Archive | Ask the Rabbi

Individuality’s role in God’s directions

Posted on 11 May 2017 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
I enjoyed your response to the two religious-school students in last week’s column comparing God’s involvement in the lives of mankind to a GPS.
That leads to another question in my mind. Since a GPS gives very clear directions of how to go, how does that leave room for freedom of choice? Furthermore, if we’re being “told” exactly where to go, what’s really our part in all of this … where’s the room for individuality and making a unique contribution?
— Jennifer B.
Dear Jennifer,
Great thinking! I love the depth!
We can analyze this on a few levels. Firstly, how many people do you know will have on their GPS but … they know better! With an advanced system, the GPS is factoring in traffic jams, closed streets due to construction and the like, but many will still choose to ignore the directives and try to figure it out on their own.
In the classical work The Path of the Just (by Rabbi M. C. Luzzatto, Amsterdam 1738), this world is compared to a maze. Kings would have a huge maze cut from shrubbery, and people would try to reach the middle. Those who reached the middle would climb a pedestal and watch the others, pointing out that they’re sometimes headed toward a dead end, although it looked like the straightest path to the middle. People could decide to trust those who made it, or try to make their own way, ignoring the advice from above. His comparison is to the true righteous people who have “made it,” and have risen above the confusion of this world, seeing clearly which paths lead toward, or away from, perfection. We can also use it in the context of our GPS from Above — whether or not we will notice, listen to the subtle hints sent our way to gently guide us along the proper path. Every person has the free choice whether or not they will heed those hints.
This leads to the next point. The subtlety of the message given to us through these Heavenly hints, and even through the Torah itself, is quite different from the GPS. We give the GPS the destination; it tells us precisely how to get there. The Torah, however, tells us the destination and often leaves to us the path to get there. Referring to the methodology of Talmud study, which has been compared to crossing the ocean, a great rabbi once made a famous analogy. R’ Yisrael of Salant used to say, “Many have crossed the ocean, but nobody has yet paved the way.” Each individual adds their unique understanding and feelings to the study of Torah.
Similarly, my mentor, the renowned sage R’ Shlomo Zalman Aurbach ob’m, made a statement to me concerning certain differences in customs in Jewish law. I asked him which one was preferable. His analogy was, if someone wants to get to the back of the house, he can walk around the right or the left side; either way he’ll get to the same spot!
As long as one is walking along in the right direction, Judaism leaves much room for individuality, all within the same system. There is, undoubtedly, a part of the system which is black-and-white and there’s no room to veer off from that. There is also, however, a lot of gray space which leaves room for individuality and spontaneity. Those are the places where a person can make their unique contribution. The GPS of Torah will get us to the right place if we listen to it. Unlike the GPS which shows only one route, Torah and God Himself leaves the individual multiple ways to fulfill His will. It could be through the deep piety and Kabbalistic service of the Sephardic Jews, the joy of the Chassidic movement or the scholarship of  Lithuanian Jewry, and myriad strains within all of the above and many more who all serve God, within the framework of Torah, in their unique and beautiful ways.

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Like GPS, God guides us with map, direction

