Plain Meanings - Complex Texts

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Rabbi Yehiel Poupko is bridging the gap between old Jewish books and contemporary realities.

Plain Meanings - Complex Texts

Shavuot, Go Vote!

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We Americans are now in an exciting, sacred, fateful, and at times exasperating season. 

The presidential primaries are almost over. The two major party conventions will take place this summer. Following Labor Day, the presidential campaign will begin in earnest. Hopefully significant numbers of American citizens will vote. 

Abstinence from voting is not an option. I am old enough to remember when my grandparents put on their Shabbat clothing and went to vote. Voting was sacred to them. As a young person, I sat out the 1968 presidential election. I would not vote for Nixon and I took out my anger on the Democratic Party for Vietnam on a good man by the name of Hubert Humphrey. Sadly I am a member of that group of Americans that put Richard Nixon in office. On that Election Day, my grandmother asked me for whom I voted. I told her I didn’t vote and why. She, who never really quite learned the King’s English, said to me in cadences and sentiments that only Yiddish can express, “Your grandfather and I did not survive two Czars and Lenin and Stalin to have a grandson that doesn’t vote in an election.” I have not missed an election since that rebuke.

Shavuot is soon upon us. This election season of ours owes much to Shavuot and the giving and receiving of the Torah. Our people’s arrival at Sinai seven weeks after liberation from Egypt was monumental. The event itself had many facets to it. At Sinai, God gave us the Torah. At Sinai, we the Jewish people received the Torah. At Sinai, both God and Israel made commitments to each other. At Sinai, a romantic relationship between God and Israel, who were in love with each other, was expressed in a covenant. At Sinai, Israel heard the voice of God when God revealed something of God’s Self to Israel. These are the dramatic experiences of Sinai. 

There were other experiences at Sinai, nowhere near as dramatic (possibly prosaic), but nevertheless profoundly important. These experiences established some of the foundation principles for what we as an American citizenry are now experiencing in this election year. 

At Sinai, we were constituted as a nation. Sinai was our Constitutional Convention of Philadelphia. This moment of becoming a nation established principles upon which the Jewish nation endures to this day. These are principles that the Jewish people have bequeathed to the world. These are principles without which no democracy can function. The most striking feature of our constitutional convention is that everyone participated. 

When God presented the Torah to the Jewish people, it was presented to the whole Jewish people without mediation. It is not given to Moses in a private revelation for him to then turn to the Jewish people and declare, “Aha! Look what God just gave to me for you to embrace without question!” It was presented to the whole Jewish people at one time. This experience established the principle that no revelation is possible unless the whole Jewish people are present. Furthermore, the foundation of any decent and civil polity, based on the belief that everyone is created in the image of God, has to be the full and comprehensive consent of the governed. There are other faith communities that believe in a foundation revelation. However, in both of those instances the revelation took place between God and one select chosen individual who then presented the content of that revelation to his faithful. This is not so for Judaism. The whole Torah is presented to the whole Jewish people in convention. 

The second principle is that Moses moves up and down the mountain several times. He gets instructions from God. He brings those instructions down the mountain to the Camp of Israel. When he arrives in the Camp of Israel he meets with the Elders. These Elders were already an institution when Israel was in slavery. Israel had a representative body of 70 Elders. These Elders, the representatives of Israel, spoke on behalf of the whole people. When Moses had a question about whether or not the people agreed to this or that notion that God had presented he would go to the Elders. The Elders would then speak to the people to gain their consent. As it is written:

So Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and laid before them all these words which the LORD commanded him. Then all the people answered together and said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do.” So Moses brought back the words of the people to the LORD. (Exodus 19:7, 8)

This is the first recorded democratic moment when a whole society took part in establishing its system of governance. Upon this experience is democracy based. 

Happy Shavuot! 

Don't mess with God: Or how I learned to love and understand the Ten Plagues

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In the narrative of the enslavement of Israel in Egypt, described in Chapters 1-11 in the Book of Sh’mot-Exodus, nearly half the narrative is taken up with the Ten Plagues. Much ink has been spilled to explain the Ten Plagues and the chart below graphically presents their meaning and purpose.

God tells Moses to go tell Pharaoh to “Let My people go!” Moses then does this in the name of God, because God created every human being in God’s person, and therefore no one person can enslave another. All human beings are endowed with equal sanctity and dignity. Pharaoh responds by saying, “Who is God? I do not recognize him.” (Exodus 5:2). By this, Pharaoh means the reason he won't recognize God is because he considers himself a god. 

God, in effect, is saying to him, “Okay. So you say that you’re not going to listen to Me because you’re a god and don’t recognize Me as God. I’m going to show you that I am God. As God, I am the creator of everything. To demonstrate that to you I am going to organize all of nature against you. In fact, I’m going to give you ten chances to let My people go. Step by step I’m going to show you that I am the creator of each of the three realms: water, land, and air. I array all of it against you to show you that I am God, the creator of everything including human beings, whom you a human being may not enslave!”

On the first day God created light--the Ninth Plague is darkness. On the last day of creation God created life--the Tenth Plague is death. God is saying to Pharaoh, “I array against you the three realms of nature, which I created, and everything created from the first to last day of the six days of creation."

Pharaoh just doesn’t get it.


