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Lamrot Hakol (Despite Everything)

Musings and kvetchings and Torah thoughts from an unconventional Orthodox Jew.

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"I blog, therefore I am". Clearly not true, or I wouldn't exist except every now and then.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Lamrot HaKol Haggadah: Ha Lachma Anya

The Haggadah begins with a paragraph that is either taken for granted or misunderstood by the vast majority of Jews. I thought I'd post something about it, with Passover coming up and all.

This is the bread of affliction, which our fathers ate in the land of Egypt.
All who are hungry, come and eat;
All who are in need, come and partake of the Paschal offering.
Now we are here, next year we will be in the Land of Israel;
Now we are slaves, next year we will be free men.

I know some people who have a custom to open the door at this point in the seder (the very beginning), believing that "All who are hungry, come and eat" is an invitation to the poor. Now... don't call me a Scrooge. Judaism is absolutely replete with such sentiments; it's just that Ha Lachma Anya doesn't say that. In fact, while it may not be immediately obvious to the average Jew, the paragraph is full of seeming contradictions and puzzles. It's a riddle.

There are two kinds of riddles. One is the "What's black and white and red all over" kind, which is mostly for entertainment purposes, but the other is an educational tool which has been used by cultures all over the world since time immemorial. It's a teaching device which forces the reader to figure out what's going on. Ha Lachma Anya is that kind of a riddle. And unraveling it will give us insight into the seder and the holiday.

Let's start with the first line:

This is the bread of affliction, which our fathers ate in the land of Egypt.

Part of the problem is that if you're Jewish, you grow up hearing this every year, starting with your earliest memories. So it may not occur to you that this is a weird thing to say. But it is. It's a very odd thing to say. The Torah doesn't say that we ate matzah in Egypt when we were slaves. In fact, we first see matzah associated with Egypt when we're leaving. The Torah tells us that we hurried out of Egypt, so the bread didn't have time to rise. Was this the bread of affliction? It sounds more like the bread of redemption, which symbolizes our leaving Egypt; not our time in Egypt.

Let's put that question aside, and come back to it later. The next two lines, to anyone familiar with the laws of Passover in normative times, seem mutually contradictory. First, let me explain what I mean by "normative". In terms of the Torah's worldview, the normative situation is one in which Jews are able to fulfill all of the Torah's laws, including bringing the paschal offering. This is a lamb or kid goat which is slaughtered and barbecued in a specific way. And there are three pieces of information which are pertinent here:

  1. The paschal offering may only be eaten al hasova -- once you are sated, and no longer hungry.
  2. The actual seder meal was meat from a different sacrifice: the chagigah, or festival sacrifice.
  3. In order to eat from a particular paschal sacrifice, you have to be part of the group which got together before Passover for the purpose of obtaining and sacrificing that particular animal.

So here are the next two lines of Ha Lachma Anya:

All who are hungry, come and eat;
All who are in need, come and partake of the Paschal offering.

First off, let's correct the translation. The second line actually says "all who need", or "all who require". So we're saying, "If you're hungry, come and eat. If you need to eat the paschal offering, come and do that." But you can't have it both ways. If you're hungry, you can't eat the paschal offering. And this can't be an open invitation, because anyone who isn't part of the group for that particular animal is forbidden to eat from it.

We can actually resolve this apparent conflict without the other lines of Ha Lachma Anya. First, we can see that these lines are addressed to members of the group which signed up to share a paschal offering. And what it's saying is: if you're hungry, so that you can't yet eat the paschal offering, come and eat some chagigah offering until you aren't hungry any more. If you're already full, and you now need to partake of the paschal offering, come and do that.

Let's go on to the last two lines, which also seem like a matched pair:

Now we are here, next year we will be in the Land of Israel;
Now we are slaves, next year we will be free men.

The first line doesn't seem very odd to Jews who live outside of Israel. But if you live in Israel, why would you say such a thing? It's not as though the rabbis had a problem using different formulae for Jews in Israel and Jews elsewhere. On Hanukkah, the letters on the dreidl spell out "A great miracle happened there." But in Israel, dreidls say "A great miracle happened here." This is the first of the problems we see, and the smaller of the two.

The last line has most often been read as being metaphorical, because otherwise, it makes no sense. "Now we are slaves." Really? We're celebrating our release from real slavery. Backbreaking, killing slavery. How are we slaves today? Slaves to money? Slaves to luxuries? Slaves to a foreign lifestyle? Sure, but those are just expressions. Do we really have to resort to metaphorical explanations in order to understand these simple words?

The answer, like most riddles, is pretty straightforward once you see it. There is a case where everything in this paragraph is literally true, and all of the apparent contradictions fall away. And that's if the person saying it is doing so at the very first seder. The night before we left Egypt.

