Archive | Rabbi Yogi

Rethinking the death penalty

Posted on 13 November 2019 by admin

How does the Torah view the ultimate punishment?

Ray Jefferson Cromartie is set to be executed in my home state of Georgia in just under three days as of the writing of this article. He’s the next man up in America’s prolonged history of judicial application of capital punishment. Ray Cromartie continues to proclaim his innocence in the 1994 killing of Richard Slyz, a 50-year-old store clerk who was shot in the process of a robbery which Cromartie admits to participating in. Yet, according to Cromartie’s telling, it was his co-defendant, Corey Clark, who ultimately pulled the trigger of the gun that killed Mr. Slyz.
Cromartie’s requests for the state to re-examine key pieces of evidence using modern DNA testing have since been rejected, something the deceased victim’s daughter finds unconscionable. “My father’s death was senseless,” Elizabeth Legettte writes in a letter. “Executing another man would also be senseless, especially if he may not have shot my father.” By the time this article is published, Cromartie will likely have been put to death by lethal injection.
“To err is human,” wrote the English poet Alexander Pope. And so it is that even the finest of human court systems will, at least on occasion, condemn the innocent and exonerate the guilty. Such is the burden of maintaining law and order. But how much erring is simply too much for society to accept? This is a question of the utmost poignancy when considering the death penalty, a punitive measure with irreversable consequences.
According to the National Academy of Sciences, at least 4.1% of those languishing on death row are innocent. Is that a number we simply cannot accept? Or, do the purported societal macro-benefits of carrying the death penalty on the books outweigh the heavy costs that these innocents are to bear?
If that were not enough to provoke renewed discussion on the continued application of the death penalty, the problems with America’s utilization of the death penalty run much much deeper. According to the Equal Justice Initiative’s website, “Prominent researchers have documented a pattern of discrimination in the application of the death penalty based on the race of the victim, race of the defendant, or both, in nearly every state that uses capital punishment.”
Then there is the issue of the role that poverty plays. Again the Equal Justice Initiative: “Whether a defendant will be sentenced to death typically depends more on the quality of his legal team than any other factor,” and the poor receive court-appointed lawyers who are typically overworked, underpaid and often ill-equipped to argue cases of such magnitude. As Anthony Ray Hinton, an innocent man who sat on death row for almost three decades, describes it, “It’s called capital punishment because if you don’t have the capital you get the punishment.” Add to this the approximately 10% of “death rowers” with documented cases of mental illness (something which calls into question the apropriateness of handing out the death penalty), and the seemingly arbitrary nature of when the death penalty is applied, and you have a veritable cocktail of systematic judicial disfunction.
Almost all western democracies have abondoned the death penalty, with the Council of Europe going so far as making the abolition of the death penalty a prerequisite for membership. What’s of particular interest to me, though, is their particular rationale in abandoning this ancient method of retributive justice. According to an official website for the European Union, the death penalty should be abolished for, among other things, being “inhumane, degrading and unnecessary.” Similar abolitionists, like the American Civil Liberties Union, argue that “Opposing the death penalty does not indicate a lack of sympathy for murder victims. On the contrary, murder demonstrates a lack of respect for human life. Because life is precious and death irrevocable, murder is abhorrent, and a policy of state-authorized killings is immoral.”
In this regard, the Torah unequivocally diverges in thought.
Regardles of the frequency of its application, the punishment of the death penalty for murder was one of the very first God-given commands to mankind: “Whoever sheds the blood of man through man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God He made man” (Beresheet 9:6). When we dissect the verse, we see that the very rationale for the application of the death penalty for murder is precisely due to man’s special place in creation, a being created in the image of God! It is the very sanctity of man and of human life itself that warrants the meting out of such a harsh punishment. For it is the punishment which alerts man to the severity of any given action, and insofar as murder is concerned, any underpunishment of the crime only serves to diminish the heinousnous of the crime and to cheapen the dignity of man and life itself. According to the Torah, it is indeed the absence of the death penalty in societal penal codes that is, to quote the European Union’s terminology, “inhumane” and “degrading.”
In Part II of this article we will examine how often the death penalty was actually applied during Jewish judicial history and ask how the Torah might advise a modern country in its potential formation and application of the death penalty.

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Thinking of a calling as a job sure way to succeed

