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Thou Shall Not Covington
Parshat Yitro

I first saw the news item on Saturday night. I was catching up on the news that I missed over Shabbos, although I’m not really sure that was a great idea. If you miss 25 hours of news because you’re in your Shabbos bliss zone, that’s a gift. There’s no reason to return the gift by checking the news. But I did, and then is when I learned about the horrible boys of Covington Catholic High School. The news reported that there was an elderly Native American man who was trying to make his way to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, when he was surrounded by a bunch of white male students from Covington Catholic High School. According to the Native American elder they were yelling “Build the Wall!’ and he felt threatened and afraid.

The news came along with a picture and a video. The picture shows a young while male, about 15 years of age, smiling at the Native American who is beating on a drum, and the video showed how the Native was beating his drum and trying to ascend the steps to the Lincoln Memorial, but the young white male was blocking his way and smiling mockingly at him. The article deplored the hate-filled youth who came to DC to participate in the March for life, but used that platform to display their white privilege and maliciously block the path of an elderly Native American. The article made me sad, as like most normal Americans, I don’t like to see elderly Native Americans being abused. I was also disappointed in the Covington boys; why do they have to behave like that, don’t the realize the optics of a bunch of white kids bullying a Native elder is going to hurt any cause they came to DC to support?

The media frenzy that ensued was incredible. One reported tweeted that there was never a more punchable face than that of the young white male standing in the way of the Native Elder. A GQ reporter called for the boys in question to be “doxed,” which is when people post all the personal information of someone they don’t like. The boys were doxed, and the death threats started piling in. Hundreds of media outlets covered the story, decrying the boys for their menacing, racist, and violent behaviors.

But then I found out the real story and saw the longer video. The most instructive video is one taken by a member of the Black Israelites, a militant hate-mongering cult that believes that African-Americans are the true descendants of the Jews in the Old Testament, and protest on the streets of many American cities, yelling insults at white people in general and Jews in particular, claiming that all whites will be either killed or enslaved by Jesus when he reappears. (I personally was verbally assaulted by a group of Black Israelites for the crime of passing them on a street corner in NYC about two decades ago. It was a frightening experience, involving many large men surrounding me, cursing me out, and telling me I was going to die.) On the day in question, Friday, January 19, a group of Black Israelites camped out near the base of the Lincoln Memorial and spent two hours videotaping themselves hurling remarkably racist and violent filth at all those who passed by.

About fifty-five minutes into the video, a large group of Covington Catholic high school boys arrive, as they were instructed to gather there while waiting for their bus to arrive to take them back to Kentucky, and they stand as a group about thirty feet away from the Black Israelites. The Black Israelites began yelling at them, calling them “crackers,” “nig—s” and many other names I can’t repeat in this publication, and telling them that they are all going to die in a nuclear attack. The Black Israelites are a group of large and intimidating African Americans, telling white people that the purge is coming, and that they won’t be able to call 911 to help them when it comes.

The boys, uncomfortable and feeling under attack, decide to start singing their school sports chants. Suddenly a small group of Native Americans approach the boys, accompanied by a bunch of video cameras. They are clearly not looking to go to the Lincoln Memorial because they passed twenty feet of empty steps and instead approach the boys. The Natives are playing their drums, and the boys start dancing to the beat of the drums, seeming to enjoy the diversion from the violent rhetoric of the Black Israelites. Then, the elder in question approaches one single boy, gets into his face and starts banging his drum inches from the boys face. The boy is uncomfortable, and as people often do when they are uncomfortable, he just stands there smiling. But the Native doesn’t leave him alone, and just keeps beating the drum in his face. Soon he stops smiling and just stands there looking as comfortable as a turkey on the Tyson assembly line in mid-November. Someone in the Native group starts yelling at the kids, “Go back to Europe!,” and when one of the boys starts to reply, the boy in question, tells him to not engage. Eventually, the Natives run out of steam and walk away.

There was no threat to the Natives, no one stood in their way, no one was yelling “Build the Wall!” The boys were simply singing their school spirit songs when they felt threatened, and a boy stood there looking uncomfortable when a Native elder got into his face banging a drum inches from his ears.