Posted on 04 May 2017 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
We were given an assignment from religious school for a week from Sunday to express our beliefs and feelings about the idea that God is watching us all the time. Do Jews really believe that? If we do, is there a way to look at the fact we’re always being watched that doesn’t feel creepy?
Thank you,
Allison & Brittany
Dear Allison and Brittany,
You didn’t tell me what you believe! I guess what you’re saying is that you sort of believe it … but it feels sort of creepy to think that.
It is, in fact, a core Jewish belief that God is constantly watching over us and knows all that we are doing and thinking. This is the 10th of the 13 foundational Jewish beliefs outlined by the great Jewish scholar and philosopher Rabbi Moses Maimonides. He bases it on a verse in Psalms which says, “He fashions all their hearts together, He comprehends all their deeds” (Psalms 33:15).
One way to look at this is like a GPS device. The very first time I used a GPS in my car, I got very emotional. I told my kids, who were in the car at the time, “Hey kids, just look at this! There’s something up in the sky that knows exactly where we are and what direction we’re going and at what speed! Not only that, if you make a wrong turn it even lets you know and then gives you another way to get to where you’re going!”
Then I told them, “We can learn from this that we also have a Father in Heaven Who knows exactly where we are, what we’re doing and where we’re going. He loves us so much that even if we go off the path we’re supposed to be going on, He gives us a way to get back to the right path and enables us to arrive at the right destination!”
Instead of it feeling creepy, this is a different way to look at the same idea. It shows how important we are that God takes the time and caring to be involved in our lives all the time. It illustrates how much He loves us to show us, if we look carefully and notice, little hints to let us know if we’re going the right way or if we’re veering off the path. So many people today suffer from a lack of self-esteem. They don’t think they’re very important or that what they do matters very much, if at all. Judaism teaches the opposite; every person is very important!
Every person has a soul created in the image of God, it is the spark of Godliness that gives us life. What we do, especially as Jews, doesn’t just affect our immediate surroundings; our actions, words and thoughts impact the entire universe! Every mitzvah we perform builds beautiful buildings in the upper spiritual worlds. This is implicit in our being created in the “image of God.” Just as God is a creator, we, too, are creators with all we choose to do, not only if we create a physical building with bricks and mortar, but through our choices and actions in the spiritual realm.
That is how God created us and is why He stays involved in the lives of His beloved creations, whom He considers like His beloved children.
The Torah provides the path and direction; God, with His immense love for us, provides the GPS!

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Counting the Omer

Posted on 27 April 2017 by admin

Dear Rabbi,
I recently learned that the period after Pesach is called the “counting of the Omer,” counting the days from Passover until the holiday of Shavuot.
What is the point of this counting, now that we have calendars and can simply look up the date of Shavuot? Is it one of those things we do just because they used to do it, or is there some other reason for doing this count? (I’m also surprised that for the first 45 years of my life I’ve never heard of this!)
— Kathy W.
Dear Kathy,
Sefirat ha’omer, the “counting of the Omer,” is one of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah. “You shall count for yourselves — from the morrow of the rest day (Pesach), from the day when you bring the Omer (offering) … seven weeks …” (Leviticus 23:15)
There are multiple understandings of this mitzvah. When one anticipates an event that she is truly excited about and looking forward to, she counts the days until that time arrives. For the Jewish people, the most exciting and meaningful time in our history was receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. That was where we achieved our greatest connection and intimacy with the Almighty. At that moment, we became an eternal nation and received our marching orders for all time; we were taught how to be a light among the nations and elevate ourselves to unique spiritual greatness. This was the ultimate purpose of the freedom we were granted on Pesach.
Although this transpired more than 3,300 years ago, our tradition teaches that our holidays are not mere celebrations of historical occurrences. We have often explained in this column that our holidays recur yearly. The same spiritual light revealed by the Almighty at that time of our history returns when we arrive at the same time of the year. The Torah is regiven yearly on Shavuot to all those who are prepared to receive it. Hence, year after year, we count the days from our freedom (Pesach) until the purpose of that freedom (Shavuot). This exhibits our anticipation and excitement to again experience those spiritual heights on Shavuot. It also connects Pesach and redemption to its ultimate purpose.
Going a step deeper, the period of sefirat ha’omer is one of spiritual growth. In order to receive the Torah, we need to transform ourselves to be worthy receptacles fit to receive the intense spiritual energy contained within it. The Mishnah (Pirkei Avot, ch. 6) enumerates 48 study habits and positive character traits through which one merits the acquisition of Torah. The 49 days of counting are a period of acquiring these “48 ways,” on the last day inculcating all of them into oneself. This prepares one to be ready to receive the Torah on Day 50, the day of Shavuot. (To study these “48 ways,” see www.aish.com, press “spirituality,” and choose “48 ways.” It promises to be very enlightening!)
The Kabbalistic sources provide yet another vehicle for growth through the sefiras ha’omer, based upon the concept of sefirot, or seven levels of existence. During these 49 days of sefirat ha’omer, it is a time to perfect ourselves in relation to the seven lower sefirot, those sefirot which reflect God’s interaction with the physical world. These seven sefirot interact with each other, like DNA, where every cell of the body has within it the DNA of every other part of the body. Each sefirah contains all the aspects of each other sefirah within itself, hence the seven multiples of seven, or 49 days of counting.
In order to tap into this spiritual energy, we actually count, saying “tonight is the third night of the Omer,” etc. To do so connects us to the day, marking it as a time of growth and introspection, taking us forward and upward toward Shavuot!

