Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Bamidbar: The Blessing of Modern Media

This week, Orot conducted its third annual Amadot conference, which focused on the topic of "The World of Communication: Challenges and Objectives."
The introductory panel featured, among others, Rav Yuval Sherlow, a well-known thinker and leading rabbi in the Modern Orthodox community. While many speakers focused on the numerous potential pitfalls that modern media presents, Rav Sherlow also noted some of the advantages and benefits that today's communication tools afford us. I'd like to share some thoughts from his talk through the prism of the Parshah.
During the count of the nation, the Torah lists the count of the Kohanim, beginning with Aharon. Instead of just counting the people present, the Torah also mentions two men who did not make the count:
וַיָּמָת נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא לִפְנֵי ה' בְּהַקְרִבָם אֵשׁ זָרָה לִפְנֵי ה' בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי וּבָנִים לֹא-הָיוּ לָהֶם:
Nadav and Avihu died before Hashem when they brought a strange fire before Hashem in the Sinai desert, and they had no children. (Bamidbar 3:4)
This raises a very simple question: we already know what happened. We know why and how Aharon's sons died. Why does the Torah need to mention this painful episode yet again? The Midrash explains that through the Torah's description we learn some new information.
וכי במדבר סיני מתו ? אלא מלמד שמהר סיני נטלו אפופסין שלהם למיתה. הה"ד (שמות כד) ואל אצילי בני ישראל לא שלח ידו.
Did they die in the Sinai desert? Rather, this teaches us that that from Mount Sinai they were already designated for death, as we read, "And upon the nobles of the Children of Israel He did not extend His hand." (Shemot 24)
According to this Midrash, Datan and Aviram died not because of the strange fire that they offered in the desert. The fire was simply the last straw. They had clearly engaged in some type of inappropriate behavior at Mount Sinai that put them in an extremely precarious position. When the brought the funny fire, Hashem decided that He had had enough, and their punishment ensued.
It's interesting to note that the Torah doesn't pull any punches. We might have thought that it was enough to think that they died because of what happened in the Mishkan. But the Torah believes in full disclosure: we learn of their mistakes; their missteps and their sins, so that we can improve ourselves and avoid their actions and their fate.
This, said Rav Sherlow, is one of the unique benefits that the world of communication affords us. While we must always be careful about violating lashon hara, spreading malicious gossip and rumor, there's a corresponding value as well. The Torah commands us, לא תעמוד על דם רעך – "Do not stand idly by the blood of your brother." The world of communication has the ability to bring to the light of day issues and practices that were once hushed up and pushed under the table.
The media has saved numerous children. It has shielded families, protected students and defended women through television stories, internet blogs and newspapers. Modern media has many problems, but we cannot ignore the benefits that it has also brought to our society.
Even when they're not pleasant, sometimes bringing painful issues out into the open isn't just a right. It's a mitzvah.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Burden and Opportunity of Holiness

