By RADM (ret) Harold Robinson, National Chaplain

Near the end of the Passover Seder, we play a table game called “Who knows…?” including “Who knows six? Six sections the Mishnah has!”  Following Passover, we begin reading one chapter a week of Mishnah Tractate Avoth, which translated means “Ethics of the Fathers”.  Avoth consists mostly of sage moral advice, aphorisms and a bit of theology attributed to the Tannaiem, the Rabbis of the land of Israel who lived up to around 200 CE.  Tractate Avoth is the source for many of our most familiar rabbinic dictums such as Hillel’s statement, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  And if I am for myself alone what am I?  And if not now, when?”  We read one of its six chapters each week for six weeks.  Traditionally, after concluding the reading, we repeat the cycle until the High Holidays.  Consequently, the entire tractate is found in most weekly Jewish Prayerbooks.  During this post Passover reading cycle, each Chapter is preceded by a prologue, a passage from an otherwise more difficult legal tractate, Sanhedrin; “’All Israel have a portion in the world to come,’ as it is said in Isaiah 60, ‘And all thy people shall be all righteous, they shall inherit the land for ever…’” thus affirming redemption – resurrection to eternal life in a perfected world- for all our people.

But our weekly reading of Sanhedrin is only an out of context snippet.  In its original context, the Sanhedrin passage deals with Israelites condemned to death by the court and affirms their punishment is only human, not divine, and that in the end of days the Holy One will redeem them along with the rest of us.  Moreover, the Tractate Sanhedrin passage continues by listing the exceptions – those categories of Israelites such as an apikoros, a heretic, who do not have a place in the world to come.  More detail on apikorsim, also known as hertics, will be given later. Included amongst the categories is a very short list of seven individually named unworthy Israelites.  Curiously, the list of unworthy Israelites singled out by name includes Balaam, the primary protagonist of the upcoming Torah portion entitled Balak, set to be read on 30 June 2018. Balaam was a non-Israelite prophet hired in by Balak, the King of Moab, to curse the Israelites in the wilderness.  However, each time he opened his mouth to curse the Israelite encampment a blessing came forth instead.  In fact, we recite his “blessing” each time we enter our synagogues for worship in the familiar refrain; Mah tovu ohalecha Ya-akov, mishcanotecha Yisrael, “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel?”

Balaam’s inclusion in the list of the unredeemed is curious for at least two reasons.

First, he was not Jewish, so why would we cite him in a list of Israelites excluded from life eternal in the world to come?  This appears to be clear evidence that our sages believed the righteous of all nations would be redeemed.  Judaism teaches non-Jews who follow the seven laws given to Noah are redeemed, “saved,” just as righteous Jews are “saved.”

Second, it is curious that the rabbis condemn as unworthy of redemption the author of one of our most familiar and beloved liturgical poems.  Why?  Because, as the text in Torah makes clear, Balaam knew full well his intended curse was false, not God’s.  Indeed, even the she-ass upon which he rode could see the folly of his mission to curse Israel and tried to steer him off his fateful misadventure.  Balaam clearly knew the truth but tried to recite falsehoods.  It seems Balaam’s willingness to say whatever suited the temporal powers around him, and his total disregard for truth and what is right makes him worthy of clear condemnation despite his beautiful liturgical poem, the one bit of truth that he uttered only when coerced.  Parenthetically, in Avoth the rabbis declare the she ass’ ability to talk as not a miracle but one of the ten wonders built into creation itself just as the first Shabbat approached.

Now more information about apikorsim– heretics. It’s not easy to be an apikoros.  You might imagine Judaism would declare an atheist, one who declares a non-belief in God or one without any faith to be an apikoros, to be outside the fold.  Yet many of our most esteemed Zionists, such as Golda Meir, David Ben-Gurion and Berl Katznelson, who was a leading founder and early intellectual leader of Labor Zionism, were avowed socialist atheists.  In their day, some argued they were apikorosim, but who amongst us today would declare these greats of Jewish history to be outside the fold?  Unlike these giants of our history, one who accepts some other faith is called a mishumad, an apostate, meaning one who lamentably has chosen to leave the fold.  