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Pesach forms foundation of entire belief system

Posted on 13 April 2017 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
We have had quite a discussion in our family why it is that Passover is the most observed Jewish holiday and have come up with a variety of reasons, of which I will not bore you with at this time. We decided to submit this to you to perhaps shed some more light on the subject and we appreciate your words. Chag Sameach.
— Charles and Rita L.
Dear Charles and Rita,
Jewish sociologists have spilled much ink over this question and, as you found in your family, there are numerous takes on the subject. From a purely sociological perspective there is some merit to all the reasons found, but still, in my book, doesn’t add up to the intensity of dedication to the seder that we find in Jewish households throughout the world for over 3,000 years.
I would like to offer a perhaps metaphysical or spiritual reason why we find this to be so. Let us begin by observing the wording of the Ten Commandments, where God introduces Himself to the Jews as “I am the Lord, God who has taken you out of Egypt, from the house of bondage.” Why did God not first introduce Himself as the Creator of the universe? The builder of breathtaking mountains, the sun, stars and moon? This is a question the earliest commentators to the Torah grappled with.
One of the earliest Jewish philosophers, Rabbi Yehuda Helevi, author of the “Kuzari,” built the foundation of his philosophy on this question. It goes, in a nutshell, as follows: You cannot compare what you believe to what you have seen. Although we believed that God created the universe, there was no innocent bystander at the time to observe that Creation. The entire Jewish nation, however, were living witnesses to all that had transpired over the past few years: the 10 plagues; the splitting of the sea; the falling of food, the manna, from the sky; and finally, the greatest revelation of all, God Al-mighty speaking directly to the entire Jewish nation at Sinai. This thought is emphasized by God in the verse that He proclaims: “You have seen that from Heaven I have spoken to you!.” This is a major departure from any and all other religions which claim divine revelation; all others claim this to an individual or small group. Only the Torah claims this happened to an entire nation. (This claim is actually accepted by Christianity and Islam; they both believe in the Divine Revelation of Torah at Sinai; they only claim that God later changed His mind!).
That is why God introduced Himself as the One who brought the Jews out of Egypt; this is the foundation of our belief system. It is not simply a “faith,” but a belief based upon historical verification.
The Jews are commanded to recite the Shema, the acceptance of the Oneness of God, twice a day, morning and night.
This recitation ends with the acceptance that God took us out of Egypt, an ending that seems out of place. The early commentators explain that our acceptance of the Oneness of God is not complete unless one truly believes in the historical story of the leaving of Egypt, as that is the foundation of our belief. (R’ash, Orchos Tzadikim). Nachmanides, in his classical commentary to the Torah, explains further that out of our belief in the open miracles of Egypt and those which followed, we come to our well-known Jewish weltenschaunge that all which transpires in our day-to-day lives is through direct intervention by the “Hand of God.” If God can control the world in the way of open miracles, He has the power to also perform “hidden miracles” which compose the stuff of our very lives.
This, I put forth, as a more profound reason why Pesach is so deeply rooted in the Jewish conscious and observance; it forms the foundation of our entire belief system and forms who we are and what our mission in the world is as a people. All seven days that we eat matzah and refrain from bread and leavened products we are proclaiming that there is a God, He is present in our lives, and this is our message to ourselves and all those around us.
A wonderful Pesach to you and all the readers!