Posted on 10 October 2019 by admin

In ancient Israel, Jewish farmers were obligated to give portions of their harvest to members of the tribe of Levi (the tribe not given an inheritance in the land of Israel, rather supported by the entirety of the Jewish people on behalf of their spiritual positions within the nation). A certain portion was to be given to the Levite and a certain portion to be given to the Kohen. What’s notably fascinating is that each individual Jew retained the right to give their crops to the Kohen or Levi of their choice (a choice known in the Talmud as Tovat ha’na’ah).
You can imagine the potential pitfalls of such a system. Shlomo, the uber-popular Kohen, might be rolling in the wheat and barley, while Simcha, the introverted, lesser-known Kohen, might have little to nothing to bring back to his family! Would it not make more sense to create a communal “Levi pot” for all the farmers to deposit their gifts into, and to subsequently divvy up this communal pot in such a way that ensures that each individual Kohen and Levi gets their appropriate share? Such is the question of the great 18th century Hungarian sage, Rabbi Moshe Schreiber (1762-1839), most commonly known as the Chasam Sofer.
The Chasam Sofer suggests that the Torah’s interest in such a system was to have the Levites, the designated teachers of the Jewish people, illustrate a most powerful lesson in faith and trust in God through their own life examples. For their lives would serve as constant reminders to anyone who would come in contact with them, that as much as we might imagine our hands as the sources of our wealth, it is God Almighty who ultimately determines and provides for one’s livelihood. The Levites, so to speak, would have to walk-the-walk, not just talk-the-talk. And with the Levites’ help, this palpable spirit of faith in God’s providence would — God willing — spread throughout the land.
Unlike the Chasam Sofer who understands the primary function of this economic system to be for the sake of the Jewish nation at large, I’d like to suggest that this system also serves to motivate the Levites themselves. Let me explain:
The Levites were called upon to teach and inspire the nation in the service of God. This calling was deeply ingrained in the spiritual DNA of the tribe which had already produced such great Jewish luminaries as Moshe, Aharon, Miriam and Pinchas. Now, a calling in life is certainly a special gift. To align one’s life with a calling is a blessing, for one’s life is elevated, exalted and meaning-laden. But, for all the good that comes with an inner calling (that voice deep-down that rises a person from complacency into action for the sake of some greater good) there is a lurking danger.
For, even as everything is swell when one’s inner call-to-action is heard loud and clear, one’s meaningful productivity on fire, but what happens when that inner call to action ceases to be, or is quieted? When the natural bi-product of that quieted voice expresses itself in naturally limited, sluggish and un-inspired efforts. To have one’s primary source of meaning in life rise and fall like a yo-yo according to the volume of an inner call can drive one insane, or at least mentally and emotionally exhausted. And just as important, what will be with the holy work that needs to be seen through on a day-to-day basis? Certainly the needs of the nation need to be attended to on a consistent basis, not based on the inner whims of individuals in positions of influence!
I wonder if it was for just this reason that the Levites were not paid out of a communal pot. Without the guarantee of sustenance, the Levites would have no choice (quiet inner voice be damned!) but to turn their calling into what can essentially be called a job: mingling and getting to know as many people as possible, teaching these people Torah, and praying that the people they came in contact with would reward their efforts with the gifting of their crops.
It is undeniable that even when one is blessed with innate pedagogical senses and abilities, the business of teaching is notably tiring work whose fruits often take years to realize. Teacher burnout, then, becomes a very real concern affecting the individual and community alike. By turning the Levites calling into a “job” as well, it would become that much easier for the tribe called upon to teach to heed their innate inner calling, and the community at large would undeniably benefit from the attention garnered by what can be seen as nothing short of the benefits of capitalism in motion. For there’s hardly anything that can get one out of bed quicker than the knowledge that one’s children’s bread is squarely dependent upon the actions one chooses to take. And there is little that can motivate a person who is guaranteed a fair share.
The Chasam Sofer is correct in saying that how much the Levite would receive at the end of the day is largely out of his control. God would be the ultimate arbitrator of that. Yet, there is also no doubt that the Levi can aid in the process as well, by putting forth his best effort, his hishtadlut, and being a light amongst the masses who were to feed him.
During this high holiday season it’s worth spending the time to not only discover one’s particular inner call to action, but to similarly turn that call to action into a “job,” with all of the accountability that comes with a paycheck. If your calling lies in the area of Torah study, don’t rely upon your own drive to ensure daily study. Rather, get a study partner, a chevruta, and establish times of study during the week (For, it’s much easier to rationalize to oneself why tonight’s learning isn’t going to happen than it is to ruin another person’s expectations!). Similarly, if you find your passion in the area of service to others, take the initiative to go the extra step of signing up to be on the board of an organization or volunteer to steer a committee or program. “Jobs” might add some stress to your life, but they are also the surest way of guaranteeing that your inner calling sees the light of day!

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The Talmud and illegal immigration

Posted on 31 July 2019 by admin

The sages provide potential solutions to undocumented immigrant problem

With more than 10 million undocumented immigrants living in the shadows of the United States, proponents from both sides of the political aisle agree that something must be done.
Some argue that an offer of amnesty will allow for organized absorption of these otherwise invisible individuals. Citizenship for millions of able-bodied workers would increase total tax revenues on the state and federal levels, and allow the many “non-skilled” foreign workers currently working the fields and construction sites to continue legally filling positions that most Americans aren’t interested in to begin with. Beyond this, they argue, lies the human toll imposed on a growing population (many brought here as children) who find themselves in an impossible state of perpetual limbo and fear.
On the other end of the spectrum, we find equally impassioned factions lobbying for the deportation of all undocumented immigrants. Anything less, they argue, would be an insult to the millions of immigrants who went through the costly and arduous immigration process through the proper legal channels. Illegal immigration, they note, is a violation of federal law, and should be treated as such. Proponents for deportation also point to the tax burden which arises from caring for illegal immigrants (in health care, education and child care), and decry this unfair burden, which is ultimately passed on to legal, taxpaying Americans.
It seems that the only thing both sides can agree on is that the time has come to finally address the problem. As Jews, it would be enlightening to know how the sages of the Talmud might have addressed this conundrum.
Nochum Mangel and Shmuel Klatzkin (“A Torah Perspective on National Borders and Illegal Immigration”) point to two seemingly contradictory Talmudic principles that are pertinent to the discussion.
On the one hand we find the Talmudic principle of ein chotei niskar, which essentially means the sages of the Talmud were not willing to accept a potential legal outcome that would ostensibly reward someone who refused to abide by the law.
To relate this principle to the case of illegal immigration, an argument could be made that we mustn’t craft legislation that leads in any way toward citizenship, as this essentially rewards those who arrived on these shores illegally.
On the other hand, we find a separate Talmudic principle called takanat hashavim, an enactment made for the benefit of those who wish to repent from their past misdeeds. A classic example involves an unusual case discussed in Talmud Gittin (55a), of a thief who stole a crossbeam and subsequently built it into the structure of his house. According to strict Torah law, the repentant thief is obligated to return the exact item that he stole to its original owner. In this case, however, the sages knew that the repentant thief would have no other option but to deconstruct his house at great personal loss to retrieve the relatively inexpensive crossbeam — an exorbitant requirement that would discourage even the most contrite of men. The rabbis thus addressed this spiritual hurdle by allowing the thief to pay the value of the stolen beam to the original owner and thereby fulfill his halachic obligation. (It should be noted that the nature of the rabbis’ ability to circumvent Torah law is particular to the unique powers that Jewish courts have in monetary law, in particular.)
To draw a parallel, undocumented immigrants have, so to speak, built their homes (their familial and financial lives) illegally. And, if the only path to rectification would require the utter destruction of their houses (in our example, the equivalent of handing themselves over to the authorities and subsequently being deported), who amongst us would come forward? One might argue, then, that the principle of takanat hashavim encourages our government to create a system that encourages illegal immigrants to come forward for processing, with the promise that their lives, as they currently stand, will not be dismantled in the process.
To summarize, there must be a considerable consequence for the illegal immigrants’ past violation of American law (financial penalties, back-taxes or mandatory community service), but not one that would impose such a great sacrifice so as to discourage the undocumented immigrant from coming forward in the first place. This could come in the form of an amnesty of the kind last seen under President Ronald Reagan, or another type of documented work program that allows these residents to stay, work, pay taxes and/or potentially work toward legal citizenship.
Furthermore, while a government has the right to deport anyone living illegally in a country, it would seem a practical impossibility to locate and process the vast majority of illegal immigrants. If we are to solve the conundrum of the millions of undocumented immigrants currently amongst us, it would seem, then, that the only practical solution would be to create a system whereby the illegal immigrant is encouraged to come forward, to create a path toward rectification.
One more pertinent Talmudic source must be considered. The Mishnah in Gittin (4:6) rules that, although it is a great mitzvah to redeem Jewish captives, we are forbidden from overpaying the ransom money. The Talmud, in one of its explanations of the Mishnah, explains that we are concerned lest the overpayment incentivize future Jewish kidnappings.
In our discussion as well, is there not room for concern that lenient judicial measures (amnesty in particular) might serve to incentivize and embolden future waves of illegal immigration? If so, it would seem irresponsible for any bill addressing immigration reform to not simultaneously address pressing matters of border security.
In the end, no amount of legislation will ever fully curb illegal immigration. The migrant flocks to our country, not in the romantic hope of some far-off day in the future when he will be fully embraced into the national fold, but for the promise of something much more pressing and closer at hand — the hope of a better tomorrow for himself and his family. Can even the harshest of legislation ever fully curb such aspirations? Unless we are to become as barbarians, the answer is no. We must, then, find a way to best address this matter.