Many years ago, I was a representative of the Central Conference of American Rabbis to a conference on Education of the Consolidated Kibbutz Movement held at the kibbutz movement education and conference center, Bet Berl, named so after the aforementioned Berl Katznelson.  The director of education for the Kibbutz movement, also named Berl in honor of Katznelson, began by relating that his father kept him from studying traditional Jewish texts such as Mishnah because he wanted to raise him to be an apikoros, a heretic.  What he got instead was an am ha-aretz, an ignorant one.  An am ha-aretz could be learned in many fields but was ignorant of our tradition and its meaning, perhaps knowing a bit here as there as is taught to children, but not really understanding the whole of Jewish tradition on an adult level.  Much like Balaam, the cursed prophet who knew the truth and tried to reject it, one must really know Jewish tradition and consciously reject it to be considered an apikoros.  Anyone can be an am-haretz, but you must aspire to be knowledgeable enough, learned enough, to be an apikoros.  I do not wish for a generation of apikorsim, but it would be wonderful to be amongst those sufficiently knowledgeable to qualify for the title.

Volume 72. Number 2. Summer 2018

By Rabbi Samuel B. Press, Post 587

As I began to think about what to write, I thought back on my beginning of a military career.  I am a third generation American.  Each generation has family who served in the military.  In my family, one person was disappointed.  My grandfather was a Marine.  He served with Teddy Roosevelt, was on the White Ships mission and had service wounds.  He was disappointed that I did not choose to be a Marine!

As did all in JWV, we entered the military coming from different backgrounds.  I had just finished receiving rabbinical ordination and entered a new “world” about which I knew nothing except what I read. My first assignment was a Strategic Air Command base in Loring, Maine.   Upon arrival I was told I would also be the Stockade Chaplain.  I quickly learned a stockade was not like I knew (a pen for animals), but in the military, it was the word for a prison.  My first day I got a call from the Stockade that they needed me.  I went to the building and was told an airman was contemplating suicide and I had to see him.  I said a psychiatrist would be better.  I was told that the psychiatrist would come in the morning.  I saw the airman, and I asked him why?  As he told me his story, I was about in tears.  When he finished, I was ready to commit suicide.  I knew nothing what to say.  Finally, I told the person that this was my first day.  I really do not know what to tell you.  I said if you die now, everyone will know I failed.  Please wait until the psychiatrist sees you.  The next morning I got a call from the stockade.  The airman attempted suicide and left a note for you.  It read, “Tell Chaplain Press I waited until after the psychiatrist saw me!”

My USAF career was one of or the most meaningful, worthwhile experiences of my life.  The military deserves accolades and praise for the quality of service people and their values.  I lived and saw the values of our country in its finest expression.  I saw heroism, often unrecognized, and also, the meaning of dedication, loyalty and a commitment of self, not for tangible gain, but for the ideals and love for our country.

In thinking of this column, I began to reflect on Torah readings.  We began with Genesis – not only with the creation of the world, but the story of the first families; not always happy stories.  As Tolstoy writes, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.  In our stories, each story has rivalry, discontent, hurt and ill will.  Rabbi Soloveitchek taught that when we get to the story of Joseph making amends and forgiving his brothers, we now can enter the building of a nation.  Families and a people can work together with harmony, forgiveness and that abstract word “love” when we act in a loving way.  Winston Churchill in his solutions how to respond in war, found his first lesson, we all can choose.  Our challenge is what to choose: With the disharmony in our moment in time, with a divided country on the right and left, a constant is to use the pen to denigrate and “destroy” them with whom we disagree.  Most often we see parroted words to insure the writer is defined as part of the good.  Too often the hate filled opinions are not truthful, and their certainty never will convince others.

As I write now these thoughts, we are in the scripture readings of Exodus – the beginnings of our people. We read of slavery and freedom, the lodestone of our religion, in the giving of the Torah at Sinai. We read portions detailing commandments – laws, thoughts, ideas and visions from which we can read study and understand with our own perceptions.

We end this cycle with the celebratory moment of our freedom with the holiday of Passover.  The holiday said to be the most celebrated holiday on the Jewish calendar. Families, friends, guests join in a festive meals with matzoh and special foods prepared with different ingredients, wine, and rituals, and it culminates with the reading of the Haggadah – a book with not only the story of our people, but the time when generations meet and find memories.  Rabbi Soloveitchek once said when we study Talmud in our class, so do all the Talmudic scholars, Rabbi Akiba, Rabbi Gamliel, and myriads of others.  So too in our homes, there is a living presence of grandparents, ancestors, and the children engaged in the Seder, who are our future.