At this point, matzah as something which we eat because we didn't have time for the bread to rise is still in our future. That'll happen tomorrow. Right now, it's the tasteless slave food we eat here in Egypt. This year, we're here, in Egypt. But next year, we'll be in the land of Israel, where we belong [the tragedy is that this expectation turned out to be false]. This year, we're slaves. But next year, we'll be free.

And this leads to a very important idea about Passover. There are different categories of laws in the Torah. Some are chukim, which are ritual laws that we don't necessarily understand, like kashrut. Some are mishpatim, which are laws that make society run properly. Don't beat up the neighbor. Don't covet his 52" flat screen TV. Don't kill the annoying kid who's playing his music too loud. And then some are eidot. Witnesses. These are laws which commemorate things that have happened. Passover commemorates the Exodus. Shavuot commemorates the receiving of the Torah at Sinai. Sukkot commemorates the booths we lived in in the desert, and the clouds of glory which were up in the sky while we were in the desert.

We do more than commemorate these events. We relive them. We eat and sleep in booths on Sukkot. We stay up all night learning Torah on Shavuot. And the Haggadah says, "A person is required to see himself as if he had gone out from Egypt." It isn't enough to talk about the events of the Exodus as something that happened to our ancestors. We need to put ourselves in their place. Ha Lachma Anya is the first thing we say at the seder, and this is precisely why. It's a kind of meditation, intended to get us into the mindset that when we're sitting down at the table, we aren't in 2010, celebrating a holiday. We're in 1311 BCE, in Egypt, scared and excited and full of the knowledge that tomorrow, the whole world will change.

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Health Care

We're led by blind people. Demopublicans. Republicrats. They make a lot of noise about wanting different things, but the bottom line is, they're all on board with the idea of using people as resources. They're all on board with the corporate agendas of the insurance industry and every other industry out there.

You'll hear the Democrats claim that the Republicans just wanted to deregulate the insurance industry, and that's probably true. But the Democrats don't want to change that monster; they want to control it, and essentially make it part of the government.

Here's the thing. Medical insurance should only exist for catastrophes. Period. The only reason medical insurance is used for checkups and broken bones and cuts and the like is because the government made it that way. Not the insurance companies, mind you, though they were happy enough to splash around in the sea of windfall profits this provided them.

Watch how one government attempt to meddle "for the good of the people" has led to another, and another, and another.

During World War II, wage and price controls prevented employers from using wages to compete for scarce labor. Under the 1942 Stabilization Act, Congress limited the wage increases that could be offered by firms, but permitted the adoption of employee insurance plans. In this way, health benefit packages offered one means of securing workers. In the 1940s, two major rulings also reinforced the foundation of the employer-provided health insurance system. First, in 1945 the War Labor Board ruled that employers could not modify or cancel group insurance plans during the contract period. Then, in 1949, the National Labor Relations Board ruled in a dispute between the Inland Steel Co. and the United Steelworkers Union that the term "wages" included pension and insurance benefits. Therefore, when negotiating for wages, the union was allowed to negotiate benefit packages on behalf of workers as well. This ruling, affirmed later by the U.S. Supreme Court, further reinforced the employment-based system.

Step one: The government freezes wage increases.

Step two: They let employers add health insurance as a benefit.

This way, employers have no choice but to offer health benefits as a way of competing for employees. But now, the government has basically said to the insurance industry, "Come on in! The water is fine! We just opened up a whole world for you!"

Once this became the default, the government stepped in again. In 1973, they created the HMO industry by mandating that any employer of 25 or more employees had to offer federal certified HMO options (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Health_maintenance_organization). So now, it isn't just the insurance industry that's essentially being sponsored by federal legislation, it's the HMO industry.

Quick question: What are the two industries that have been blamed the most for the "health care crisis"? That's right: insurance and HMOs. Funny, that.

So the government essentially created these industries, and built them up, and now they want to fix things. The problem is, it doesn't occur to them that the way to fix a problem isn't to do the same thing again. That only adds to the problem. Oh, it seems like a solution in the short term, but then, so did the insurance and HMO screw-ups.

Now we have Obama saying that the new health care "reform" bill is only a start. That the goal is still complete government control of health care. But is that the right direction? Not at all.

The solution is to get rid of health insurance as a benefit. If people want to buy catastrophic health insurance, that's great. They should. But regular health care? Normal health care? That's something people should pay for like any other maintenance issue. Not to compare people with cars, but when you get into a major accident, that's something for insurance to handle. When it's time for an oil change, you go and pay for an oil change.

The problem is that insurance for minor health care is so ingrained in the American consciousness that it's hard to get people to imagine that it could be otherwise. But it can. And it should. And it really needs to be.