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Torah teachings vary when it comes to immigrants

Posted on 20 June 2019 by admin

Every year, on the first night of the holiday of Shavuot, I deliver a Torah class about a timely political or social topic. The more controversial, the better; after all, I have to keep everyone awake from midnight to 3 a.m. In my time, I’ve covered many of the big ones: abortion, suicide, gun control, illegal drugs and marijuana, trangenderism and homosexuality, and the legal parameters of self-defense. Although it’s always a massive undertaking to try to comprehend and encapsulate the Torah’s viewpoint on particularly complex issues, I’ve always found plentiful traditional source material to work with, and with it a coherent line of thought or thoughts on the issue.
Not this year. With border security and the cessation of illegal immigration as cornerstones of the Trump administration’s platform, it seemed natural to dig into the Torah’s position on border security, immigration in general and how the Torah might tackle the challenge of the thousands of undocumented immigrants already living and working in the shadows of this country. The problem I encountered is, although we know much of Joshua’s conquering of ancient Israel and of the laws governing who could live in the country and under which conditions, it’s hard to know how these Torah laws, particular to the Holy Land of old, might affect or influence a Jew’s outlook on policies concerning modern nation-states. In a sense, this would be more of an investigation into the spirit of the Torah’s laws, than an investigation into the laws themselves.
That the Torah allows sovereign nations to defend themselves and their borders from physical threats arising from foreign enemies and invaders is clear. At a minimum, that which is permitted under the allowances of personal self-protection (see Exodus 22:1-2, for example) is surely extended to a country, or a grouping of many individuals. The modern policy adopted by many countries (including the United States) to exclude those with criminal backgrounds or proven ties to foreign gangs or terror organizations from obtaining citizenship is a logical, pre-emptive attempt to prevent potential dangers from entering one’s borders, and would certainly have the Torah’s approval.
What’s interesting of note, however, is the Torah’s equally vigilant concern regarding the introduction of foreign ideological threats that might undermine the national character of the country. This, after all, is a threat that immigration poses as well. To this extent, non-Jews were permitted to live in the Holy Land along with the rest of Israel, but they had to abide by the seven Noahide Laws (laws of basic social civility and morality that are incumbent upon all of humanity). When pledged to the law, these non-Jews immediately obtained the status of a ger toshav (“a foreign dweller”) and all of Israel was enjoined to treat them as they would treat a fellow Israelite. “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). Idolaters and miscreants, on the other hand, were not welcome, lest their negative behavior influence the local Jewish populace.
A somewhat modern equivalent of this can be found in the multiple conditions and tests that countries impose upon those seeking citizenship to their country. Whether they be proficiency tests in the national language, required lessons in national history and law, or pledges of allegiance to the welfare and laws of that given country, these are modes of ensuring, to the best of a government’s abilities, that immigrants taking up permanent residence will only add to the national landscape, and not, God forbid, create an internal corrosion of the basic tenets of the state.
And, while countries acting in good faith have a duty to admit those seeking refuge from physical danger (a concept the Rambam [Guide to the Perplexed 3:39] derives from the Torah precept, “You shall not deliver a slave to his master if he seeks refuge with you from his master” [Deuteronomy 23:16]), the waters become murkier when considering those seeking citizenship upon the promise of economic security. A country has the right to consider the economic sustainability of immigrant absorption en masse, as well as the overall toll and burden it might place on the broader populace. This, indeed, is a dilemma that different countries attack in differing ways, and are within their rights to do so.
Jews have known exile longer than any other people. It was the prophet Jeremiah who set the precedent for all times as to the expected attitude that Jews should adopt toward their new nations of residence, when he said: “Also seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to God for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” And, it was the Sages of the Talmud who commanded us that “the law of the land is the law.” We were, in other words, to serve as model citizens of whichever country we found ourselves in at the time, however long or short that stay might be.
As to the Torah’s approach/solution to the dilemma of those already living in a country illegally, we will dissect that conundrum in Part II of this article to come next time.