Learning the whole story of the Covington Catholic boys ordeal in Washington DC made me really uncomfortable. For starters, I had judged them unfairly, as did millions of people around the nation. Obviously, I took no part in the demonization of them that ensued, or the death threats to them or their families, or the calls for their expulsion from school, or the calls that their school is a hate factory that must be shut down. But in my mind, I judged them, and I did it based on a small sliver of the full story.

This brings us to the question of theodicy, perhaps the most challenging of all philosophical questions of all time. Theodicy is the question of how bad things happen to good people, and every philosopher worth his salt has weighed in on it. The Talmud (Brachos 7a) tell us that even Moshe Rabbeinu, our greatest leader asked G-d, “Why is there a righteous person who has it bad, and a wicked person who has it good?” And while one opinion in the Talmud is that G-d gave an answer to Moshe, the other opinion is that did not give him a clear answer, and that the answer to theodicy is not one that a person can grasp while still living in this world.

This did not stop many of the Jewish sages over the centuries from giving answers. Today, we’ll explore one concept as it is relevant to the Covington Catholic boys story. There is a concept in Judaism, often found in the more Kabbalistic realms, of reincarnation. It is discussed at great length in a book called Shaar Hagilgulim by Rabbi Chaim Vital, OBM, the primary disciple of the Arizal, Rabbi Isaac Luria, who is responsible for the resurgence of Kabbalistic learning since the sixteenth century. One of the purposes of reincarnation is for a soul to rectify mistakes it made in previous lifetimes.

According to the Vilna Goan (on Sefer Yonah, 4:3), one can ascertain what his life’s mission is by looking at the thing he struggles the most with. If a person consistently struggles with one negative trait, it is very likely that he is on this world to fix misdeeds in that area in previous lives, and that is why he keeps being challenged with it in this life. It is G-d’s way of sending him the challenges he needs to fulfill his purpose on this earth.

The Chida, Rabbi Yosef David Azulai (1724-1806) takes this idea a step further (Yosef Ometz 39). He uses this concept to explain why sometimes children are born with physical deformities or other developmental disabilities. Although it is clear that the child is not suffering for anything it did wrong in this life, as it is too young to have ever done anything wrong, the child may be going through its ordeal as a rectification for mistakes made in a previous life. (This idea is also discussed by the Shelah Hakadosh and the Medrash Ne’ealam. See the links before for more information.)

So what we humans see is a child born with a terrible and terminal illness such as progeria or anencephaly, and many humans jump to conclusions, “There can be no G-d if children are born already in pain and destined to die!” or “There may be a G-d, but He clearly has no control over this world, if children can be born this way!” But perhaps we are not privy to the entire video.

Imagine someone named Yankel, who has just died and gone to heaven. He goes before the Heavenly Court, and they say, “Yankel, we’re really sorry, but you need to go to Gehinnom, as in your lifetime you were a prolific thief and stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from unsuspecting people. We know you’re going to ask for another shot to fix it through reincarnation, because you’ve done that for the past six lives, but this has been your seventh attempt, and we’re done. It’s time for you to go to Gehinnom.” Yankel has no choice but to accept the judgment and is led away. But when the angels open the doors of Gehinom and Yankel see how bad it is, he is overcome with fear, and tears away from the angels, and runs before G-d Himself, and begs for mercy, begs for the chance to go back down to earth one more time, and fix his mistakes. “I’ll get it right this time, I promise!”

G-d looks at Yankel, and says, “I understand Yankel, but we’ve tried that too many times, and every time you fail. I would give you another chance, but I’m afraid you’re going to mess yourself up further.” Yankel gets wild eyed, and says to G-d, “I have an idea! Why don’t you send me down there, but give me a illness that will practically paralyze me and I won’t be able to steal anymore, so I won’t be able to mess it up! Also, please make it a painful illness, as I know that any pain and suffering we experience in the Lower World acts as a cleansing for our mistakes, and my pain in my next lifetime will serve to atone for my previous sins! Please G-d, please!”

