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Views on the News

Daily news accounts focus on enough misery to drive anyone to horde freeze-dried foods and fresh water and head off to their Y2K survival shelters. At the top of the list are nuclear threats, terrorism, genocides, and an international shortage of Gulden's Brown Spicy Mustard.

Is optimism possible in the face of all this misery? And perhaps more importantly, even if there is reason to be optimistic about the future, is it socially responsible to focus on a bright future when the present is so bleak?

Before responding to this question, allow me to dispel some of the gloom and doom with a tidbit of good news: Tisha b'Av is coming! We're so excited about this day's approach that this past week we started a three week countdown to this day. And starting this Shabbat, we will intensify our anticipation during the final stretch of nine days leading up to Tisha b'Av. Be still my heart!!

Well, truth be told, this is a little premature. As I type this, Tisha b'Av still commemorates many tragedies, chiefly the destruction of the Temples and the ensuing exiles; it's a scheduled day of fasting and sorrow. The three week buildup is void of celebration, the "nine days" consumed with mourning.

Yet Maimonides writes that ultimately these tragic days will be joyously celebrated. Moshiach, and the changes he will inspire in the world, will expose the latent goodness and G‑dliness in events currently perceivable only as barbaric. But, mirroring the question I asked earlier: dare we return the emergency generator and store away the Scott M-95 military-grade gas mask? In these final moments, while we still await the Redemption, can we incorporate the future festive character of this season?

Let us draw insight from one of the darkest moments in our history, the day the Golden Calf was created.

It was the 16th of Tamuz. The Jewish people, less than six weeks since receiving the Torah at Sinai, panic at Moses' apparent delay in returning from the mountain top. Frustrated, a mob confronts Aaron and demands that he make for them a god. Hoping to deflate their zeal, Aaron instructs them to ask their wives for their jewelry for use in crafting their new deity. The Jews hotheadedness gets the better of their judgment and they eagerly offer up their own personal earrings and bracelets. Aaron, still hoping for his brother's return and an end to the madness, stalls, declaring: "Tomorrow will be a celebration for G‑d" (see Exodus 32).

The Midrash interprets this statement prophetically; indeed "tomorrow [the 17th of Tamuz] will be [in Moshiach's time] a celebration for G‑d."

Imagine Aaron's predicament. His holy nephew, Hur, was just stoned to death for his attempts to stop this mob. They are ready, willing and able to do the same to Aaron. His only option to save this gang of thugs from irreversible sin is to build them an idol. And in the midst of this chaos Aaron has the clarity to foresee and even proclaim: "tomorrow will be a 'festival' to G‑d"!

How often do we panic and abandon reason? The stock market dips and it's sell, sell, sell (at a loss) only to have it come back stronger. A good friend misses a lunch appointment and we are sure the relationship is doomed, and then she calls to reschedule. The printer won't work and we rush to spend $700 on a new one when it just needed toner!

The antidote is to always maintain perspective; never to drown in the darkness of the moment.

The Rebbe had the chutzpah to speak about redemption and Moshiach—despite Darfur, crumbling economies, and the like. It takes chutzpah to speak of a world that is filled with the pursuit of G‑dliness when the newspapers are filled with horrors. Like Aaron, the model of love for the Jewish people, the Rebbe alerted us to the good that is right now and the better that is coming, while tending to the nightmares of the moment.

No one was more keenly aware of the hardships of life than the Rebbe. His proclamations that Moshiach's arrival is imminent were not the product of Pollyanna hopefulness; they constituted a vision driven by true love of Israel and trust in G‑d's constant kindness.

The Three Weeks offer us a unique opportunity to discover good where there seems to be only darkness. The darkness demands that we reach down deep and find a genuine remedy for a hurting world, a healing salve, and not a mere band-aid.

May these days be transformed into days of joy now!

This past Wednesday, Israel and Hezbollah completed a prisoner swap. The bodies of IDF soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were returned to their families in exchange for the release of five convicted terrorists and the bodies of 200 more Arab fighters. One of the terrorists released, Samir Kuntar, was serving four life sentences for a triple murder—which included smashing the skull of a four-year-old girl.