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Freedom can be felt even in midst of slavery

Posted on 18 April 2019 by admin

Pesach sure gives slavery a bad rap. After all, the Seder’s dominant theme is that of the Israelites moving away from slavery and toward a life of freedom. And the rituals of the night serve to accentuate the motif of freedom: The leaning as free men would do, the four cups of wine (the drink of the wealthy and privileged), the custom to decorate the Seder table with one’s finest vessels, the lavish meal and the obligation to see oneself as having left the bondage of Egypt (Sephardim going so far as to physically re-enact the Exodus in the midst of their Seder!). All of this and more turn the Seder night into one big ol’ gratitude-fest — “Thank you Lord for redeeming us from such a dreadful fate! Hallelujah!”
God forbid for myself or anyone else to dismiss or even downplay the depressive plight of the enslaved! Human history has shed its light on the evil that is slavery and the hell that marks its victims. And yet, I sometimes worry that a person could leave the Seder with the wrong impression: that a life has no worth, no value or purpose unless one is free. A “Give me liberty or give me death” kind of sensibility that nips at the hearts of participants around the Seder table. And that’s a shame.
For, unwittingly as it may be, such attitudes diminish the meaning of the existences of the millions upon millions of people who have lived throughout human history as enslaved peoples, many never getting close enough to even sniff the fresh air of freedom. Not to mention the many long portions of Jewish history itself riddled with slavery or slavery-like persecution in exile! Are we to argue that those stretches of Jewish history served as mere layovers toward a brighter national future? How sad, indeed, it would be if life’s meaning could so easily be stripped away from humanity at the hands of history’s oppressors!
And yet many believe just that. People like Anthony Ray Hinton, who came to believe that the powers that be could steal his life and reason-to-be away from him. He was a poor black man convicted by a jury of all white Southerners of murdering two fast-food managers and attempting to murder a third who thankfully survived a gunshot to the head, but sadly pointed out Hinton from a police lineup as the shooter (Hinton had actually been checked in at his job, surrounded by co-workers at the time of the attempted murder, but his ill-equipped court-appointed lawyer never bothered to put his co-workers on the stand).
Hinton was enraged. And rightly so. He was an innocent man that the state wanted to kill in order to move on from these grisly crimes. There was no physical evidence linking Hinton to the murders, but a shoddy ballistics report claiming that the bullets found at the crime scenes matched Anthony’s mother’s gun (almost three decades later this report would be debunked by national ballistics experts). And now, that which was left of his life had been reduced to a long waiting game for a date with the electric chair located just 40 feet from his holding cell. And what great meaning could there be in that? There were no great choices one could make on death row, no family one could grow or meaningful work to engage in. Anthony Hinton lived with these pervading thoughts for the first three years of what would become an almost 30-year stint in isolation on Alabama’s death row.
But one particularly gloomy night changed everything for the young convict. It was common at nighttime to hear sounds of crying and moaning on The Row. You learned to tune it out. But tonight was different. It was a soul-piercing cry, and it went on and on and on.
Anthony recalls his thoughts from that night. Thoughts that would alter his existence for the rest of his time in lockup.
“I thought again about all the choices I didn’t have and about freedom, and then the man stopped crying and there was a silence that was louder than any noise I’d ever heard. What if this man killed himself tonight and I did nothing? Wouldn’t that be a choice?
“I was on death row not by my own choice, but I had made the choice to spend the last three years thinking about killing McGregor [the state’s prosecutor] and thinking about killing myself. Despair was a choice. Hatred was a choice. Anger was a choice. I still had choices, and that knowledge rocked me. I may not have had as many as Lester [Anthony’s best friend from the outside] had, but I still had some choices. I could choose to give up or to hang on. Hope was a choice. Faith was a choice. And more than anything else, love was a choice. Compassion was a choice.
“‘Hey!’ I walked up to my cell door and yelled toward the crying man. ‘Are you all right over there?’”
These were the first words that Anthony had uttered since he had entered death row three years prior. He had been silently protesting the entirety of it all, and refused to speak to anyone but the few outsiders who came to visit him on visiting day. But now he realized his words could also be used for the good.
It turned out that the crying inmate had recently received word that his mother had died, and Anthony’s words of care and concern opened the door for the other inmate to share his pain with another and heal in the process.
Anthony comforted the man:
“I’m sorry you lost your mom, but man, you got to look at this a different way. Now you have someone in heaven who’s going to argue your case before God.”
And then “the most amazing thing happened. On a dark night, in what must surely be the most desolate and dehumanizing place on earth, a man laughed. A real laugh. And with that laughter, I realized that the State of Alabama could steal my future and my freedom, but they couldn’t steal my soul or my humanity. And they most certainly couldn’t steal my sense of humor (“The Sun Does Shine,” pp. 115-118).”