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Let’s not forget work of Dallas Kosher

Posted on 06 April 2017 by admin

Dear Readers,
I would like to share a thought with you that overtook me as I was driving yesterday.
Let me preface by saying that with Pesach around the corner, the theme of appreciation is in our minds and consciousness. So much of Pesach is about appreciation. We thank God for our redemption, for our freedom, for our birth as a nation. We express appreciation for our ability to practice freely as Jews in this country and many other aspects of our lives. As Jews, we are taught never to take anything for granted. Every morning we recite a blessing thanking the Al-mighty for … waking up!
And for our very existence, for our sight, ability to stand, the clothing we wear, and so much more. By noticing the blessings in our lives, big and small, and not taking them for granted, we are in a position to appreciate these things so much more and express our heartfelt appreciation for the many gifts we receive from Above on a constant basis.
That being said…
Yesterday I received a call from a visitor from Israel who was given my number by his rabbi before he left, to find out from me where he could eat comfortably from the standpoint of someone very scrupulous in his observance of the laws of kosher. He had noticed that the local stores and restaurants are under the DK, and is this reliable? I replied that the DK, Dallas Kosher, is top-notch and he can be totally comfortable with relying upon anything under their name.
With that he said that, if so, he has no further questions because Dallas seems to provide everything he needs, and we bid each other well.
As I drove on, I contemplated what had just transpired. Living in a relatively small town from a religious Jewish perspective, I was able to, wholeheartedly and comfortably, extend my recommendation to a very scrupulous Jew from Jerusalem to eat anything under the jurisdiction of our “small-town” local vaad, or kosher supervisory agency! I thought back to similar conversations I have had over the years with similar visitors, always being able to remark proudly that our local vaad is of the quality and caliber of the kashrut organizations of the large Jewish metropolises, and they can eat comfortably (and tastefully!).
I reflected on how unusual that is for a city with the kosher-observant population the size of a town like Dallas. I realized that I had begun to take that fact for granted, not thinking about how much hard work, caring and thought needed to have been put in to achieve that level; how much dedication on an hourly, daily, weekly, monthly, yearly basis to retain that level of integrity and professionalism!
Especially during the period before and during Pesach, when Jews’ “kosher nerves” can become very taut, finding all our Pesach needs, even fresh meat and sliced deli, is a big deal.
This is a great time, as a community, to express appreciation to Rabbis Sholey Klein and David Shawel, and to their many mashgichim (observers) working with them, to the staff and board of the DK, to Meira Naor and her staff. Even if you don’t keep kosher yourself, you still benefit from a city which is more cohesive and unified by nearly all organizations running their big events at the highest common denominator, inclusive of all.
This is largely to the credit of the many years of hard work, explaining and caring of Jeri Finkelstein, her husband Bill and her boards over the years. How many cities in America can boast of the likes of a Kosher Chili Cook-off where Jewish organizations of every stripe, background and affiliation are represented and where Jews of the highest caliber of kosher observance can taste all their chili?
Let’s all join together this Pesach season and express our thanks and appreciation to Dallas Kosher!

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Intellectual pursuit important in Judaism