Jews worldwide joined their Israeli brethren in mourning these two heroes. But opinions were sharply divided as to the prudence of the exchange. A statement released by the IDF said that "while the release of terrorists is certainly sad, such a move demonstrates a compelling moral strength which stems from Judaism, Israeli social values and from the spirit of the Israel Defense Forces." Yes, there was a high price to pay, but, according to many, the IDF has a moral obligation to bring back to their families those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.

Others disagree. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, both of Israel's intelligence agencies, the Mossad and the Shin Bet, opposed Kantar's release—but were overruled by political considerations. Releasing terrorists poses a double threat to Israel's security. Firstly, the murderers who were released have every intention – and have clearly stated as much – to continue precisely where they left off before being apprehended. Secondly, such exchanges effectively turn every Israeli soldier into a bargaining chip, and provide Hezbollah and other terrorist groups with incentive to, G‑d forbid, kidnap more and more. Many people, myself included, think that although bringing back bodies is a priority of the highest order, the price is too high. And this argument is only amplified by the fact that  – as repeatedly noted by the international media – the exchange was so egregiously lopsided.  

My question is, what would Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev say about this development? They joined the army – following the example of millions of courageous others in Israel's history – fully cognizant of the mortal danger involved. To them it was an honor. As Jews they understood that if deemed necessary, there is no greater privilege than to protect the lives of their brothers and sisters—even if this means sacrificing everything.

These two heroes who gave their all for their brothers and sisters, how would they feel about this exchange? What would they say about a move that can potentially jeopardize those people they died in order to protect?

This past week saw an exchange between Israel and Hezbollah. In exchange for five live terrorists who had killed innocent Israelis and the bodies of nearly two hundred dead terrorists, Israeli received the bodies of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser.

The swap not only was lopsided numerically – two dead bodies for five live murderers and two hundred additional dead bodies – it was also qualitatively unfair.

Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser were soldiers doing their national duty guarding the border when they were ambushed, kidnapped and murdered by Hezbollah terrorists. Conversely, the terrorist who were returned were criminals and murderers who intentionally killed innocent men, women and children. And while Hezbollah terrorists were kidnapping and killing innocent Israeli soldiers, the Israelis were treating the imprisoned Hezbollah terrorists in a humane fashion. The contrast here could not be starker.

But the exchange between Israel and the Hezbollah was so painful and disturbing that, in my eternal search for optimism, I tried to find some light and hope. At first I thought that at least there is some type of common ground being show here. The Israelis and the Hezbollah have both recognized the pain of having fathers, brothers and sons in prisons and captivity rather than at home with those that love them, I thought. I surmised that at least both sides in this conflict have felt each other's pain—at least for as long as it took to do the prisoner exchange. Unfortunately however, all that wishful thinking was shattered by the mean facts.

Whilst Israel was mourning, the terrorist in Lebanon and elsewhere celebrated. This is where my theory of finding common ground disintegrated. One would have thought that if Israel was mourning the death of two fallen soldiers the terrorists would have mourned 100 times more for the 200 dead bodies that were returned to them. But all we saw was celebration. There seemed to be no mourning at all on the Arab side.

Simply put, these Islamic extremists have no respect for life. The celebrations seemed to have nothing to do with the fact that their people had been returned to them and everything to do with the fact that they had humiliated Israel by forcing them into such an unfair and seemingly idiotic prisoner exchange deal. If they really cared about their own people they would have struck a prisoner exchange deal with Israel much earlier on. The fact that they had such high demands and waited for so long demonstrates further that their real aim was to score points rather than to get their prisoners back.

In reality, however, the only people they humiliated were themselves. They have yet again shown their contempt for human life, even for the life of their own people. Hezbollah and these Islamic extremists have shown the world that even the death of two hundred of their own men does not move them. Israel, on the other hand, has proven, yet again, how much even one dead body is worth to them. In addition the fact that Israel did not execute Kuntar and the rest of the terrorists shows Israel's extreme – some might say excessive – respect for human life.