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Sunday, March 07, 2010

The State of Judaea: A Retraction

When I was a kid in college, lo these many decades ago, I became an Orthodox Jew. I've written about it on this blog, in case you want to read the boring story, so I'm not going to go back into it now. The main thing you need to know is that I became a serious supporter of Rabbi Meir Kahane.

Now... I'm on the right hand side of the bell curve when it comes to intelligence and problem solving abilities. I always have been. I see patterns. And a thought occurred to me. There was no way, I thought to myself, that we were ever going to be able to change Israel into a real Jewish state, where real Jewish values reigned supreme, and where the pathetic rulers of the state didn't want to rub up against the legs of the heads of the US and Europe and get petted and scritched behind the ear.

And I thought about how similar modern Israel is to the ancient kingdom of Israel, which consisted of the northern 10 tribes, and which was Jewish, but not so very Jewish. Where they prayed to God, but they also prayed to Baal, because that's what everyone did. But back then, there was another kingdom of Jews, and it was called Judah, or Judea. It was a kingdom ruled by the House of King David, where more than just lip service was given to the Torah.

Maybe, I thought, it was necessary to reverse the historical progression in order to get back to a united kingdom like that of David and Solomon. Maybe what we needed to do was create a State of Judaea in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. A state which would be a real Jewish state. Maybe that would create an example which would lead to other faithful Jews in the region joining us, and eventually bringing us back to the Torah.

I was excited about this idea, so I sat down and wrote a letter to Rabbi Kahane, detailing it.

That was about 1983 or so. In 1987, I made aliya, and in January 1989, a kenes (convention?) was held in the Binyanei HaUmma convention center to declare the State of Judaea. I never spoke with Rabbi Kahane about whether he had thought of it before I'd written to him, because it didn't really matter. I was just glad to see things getting under way.

The gathering was a little disappointing. Rabbi Kahane stood up and said, "We don't want there to be a State of Judaea. We want Israel to annex the territories. But immediately after he spoke, another rabbi there stood and said, "I disagree. I think we should have a State of Judaea, period. Let us annex Israel eventually." He got quite a round of applause for that.

Well, the idea never really went anywhere. It was never really taken seriously. And now... I want to retract the idea altogether, for whatever good that'll do. Because you see, my basic premise is no longer true. My basic premise was that there was no way the modern State of Israel would ever be brought around to be a real Jewish state. A state with a truly Jewish outlook. But that was before Moshe Feiglin and Manhigut Yehudit arrived on the scene. Now we really do have a chance of turning Israel around. And that being the case, the State of Judaea is wholly unnecessary.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Joyce Kaufman - The 7 Reasons to Support Israel

This is a great, great video of a talk by Joyce Kaufman.

I hope she won't mind if I post a transcript of her talk here:

Joyce Kaufman - The 7 Reasons to Support Israel

But I'm here to talk about why, why you should support Israel. Because anyone who thinks that Arabs hate us primarily because we support Israel is either stuck on stupid or looking for another specious justification for slandering this country, the United States of America or slandering Israel. Or worse yet, they're seeking a way to excuse Islamic terror. You have to be armed when you go out there now.

When you leave here, I'm asking you to do something different. Engage your neighbors. Engage the people that you meet in the supermarket. I always like to wear t-shirts and hats that bring about a lively conversation, like my hat that says "Infidel." And I walked down the aisle at Publix, and a woman in a burqa saw me coming. And i thought, well, this is the moment of truth, okay, because according to what I've read, she basically has to kill me.

As she approached, I looked at her and I said "Hello." And she said, "At least you know what you are." And I thought for a moment, yeah, she hates me, because the United States is the Great Satan, and Israel is the Little Satan. So if you're an American, the support of Israel is really the support of the United States of America first.

Beyond all of that, I just love Israel. I don't have to make any excuses about my love for the place where every great thing that has happened in terms of civilization was birthed. I don't have to defend the right for them to exist. You have to defend it to your friends and neighbors, if you haven't already.

Now, there are seven reasons -- I said this on the air today -- I'm going to tell you the seven reasons that we support Israel. So that you're not shy about saying it.

The first reason is Israel has the right to the land because of all of the archaeological evidence. You don't have to go into a long philosophical -- and I'm going to give you the philosophical argument, too, that Colonel West and Reverend Dozier made, and everybody else -- but the archaeological evidence proves the Jews have been in Israel since the beginning of its civilization. And you need to know that: you need to read about it; you need to Google it on the Internet; you need to do something different than you've been doing, because you haven't been getting the message out.

