Guck to Gold: Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, by Rabbi Elchanan Poupko

 

In one of my early days studying in Yeshiva, I was introduced to a compelling logical argument that would help me a lot later on when struggling with difficult Talmudic passages; if someone gives you too many answers to one question, that means there probably is no real answer to the question.

So many answers have been given to the question why bad things happen to good people; here too it seems reasonable to believe that The answer, remains elusive. Despite the question being asked, re-asked, and will-be-asked and endless amount of times, a final answer has yet to have emerged. Indeed the Mishna in Pirkey Avot (4:15) teaches:“ Rabbi Yannai would say: We have no comprehension of the tranquility of the wicked, nor of the suffering of the righteous.” Despite various approaches to this question that were known at the time, Rabbi Yannai believes that The ultimate answer, is yet to be known.

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Inside Out: Justice and Equality for Non-Jews in Jewish Law, by Rabbi Elchanan Poupko

Anti-Semitic incidents, even in the relatively benign USA, have gone up more than 20% in the year 2014.

As an ancient people, we are well aware of the side effects of anti-Semitism. One of these side effects is the allegation that Jews and Judaism treat non-Jews “differently” and should therefore not be surprised when Jews are treated differently. Before addressing the content of this argument, it is important to note, that with this very allegation, the discriminatory treatment has already begun.

The fact that every religion treats believers in one way, and non-believers in another is a well-established one. The thoroughness with which this aspect of Judaism is examined, relative to other religions, is unparalleled and highly disproportionate. To scrutinize Judaism on its treatment of those who aren’t members is not only odd, but is out of place and astonishing.

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Kamtza and Bar Kamtza: The Positive Message of Tisha B’Av, by Rabbi Elchanan Poupko

The story of Kamtza and bar Kamtza (Gittin 55b-56a) is a hallmark of the Tisha be’Av process of mourning the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. It elusively continues to mystify the inquisitive mind year after year, as we try to understand what led to the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash and to our ongoing exile.

“There was a certain individual who was friendly with Kamtza, but was an enemy of Bar-Kamtza. He made a feast and said to his servant, ‘Go and bring Kamtza to my feast,’ but the servant brought Bar-Kamtza instead.”

“The one who made the feast found Bar-Kamtza seated there. He said to him, ‘Since you are my enemy, what are you doing here? Get up and get out!’ Bar-Kamtza said, ‘Since I’m here already, let me stay, and I will pay you for what I eat and drink.’ “

The host responded, ‘No!’

‘I will pay for half the cost of the feast.’

‘No!’

‘I will pay the entire cost of the feast!’

‘No!’ And he seized Bar-Kamtza, stood him up, and threw him out!

Bar-Kamtza thought, ‘Since the Rabbis were there, saw the whole thing, and did not protest, obviously they had no objection to my embarrassment! I’ll go now, and have a little feast-of-slander with the king.Bar-Kamtza went to the Caesar and declared, ‘The Jews have rebelled against you!’ Caesar responded, ‘Who said so?’

Bar-Kamtza said, ‘Send them a sacrifice, and see if they will offer it.’

Caesar sent (with Bar-Kamtza) a healthy, unblemished ram. While going, Bar-Kamtza caused a disfigurement in the animal.

The Rabbis had in mind to sacrifice it anyway to maintain peaceful relations with the government. But Rabbi Zechariah son of Avkulas objected, ‘People will say, ‘Animals with blemishes may be sacrificed on the altar!’

Rabbi Yochanan said, “The humility of Rabbi Zechariah son of Avkulos destroyed our Temple, burned our Palace, and exiled us from our Land.”

The unacceptable behaviors of the host and the guests are clearly wrong; Bar Kamtza should not have been humiliated and allowed to suffer. But Bar Kamtza’s behavior is also clearly wrong; while he was unjustly humiliated, going to the Emperor and maligning his own people was a disproportionate reaction.

The most elusive part of the story, however, is the role of Rabbi Zechariah son of Avkulas in the story. Why did Rabbi Zechariah not allow the Emperor’s sacrifice be offered? Did he not realize that it was a matter of life and death?

Rabbi Beni Kalmanzon, Rosh Yeshiva of the Ottniel Yeshiva, in his excellent book Al Ma Avdah Ha’aretz, points out that if everyone differed from Rabbi Zechariah’s position, and yet R. Zechariah still carried the day, then he must have been the greatest rabbi of the time. How then is it possible for the leading rabbi of the time make such a terrible error of judgment? How did he not realize that he was jeopardizing the future of the Jewish people?

Rabbi Zelig Epstein explains that Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas knew all too well what was going on, and that this was the source of the tragedy.

Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas knew that the Jewish people had sinned so much that they no longer deserved to live with the Temple in their mist; he knew that the Temple would be destroyed and that the Jewish people would be exiled from their land. However, he also believed that they were so steeped in sin and hatred that there was no hope for them; he therefore decided that if the Temple would be destroyed anyway, there was no justification to violate the Halacha.

If indeed Rabbi Zecharya was correct in his analysis, that there was no more hope for the Jewish people, and hence no justification to violate Halacha, why is the Talmud critical of Rabbi Zechariah son of Avkulas – so critical, in fact, that despite his greatness, he was literally excised from rabbinic literature? Why does the Talmud blame him so heavily, that “it is the humility of Rabbi Zechariah that destroyed the Temple and scattered God’s children among the nations”? And what does all this have to do with “humility”? Why is this mistaken judgement referred to as “humility”- a character trait that is ordinarily positive. Why is so much destruction attributed to this positive character trait?