Unfortunately any comparison between the pain an Israeli mother feels when her child is held captive and what the other side feels in a similar situation is nothing but wishful thinking. Where a normal person feels pain they experience joy. While Israelis mourned the return of two murdered soldiers they celebrate the return of two hundred dead bodies.

As long as we face an enemy which venerates death in this way and holds human life in such contempt there is little hope for peace. In the face of such evil, however, Israel must stand strong and proud as it continues to do what is right—no matter how difficult it may be. We must remember that the real humiliation lies with those who don't even respect the lives of their own people.

Zimbabwe's recent presidential elections are still making international news headlines. Facing international condemnation and the threat of severe sanctions, President Robert Mugabe appears now agreeable to enter into talks with representatives of the opposition party.

A little background: This past June 28th, Mr. Mugabe won reelection to a new presidential term with more than 85% of the vote. A landslide victory by any measuring stick.

So why is the international community so outraged? For some reason, they are unhappy with some of the tactics Mugabe's henchmen used to secure this victory. They killed, brutally beat and destroyed the homes of anyone who expressed support for the opposition. The leader of the opposition, Morgan Tsvangirai, actually withdrew his candidacy prior to the elections due to the violence. He said that his supporters faced being killed if they voted for him and that under such circumstances he could not ask them to do so. Mr. Tsvangirai now estimates that 90 of his supporters have been killed.

So here's my question: Why do dictators habitually schedule rigged elections? Why not just abolish them? The people's voice matters not to them, so why go through the effort? Is there anyone – within that country or internationally – who believes that these election results express the will of the people?

Iraq is another example. In October 2002, Saddam Hussein won reelection with 100% of the vote. Yes, there were 11,445,638 eligible voters—and every one of them voted for Hussein. Apparently his popularity had soared since the previous election in 1995, when Hussein garnered only 99.96% of the vote.

Oops, I almost forgot to mention that Hussein was the only candidate on the ballot and that the penalty for speaking badly about that sole candidate was de-tonguing. But you don't think that had any bearing on the election results, do you?

Rabbi Shmuel of Lubavitch, the fourth Chabad-Lubavitch Rebbe, once told the following to one of his followers who apparently exuded less-than-honest pious airs:

"Whom are you fooling? You are not fooling me, you are not fooling your fellows; you are only fooling yourself. Is it a great feat to fool a fool?"

How many times do people take stances which deep down they know isn't justified? Usually, people take such stances due to anger, hurt feelings, or to protect their egos or comfort zones. Yet, if someone will come and ask such a person to explain his behavior, he will provide an intelligent and coherent explanation—one which, of course, does not involve any ego. To the contrary, his position is based on his selflessness; in fact it pains him greatly to have to resort to such behavior...

This is true regarding our spiritual lives, too. How often do we choose to do something we know to be detrimental to our spiritual wellbeing, or conversely, to abstain from doing a mitzvah—while providing a justification which we know doesn't hold water?

Whom are we fooling? Not G‑d. And not our family or friends either. They are a little brighter than we give them credit for.

Thankfully, the world is progressively ridding itself of tyrannical dictators. Next on the agenda? Let's all get rid of the little foolish, self-delusional, self-justifying dictator within each of us.

"I was misquoted."

"That's not what I meant."

"Oh, yeah! Look who's talking."

"My candidate can beat up your candidate" (not a verbatim quote).

Seems that the campaigns have taken the off ramp from the high road; it's back to politics as usual.

The accusation de jour centers on strategy change vis-à-vis the war. The position isn't the sin; it's the hypocrisy of holding a particular opinion relative to previously expressed views that has talk show hosts exasperated. We almost don't care what you do or say, as long as you don't profess to be opposed to what you once did or said.

What is it about hypocrisy that stinks so badly?

Hypocrisy deserves all the bad press it gets. It's the perfect combination of society's most hated vices: fraudulence, deceitfulness and plain old low-down no-goodness. From the playground to the boardroom it is universally loathed.

But sometimes we smear lipstick on it and use it as an excuse: "I'd put on tefilin, but I don't keep kosher, and I certainly don't want to be a hypocrite!"

