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Distance Yourself from Falsehood – Parshas Mishpatim

By: Rabbi Motzen | January 29, 2014

Distance Yourself from Falsehood

Parshas Mishpatim

I imagine many of you believe that Jewish people are cheap and stingy – we don’t like to spend money. You may not use derogatory terms to describe it but that’s what I imagine many of you believe. I imagine there are many people here who associate Jewish mothers with Sylvia Fine from the Nanny – the nagging worrying type. I could go on and on with different Jewish stereotypes; some which we would be insulted by and some I’m pretty sure we identify with. But I think it’s pretty safe to say that virtually all of them are lies – at the very least they are gross exaggerations. But as Josef Goebbels, y’s, allegedly said, “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.”

Nowadays, the only people able to get away with perpetuating those stereotypes are fellow Jews – nothing like a good Jewish anti-Semite. But there are new lies that are being spread throughout the world; lies that don’t use the word Jew or Judaism, but they are thinly veiled attacks on our nation and our religion.

In 2010, the Jerusalem Quartet was booed off the stage in mid-performance at London’s Wigmore Hall. The next year, a performance by the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra came to a stop by sustained audience protest at the prestigious London Proms concert series. This is taking place in England! A country which historically had led Europe in their tolerance of Judaism as a religion and acceptance of Jews in general.  

Unfortunately, these protests and bans are not limited to overseas. Most recently, the ASA, the American Studies Association, voted to sever all ties with Israelis and Israeli institutions. DBS has been mildly successful in banning many Israeli made products from store shelves. And to top it all off – the most controversial commercial in this year’s Super Bowl is a commercial for Soda Stream – a company that makes modern day seltzer makers. The infamous Super Bowl commercials with all their sexually explicit and envelope pushing ads – and the ad causing the biggest stir is one by a company that makes soda. 

The controversy? The fact that the soda machines are made over the green line in a place known as Ma’aleh Adumim.

Parenthetically, the company employs 900 Palestinians, paying them four to five times the amount they’d be paid anywhere else in the Palestinian territories, and is situated in a place that will definitely stay in Israel’s hands if a peace deal is ever made.

But no one seems to care about that. Instead, we hear lies – Israel called an Apartheid state. Israel blamed for the poverty of the Palestinians. And Israel blamed for not making peace with the Palestinians. 

“If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.”

So what do we do? This is a new and strange battlefield. Israel learned how to fight armies bent on Israel’s destruction. Israel learned how to fight threats of terrorism. But how does Israel fight a war of lies? How does it fight a war that isn’t even taking place in Israel? The war is taking place here on our soil – in universities, in shopping centers and in grocery stores. There is a campaign to delegitimize what we know to be a legitimate country. A country that wants nothing but peace. A country that treats its Arab citizens better than any other country in the Middle East. A country that is a bastion of democracy and human rights.

This past week, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper addressed the Knesset, Israel’s Parliament. I should really read to you the entire speech – it was magnificent. But I’d like to read to you just a few lines: “We all know about the old anti-Semitism.

It was crude and ignorant, and it led to the horrors of the death camps.

Of course, in many dark corners, it is still with us.

But, in much of the western world, the old hatred has been translated into more  sophisticated language for use in polite society.

People who would never say they hate and blame the Jews for their own failings or the problems of the world, instead declare their hatred of Israel and blame the only Jewish state for the problems of the Middle East.

As once Jewish businesses were boycotted, some civil-society leaders today call for a boycott of Israel.

On some campuses, intellectualized arguments against Israeli policies thinly mask the underlying realities, such as the shunning of Israeli academics and the harassment of Jewish students…this is the face of the new anti-Semitism. It targets the Jewish people by targeting Israel and attempts to make the old bigotry acceptable for a new generation.

These lies are not a threat to Israel alone, they are a threat to the Jewish People. So how do we fight these insidious lies? How do we respond?

In this week’s Torah portion, there is a prohibition against believing a false report. G-d uses a very strange terminology when describing this prohibition. If I were to have written this prohibition I would have wrote “Lo ta’amin – Don’t believe” any falsehood. But G-d in His infinite wisdom writes, “Lo sisa sheima shav – don’t carry” or any falsehood. What does it mean to not carry falsehood??

I believe that G-d is teaching us is that falsehood and lies are so abhorrent that G-d wants us not only to not believe lies but He wants us to push it away with two hands, He wants us to not even go near it. Lo sisa sheima shav – Don’t allow lies to even cross the threshold of your mind. Don’t even carry a single word of falsehood.

How do we do so? How do we ensure that no falsehood even enters our mind for a moment? If we saturate ourselves with the truth we make no room for lies. If instead of even responding to fabrications, we broadcasted the truth, there would be no room for lies. If we proactively fortify ourselves with the truth – that we are Jews and we are proud to be Jews. We are proud to be a part of this nation, proud to be associated with Israel because Israel is governed by people who try to rule with justice, inhabited by a nation that wants no more bloodshed, and watched over by a G-d that loves peace – there will be no room for lies.

To do so we need be to be confident and we need to be resolute. The good news is that there is no shortage of role models in this battle for the truth.
Scarlet Johansenn, the spokeswomen for Soda Stream, is facing fierce criticism from different organizations for her endorsement of Soda Stream. And despite the mounting pressure she is standing up for what she knows to be right.

Perhaps we could look to Evgeny Kissin, a Moscow-born, world famous pianist, who last month applied for Israeli citizenship. The reason?

In his own words: “I am a Jew, Israel is a Jewish state – and since long ago I have felt that Israel, although I do not live there, is the only state in the world with which I can fully identify myself, whose case, problems, tragedies and very destiny I perceive to be mine…

When Israel’s enemies try to disrupt concerts of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra or the Jerusalem Quartet, I want them to come and make troubles at my concerts, too: because Israel’s case is my case, Israel’s enemies are my enemies, and I do not want to be spared of the troubles which Israeli musicians encounter when they represent the Jewish State beyond its borders.

I want all the people who appreciate my art to know that I am a Jew, that I belong to the People of Israel. That’s why now I feel a natural desire to travel around the world with an Israeli passport.”

Or perhaps, we need to emulate Aaron Leiberman, who a few weeks ago became the first basketball player in the NCAA division 1 to wear a kippah on the court. Yes, some of our professions may not be compatible with wearing a kippah, but what about in our homes? What about in the shopping center? What about when we walk down the street?

In a world that tries to make people ashamed for being associated with Israel, we have to scream from our rooftops – I am Jewish and I am proud to be connected to the State of Israel.

I conclude with the powerful words of my Prime Minister, Stephen Harper: “I believe the story of Israel is a great example to the world.

It is a story, essentially, of a people whose response to suffering has been to move beyond resentment and build a most extraordinary society, a vibrant democracy, a freedom-loving country with an independent and rights-affirming judiciary, an innovative, world-leading “start-up” nation.

You have taken the collective memory of death and persecution to build an optimistic, forward-looking land one that so values life, you will sometimes release a thousand criminals and terrorists, to save one of your own.

In the democratic family of nations, Israel represents values which our government takes as articles of faith, and principles to drive our national life.

And therefore, through fire and water, Canada will stand with you.”

And if I may add: that therefore through fire and water, we the Jewish People will stand with you. We will stand tall and tell the world that an attack on Israel is attack on me. Let’s saturate ourselves with truth and distance ourselves from falsehood. Let’s be ambassadors to the world that Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael, the Jewish Nation and the Jewish State, are intrinsically connected and we are proud to be Israel’s ambassadors and representatives.  

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Prayer #51

By: Rabbi Motzen | January 30, 2014

The next blessing is a plea for the restoration of Jerusalem. The Torah teaches us that Sheim the son of Noach named the city Shaleim (perfection) and Avraham named the city Hasehm Yireh (Hashem will see). Hence, G=d calls the city Yerushalayim, a combination of these two names.

Based on chronology (Sheim having named the city well before Avraham) the city’s name should be Shalom-yireh. Why does the Torah establish its name using Avaraham’s name first? 

Some commentators explain that Sheim recognized a perfection that emanated from the holy city. He was on to something – Yerushalayim is indeed the holiest city in the world. However, calling it perfect implied that it’s perfection is automatic and inherent. Avaraham came along and described the city as a meeting place between man and G-d. In Jerusalem it is easier to access our mission in life and we are more easily able to perfect the world, thus G-d could see us, so to speak, more clearly.

What G-d is teaching us by placing the words Yirah before Shaleim is that the true perfection can only come about when we realize that we play an integral role in bringing that perfection about. When we realize that our actions are necessary to perfect the world, then and only then will the true potential of perfection emanate from Jerusalem. When we inculcate this idea, G-d is watching us and our actions make a difference, then we will merit the rebuilding of the city of perfection, the city of Yerushalayim. 

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Prayer #50

By: Rabbi Motzen | January 29, 2014

The conclusion of the blessing for the righteous is a blessing for those of us who are not on their stature. After acknowledging how essential of a role they play in history and in the good of the world we should be inspired to emulate these great people. We therefore ask G-d to “place our portion among theirs” – to please help us transform ourselves. Both because we want to emulate them but also “so that we will not be ashamed in eternity.” Meaning, while in this world our mistakes or sins are not known to all and therefore we are not always ashamed of what we do. In the World to Come our sins will be known to all and we will have to acknowledge what we’ve done wrong. We therefore ask G-d to help us change a) for altruistic reasons – we want to be like the righteous and b) for the less ideal reason that we do not want to be ashamed in the World to Come.

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Prayer #49

By: Rabbi Motzen | January 28, 2014

The next blessing is a request for specific groups among the Jewish People; the Tzaddikim – those who are righteous and are meticulous in their Mitzvah-observance, the Chassidim – those who go beyond the letter of the law, Ziknei amcha – the elders, meaning those who lead and give advice to the Jewish People, P’leitas sofreihem – literally, the remnant of the scholars, a reference to Torah scholars, and Geirei hatzedek – converts.

Rabbi Yonasan Eibeschitz explains that we should pray for the welfare of these five groups of people because it is in their merit that all good comes down to earth.

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Prayer #48

By: Rabbi Motzen | January 27, 2014

The Gemara in Brachos relates a story involving the sage Rabbi Meir. There was an individual who would deliberately make his life miserable. One day he had had enough and so he decided to pray for the demise of the individual. His wise wife Beruriah suggested that instead of praying for the demise he should pray for them to repent.

The Vilna Gaon comments that this is exactly what we are doing in this prayer. We are not praying that sinners perish we are praying that G-d eradicate evil from the world. We see this quite clearly, explains the Vilan Gaon, in the opening sentence, “V’chol harisha k’rega toveid, all of evil should be destroyed. All the evil but not the evildoers.

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Prayer #47

By: Rabbi Motzen | January 26, 2014

The twelfth blessing is one that is directed towards those who oppress the Jewish People. This blessing was added years after the Shemoneh Esrei was composed. (This is why we call it Shemoneh Esrei, which means eighteen even though there are nineteen blessings.) It was added after the destruction of the Second Temple in response to the many religious factions that were fighting for the soul of the Jewish People. Some groups used reason other used political power but all in all it was very dangerous time for the continuity of Judaism as we know it. In response to these physical and spiritual threats Rabban Gamliel the Second the leader of the Jewish People at the time, sought a sage who could compose a prayer asking G-d to stop these people from their evil ways. Eventually, Shmuel ‘The Small’ was found and he composed this prayer. He was called ‘the small’ due to his humility. This was the reason he was chosen to write this prayer. Rabban Gamliel wasnted the prayer written written without resentment and in a pure spirit and therefore Shmuel the Small who was known for his humility was a perfect candidate.

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Prayer #46

By: Rabbi Motzen | January 21, 2014

The tenth bracha of Shemoneh Esrei shifts away from our personal needs and focuses on our national needs, namely, redemption. In truth, all of our personal tragedies and struggles is a product of an imperfect world. In the Messianic Era our concerns for health, prosperity, etc. will be non-existent or at the least, greatly diminished.

There are three stages in the process of redemption. 1) “Blow the great Shofar for our freedom.” For the complete redemption to take place we must be free to practice as Jews without anyone or anything stopping us. 2) “Raise a banner to gather in our exiles.” A raised banner, something which people look up to, symbolizes an aspiration. The next stage is a religious reawakening; a desire to come close to Him. 3) “Gather us together from the four corners of the world.” The full redemption will take place when we are together and in the land of Israel.

We have been fortunate to see many aspects of these stages fulfilled. May it be His will that we merit the complete redemption speedily in our days.

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Prayer #45

By: Rabbi Motzen | January 20, 2014

In the next blessing we ask G-d to provide for our material needs and to bless us with a year of prosperity. The commentators ask why we are praying for such things if our financial success has been ordained on Rosh HaShana?

When one deposits money in a bank it is not the same thing as having the money in one’s back pocket. There are a host of things that can go wrong or simply get in the way of withdrawing that money. That being said, it is certainly better than not having the money at all.

On Rosh HaShana our financial success is placed in a Heavenly bank. It is close to us but it is not in our pocket. Based in our deeds G-d will decide what we can withdraw over the course of the year. For this reason we ask G-d on a daily basis to provide for us since we still need His assistance to ensure that we receive the blessing.

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Selfie’s Parshas Yisro

By: Rabbi Motzen | January 20, 2014

Selfie’s

This may sound strange but when I visit my mother in Toronto I actually eat less than I normally do in Baltimore. Now this is not a reflection of her cooking – my mother is a fantastic cook – it’s actually a reflection of the local recycling laws. Canada prides itself on being a clean place and they take recycling really seriously. In Toronto, there are, I believe, four different waste baskets. Four! There is the regular garbage, there is recycling for plastic, recycling for paper, and there is an additional basket for real waste like leftover chicken soup, orange peels, and the like. Personally, I just don’t have the patience to deal with all the different recycling boxes so I usually limit the food I eat to things that don’t involve any waste so I don’t have to bother with all the different boxes.

I recently discovered that the Halachic authorities, the poskim, actually debate the need to recycle in a situation that involves a great exertion of energy. There is a fascinating discussion in a book called Hisorirus Teshuva; a book of Halachic analysis by the grandson of the famous Chasam Sofer. One of the topics that the author examines is how much energy one has to invest to not waste food. Wasting food and really wasting anything that can be reused is a violation of ba’al tashchis; a Biblical prohibition against wasting. The author questions if time is a factor. Meaning, if one would have to spend a significant amount of time to properly recycle the food, would that be an exemption to the prohibition of destroying food or not?

Without going into all the details of his analysis and his conclusion, what does emerge is a clear picture that wasting food, energy, or any resources is not just a nice idea, it’s a prohibition. The source for the prohibition is a verse in Devarim forbidding one to cut down a fruit tree. The simple explanation for this law, as forwarded by some of the commentators, is not an emphasis on the value of nature per se, but rather an emphasis on the value of other human beings. In other words, you may not need that tree right now. Or you may even need it for a purpose other than its fruits. But G-d created the tree to give fruit, so don’t allow yours selfish, short-sighted needs, steal that opportunity from others. The prohibition of wasting is G-d’s way of reminding us that our lives are not at the center of the Universe – there are other people who live here with us on Planet Earth.

During our luncheon today we will be hearing from Shelley List about the importance of planting trees and how it benefits our ecosystem. Planting trees, recycling, using solar energy – These aren’t just nice ideas. These are issues that are very much a part of Torah Judaism. The prohibition against wasting teaches us that we shouldn’t be selfish; we have to remind ourselves that other people live here as well. Whether it’s today or in the future, the bottom line is that we aren’t the only people on this planet.

There is a statement made in the Mishna in Sanhedrin: Bishvili nivra haolam, the world was created for me. Rav Noach Weinberg of blessed memory used to always say that that statement should not be understood literally. It does not mean that G-d created the world for me to enjoy it. What Bishvili nivra haolam really means is that G-d created the world for me to care for it.

But it seems more often than not, people tend to understand that statement in its more literal form. This past week we all read about a politician or his aides who seemed to forget this simple idea. When you close down the George Washington Bridge out of revenge and disrupt the lives of hundreds and thousands of people – that is an act of unbridled self-centeredness. That is a corruption of bishvili nivra haolam. To those people, whoever was behind it, the world was created for them and for them alone.

And unfortunately it’s not regulated to the world of politics. When the International word of the year 2013 according to the Oxford English Dictionary is the word: “selfie” then we’ve got a problem. A selfie, for all of you who do not know, is when you take a picture of yourself with your phone. Often times, one will take a selfie in significant place and so you will have a picture with one’s head taking up most of the picture and the Eifel Tower or the Roman Coliseum in the background. (For all of you who were not in shul on Shabbos, you missed a demonstration of a sermon selfie, or should I say #sermonselfie. Sorry.)

The word of the year award goes to the new word or phrase that attracted the greatest interest over the course of the year. There has been an increase of 17,000% in usage of this word. I imagine most of you don’t take selfies. Many of you probably never heard of selfies until now. But we all suffer from a selfie-mentality. Selfie’s reflects a world view where we think we stand at the center of the Universe, we think that everyone’s watching us, and everyone wants to see us. We used to take pictures of people or places. Now we take pictures of ourselves.

Bishvili nivra haolam – I am the center of the Universe. My life, and maybe even my immediate circle, are the only people that matter.

In this week’s Parsha we have a shining example of a man who understood quite well that the world was not created for him to enjoy but rather the world was created for him to serve; for him to build and for him to contribute to.

The Torah portion begins with Yisro, Moshe’s father-in-law, observing the Jewish people lining up around Moshe’s tent from morning until evening to ask Moshe Halachic questions. Yisro makes a suggestion: “Moshe,” he said, “If you keep this up you’re going to fall apart. Appoint teachers and judges to help you guide the Jewish People. Delegate. Don’t take the burden entirely on yourself.” The Torah tells us that Moshe listens and he goes ahead and implements the system.

And all the commentators ask, Hello??? This is the most elementary idea in the world! How come Moshe, our greatest prophet didn’t come up with it himself? Many answers, I shared with you some earlier, but I want to share with you a beautiful answer by the 15th century statesman, philosopher, and Torah commentator, Don Isaac Abarbanel.

He begins by making the observation that Msohe didn’t actually listen to his father-in-law’s advice. There are a number of discrepancies between what Yisro suggested and what Moshe actually did. You know why? Explains the Abarbanel, because Moshe had planned on doing this exact thing. Of course Moshe knew that a system that had him as the only teacher wasn’t sustainable. Moshe was planning on implementing a judicial system immediately after the giving of the Torah. He didn’t have time to do so just yet and so in the meantime he was running the show all alone. But in a few weeks he was prepared to establish a system of judges and teachers – a system far wiser than the suggestion of his father-in-law.

But comes along his father-in-law and says, “Hey, son-in-law, I have a great idea…” You know what you and I would do in such a scenario? We would say, “Thanks, I know that. I thought of that. I was planning on doing that already.” We probably even wouldn’t let the person get to the end of their sentence before cutting them off. That’s because if I know something already, why should I waste my time having someone tell it to me again?

But Moshe did not live at the center of the Universe. Moshe understood that his father-in-law would appreciate the opportunity to make a suggestion, and he would really appreciate the honor of his suggestion being listened to. Yes, Moshe had his own plan and time-frame, but it’s okay to let our plan go sometimes to make room for someone else. Moshe understood what the Mishna meant when it said bishvili nivra haolam, the world was created for me to serve its people and not vice versa.

When we take bishvili nivra haolam to the extreme, when our snapshot of the world is a selfie, we don’t have time or patience for other people. When our snapshot of the world is a selfie, we assume that the reason someone ignored us is because of the way we look instead of assuming that it’s because they may not have seen us. When our snapshot of the world is a selfie we assume that when someone doesn’t get back to us it’s because of something we said instead of assuming one of the million other reasons they may not have been able to get in touch with us. When our snapshot of the world is a selfie then anyone who disagrees with us is making an attack on our character. When our snapshot of the world is a selfie it affects every one of our interpersonal interactions.

Yes, Judaism does believe that we are important and that every human being plays a fundamental role in G-d’s Master plan. But when we take a picture of the world, be it real or metaphoric, let’s take a good old-fashioned picture. Maybe we can even get in the picture ourselves. But let’s remind ourselves of the billions of other people who live here with us, the billions of other people who will live here after us, and let’s allow them to get into our picture as well.

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Prayer #44

By: Rabbi Motzen | January 19, 2014

The section in which we ask G-d to heal us concludes with the following blessing: “Blessed are You, Hashem, Who heals the sick of the Jewish People.”

Why do we limit this blessing/ request to only the sick of the Jewish People? Furthermore, in the blessing of Asher Yatzar we praise G-d as “healing all flesh (every human being). Why then do we not make a similarly broad prayer in Shemoneh Esrei?

This touches upon some fundamental ideas in prayer. First of all, there are different types of prayers. Asher Yatzar is a prayer of praise; we are praising G-d for healing all the sick in the world. In Shemoneh Esrei, we are making a request; we are asking G-d to heal us.

This leads to a question that theologians have grappled with, namely, how does prayer work? If G-d decreed that we should be sick, how does prayer change that?

One classic explanation (see Maharal in Nesiv Haavodah) is that we are not changing G-d’s mind. Rather, through prayer and specifically through becoming more aware of G-d’s abilities we have changed and are therefore more worthy. In our newly acquired higher state, we may be worthy of a new judgement. However, this only explains prayer for one’s self. When I pray I have changed myself and am therefore worthy of a different judgement. How does my prayer for someone else affect them?

Some explain that since we are all connected to one another, we are all part of one mega-soul, our growth through prayer does not only affect the one praying but it affects the entire nation. This idea is limited to those that we share an intrinsic connection to. This can explain why specifically here when we ask G-d to heal us we only include the Jewish People.

RZL

(*It’s worth noting that notable Halachic authorities (S’dei Chemed and others) state that praying for a non-Jew is effective. It is also worth noting that a prayer for the government has been a part of Shabbos prayers for hundreds of years despite the fact that until recently they were always non-Jewish.)

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