Posted on 23 March 2017 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
Over the past year, I read all the books I could on the topic of Judaism versus other religions. It did not take long to decide Christianity is illogical. I don’t find it bothers me that it is the largest religion because they “just believe.” They are no different from the vast majority of my Jewish friends in yeshiva who “just believe” what they hear without putting much thought into it. Do you feel there’s any difference?
— Aryeh
Dear Aryeh,
We need to draw a vital distinction between the fact that Christians “just believe” and that many of your friends in yeshiva “just believe.” It is true that, when you compare people to people, the masses that accept things at face value without putting thought into it and do things by rote, you may not find much difference. They are oftentimes buying into different belief systems by rote. If many of them would have happened to have been switched and brought up by the families of the opposite beliefs, many would probably fall right in line with whatever is being taught to them. That does not show a similarity in the belief systems, rather a similarity in some of the people following them.
When it comes to the actual systems of belief, however, they could not be more diametrically opposed in their outlooks, especially with regard to taking their beliefs for granted! Often in certain branches of Christianity, to “just believe” is meritorious. Numerous times former Christians have approached me to discuss conversion to Judaism because they were not allowed to ask questions! When they would approach their religious leaders with difficulties about their religion, contradictions in teachings and the like, they were dealt with like heretics or told they need to “just believe” and not ask questions.
For some reason, otherwise inquisitive people, even people of science who are rigorous in their criticisms of scientific theories and in their peer reviews of the ideas and postulates of their colleagues, see fit to have a double standard about religion. They have been brought up since their youth that, with regard to religion, you are required to “just believe.” With regards to much of Christianity, to “just believe” is not a lack of effort by the masses; it goes to the heart of the belief system.
The Torah and Judaism, however, could not be more diametrically opposed to that outlook. The first thing a child is taught, at the Pesach Seder, is to ask questions! We have an entire, vast Talmud which consists largely of rigorous challenges to anything and everything stated, whether in verses, Mishnah, rabbinical statements, even acts of the Al-mighty! Our greatest teacher of all time, Moshe, strongly challenged God on some of His actions, and God accepted his challenges — not only without rebuke, but He changed many of His decrees due to Moshe’s challenges! We also point out the mistakes and misdeeds of our greatest leaders, those of Abraham, Moshe and others.
With regards to our essential belief system, the monumental work Daas Tevunos by the esteemed sage R’ Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (Italy 1700s) writes that we have an obligation to not take our beliefs at face value, rather to delve deeply into them, challenge them and come to a deep understanding — an understanding that sits well in our hearts and satisfies the inquisitive, intellectual part of our souls.
Most people, many of the friends you mention, may not be so intellectually inclined and they’re satisfied, perhaps, with what we call emunah peshuta, or simple belief. I’m not out to judge them, but that’s the people, not the religion. As a religion, certainly anyone who has an intellectual side to them needs to work on achieving a profound understanding of everything Jewish.

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Why God’s name is missing in Esther