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Heroic figures of our past are worth imitating

Posted on 21 March 2019 by admin

We got the Torah on Shavuot, but you won’t find any 9-year-olds dressed up as Moses, holding up cut-out-cardboard Ten Commandments, anywhere in synagogue over that holiday. Not many Maccabee look-alike contests over Hanukkah either.
But on Purim, we’ve got Queen Esthers and Mordechais to spare! These royal Jewish personages seem to be everywhere and anywhere over the holiday! I would venture to say that the No. 1 choice of Purim dress-up for 5-year-old girls is Queen Esther, and similarly it’s Mordechai for the boys. Sure, you’ve got one or two wise-guy Hamans in the crowd, but that shtick doesn’t usually start up until the teenage years, when that’s the least of parents’ concerns concerning teenage rebellion.
And so, it’s only appropriate on the holiday that recognizes and celebrates its ancient Jewish heroes like no other, to focus on the miracle that is great Jewish personages throughout our history.
I happened to be in the Holy Land just months after the venerated giant of mussar (the study of Jewish ethics and character development), Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe zt’’l, passed away. The year was 2005 and I was engaged in one of my favorite practices of Jerusalem life, book hunting. Meah Shearim in particular is lined with tens of large and small sefarim (Jewish books) shops, and I always spend as many hours as I can find perusing up and down the aisles for new and ancient treasures.
It just so happened that I passed by a certain store that had a table outside on the sidewalk, showcasing its newest additions, and a small, paperback book caught my eye. In honor of the shloshim (the 30-day period of mourning after death), the students of Rabbi Wolbe zt’’l had collected and published a small book of letters that their rebbe had written to individuals, addressing all sorts of questions and concerns that people presented him. I had to buy it!
Unfortunately, the book sat on my shelves for years, largely untouched, until just last year when I decided to go through the letters one by one. It turned out to be a real treasure. There were Torah insights on just about every page, with one pearl of wisdom in particular resonating with me above them all — an insight that highlights the uniqueness of man, and more particularly the singular majesty of the spiritually elevated man.
Rabbi Wolbe was perplexed as to why the Shemoneh Esrei (otherwise known as the Amidah — literally, “the Standing Prayer”), the holiest and most often recited of Jewish prayers, begins its praise of God with the reductive words, “God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob,” when it could have used broader, seemingly more glorifying terminology like, “Creator of Heaven and Earth,” “Redeemer From Egypt” or “Giver of the Torah.”
The answer, according to Rabbi Wolbe zt’’l, is that the greatest praise that we can offer the Almighty is that He created physical creatures of flesh and blood who nonetheless might achieve Godly natures. People like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who educated the world about the nature of the divine and were elevated themselves to such a lofty degree that the King of kings Himself felt it appropriate to attach His holy name to theirs (“God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob”). Who would think that you and I have the potential within us to become the greatest miracles of all! (See Igrot U’Ketavim Mimaran Rabeinu Ha’Mashgiach, Letter 5: Bircat Avot, for greater detail.)
Besides the fun and games associated with dressing up on Purim, it’s worth considering how special, and indeed unique, it is, that we as a people educate our children that the people they ought most to imitate and emulate aren’t today’s top athletes or most famous movie stars, but the holy and heroic figures of our Jewish past. People like the saintly Mordechai and the righteous Esther. Within the merriment of the day, and in the childlike endeavor of dress-up, we are indeed imparting a most lofty lesson to the next generation: that human beings can become greater than our biological limitations might imply — that we have the potential to become vessels of the divine, the greatest miracle in all of Creation!

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Putting possessions in spiritual perspective

Posted on 21 February 2019 by admin

“One who acquires more possessions acquires more worry (Pirkei Avot 2:8).”
This intuitive notion serves as a powerful check on one of the most powerful of human drives: the drive to amass wealth and assets. I must have heard, learned and taught this famous dictum of Hillel a hundred times or more in the past decade alone. Suffice it to say that our generation, a generation blessed with more wealth and opportunity than perhaps any generation, needs Hillel’s guidance more than ever. And yet, as I’ve only recently learned, it’s a whole other thing to experience the wisdom of a Torah teaching in one’s own life.
When my children were younger, money wasn’t important to me. Sure, I needed funds to to pay the rent and utilities for the modest apartment we lived in, and to buy groceries, Pampers and clothing for my growing family. But, as long as we had enough to provide those basic needs, I was fully content.
Then, my family’s expenses grew, considerably so.
Five children in prekindergarten and up meant five tuition bills to Jewish day school and summer camp. These wonderful investments in our children’s future, nonetheless carried lofty price tags. Throw in extracurricular and weekend activities,mix in birthday parties and bar and bat mitzvah celebrations. Don’t forget to add in memorable family vacations, and yearly two-way trips for seven people to visit Bubbe and Zayde in Baltimore, and Saba and Savta in Atlanta. Still, our budget was swelling and, once again, I was tolerant of, if not fully satisfied with, our fiscal well-being.
But my thoughts turned to a costly future. A 16-year-old daughter meant car insurance, a new vehicle and the other expenses that come with a teenager. My mind wandered to upcoming college tuition and nuptials which, with God’s help, wouldn’t be too far off, and savings put aside for future grandchildren. Then there was the question of our own retirement.
The seemingly endless dollar signs in my brain made my head spin and my stomach weak. Making monthly ends meet no longer seemed enough. With my salary largely set, thoughts of potential investments in the stock market, into a business or real estate ventures seemed necessary to cover future expenses.
I studied the ins and outs of a particular investment for six months, and jumped in with a great deal of hope. Things went largely as planned, and I felt we had invested in something that would hopefully bear fruit down the road. What I didn’t expect to find was my stomach turned like a wrench, my mind returning over and over to my investment, and my sleep disturbed. Had I gotten the best deal? Run the numbers correctly? Chosen correctly and properly analyzed the future of the investment? Would the investment perform well long term? What were the knowns and the unknowns of the transaction? Should I buy or sell? The list went on and on, and with it, much of the peace and quiet in my mind.
I had run the numbers multiple times and received the input and advice of experts in the field, yet it seemingly wasn’t enough for me. It was as if my newly acquired assets had, in fact, acquired me. I walked around with Hillel’s dictum in my mind’s eye; the more possessions one had, the more one had to worry about. I couldn’t help but jealously look back at my earlier, simpler and more peaceful days, and relate to the spirit of Solomon’s wise quip: “The sleep of the laborer is sweet, whether he eat little or much, but the satiety of the rich does not allow him to sleep (Kohelet 5:11).”
However, unloading my investments meant a return to the fear that accompanied the prospect of an unprepared future. But how to overcome the associated nervousness and angst? Perhaps Hillel’s teaching meant that ownership and worry were inextricably linked, that one of the inevitable costs of possessions is worry itself. Would life then become nothing more than a choice between the lesser of two evils?
I turned to God and asked Him to take over. As I did so, feelings of relief slowly came to me. Although it didn’t happen immediately, I eventually reached a point of internal peace. My investments returned to their rightful place, the back of my mind. And my focus returned to what really mattered, and the reason I was doing all of this in the first place: my family.
Perhaps this is what Hillel taught us all along with his dictum. If you see the possessions you’ve acquired as yours alone, then you alone must bear the burden of concern for those assets. However, if you don’t see yourself as the “true” owner, that you are but a custodian of God’s possessions, then God can, and will, share in the burden of possession. With such an emotionally healthy outlook we can share in the promise of King David when he said, “Cast your burden upon Hashem, and He will bear you (Tehillim 55:23).”
Rabbi Yogi Robkin is the outreach director of DATA of Plano. He can be reached at
yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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Recognizing our true power to transform