G-d looks at Yankel and says, “You know if I do this, it is going to give Me a very bad rap in the Lower Worlds, right? People are going to see you being born with painful physical deformities, and they’re going to doubt if I even exist!” And Yankel replies, “I know G-d, I know, but I’m begging You, please have mercy on me, and do me this great kindness!” And G-d, in His great mercy, agrees, and the very next day a child is born in the world with a painful physical deformity.

Sometimes, seeing the whole tape changes the entire way we look at events. Seeing the whole tape can stop the media frenzy calling for the lives of some young boys from Covington Catholic boys school, and indeed many in the media have issued retractions and apologies for the rash statements they made while only seeing snippets of the tape. But much more importantly, understanding that there is a much larger tape than we are capable of seeing helps us understand so much of the world, even the biggest question of “Why do bad things happen to bad people?” It is only when we see the full tape, and that happens when we get to the Upper World after 120, will we understand the Tov Ha-shem Lakol, G-d is indeed good to all!

See this link for more on reincarnation and its causes and effects (it’s in Hebrew!)

Click here for more on theodicy and reincarnation (also in Hebrew)

 

Parsha Dvar Torah

This week’s Parsha starts with the arrival of Yisro, Moshe’s father-in-law to the Jew’s encampment in the desert. When Moshe came to Egypt he sent back his wife and children to Midian so as not to bring more people into a land committing atrocities against the Jews. Now, after the Jews were freed, Moshe’s father-in-law came to joint them, bringing with him Moshe’s wife and children. When he got there, he converted, and joined the Jewish people.

The events leading up to Yisro’s arrival are described in the first verse of the parsha. “Now Moses’ father in law, Yisro, the chieftain of Midian, heard all that God had done for Moses and for Israel, His people that the Lord had taken Israel out of Egypt.” (Exodus 18:1) Rashi asks what exactly it was that Yisro heard which prompted him to come to the desert and join the Jews, instead of just sending his daughter and grandchildren. He answers that he heard about the splitting of the sea and the war that the Jews had fought with Amalek.

One part of this answer seems to makes perfect sense, while the other seems troubling. G-d splitting a sea and allowing the Jews to walk through on dry land is something spectacular, and a good reason for someone to come and join the nation. But the fact that they had fought a war with Amalek and won doesn’t seem to be such a compelling reason for a person to uproot himself from a land where he is well respected and come out to the desert and join a new nation! If Rashi had told us that Yisro heard about the splitting sea and the 10 plagues, or the splitting sea and the exodus from Egypt, I would understand, but what is so significant about the war with Amalek that Rashi tells us that this caused Yisro to radically change his life?

An answer offered is that Yisro realized that if a nation is so desperate to go after Israel as to attack them in a Kamikaze fashion so soon after they got out of Egypt, that nation must have something of value, and he wanted to have it too. A simple analogy would be watching how much protection an item of value needs and to what great lengths thieves will go to try to circumvent the security procure the item. Thieves don’t round up sophisticated gangs to rob the local fruit store, but they will devote an enormous amount of resources, and even risk their lives, in order to get at a vault containing numerous precious gems and diamonds.

Yisro noted that Amalek came to attack the Jews right after they were saved from Egypt, and he realized that the Jews must have something special. In truth, this is the biggest lesson in Jewish history. Why is it that the Jews have always been persecuted, attacked, and threatened? Is it just because this nation of extraordinary people has really bad luck again, and again, and again, and again, and again? No, it is not our bad luck that brings all this down upon us, rather it is the incredible gift that we have, the Torah, and our unique relationship with G-d that causes the hatred of the other nations. Subconsciously, other nations know that we have the gold, that we have the sparkling diamonds of the world, and persecute us in a hope that they can snuff it out so that no one will have it.

Of course, our job is to make it shine so brightly that everyone either tries to join us (like Yisro did), or at least aids us in out mission of carrying it aloft. May G-d bless us with those days speedily in our time!