Rabbi Epstein explains that although Rabbi Zechariah was correct in assessing the situation, that destruction was highly probable, he was wrong in his attitude. Indeed the Jewish people had descended into a situation that warranted the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, but this could still be changed; had they change their behavior for the better, the Beit Hamikdash would not have been destroyed. Rabbi Zechariah should have believed that the improbable would still transpire; he should not have lost faith in the Jewish people.

Rabbi Zechariah despaired and did not believe in his ability to change the Jewish for the better. His assessment of the sorry state of his own people ended there; things were bad, and they would remain bad. He did not believe that he, a Jewish leader, has the ability to change the Jews for the better – and this is what he is held accountable for.

Rabbi Zechariah’s failure was his “humility,” his belief that things are bad and that he could not change them. And it is for this that he goes down in Jewish history on such a negative note.

Similar to this is the failure of King Saul. King Saul was admonished by the prophet Samuel for not carrying out God’s word in the war against Amalek. His response? It was the people that did it, not me. Samuel rebuked him and said, “You are the leader of the Jewish people and you should believe in your ability to impact them.”

As we reflect on the tragedy of Tisha be’Av it is important to carry with us the positive message of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza: if you see something is wrong, you must believe you can change it. Whether it was those who were present at the feast or whether it was Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas, someone neglected to step up to the plate. Lack of belief in our ability to change this world lays the ground for destruction; our belief in our ability to change this world for the better is the foundation of redemption and reconciliation. We learn story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza on Tisha be’Av to remind us of this.

Shavuot: Something to Learn About, by Rabbi Elchanan Poupko

The term Naaseh Venishma – “we shall do, and we shall hear,” that famous line that the Jewish people exclaimed when asked if they would like to receive the Torah – is one that has captivated the thoughts and imagination of Jews throughout the millennia. The Talmud (Shabbat 88a) expands upon the extraordinary philosophical and emotional implications it carries, and upon its everlasting consequences.

When God asked the nations of the world[1] if they would accept the Torah, the nations of the world asked: what is written in this Torah? Only once we know what is in it can we consider whether to accept it or not. In contrast, when God asked the Jewish people if they would accept it, not only did they accept it, but they said “Naaseh Venishma”, we will first do it and then we will hear what it says in it. The Talmud says that in reward for that faithful response, each Jew was crowned with two angelic crowns: one for agreeing to do – for Na’aseh, and one for agreeing to hear – for Nishma.

While saying Naaseh, agreeing to do what Hashem will tell them without knowing what that might be, seems extraordinary and deserving of reward, one can only wonder why they should receive reward for saying Nishma. After all, once they committed to doing everything that God said, hearing is the only natural and necessary follow-up!

Rabbi Zelig Epstein [2], the late Rosh Yeshiva of Sha’ar Hatorah and a close student of Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz of Mir, offers the following answer. Yes, once the Jewish people had accepted and committed themselves to keeping God’s commandments, they would have to find out what those commandments are. However, argues Rabbi Epstein, in addition to committing to learn the parts of the Torah that relate to what they need to observe, the Jewish people were making a far more profound commitment; the Jewish people were committing to studying Torah for the sake of studying Torah. When the Jewish people said Nishma, they were committing themselves to a lifelong pursuit of learning; they were committing themselves to learning the laws of the Torah regardless of whether that particular field of study is practically relevant to their challenges and their conduct. It is for this commitment – the commitment to learning regardless of practical applications – that the Jewish people were adorned with the second crown.

When we celebrate Shavuot as the “time we were given the Torah,”[3] we celebrate it as another milestone in our lifelong commitment to learning. We mark Shavuot as a festive time to remember our commitment to learning for the sake of learning; a commitment to engaging in the study of Torah because we value the One who gave the Torah and we value what He has to say. Chag Same’ach!


[1] See full version of this Midrash in the Sifri on Devarim, Parashat Vezot Habracha 343

[2] I had been privileged to study in the Yeshiva at the time Rabbi Epstein served as Rosh Yeshiva and heard this from him in one of his holiday related shiurim.

[3] While Shavuot is referred to in prayers as the “time of giving the Torah”, in scripture it only appears as an agricultural holiday which marks the ending of the counting of the Omer and bringing offerings from the new grain. Commentaries wonder about this disparity in understanding the nature of the holiday. For discussion see here here and here.

Friendship, Favor, or Felony? Taking from a Friend Without Permission, by Rabbi Elchanan Poupko

While living among friends is something that has many benefits, it can present challenges too. One of the most common questions, if not the most common of all, that comes up in dorms and other close knit living arrangements is the question of using something that belongs to a friend without permission. We have all been in this situation: a bag of potato chips, an interesting book, or something as simple as a can opener, that belongs to a friend, who, however close he may be, happens to not be there at the time you need to use it. The burning questions becomes, to use or not to use? Should I assume that since my friend would definitely give me permission, I can use it; or, since I did not receive explicit permission, I can’t use it.

Needless to say, this is only a question if it is clear and obvious that the owner would grant permission to use the desired item. If there is any doubt about that, it would be surely prohibited to use the object, just as using anything against a person’s will is the equivalent of theft.

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