In the autumn of 1914 the German army stood at the gates of Paris and the Kaiser believed that his victory was at hand and that his troops “would return home before the leaves fall.”  The Kaiser believed the war was won. His arrogance betrayed him. The war lasted 4 more years, with unimagined proportions of bloodletting and destruction. At the battle of the Marne the German army was stopped. We know the German Army was no longer strong, and the results were so horrendous for all.

The Talmud records when Rabbi Akiba visited the site of the destruction of the Temple, all with him cried. He laughed. He said this was predicted, but G-d also predicted we have a wonderful blessed future. We make this future. It is in our hands.

The service ends, with the positive words, “Next Year in Jerusalem.”  Not a prayer, but the reality that wherever we are, we can choose to create a city of peace, an ambiance of love in our homes and all living in peace with in our hearts – with all others and all God’s creations.

And may we, expressing our indebtedness to JWV, (and like in Dayton, our grand chapters) live the words from Les Miz:

“Remember the truth that once was spoken, to love another person is to see the face of God.”

Volume 72. Number 1. Spring 2018

August 12, 2017

California Department Chaplain Dov Cohen from teachings of
Bradley Shavit Artson

What are you willing to die for? In the course of our daily routine, there are certain focal points — actions, comments or individuals — which can ignite our passion like nothing else. While these things may not receive a great deal of conscious thought or even our waking effort, their significance lies in how important they are to our sense of identity, of worth, or of meaning.

Each of us may have different symbols that we care for deeply enough to make a sacrifice. The flag, for some, is significant enough to curtail the Constitution. For others, the Bill of Rights is of such importance that they are willing to tolerate the burning of the national symbol.

Most parents would give up their lives for their children. Some special individuals have given their lives for the children of others. Many people get ulcers and heart attacks in the service of wealth, prestige or beauty. How we live our lives is often determined by what we value most. And that value can be identified simply by asking yourself, “For what am I willing to die?”

According to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the most important decision a thinker makes is reflected in what he comes to consider the most important problem. There is only one really serious problem, and that is martyrdom.  Is there anything worth dying for? We can only live the truth if we are willing to die for it.

Rabbi Heschel’s point is that our lives derive their ultimate value and sense of purpose not necessarily by what receives most of our time, but what commands our deepest commitment. Today’s Torah portion deals with this issue in a specific context. This portion speaks of “the Land which God swore to your ancestors,” the Land of Israel. That land has been the focus of Jewish dreams and Jewish efforts throughout the millennia. The ‘mitzvah’ of Yishuv Ha-Aretz, settling the Land, is one of supreme importance. And there are many who are willing to sacrifice their own lives, and the lives of others, to acquire and to keep larger portions of that sacred soil.

In Israel today, and throughout world Jewry as a result, a vituperative debate rages between those who hold that Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) is the supreme value and others who insist that Jewish sovereignty and Jewish lives are the highest value. Because of that difference in perspective, some are willing to endanger Jewish lives to stake a claim to more of Eretz Yisrael, and some advocate abandoning some of the Land in order to save Jewish lives (not to mention a sense of fairness for Palestinian nationalism as well).

Is the Land of Israel of ultimate value? Or is it a valuable tool toward some more encompassing end? The Torah we read this week is unambiguous on that score.

“Keep all the commandments which I command you this day, that you may be strong, and go in and possess the land, into which you go to possess it; and that you may prolong your days in the land.”

The Land is of importance, not as an end in itself, but as the necessary backdrop for the fullest possible encounter with God. Many believe that only within the Land of Israel is it possible to observe all the ‘mitzvot’ commanded in the Torah and the Talmud, and only within the Land are the rhythms of Jewish life and religion the basis of daily life.

Yet, the significance of the Land is not intrinsic to the Land itself. The Land is not the goal, but rather a sacred means to an even more sacred end. The ultimate goal is to observe all the commandments — including to “have one law for yourself and for the stranger,” including to “seek peace and pursue peace,” including to “love the stranger.”

The Land matters because it can lead to the creation of truly Godly Jews. To the extent that we utilize the promise of the land to become more compassionate, more loving and more just — to that extent alone do we merit inhabiting the Land. And only to that extent do we fulfill the purpose of our being there in the first place.

The ultimate goal of Judaism is to build Godly Jews. The Land, as with every other aspect of Judaism, is a sacred rung on the ladder of holiness. But the goal remains holiness, not the ladder itself.

To my brothers and sisters at this 122nd National Convention of the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America . . . . . . .  Shabbat Shalom.

Volume 71. Number 3. Fall 2017