Posted on 06 February 2019 by admin

Ever wonder how they train baby elephants in the circus? It’s actually quite fascinating, and more than a little sad. While they are still young calves, trainers attach a strong rope around their necks and attach the rope to a secure post. The young calf inevitably tries to walk away and is stopped time and time again by the rope. Day after day the scene repeats itself, with the feisty calf trying with all its might to get away and the sturdy rope holding it in place. Eventually the calf realizes that escape from the rope’s grasp is futile and it stops resisting, choosing instead to stand docile and remain in its place. It is for this reason that you might visit a circus one day and find a seven-ton, fully grown elephant standing perfectly still with a rope tied around its neck that is attached to nothing. The trained elephant, you see, comes to associate the rope itself with forced confinement and submits to its “powers.” Little does it know that even a secured rope would be no match for a beast of its current size!
In this vein, we might approach a perplexing sentiment that the Jewish people express at the Sea of Reeds. With the sea on one hand and the approaching Egyptian army on the other, the Jews declare rhetorically, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us to die in the desert? What is this that you have done to us to take us out of Egypt? Isn’t this the thing [about] which we spoke to you in Egypt, saying, Leave us alone, and we will serve the Egyptians, because we would rather serve the Egyptians than die in the desert (Shemot 14:11-12).” One can imagine the fear of an oncoming army with no place for retreat, but the Jewish people were 600,000 strong (those of military age alone: ibid,12:13), and armed (13:18), whereas the oncoming Egyptian army consisted of a paltry 600-plus chariots and their accompanying officers (14:7)! Why were the Jews so certain of their impending defeat?
Sure, it’s true that the newly exiled Jewish people were not learned in the ways of war like the Egyptian army, but their sheer numerical advantage alone should have given them a legitimate hope of victory at the very least! Nonetheless, God Himself seems to agree with the people’s dire assessment of the situation when He assures them, only a few verses later, that “The Lord will fight for you, but you shall remain silent.” God, it seems, knew that without divine assistance, an Egyptian victory was a foregone conclusion.
I doubt the famed Spanish Bible commentator Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) had ever heard of the circus animal training devices detailed above, but in much the same way, he describes the long-since shackled mentality of the Jews of the Exodus. These Jews, he explains, had long served the Egyptians and habituated themselves to bearing the brunt of their heavy yoke. “Their spirits were lowly,” the Ibn Ezra writes. “How could they now fight their masters?” If he had had the language, perhaps the Ibn Ezra would have described the Jews at the sea as having a “slave mentality.” Or, perhaps he would have categorized them as having an “inferiority complex,” a term coined hundreds of years later by noted Viennese psychotherapist Alfred Adler (1870-1937).
Like the adult elephants held captive by their erroneous mental associations of the rope around their necks, the Jewish people were held captive by their erroneous associations with the Egyptians. Our history would have looked pretty different (no splitting of the sea!?), but perhaps God might not have needed to miraculously intervene on our ancestors’ behalf had they been able to properly assess their own newfound might and the true power of the limited Egyptian army heading their way.
The ancient Israelites are far from alone in bearing improper self-evaluations and inaccurate foreign associations. How often do we ourselves fall into this same psychological trap in our lives? We all struggle with deficiencies in character, relationships and values that we know we ought to change but have found difficult to overcome and transform over the years. At a certain point, we may submit to “reality” and give up the fight. In our minds we have a rope around our necks, and it seems futile to deny its control over us. Sure, we may remain as growth-minded individuals, but we move on to tackle easier, more attainable personal battles.
Once in a while, though, we ought to take stock of how much we have grown over the years. We ought to take a fresh look at ourselves in the mirror. Are we still small calves, or are we seven-ton elephants? Sure, that rope was tough to wrangle out of when we were younger, less spiritually and emotionally advanced individuals, but we’re different now! We’re more capable and powerful at this advanced point in our lives. If we could only see who we really are, right here and now, we might very well be able to pull ourselves out of holes that we’ve been stuck in for years and convinced we’d be stuck in forever. But, to do this, we need to break free from our erroneous beliefs that certain problematic areas of our lives are ropes that hold us in place and cannot be removed or broken free from. True freedom could be ours if we could just recognize how powerful we really are, how much we have grown over the years. What we weren’t capable of conquering and accomplishing in years past might be very much in our grasp today.
This question assumes our verse to be describing the entirety of the oncoming Egyptian onslaught. According to Josephus (Antiquities 2:15:3, quoted in the footnotes of Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s The Living Torah), though, our question is largely moot, as he describes the Egyptian forces as including 50,000 horsemen and 200,000 foot soldiers in addition to the 600 war chariots mentioned in the Chumash.
Rabbi Yogi Robkin is the outreach director of DATA of Plano. He can be reached at
yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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If it seems out of reach, God will stretch your arm