Posted on 09 March 2017 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
I recently heard a talk where the lecturer was challenging the choice to include the Book of Esther in the Tanach since the name of God doesn’t appear in the entire book, unlike other books of the Tanach, which would imply that it is a secular work and not fit for the Tanach.
Do you have an explanation why it is included?
Bart W.
Dear Bart,
The Talmudic sages address this question, and explain that whenever the Book of Esther says “the King” without the name Ahasuerus, it is hinting to “The” King, the Al-mighty. This, however, is also strange; why, in fact would it only “hint” to God and not come straight out and say His Name?
The answer goes to the crux of the Purim story and message. The Talmud says that the hint in the Torah that there will one day be an Esther and a Purim story is in a verse which foretells the future downfall of the Jews when they will sin and will be presented with tremendous trials and tribulations: “… and they will say because God is not with among us that these tribulations are befalling us, and I will surely hide My Face from them on that day” (Deuteronomy 31:18). The word I will “hide” My Face in the verse is pronounced astir but written without a yud; it has the same spelling in Hebrew as “Esther”!
Unlike Pesach and the other holidays which celebrate great miracles by which we were redeemed, the events of Purim were in the category of “hidden miracles.” It was clear to all that the 10 plagues were an act of God; the splitting of the sea was obviously an open miracle. What transpired in Shushan over a period of nearly a decade, with many of the events seemingly antithetical to what was good for the Jews, was not at all clear to anyone as to what was happening. It was only at the end that the Jews realized, after piecing together these events, that they were pieces of an intricate puzzle which made a big picture. That picture told a thousand words: that God still loves the Jews even as they have sunken to their lowest spiritual level and have distanced themselves greatly from their Creator.
The commentaries point out that any time God’s Name appears in Tanach, it means at that moment God revealed Himself to those involved in the story. Since in the Purim story God was controlling events from behind the scenes, His Name doesn’t appear; only a hint in the form of “The King.” It was upon us to delve more deeply into these events and to realize that the actions of the lowly King Ahasuerus are ultimately in the Hands of a Higher King.
The Vilna Gaon, some 250 years ago, explained this with the following parable: A rich and powerful king showered innumerable gifts upon his only son, who quickly began to become spoiled and haughty, to the ire of many in the palace who craved his demise. One day the prince was so brazen as to slap his father in the face! At that moment, the king realized that all the warnings of his advisors were true and he needed to teach his son an important lesson. He would banish him to the dark, dreary forest to get the message. Knowing how many were savoring the opportunity to finish the prince off, the king called his closest confidants and instructed them to protect his son that no harm should befall him. He wanted to teach him a lesson, not find him dead. They must, however, in no way let the prince know they were sent by the king!
The prince entered the forest thinking his time is near. Soon thereafter he saw a man brandishing a large knife running in his direction. At the last moment, he heard an arrow swish by, taking down his would-be killer. The next day the prince found himself surrounded on four sides by huge men, and as they closed in on him, he heard the quiet swishes of arrows and all four men fell. Like the day before, he looked around to see who saved him and saw no one. He thought, what a lucky break twice in a row! On the third day, he knew it was all over when he was being charged by a huge bear and, again, a few arrows took it down at the last moment. But, no one was to be seen!
The prince then sat under a tree and began to contemplate. Once, twice, could have been good luck. Three times in a row is more than good luck. Someone was looking out for him. Who could it be?! Surely not his father, for he now hates him after slapping him in the face. But, there’s nobody else out there with the power to do this…could it actually be his father after all? It must be, showing that he still loves him despite what he did! The prince, upon realizing this, began to weep and resolved to ask forgiveness and change his ways, which he soon did.
We also slapped God “in the face” by performing the sins which got us banished from our Land to the dark, dreary and dangerous forest of the Diaspora, with many wanting our demise. With the decree of Haman, the first “final solution,” we thought we were finished. Then we saw that our Father, the King, still loves us and was protecting us behind the scenes despite the chutzpah we had shown Him. We learned the lesson which instilled into our hearts even a deeper love than when we were in the palace, in our Land with the Temple. We went from a time of mourning to a time of great joy and celebration.
This is why God’s name is absent in the Book of Esther, but why it very much belongs in the Tanach!
A joyous and meaningful Purim to all!

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Purim’s joy heightened by reversal of certain death

Posted on 02 March 2017 by admin

Dear Rabbi,
I always have trouble feeling joyous on Purim. That salvation happened thousands of years ago, and we have had so many troubles since then and have scores of problems now here at home and in Israel. Any suggestions?
— Martin W.
Dear Martin,
The miracle of Purim was one of a great “Reversal.” What was going to be our destruction became our redemption. Just when Haman went to the king to have Mordechai deposed, he became the very one who was ordered to lead the Jewish leader through the streets of the capital, according him the greatest honors. The enormous gallows he erected to have Mordechai hanged was the very same gallows he himself was hanged upon. The date that the Amalekites had decreed to kill every last Jewish man, woman and child became the very same day that their enemies were destroyed. The Megillah of Esther calls the month of Adar “the month that was reversed, from sorrow to rejoicing, from mourning to festival” (9:22).
The precedent to this phenomenon was the episode of Balaam, the Gentile prophet who, in the employ of the wicked Balak, sought to decimate the Jewish people by curse (Numbers Ch. 22-24). Instead, all of his curses were reversed into blessings. “But HaShem, your God, refused to listen to Balaam, and HaShem, your God, reversed the curse to a blessing for you, because HaShem, your God loved you” (Deuteronomy 24:6).
This occurrence was a sine-qua-non for much of Jewish history. Truth be told, for the Jewish outlook on life!
The Talmud speaks of a pious man nicknamed Nachum Ish Gamzu. He was called that because his motto in life was “Gam zu l’tova,” or “This is also for the good.” No matter how dark and despairing a situation he found himself in, he would always utter, with complete faith and trust in God’s goodness, “Gam zu l’tova.” Only later would the others around him perceive how the terrible situation was actually the best circumstance they could have hoped for. Through his remarkable trust in God, Nachum lived a life of reversals.
I once read the account of German Jews who had gained transport on a British ship to escape the Nazis to England near the outset of the war. They were treated very roughly by the British crew, who stole many of their valuables. Their hearts sank when they passed England, obviously rerouted to another undisclosed locale. During the long voyage they were harassed, the remainder of their belongings stolen from them. All they had left were their pictures and letters from their loved ones, their final vestiges of humanity. Then the British confiscated from them that final remnant of their past, and they cast the Jews’ letters into the sea. At that point the Jews sank into despair, and felt that all was lost. As soon as they disembarked and the ship returned to the high seas, it was blown up by a German submarine.
After the war the German commander of that submarine was interviewed and asked to explain why he blew up the ship full of Jews only after they disembarked. He explained that they were about to sink the ship when it left England’s waters, but suddenly they noticed the sea was full of papers.
They pulled the papers onto the submarine, and, although they were very blotted and impossible to read, they could at least tell that the letters were written in German, making them realize the British had a ship full of German nationals. They decided then to guard the ship until they were sure the German prisoners on board had gotten to safety and only then destroy it. Little did they imagine they were protecting a ship full of Jews! What those Jews had thought was their destruction was actually their salvation!
The reversal of Purim is a Jewish paradigm; we need to rejoice in God’s love for us and look for the reversals in our own lives today, on both a personal and a national level. Purim is just over a week away, so we have a little time to contemplate this and notice the surprisingly good occurrences in our lives and that of our people, so we can truly be joyous on the day of Purim!