No one likes being told what to do. Blessed to have been born into free societies where we have the right to choose our own paths in life, the notion of coercion seems foreign – even quaint. In Israel we struggle with this notion in the area of religion – what we call kefiyah datit – religious coercion. Why should someone be forced to marry in a religious ceremony? Why should it be against the law to sell Chametz on Pesach in a democratic society?
At the same time, Judaism very strongly believes in the notion of coercion. The Gemara makes no distinctions between interpersonal transgressions (stealing or maiming) and spiritual transgressions (violating Shabbat or kashrut) when discussing punishments meted out in Beit Din. The Jewish community can – and must – force each individual Jew to adhere to the Torah. The fact that modern courts lack the jurisdiction and power to mete out these punishments in no way diminishes the very real coercive role of the Jewish court. Unlike our less schooled brothers and sisters, we understand that mitzvot are neither "good deeds" nor positive acts. Mitzvot are commandments. God doesn't ask us to follow them. He commands us, warning us that should we fail to comply we will ultimately suffer the consequences. What are mitzvot if not a form of coercion? More importantly, how do we square this perspective with our basic understandings of freedom of choice inherent in modern life?
This notion of coercion appears in several places in Emor. Hashem commands us to sanctify the Kohen. As our representative before Hashem in the Beit Hamikdash, the Kohen himself enjoys a higher level of kedushah that demands special behavior. He cannot defile himself, other than for immediate family members. He cannot marry certain types of women, such as converts and divorcees. וקדשתו – "and you shall sanctify him," the Torah tells us.
Yet, in two separate places, Rashi inserts the notion of coercion. What if the Kohen – born a Kohen against his will – doesn't want to adhere to the rules? He desires neither the rights of Terumah, nor the obligations of his Kehunah. What if he falls in love with a pious convert and wishes to abrogate his kehunah and lead a "normal" life? Sorry – that's not permitted. Rashi (on 21:8) explains, על כרחו – "against his will – if he does not wish to divorce [such a woman after he married her in violation of halachah], they must lash him and afflict him until he does divorce her.] The Kohen doesn't have a choice. His father was a Kohen (yes, we all know the joke), so he must bear not just the rights, but the responsibilities of that kehunah as well. (see also Rashi on 21:6)
Coercion again appears at the conclusion of the chapter. Now speaking to the entire nation Hashem tells us,
וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, מִצְו‍ֹתַי, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֹתָם: אֲנִי, ה'. וְלֹא תְחַלְּלוּ, אֶת-שֵׁם קָדְשִׁי, וְנִקְדַּשְׁתִּי, בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: אֲנִי ה' מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם.
And you shall guard my commandments and do them, I am Hashem. And you shall not defile My holy name, and I will be sanctified in the midst of the Children of Israel, I am Hashem who sanctifies you.
And yet, when we look at Rashi, he again interprets these verses in a rather striking manner. What does it mean that we must sanctify Hashem's name? Says Rashi, "Give yourself over [to be killed] and sanctify my name." Here Hashem tells us that we must be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to protect and defend His sanctity.
Somewhat surprisingly, in each case the coercion appears in the form of Kedushah. Holiness isn't a feeling of spirituality; some vague sense of godliness or specialness. Rather, holiness emanates directly from a willingness to bend our own will to God's; to submit to His desire and sublimate ourselves. The Kohen achieves great kedushah precisely because he doesn't have a choice. He is kadosh – whether he likes it or not.
What's true for the Kohen applies to each of us as well. Every Jew was born into the גוי קדוש – Hashem's holy people. We all wear that mantle of kedushah on our shoulders, not despite the fact that it was forced upon us, but because of it. The real question we must ask ourselves is: do we see that Kedushah as a yoke and a burden forced upon us against our will, or a crown of glory bringing God's holiness into the world.
That's a choice that only we can make.

Orot Prepares for its Kenes Amadot Conference

Orot Israel College is getting ready for its third annual Amadot Conference which will take place at Orot onכ"ד אייר תשס"ט (18-05-09).

The Amadot Conferences – Am, MeDina, Torah – deal with the complex intersection between the three components of the Zionist-Religious world – the Jewish nation, the State of Israel and the Torah. This complex intersection requires multidisciplinary analysis: scientific, religious, educational, cultural and interdisciplinary. These annual conferences, organized by the Orot Israel College of Education, are accompanied and supervised by a senior academic steering committee which chooses the topics of the conference and the lectures.

The first Amadot conference, (2007) "The Kippah and the Beret" dealt with the reciprocal relationship and tensions between the values of military service and religious obligation that long identified the Zionist-Religious community.

The second Amadot conference (2008) – "Ve'Hai Ahiha Imach" (Love thy neighbor) dealt with the attitude towards people with special needs and their integration into society, in various aspects: educational, halachic, philosophical, psychological, social, historical, legal, communication and artistic.

This year's Amadot conference – The World of Communication - will deal with the challenges and aims of the world of modern communication in society – press, radio, T.V. and internet. It will address issues from the numerous vantage points of education, halachah, sociaty, law, gender, youth and consumerism.

For more information about the conference, click here.

The Conference is free and open to the pubic. For more information about attending, contact Nomi Spanglet, Director of Development and Alumni Relations.