Parashat Shoftim – False Prophecy

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What does it take to be trustworthy? What does the word even mean? According the Boy Scouts of America (my alma mater?), being trustworthy means telling the truth, being honest, keeping promises and being dependable.

This week’s Torah portion explains the laws of how to deal with a false prophet. If a person claims to be speaking on behalf of God, but what they say will happen does not happen, we can be confident that he or she was not a real prophet.

It seems like a very simple concept. If someone claims to have absolute insider information about what’s going to happen, and they turn out to be wrong, there are only two possibilities. They were either misleading people intentionally, or they were misled themselves. These are clearly not people that we would want to take advice from.

So what was the point of having this section on false prophets? I guess it’s good to know what the punishment is (us Yekke, type-A, Jews like to have things nice and orderly), but aside from that it’s an obvious rule.

I think the Torah is reminding us of the power and value of our words and reputations. When I tell someone that I can be depended on to make something happen, or that the information I’m telling them is reliable, I am putting a lot at stake. Speaking rashly, or without thinking, I can lose my credibility with friends, family, colleagues and strangers very quickly.

In the case of the Bible’s false prophet, the punishment is death (damn!). Today our lives aren’t on the line, but our reputations are still extremely valuable. When we act with integrity, we build value for ourselves. When we become reckless and unreliable, we send ourselves down the self-destructive path of the false prophet.

We have the power to create our personal value, but we can also diminish that value very quickly.

The Beginning of the End for the Jewish State?

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The longer Israel refuses to pursue a Two State Solution with the Palestinians, the greater the likelihood that the world begins demanding a One State Solution. A single state for Jews and non-Jews will be a state without a Jewish majority.

The New York Times published an Op-Ed last week titled “The Two State Solution Doesn’t Solve Anything.” The authors of the article argue that the Jews are eternally focused on having a Jewish State, and that the Palestinians are forever thinking like refugees. In their opinion, “the heart of the matter is not necessarily how to define a state of Palestine. It is, as in a sense it always has been, how to define the state of Israel.”

I’ve been telling people for two years that we need to take a pragmatic approach to the Israeli/Palestinian impasse we find ourselves in. I personally feel that the Palestinians deserve to have a sovereign state in the West Bank and Gaza, but that belief of mine is not really relevant.

People who are against the two-state-solution never seem to stop and think about the alternatives. The status quo cannot last forever. We cannot have an apartheid state with Palestinians playing the role of 2nd class citizens. We can’t kick the Palestinians out of Israel because there is practically nowhere for them to do.

The alternative to creating a Palestinian State is giving full Israeli citizenship to all of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza (and maybe those in the diaspora as well). I believe that the Jewish people have a right to country where we can express our culture and heritage, so long as it isn’t infringing on other people’s similar rights.

We can either demand a two state solution, or resign ourselves to the end of the Zionist dream for a Jewish homeland.

Parashat Re’eh – A Modern Day Moloch

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In the third aliyah of parshat Re’eh, a horrendous practice that certain cultures considered to be a part of their religious worship is referenced.

You shall not do so to the Lord, your God; for every abomination to the Lord which He hates, they did to their gods, for also their sons and their daughters they would burn in fire to their gods. (Deuteronomy 11:31)

At a certain time in history, people would literally offer up their children as a sacrifice to their gods. They would burn their children on an altar in the name of the god Moloch.

It’s almost unfathomable to think of such a practice taking place. What would compell a person to sacrifice their own flesh and blood to a deity? What rationale could someone possibly rely on? Only a monster could do such a thing.

What’s puzzling is that the Torah warns us not to partake in such practices. It says that this is an abomination to God. Perhaps it was in reference to the story of Abraham and Isaac. It’s possible that people may have taken the story to heart, and attempted to sacrifice their own children to demonstrate their devotion to God. Maybe.

I think that if there were normal Jews who would literally kill their children for God, they were mentally deranged. And I have to assume that the Torah was not written to instruct the mentally deranged. There must be something more relevant to “normal” people like me and you.

Maybe the Torah is talking about some of the other ways in which mankind has effectively sacrificed its progeny. When young men and women still in their teenage years are sent to fight in wars, that might be a manifestation of Moloch. When harmful practices are threatening the natural world we live in, that might be setting future generations on fire. When children are raised in homes without parents or role model aside from those on television, that is an offering up to perverse and false gods.