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Human uncertainty simply 1 of God’s tools

Posted on 23 February 2017 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
I’ve been following your treatment of the parallel universe theory in physics as it relates to Judaism. What I see as a real problem with relation to Judaism, or any religion that believes that God created the universe, is the uncertainty principle in physics; how could there be uncertainty on the part of God?
Rick B.
Dear Rick,
Your question is an excellent one, and was first raised by none other than Albert Einstein, as I will explain.
For the readers, Rick is referring to a principle first elucidated by Werner Heisenberg in 1927. It states, based on the mathematics of quantum mechanics which govern subatomic particles, that we cannot know both the position and the velocity of a subatomic particle. If you know its exact position, you will not know its exact direction or speed.
This principle is based in mathematics and is not to be confused with another principle of quantum mechanics, known as the observer effect, which notes that the very measurement of a system affects the system. This effect is worthy of discussion in its own right. It is, however very different from what Heisenberg, and after him Niels Bohr, stated, that even if we could develop a mode of measurement which would somehow not affect the system, it is a deeply-rooted fact of our universe that there is uncertainty in the knowledge of a particle because every particle acts in an uncertain way. All we can know is the likelihood of a certain number of particles to act in a certain way; we can never know exactly how any given particle is acting by its very nature.
Einstein’s famous reaction to Heisenberg was, “God doesn’t play dice!” Einstein, although not an observant man, was a believer in God, and could not accept that there is inherent uncertainty in His creation. It must be that God created the world with certainty and we are simply missing the appropriate equations, just as there is certainty in the macro level as elucidated by his own theories of relativity. Einstein, over the course of years, attempted to disprove uncertainty with a series of thought experiments, but, alas, experimentation proved him wrong and uncertainty triumphed. Uncertainty remains (in various forms) a pillar of quantum mechanics with tremendous ramifications on a practical level besides in its understanding of the universe.
Your question, Rick, which was the question inherent in Einstein’s “dice,” remains for us a profound theological question. How do we, in fact, reconcile uncertainty with a universe created by God?
I think the answer is precisely the opposite of what was bothering Einstein. God created the world with inherent uncertainty to relate to us humans the profound message that we are not in charge and ultimately only He is in charge! Uncertainty for us doesn’t spell uncertainty for Him, it just limits our control.
There are scientists who have further theorized that uncertainty is the scientific source of the concept of free choice, which is a core Jewish belief. Absolute determinism would present a challenge to free will; uncertainty could be its foundation.
This relates to another area of science which we have discussed in past columns, that of the determination of weather. Many scholarly articles have been written on our inherent inability to predict rain with true accuracy. We explained this with the Talmudic statement that rain is one of the areas for which God didn’t “hand over the keys” to man. The intrinsic nondeterministic nature of rain is actually a God-given quality. This is explained in the deeper sources of Judaism that rain is the physical example of how all of life receives its sustenance, physical and spiritual, from Above. That is why, in Hebrew, the entire physical world is referred to as the olam hagashmi, or the “world of rain.” In order to keep the message alive and well that the existence of the universe depends upon the will of God, He created rain and the entire weather system to be innately nondeterministic.
So too, as mankind forges forward boldly in the understanding of the inner workings of the universe with the massive intellectual achievements of quantum mechanics, we may have come to the point that we would truly feel we are the ultimate controllers of the cosmos and life itself. So at the point that we are nearly there, God winks at us through the equations of Heisenberg, letting us know that Someone else is in charge!