Posted on 10 January 2019 by admin

I had it relatively easy. I met with a shadchan (a traditional Jewish matchmaker) one night in the middle of 2001, described myself (a then bright-eyed 21-year-old yeshiva student with an eye toward a future in Jewish outreach) and what I was looking for in a spouse, and shortly thereafter received suggestions of different girls to consider dating.
I went out once or twice with four different girls before relaying the news to the shadchan that I just didn’t think these girls were for me. It only took one date with the fifth girl I went out with to know that I had found my bashert, and a short 2½ weeks later, we were engaged. (It’s worth noting that this is an incredibly short courtship even by traditional standards — ahh, to be young and bold.) Overall the shidduch system had worked for me, and so, I imagined, did it work for everyone else.
My now wife burst that rosy bubble shortly after our engagement, explaining to me how hard it was for so many others. Girls left waiting by the phone, hoping to hear from a shadchan or a friend with a suggestion, only to go weeks or months without a call. I was flabbergasted. It seemed like the moment I called the shadchan to call off a courtship, another suggestion was at her fingertips ready to go. I hadn’t realized how fortunate I had been, and resolved then and there to be part of the solution.
My life in yeshiva quickly changed. Instead of sitting together with my close friends for lunch, I slowly made my way around the cafeteria, getting to know other yeshiva students whom I’d scarcely known before. I eventually compiled notebooks filled with comprehensive details about the yeshiva boys I had met, along with the candid details of what they were seeking in a bride. I would set them up with girls that I knew, or with single friends of my wife, and before we knew it, we had made three successful shidduchim.
Word got around town that there was a new shadchan in town and, as if overnight, I began getting calls from single girls and guys, fathers and mothers, both local and out of state, all around the clock. And phone calls weren’t the end of it. People wanted to meet with me face-to-face, the same as I had done with my shadchan many months before. And almost every night of the week, after a full day at study, I’d come home, eat a quick supper with my wife and newborn, and prepare for a barrage of eligible singles knocking on my apartment door.
We successfully made our fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh successful shidduchim, and along with that success came more and more visitors and more and more phone calls. I had planned to try to make a difference, but all of this, I could never have imagined. It was all too much for me.
Besides for the ridiculous demands on my already limited free time with my young family, I began feeling the growing pressure of the many expectant and hopeful singles that had put their hopes in me. I couldn’t possibly help them all, and it gnawed away at my core. A growing anxiety creeped in, grabbing hold of me and not letting go.
It was around this time of the year, the week of Parashat Shemot, that I walked to shul on a brisk Shabbat morning still filled with the disquieting shadchan angst that was increasingly hard to shake. I took a seat in the back and eyed the amazing array of sefarim (books on Jewish subjects) that lined the synagogue’s shelves. One old book caught my eye. It turned out to be a commentary on the weekly parasha written by one of the earlier rabbis to settle and establish Jewish life in Baltimore (unfortunately I can’t remember the name of the author). My interest was piqued, and so I turned to his writings on the week’s Torah reading.
The subject was the daughter of Pharaoh who, the Chumash relates, had gathered in and cared for the crying baby (later named Moshe) who had been floating down the Nile River in a wicker basket.
“Pharaoh’s daughter went down to bathe, to the Nile, and her maidens were walking along the Nile, and she saw the basket in the midst of the marsh, and she sent her maidservant, and she took it” (Shemot 2:5).
The rabbi noted Rashi’s commentary on this verse, which points out a homiletical interpretation of the Sages who suggest that the Hebrew word for “maidservant,” “amata,” can also mean an “arm.” Thus, the verse is teaching that the daughter of Pharaoh sent forth her arm to grasp the wicker basket and God miraculously lengthened her arm so that she could reach the distant child. (Whether this midrash is meant literally or figuratively is another matter.)
Upon this mysterious midrash, the rabbi from Baltimore wrote these words which are carved into my memory. “We learn from here that if we try our best to accomplish great deeds, however lofty and out-of-reach they may seem, God will stretch our reach, just as he stretched the daughter of Pharaoh’s reach, so that we might accomplish them.”
I exhaled a deep breath. I realized for the first time that it wasn’t my burden to worry about how many shidduchim I would make or how many people I would eventually help. These matters were far beyond me and my control. All I needed to focus on was sincerely reaching for the goal. It would ultimately be God’s job to stretch my arm, the Almighty’s task to complete the mission.
I walked home from shul that day and excitedly relayed the rabbi’s profound words to my wife over the Shabbat lunch meal. We smiled together and for the first time in a long time felt at peace.
Rabbi Yogi Robkin is the outreach director of DATA of Plano. He can be reached at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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Our environment has a big impact on our lives