Much to the chagrin of self justifying non-hypocrites, the gig is up. Hypocrisy is not the sin; sin is the hypocrisy. (Huh?—Hold on I'll explain.)

A Jew is naturally G‑dly; before birth every Jew swears that he will be righteous and never wicked. Even when he protests that he doesn't believe, thinking that somehow that exempts him from obligation; that is being hypocritical, unfaithful to his authentic identity. A Jew is a "believer the descendant of believers"—no matter how much he swears to G‑d that he is an atheist! Our mere existence as a nation attests to G‑d's existence; any attempt to conceal or ignore that is dishonesty.

Regardless of past performance or declared policy positions, doing a mitzvah is never hypocritical. Sinning always is.

Men have the prerogative to change their mind and heart and thus their actions, even if they vowed they never would. Opinions and feelings evolve. This does not necessarily constitute dishonesty or hypocrisy. Hypocrisy is not being authentic to who you are at this moment.

And doing a mitzvah is always true to who you genuinely are. Nothing can be truer.

Blog Moderator's note: For more insight on this topic, see When Doing a Mitzvah is Hypocritical.

One of my roommates in my Jerusalem apartment embarked today in the morning on a three-week camping trip. For three weeks, she will not take a shower or use running water. An outdoorsy friend who dropped by to say farewell predicted that after a few days she would just enter a different dimension of reality. Dirt would mean nothing to her. Apparently, you can get used to anything.

Actually, Rachel is one of the most serene people I know and she has already displayed a penchant for not freaking out, for just getting used to things. A month ago, she got lice. She started out with proactive measures. For a week or so, the floor of our shower was slippery with the mayonnaise she was using to suffocate the lice. Now, more or less lice-free, she has just adopted new habits. She wears hats and high ponytails, and occasionally she asks me and our other roommates to comb her hair for nits. Like last night, at 1:30 am...

I admit that as her roommate, I have at times wished she had freaked out and taken drastic measures to completely eradicate her lice. Like yesterday. Yesterday I really worked myself up into a tizzy over this. My scalp started itching right when I woke up, and by noon I was convinced I had caught lice from sweet, serene Rachel. I was already envisioning how I would do things differently than her—I would march straight to the drugstore and get one of those hazardous lice-poison shampoos and lather right up. I would not subject my roommates to greasy shower floors or companionable nit-picking sessions.

Not only that, I concluded, I am going to leave this country! This insane country where everyone has lice and no one seems to care! I will go back to America, where things are sanitized and boring and efficient!

My musings were broken by a phone call from a friend. An Arab from East Jerusalem had plowed a tractor into traffic, overturning buses and cars, killing two people (a third has since died) and wounding many. I heard the sirens outside. I went online and discovered that this was all happening about a five minutes walk from my house, where I walk nearly every day.

So I decided that I absolutely must stay in this country where people want to kill us. I am never leaving this country! If there are people who want to kill me for being Jewish and living here, I will stay here forever!

What to do next, though? Some immediate action seemed called for. But I couldn't think of what.

So I said Psalms.

Then I gave the equivalent of my weekly paycheck to charity. (Survivor's guilt? Thanking G‑d: "not me, not this time"?)

Then I went out, walked around the still-bustling Jerusalem streets, and bought my nieces expensive t-shirts.

I went on with life. What else was there to do? When I got back home from my t-shirt buying expedition, I checked my email. My sister had emailed me that she wanted to write to me about my niece's latest antics, but the events of the day in my neighborhood made them seem really "inconsequential and dumb."

I replied, "Of course I want to hear!" and I read on with delight. My brilliant niece, never has there been another child like her.

I went out again, as evening came on, to catch a bus to visit my aunt outside of Jerusalem. When I got back late at night, I asked one of my roommates to check me for lice. I was declared a lice-free zone.

Apparently, you really can get used to anything. Even lice.

This is my land. I'm not leaving.

What's the latest news? For that information, check your local or national news outlet. In this blog we will discuss the "why?"

Not "why did this event occur?" but "why did I find out about it?" There must be a reason. It must contain a lesson I can use to better myself and my surroundings. Together we will find the lessons...