 

Parsha Summary

This week’s Parsha starts with the arrival of Yisro, Moshe’s father-in-law. Yisro’s biggest contribution to the Jewish people was the judging system which he instituted. He noticed that Moshe would sit all day judging people, while the line of those waiting to see him grew and grew. Yisro told Moshe that this system would burn out both Moshe and the people. He suggested that Moshe create a hierarchy of judges, with the most minor judges only responsible for 10 people, the next over 50, 100, and finally 1,000 people. The big questions and cases that couldn’t be dealt with by those judges would come to Moshe.

Moshe asked G-d, and with G-d’s permission, he appointed judges who met the following criteria; G-d fearing, accomplished, despises money, and men of integrity. He appointed them according to the positions mentioned above, and the new judicial system ran as smoothly as butter on a hot skillet!

The next part of the Parsha deals with the Jews’ arrival at Mount Sinai, and the revelation they experiences there. I will break the events down by days.

Day 1: The Jews arrive at Mount Sinai with a unity that is unmatched in their entire 40 years in the desert.

Day 2: Moshe goes up the mountain to talk to G-d. G-d tells him to tell the Jews that they have seen G-d’s miracles and His affection for them, and now He is making them an offer. If they want, they can accept the Torah and become a “Treasured Nation,” but they have to remember that it comes with a lot of responsibilities. Moshe comes down and tell the people who respond with a unanimous, “Whatever G-d says we will do!”

Day 3: Moshe goes back up, and delivers the Jews’ answer (G-d already knew it, but this teaches us that when one is sent to deliver a message they should always bring back the reply). G-d tells Moshe that He will speak from within a dark cloud to Moshe, but all the people would hear Him talking, and this would be a way for the people to know that Moshe was a true prophet. Moshe goes down and tells the people.

Day 4: Moshe ascends the mountain again and tells G-d that the people want to hear G-d talking directly to them. They said that hearing from an emissary doesn’t compare to hearing from a king! G-d tells Moshe to go back and tell the people to prepare for two days (by purifying themselves), for on the third G-d would talk to them. He also warns them not to touch the mountain or try to climb it, as it has a special holiness. Moshe gives the message, but, according to one view in the Talmud, he adds a third day of purification (this is the topic of some very deep insights, but it’s not within the scope of our Parsha Summary).

Day 5: Moshe builds an altar at the bottom of the mountain, as well as twelve pillar as monuments. He brings sacrifices on the altar and eats with the people.

Day 6: On this day, according to some, the revelation took place. According to others this was the extra day of preparation that Moshe added.

Day 7: G-d reveals himself in all His glory to the people. They hear Him talking directly to them and speaking out the first two of the Ten Commandments (which would be more appropriately translated as the Ten Statements). The event is too powerful for the mortal humans to handle, and the people ask that Moshe tell them the last 8 instead of having G-d directly speaking to them. This is the only time in all of recorded history where G-d spoke to a mass assembly. Never, ever, has any other religion even claimed this. (This is one of the proofs of Judaism’s validity over all other faiths in which only individuals such as J.C., Mohammed, the Buddha, or Joseph Smith claim to have had personal revelations.)

Here are the Big Ten:

1. I am the Lord your G-d who took you out of Egypt (belief in one G-d).

2. You may not serve any other gods.

3. You may not take the name of G-d in vain.

4. Keep Shabbos.

5. Honor your mother and father.

6. Don’t kill.

7. Don’t commit adultery.

8. Don’t steal.

9. Don’t testify falsely.

10. Don’t covet that which belongs to others.

After this momentous event, G-d commanded Moshe to tell the people that they had seen and heard G-d speak to them (one of the miracles of the revelation was that people saw sounds), and they had better not make or worship any other deities. He also commanded them to make an alter, but not to use stones hewn with iron. Iron is the material used to fashion weapons, and an altar needs to be a paradigm of peace.

That’s all Folks!

Quote of the Week: Worry is as useless as a handle on a snowball. ~ Mitzi Chandler

Random Fact of the Week: Pound for pound, a hummingbird consumes the caloric equivalent of 228 milkshakes per day!

Funny Line of the Week: A bicycle can’t stand alone; it is two tired.

Have a Snazzy Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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