Posted on 13 December 2018 by admin

I always imagined I’d be the same person I was outside of yeshiva as I was in yeshiva. Of course, yeshiva is a hotbed of religious passion and zeal, a place where one’s highest aspiration is to become as the great Torah teachers and sages who surround you.
The beit midrash (study hall) is filled throughout the day and much of the night with both the young and the old hunched over ancient, sacred tomes, plumbing their depths and delighting in new Torah discoveries. It wasn’t difficult to get caught up in the spirit of the place. On the contrary, one had to essentially and willfully remove oneself from the spiritual gusto to avoid being swept up in its wings.
Of course, I didn’t realize at that time just how much of my own religious devotion and iron-willed Torah-study focus was a product of living in that rarefied, supportive environment. I, like others, regarded my essential “self” and my value system as essentially one and the same; wherever I’d go my core tenets and commitments would surely follow.
And so, I surmised, if daily exertion in Torah study and fastidious attention to Jewish practice lay at my spirit’s ideological core, no circumstances that life outside of yeshiva might throw my way could, in any meaningful way, derail my life’s determined course.
I look back at my younger self now and realize how very naive I truly was.
Little did I know at the time just how much of my 26-year-old self would leave the larger yeshiva bubble along with me, fully intact, and how much of what I thought of as myself remained in reality as a free agent, susceptible and impressionable to outside influence and pressure (such was the case, even as I was solely transitioning to a spiritual “safe-space” in communal Jewish education).
Life in my new, smaller learning environs was an adjustment to say the least. It’s simply not as easy to remain as motivated in a beit midrash filled with eight people instead of a couple of hundred. And the sheer intellectual and spiritual “competition” (what the Talmud refers to as kinat soferim — the spiritually beneficial jealousy of the wise) that permeates and animates the yeshiva student in yeshiva — well, that was now mostly a thing of the past. It was a path of least resistance to find comfort in one’s newfound status as a learned person in this smaller enclave and to forget just how recently one had been sitting near the base of the totem pole of Jewish knowledge back in yeshiva. And that allowed for the slow setting in of spiritual stagnation and plateau.
This new environment would bring with it challenges to the religious life that I didn’t know existed and certainly wasn’t prepared for. A new set of tactics, I would quickly discern, would be needed to meet this new spiritual test head-on if I were to take the advancements I had acquired during my yeshiva years along with me into my second act.
Humans are deeply impacted by their environments and social circles. This much is well documented in both the social sciences as well as our own tradition. Pirkei Avot, for example, exhorts us on the one hand to “let your home be a meeting place for the wise; dust yourself in the soil of their feet, and drink thirstily of their words” (1:4), and, on the other side, to “distance yourself from an evil neighbor and do not befriend the wicked person” (1:7). We human beings, after all, are ever-malleable in our natures, both for the good and the bad.
Maimonides, too, eloquently noted, “It is natural for a man’s character and actions to be influenced by his friends and associates and for him to follow the local norms of behavior. Therefore, he should associate with the righteous and be constantly in the company of the wise, so as to learn from their deeds. Conversely, he should keep away from the wicked who walk in darkness, so as not to learn from their deeds….”
Stuck in a place where you can’t escape negative influences? Maimonides suggests you “go out to caves, thickets, and deserts [rather than] follow the paths of sinners…” (De’ot 6:1). In such a degenerate society, returning Homo sapiens’ habitation to caves suddenly seems a great feat of human advancement.
And so, even as motivational speaker Jim Rohn may not have had humanity’s spiritual and ethical characters in mind when he uttered his now-famous words, “You are the average of the five people you most associate with,” we certainly ought to.
It was only recently, though, while studying the weekly parasha, that I fully realized the utter extent of the impact that one’s environment has upon the individual.
It had been a long, 22-year period of estrangement since Yaakov had last seen his embittered brother Esav. And last Yaakov knew, Esav was still out for his blood for stealthily wresting away his birthright blessing from their aged and blind father. What could Yaakov say or do these many years later to appease or disarm a bloodthirsty Esav and hope to escape this fateful meeting with his life and the lives of his family?
The text records that Yaakov devised a plan. He split up his children into their maternal groupings, each one a distance from the other, ensuring the survival of at least some of them in case of a military attack. He prepared long lines of lavish gifts for his brother, the better to soften a long-hardened heart. And finally, he commanded his servants ahead of him to share his carefully prepared words — words which on a surface level seem utterly unremarkable and flat.
“Thus shall you say to my master to Esav, ‘Thus said your servant Jacob, “I have sojourned (‘garti’) with Lavan, and I have lingered until now”’” (Beresheet 32:5).
Yaakov had indeed lingered these many years with Lavan, his wicked father-in-law. He had diligently tended his father-in-law’s flock day and night, and in return earned the right to marry his two daughters, Leah and Rachel, and acquire a sizable portion of livestock for himself.
But Rashi is more concerned with the hidden layers of meaning behind Yaakov’s words. The word “garti” (“sojourned”), notes Rashi, has the same numerical value as “taryag” (613). In other words, Yaakov’s words to Esav could equally be read, “(Know that) I have kept the 613 commandments while in Lavan’s house.”
This short and effective line was a warning shot.
For Yaakov was letting Esav know that God and His protective wings were still spread over him. Yes, it is true that he had been living in the shadow of a wicked man for over two decades, but no, he had not adopted his father-in-law’s evil ways along the way and subsequently fallen out of God’s graces. “I wouldn’t mess with me if you know what’s good for you!” was Yaakov’s subtle yet pointed intent.
What I find amazing, and that which I had never satisfactorily considered in the meaning of Rashi’s commentary, is the clear implication that Esav considered it a real and ever-present possibility that Yaakov, the crown jewel of the Forefathers, the one whom the Torah describes as “the dweller of tents” (a reference to his constant presence in the house of study) and the husband to two of our saintly Matriarchs, might have lost his spiritual way due to those years lived in close proximity to a wicked man.
And Yaakov, in seeming agreement as to the possibility of such a personally calamitous eventuality, feels the need to dispel those considerations!
What the Torah is teaching us is that nobody — no matter who you are, what family you come from or what you’ve accomplished in your lifetime — is immune from the forces of their environment. If Yaakov Avinu is at risk, so are we all.
How vigilant must we then be in guarding against the negative influences of the societies in which we live and how equally determined we must be to find and secure spiritually and ethically rich friends, communities and environs in which to spend most of our time. As long as we don’t imagine ourselves more powerful than the forces around us, we can, at a minimum, do our part to stack the decks of influence in our favor.
Rabbi Yogi Robkin is the outreach director of DATA of Plano. He can be reached at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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