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As physics progresses, ideas return to Torah

Posted on 09 February 2017 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
I was wondering about your discussion of the parallel universe theory. You said it could possibly fit with Judaism’s idea of God constantly recreating the world and that all those infinite creations of worlds continue to exist as parallel universes.
What would be the purpose of God sustaining an infinite number of universes if they never will meet each other? Or, is there some time in the big scheme of things that they will somehow meet?
— Joseph T.
Dear Joseph,
Allow me to begin with a different, little understood, belief within Judaism. In Maimonides’ listing of the 13 core Jewish beliefs, he ends his list with the belief in the Revival of the Dead, which, we believe, will be a period after the Messianic age. This means, in part, that the righteous who have died over the history of the world will have their bodies reunited with their souls and come back to life to receive the ultimate reward for the good they performed in the world.
This does not mean that people will be revived and continue life wherever they left off. It will be a completely elevated zone of spiritual existence in a world which will also be renewed, with a body which, although it will be built from the old body, will be more spiritual than physical. The main thing we will see in another will not be their physical appearance but their souls, which will shine right through the barely physical body. We will be the same people, albeit with the role of the body and the soul reversed from the way it is in this world.
What will we do there in that state of existence? We will relive everything we did in this world from an elevated perspective. We will see the full meaning and impact of every mitzvah we performed and bask in its light and the light of the connection to the Al-mighty which that mitzvah provided.
The deeper sources of Torah thought explain that not only does this apply to people; it applies to the entire universe. Everything which God created will “come alive” and exist in its fullest potential, shining with the full illumination of the purpose of its creation.
Everyone and everything will receive its full tikkun.
These kabbalistic sources go on to explain that this “revival” includes all the universes created by God throughout history. When God recreates the universe every instant he infuses each instantaneous creation with a different spiritual essence (in their words, different combinations of God’s names are used to recreate the universe, each combination carrying a different spiritual essence).
The perfection of the totality of creation entails the combination and harmonizing of all those myriad, nearly infinite spiritual messages into one great spiritual revelation, one great symphony of Godliness with each level of spirituality providing its unique music. At that time all the parallel universes will be weaved together in one tapestry of existence, the ultimate revelation of the oneness or unity of God. That is when the separation between these universes will cease to exist and they will, together, come alive.
Although parallel universes or existences is only a theory in physics I believe it may have joined many other current theories which mesh with deep Torah thought. Superstring theory, which attempts to resolve the contradictions between general relativity and quantum theory, touches upon this reality as well, as it claims that reality exists not of three dimensions and time, but of nine dimensions and time! (One version, known as M-theory, makes it 10 plus time.)
In the words of the scientist Brian Greene, “as we don’t see these extra dimensions, superstring theory is telling us that we’ve so far glimpsed but a meager slice of reality.” As physics continues to march forward with breathtaking new revelations of our existence, these revelations come closer and closer to the same ideas revealed in our timeless Torah.

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