Maybe Allen Ginsberg had it right about Moloch. We need to realize that what we sow today, our children reap tomorrow.

Figuring out what really matters.

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I took the day off today, and went to go see Hurt Locker at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square 13. It was a very good movie.

Throughout the movie, I was thinking about what being a soldier in combat is like. There are hundreds of thousands of young (and some older) Americans in Iraq, Afghanistan and dozens of other places, putting their lives at risk every day for the sake of this country’s national defense. For the unit in Hurt Locker, every trip out of the base could be their last.

(I would like to leave aside any criticism of the particular wars in which this nation is involved. I have many concerns about this, but most people who are in the army did not join because of any particular military policy position. These brave men and women receive orders from their superiors, and they execute them because it is what their country asks of them.)

I don’t know that many American soldiers first-hand. I have one very good friend who has been serving for the last couple of years. He is an extremely brave and patriotic person, and he has followed in the footsteps of his father who was a career Marines man. I am proud of this friend more than I am proud of pretty much anyone else I know (his wife and new baby boy are also pretty big fans of his).

Aside from him, the closest might be a few Rabbinical students who are considering chaplaincy. I also know a number of people who have joined and considered joining the IDF, but there are completely different motivations and requirements at play there.

Most people I know would never even consider joining the US Military. A lot of us struggle with questions of happiness in our careers. People wonder whether they should change careers because they aren’t feeling fulfillment in what they’re doing.

Problems like these are luxuries that we really don’t always appreciate. Thousands of people would do anything to get well-paying un-fulfilling jobs, and just be allowed to live their lives without having to worry about money. What is it about being a young upper middle class person that allows us to factor so much more into the careers we desire?

There’s no simple answer to any of these questions. The question is essentially “What really matters?” And I don’t know the answer.

All I know is that the soldiers out there in the field are thinking about their lives, the lives of their fellow soldiers and their families back home. Seems simple enough.

Asceticism and Humility in Eikev

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It’s a commonly held belief that if people were to strip themselves of their physical and worldly belongings, they would be less arrogant, self-centered and immoral. Not many people choose to follow this theory to it’s logical fruition, but we can all picture the monk or nun who has shunned material pleasures for a simpler life.

We live in an age that sees middle class families living in mansions and driving luxuy vehicles. The super-rich don’t even know what to do with their money, and pay $10,000,000 for chartered flights into space.

Forget for a moment how that money could be better spent helping those without the means to help themselves. What impact do these excesses have on the wealthy indivisuals? What happens to someone who can buy anything she or he pleases?

It seemed like the answer was plain and simple in this weeks parasha. God gives a warning to the Jewish people that they should be careful about being satisfied with a lot of food, having nice houses and owning many properties and valuable metals. She says that these circumstances will possibly lead them to think all of those things came to them from their own merit instead of the grace of god.

But the most puzzling thing is that in the previous paragraph, God says how amazing it’s going to be for the Jewish people when they arrive in Israel. He even uses the phrase “you will eat and be satisfied” which is identical to the next paragraph’s use of the term as a cause of god-rejecting arrogance.

What gives?

God wants us to have this really nice life, and then tells us that if we have a nice life we will become sinners?

I think it says a lot about human nature. I think we can all agree that Ghandi is an example of someone who loved in a modest way both physically and spiritually. We can also agree that Bernie Madoff became arrogant with his increased wealth, and was likely pushed forward in his crimes by a desire to maintain his lifestyle and livlihood.but these two are the extremes.

There are plenty of people who are poor but have enormous egos. There are also rich people who live very comfortably but never become conceited and overly self-involved. This is what the psukim are talking about.

Anyone has he potential to become too caught up in their material goods, and a life focused on hose material goods is a surefire way to head down that path. God isn’t warning us not to lead comfortable lives; god is warning us not to worship our comfortable lives, not to live only for the sake of the comforts.

The key is to find something greater than ourselves to be passionate about and concerned with. For some people it will be their faith. For others it will be charity, and for yet others it will be a desire to help out a friend or neighbor.

It identity of the thing doesn’t matter. What matters is the trajectory. When we are focused inward, we collapse into ourselves like dying stars. When we’re focused toward others, our light can spread to lengths and depths beyond our wildest imagination.