the IDF’s paratrooper unit who was called up to fight during Operation Cast Lead. Among the many jobs that his group was given, Aharon Karov and his men were tasked with sweeping some buildings in Gaza for explosives. On the second floor of one of those buildings, Aharon, who was leading his men, tripped a booby trap, causing a tremendous explosion that brought the building down.
And if we could rewind just a little more, to one important detail that took place ten days earlier. On a cold day in December of 2008, Aharon Karov got married to the love of his life, Tzivia. At 7 AM, the very next morning, Aharon was called to reserve duty.
Now according to Jewish Law and according to Israeli Law, he was exempt. He could have explained to his commander that he got married the night before. But after a long talk with his new wife, they decided to that he should go and lead his men. In his own words, “Of course I wanted to be home with my wife and not in Gaza. You don’t know when you’re going to see your wife again, you don’t know when you’re going to speak to your wife again, but you need to put all else to the side — your wife, your family, and even yourself. In Israel, if there is a war, everyone goes because there a collectivity, a community. It was clear to me, to both of us, that I had to go.”
You see, Aharon not only pushed himself to constantly become greater. He pushed himself to overcome his own needs and to identify himself with his nation. When he got that call the morning after he got married, he knew he needed to be there for the Jewish People. When he couldn’t talk or walk, or move, he pushed himself to do so, so that his wife wouldn’t be left alone. When he ran that marathon, he wasn’t doing it to show how far he came. He was actually running to raise money for charity that helped victims of terror. He lived his life for others.
That’s what Rav Lichtenstein was referring to. Like Aharon Karov, we can find our true self, our qualities and greatness can flourish, when we recognize how connected we are to those around us.
This sense that we belong to something greater than ourselves is something we’ve all experienced at some point in our lives. It’s the feeling we get when our sports team wins a championship, when our home country wins a gold. On a deeper level, it’s that feeling that many of us get, particularly at this time of year, when we commemorate Yom HaShoah, and feel a collective sense of grief, whether or not we lost family in the Holocaust. It’s the collective feeling of joy that we experience on Yom Ha’atzmaut for the fact that we, as a people, have a homeland, even if we don’t live there.
But it’s not just about feeling it, it’s making sure we are acting on it. When it’s hard to get up in the morning, or to find the time, or to bite my tongue, transcending myself means pushing myself because I recognize my choices impact your choices. When I can’t find the inner strength to do what’s right, to do so anyway, if not for myself, then for my family, for my community. That’s transcendence in the most beautiful and blissful fashion. When you care so deeply about the world around you, their joys are your joys, their sadness is yours as well, and your every decision is guided by how your life impacts others.
In a world of extreme individualism it’s hard to appreciate the collectivist mindset, but stories of people like Aharaon Karov and all the many soldiers we mourn this week on Yom HaZikaron, remind me how beautiful and important that mindset is, how our Jewishness is not just a team we root for, it’s our identity. And the more we appreciate that, the more we see the world through those eyes, the more energy and the more passion we can find within.
Although moving branches that are attached (or detached) from the ground may not be done on Shabbos, according to some Poskim, one may walk regularly even if this causes the branches to move. If it is difficult to walk around the branches one may rely on this opinion.
Although one may not eat food on Yom Kippur one may handle food on Yom Kippur and it is not Muktzah. This is because one may feed children on Yom Kippur. This would be true even for one who does not have children.
A number of other items that fall under the category of Muktzah machmas gufo and cannot be moved at all: