This past week, Sheldon Adelson passed away at the age of 87. He was one of the top ten wealthiest people on the planet and used his wealth to support many causes. He donated 140 million dollars to Birthright, 25 million dollars to Yad Vashem, and completely funded a medical research foundation running out of Boston. During the pandemic, despite having to close his many casinos, he paid the wages for every one of his employees. Despite all these impressive acts of philanthropy, and this is truly just the tip of the iceberg, the organization, If Not Now, a Jewish American group opposed to Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria issued the following statement upon news of his passing: “Adelson dedicated his life and wealth to empowering the far right in the US and in Israel… Yimakh shemo. May his legacy be erased. And may we do it together.”
It is true, Adelson was a tremendous supporter of Trump and Netanyahu, two people this group is very much opposed to – which is fine. But ignoring everything else this man did? By saying, yemakh shemo, a term we reserve the likes of Haman and Hitler?! That’s unconscionable.
It takes a lot to truly disturb me, but this behavior was deeply disturbing. I spent some time trying to understand why I was so disturbed by their comments and I was reminded of a famous teaching by the Baal Shem Tov. He would teach his followers that everything you see, and especially things you see that make an impression on you, were seen by you for a reason. They are meant to teach you something, not about others, but about yourself.
That’s a powerful message in it of itself. It’s very easy to pour righteous indignation on all the evil you see around you; on this person not caring about public safety, on this group being small-minded, on my spouse being selfish, on my friend for ignoring me… How often do we turn that same scrutiny and laser-criticism on ourselves?
The Baal Shem Tov is suggesting that if something wakes us up, if something roils our blood, it may just be an indication that you have the same issue. He’s speaking mystically, but this can be understood psychologically as well. It’s hard to judge oneself, it’s painful to acknowledge our flaws and so we project them everywhere we look.
So why did I get so worked up about this tweet from this fringe group of activists?
Obviously, their lack of Kavod Hameis, of respect for the dead, was appalling. Their statement lacked any decency. But there’s more.
One of the big philosophical questions that is asked about our parsha is how G-d could harden the heart of Pharaoh. It doesn’t seem very fair. There are many answers to this question but I recently learned a new one suggested by Rav Menachem ben Shlomo HaMeiri, a 13th century Catalonian scholar. He suggests that when the Torah says that G-d hardened Pharao’s heart it means that Pharaoh was born with a stubborn character. That’s it. There was no Divine intervention. So why then does the Torah say G-d hardened his heart?
Every once in a while, we’ll have the following conversation with our young children. We’ll ask them, who made the dinner you’re eating. And they’ll answer, Hashem. And they’re right, aren’t they? Hashem made dinner because He caused the natural ingredients to exist and the crops to grow and He gave the energy and the brain-power to the many people along the way who processed the cheese, harvested the wheat, etc etc, up to and including giving my wife the energy to boil some water and throw the noodles in the pot and add cheese. So they’re right and yet, it’s kinda weird to say Hashem made dinner. (The correct answer is, you, Mommy, and it was delicious.) And yet, when Chana became pregnant with Shmuel, it was appropriate for the Torah to say that G-d made Chana conceive. Not that it was not biology at play. But because she had not conceived for so many years, because it was so out of the ordinary, describing it as G-d making it happen is appropriate.
Rav Menachem Meiri suggests that when something is out of the ordinary, it’s extreme, it’s unique, or it’s not what we expect then the Torah frames as if G-d did it. But it doesn’t mean it’s miraculous. It’s just strange and over-the-top. Pharaoh, he writes, was a very stubborn person. Nine vicious plagues and he still couldn’t change his mind. G-d didn’t intervene, he was just a very stubborn man, set in his ways, and couldn’t make lasting change.
Pretty relatable isn’t he? We’re all pretty stubborn, set in our ways, unable to change. We make the same mistakes over and over again. We know we’re doing things wrong, we know we’re hurting others and ourselves with our behavior, we feel bad and maybe even change for a little while, but then revert back to our old behaviors.
So yes, those If Not Now people acted disgustingly. In general, their movement is beyond the pale. That tweet was an expression of their Pharaoh-like stubbornness, unable to see anything differently, unwilling to change in any way. And that stubbornness, if I were to be completely honest, is something I could relate to. I imagine we can all relate to some degree.
Last week, an op-ed appeared in the Wall Street Journal by Congressman Chip Roy. In it he wrote how inspired he was by Jews who once a week turned off their phones. Roy, is a devout Christian, by the way. He concluded that social media does more hard than good in connecting people and he will be taking an indefinite break from Facebook, Twitter, and all other forms of social media. That’s a big deal. It’s very difficult to be a politician without using the available platforms on social media. But Chip Roy decided he needed to make a big change, so he will become, in his words, “a better husband, father, (and) citizen…”
Big changes are possible, they’re just not easy.
Amazingly, our Sages teach us that Pharaoh, that truly stubborn man, did eventually change. According to the Medrash of Tana d’vei Eliyahu, Pharaoh survived the splitting of the sea, became the king of Ninveh, and when Yonah rebukes the people for their behavior, it is Pharaoh, their king, who leads the way in their national repentance.
It took a lot to get him to that point. It took ten plagues, it took the splitting of the sea, and it took him almost drowning to say, “Hey, maybe I’ve got this all wrong.” But good for him for allowing those powerful moments to shake him out of his default existence and try something new.
Many people have asked me why are we suffering right now with the pandemic? Or, what is the message of the political crisis that we’re witnessing?
I’m no prophet, I don’t answer such questions. But what I could say is that we’re all feeling heightened levels of righteous indignation right now. It would be nice if we could use that righteous indignation to change the world around us, but at the very least, we should also learn the lesson of the Baal Shem Tov and turn that indignation on ourselves; In what way are we being stubborn and unwilling to change? Which behaviors or thinking patterns are we engaged in that need to go? In what way am I a carpenter and in what way do I see the whole world as a nail?
We are living through wild and scary times. Tragically, there is very little we can change. But perhaps if we can take advantage of these violent moments and turn inward instead of outward, we can change ourselves.