The second proof that Israel has a right to that land is its historic right. History supports it totally and completely. This is not negotiable. That land has been -- belonged to Israel from the time before the Roman empire. The Romans conquered the land -- although Jews were allowed to stay there; don't forget Jews lived there even after the Romans conquered it -- and then, of course, here's the part of history that people don't like to talk about. The Turks took over about 700 years ago and ruled right up until World War I. When the land was conquered by our founding fathers, the British. The British government was very grateful to a Jewish chemist named Weisman, who discovered a way to manufacture nitroglycerin from materials that existed in England, and to the Jewish people who bankrolled all of that research. And so he promised to give the Jews back their homeland. And that's exactly how it went down. It's supported by historical evidence.

I want the people to hear what Mark Twain had to say -- Samuel Clemens -- he took a tour of Palestine in 1867 -- because that's what they called Israel back then. And this is how he described that land. We're talking about Israel now, all right? He said, "A desolate country, whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds. A silent mournful expanse; we never saw a human being on the whole route. There was hardly a tree or a shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country." Where was this great Palestinian nation? It didn't exist. It wasn't there. Palestinians were not there. Palestine was a region named by the Romans. But at the time, it was under the control of Turkey. You need to know these things. You need to write them down on cards the way that I've written them down, because you have to answer people's questions. "The road leading from Gaza to the north was a summer track, suitable only for transportation by camels" -- okay? -- "or carts. there were no orange groves; no orchids. There were no vineyards to be seen." Go to Israel today. Go look at that place today. That desolate, without-even-a-cactus place. It's a garden in the middle of a desert. I dare you to fly over those deserts and see mile after mile of nothingness, and then, all of a sudden, God made it flourish and bloom, and it was given back to the people to whom it belongs. So history supports -- that's the second reason.

The third reason that the land belongs to Israel is the practical value of the Israelis being there. Israel today is a modern marvel of agriculture. I was just there. Lieutenant Colonel West has been there recently. A lot of people have traveled to Israel, and let me tell you, there's no place else on earth where a desert has become an orchid. There's nowhere else, and if the Arab nations were smart, they'd turn to Israel and its Jews and ask them, "What do we do with our deserts?" Because they haven't done squat in all these years. So israel's third reason is the practical value of having a thriving agricultural society there.

The fourth reason, I believe, that Israel has the right to the land, is on the grounds of humanitarian concerns. And i want you to listen to me, because this may be the most important thing that I say today. You see, there were six million Jews slaughtered -- slaughtered in the last century. People that could have been my aunts and uncles. People that could have been mothers and fathers of the people who are here today. Because the Jews had no place to go. So if you want to have a homeland, where those people who historically have been hit by pogroms; by holocausts -- then you make sure that Israel stays intact on humanitarian grounds. That's what the liberals are always talking about: let's be humanitarians. Keep a homeland for the Jews: We see what happens when there is none.

The fifth reason that Israel ought to have the land is because -- oh, wow -- they're a stratgetic ally of the United States of America. Israel is a deterrant, a detriment, an impediment to certain groups -- certain groups that want to destroy democracies all over the world. They keep them from coming to our door, more often than not. Israel is our strategic ally. It's good to know that we have a friend in the Middle East on whom we can depend. Not some of these Middle Eastern countries that are so-called allies now, who, by the way, the minute 9/11 took place, all of their citizens jumped up on tables and cheered the death of Americans, so let me tell you, your only friend, and the reason you need to believe that Israel belongs there is because they are our only strategic ally.

And sixth reason that Israel -- it's a roadblock to terrorism. I went there and I spent 6 days on a behind-the-scenes tour about how terrorism is combated in Israel. Were it not for the things they've designed, were it not for the protocols they've formulated, we would have even more problems here than you see today. Israel has cutting edge technology. The only problem with America today is we have an administration who doesn't want to use it. We have an administration who thinks that if they were to take a stand against this radical foe -- not just foe of Israel's but foe of the Great Satan, the United States of America -- that they will lose favor in the courts of the world opinion. Well guess what? They hate us anyway. I'm not interested in courting public opinion. I'm not interested in what people have to say about the United States of America. I'm not apologizing for the United States of America, and I'm not apologizing for Israel any more. I stood in the middle of Sederot, looking at the Katushya rockets that were exploding every day. Does the world care that Jewish kids run into bomb shelters every 20 minutes? No! They never care about what happens to the Jews. So I'll be darned if I care about what they think about me.

And the final, the seventh, and the most important reason why we ought to support israel is: because God said so. And i'm not ashamed to say it. Look it up in the book of Genesis -- you heard somebody quote it, Genesis 13:14-17. The Bible says: The Lord said to Abram, Lift up now with your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southword and eastward and westward, for all the land which you see, to you I will give it, and to your seed forever. Arise, walk through the land, and the length of it and in the breadth of it, for I will give it to thee. That's God talking. And if God said it, that settles it!

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