1 Blood Water
2 Frogs Water
3 Lice Land
4 Swarms of Insects or Swarms of Beasts Land
5 Livestock Pestilence Land
6 Boils Air*
7 Hail Air
8 Locusts Air
9 Darkness First Day of Creation – Light
10 Death of the Firstborn Sixth Day of Creation - Life


*  Exodus 9:8 – Then the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Each of you take handfuls of soot from the kiln and let Moses throw it toward the sky in the sight of Pharaoh, it shall become a fine dust all over the land of Egypt and cause boils on man and beast.”

    Paris, City of Light – Budapest, City of Blue Danube

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    We cannot know another until we stand in their shoes and walk in their footsteps. We trace our forebears’ footsteps on the paths they took in life, which bequeathed great legacies to us. 

    There are some paths and footsteps that make us tremble and leave us with a sense of dread. 

    Members of JUF Missions recently walked in the footsteps of thousands of simple and ordinary Jews who came before them. Because we are a family, Jewish life is ever and always with people. Every Jew is a great and heroic figure, especially in certain historical periods. The JUF Rabbinic Mission went to Paris this year, in solidarity with a community trapped between an anti-Semitic far left and an anti-Semitic far right; a community that lives in France, 11 of whose 70 million citizens are Muslim, some of whom (as we know) are quite radicalized and have made it very difficult for the French, especially Jews, to live in certain areas and to attend certain public schools. 

    On the 16th of July, 1942, 4,500 French policemen began a brutal mass roundup of Jews living in Paris,  who were confined to the Winter Stadium, known as the Vel’d’hiv in Paris.. This roundup was planned by the French together with the Germans in the single greatest act of mass collaboration by a local population with the Germans anywhere in Europe. These Jews were deported and murdered in Auschwitz. Among them were 4,000 children. 

    In Paris, the city of light, these thousands of Jews and their children still walk the night. These thousands of Jews and their children left behind footprints that have not worn away with the passage of time. With each new assault on the Jewish people, and indeed on the French themselves, the footsteps can be heard as a warning against radical politics and the tyranny of totalitarians. 

    A week later, the Nachshon Mission, a remarkable group of young men (some of whom are not as young as when Nachshon first began thirteen years ago), spent a few days in Budapest. Budapest is a Jewish community of 100,000. The Jews of Hungary were largely intact when the Germans invaded on March 19, 1944. By then, approximately 5 million Jews had been murdered by the Germans. The Jewish population of Hungary was approximately 800,000; the Jewish population of Budapest was nearly 400,000. The Jews of Hungary believed that their fellow Hungarian citizens would save them from the Germans. This was a fatal miscalculation. 

    The Hungarian leadership saw in the Germans an opportunity to regain the significant territories they lost after World War I. Beginning in May, nearly 400,000 Hungarian Jews, living in small or medium sized towns in the countryside, were deported to Auschwitz. It is this deportation that Eli Wiesel chronicles in his by now legendary biography, Night. Two Jews who escaped Auschwitz published their testimony under the title, ‘The Auschwitz Chronicle,’ in July 1944, in a Swiss newspaper. At this point, the Allies and the Vatican could not remain silent. Word was sent to the Hungarian leadership to stop the deportation of the Jews from Budapest. They did so. This was not the end of the story. 

    The Jews had to be protected from the Hungarian pro-Nazi fascist Arrow Cross Party. They were helped by righteous gentiles, Carl Lutz and Raul Wallenberg, who declared them, respectively, to be Swiss and Hungarian citizens. This saved the lives of tens of thousands. 

    But the Arrow Cross did not give up. On November 8, 1944, they marched some 70,000 Hungarian Jews, men, women, and children, to concentration and labor camps in Austria. Along the way, thousands and thousands were simply shot, or died of starvation and exhaustion. Beginning in December 1944, and lasting until the end of January 1945, the Arrow Cross took approximately 20,000 Jews from the ghetto in Budapest and marched them to the banks of that wonderfully inspiring Blue Danube River. Shot them. Their bodies fell into the river. 

    Budapest is one of the golden cities of Eastern Europe, blessed and favored with remarkable 19th and 20th century Baroque and Art Deco architecture. Budapest, like Prague and Vienna, is one of the great music capitals of Europe. Along with Vienna, it is one of the twin-capitals of the late and unlamented Austro-Hungarian Empire. Like Paris, city of lights, it is a metropolis of high culture. The young men of Nachshon walked in the footsteps of the 20,000 or so Jews led to the banks of the Danube River and shot. They stood at the Shoes Memorial.

      cityoflight1 cityoflight2

    Standing in their footsteps and looking at their shoes, they listened to the words of two young Chicago Rabbis, Seth Limmer of Chicago Sinai Congregation, and Michael Schwab of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park. They all stood in the footsteps of those Hungarian Jews. City of Lights, City of Blue Danube, Jewish footsteps on your streets sound a warning, and a summons. Do the right thing.

    Mourning technology

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    It took me longer than most, but I surrender. There is no turning technology back. It insinuates itself into most of life's activities.

    Recently, I noticed the degree to which technology has captured some of the most intimate experiences of human life: illness, death, and mourning. In the past couple of years I have known a few young families with gravely ill children who died after much suffering. In the process of gaining treatment and cure for these children their young parents had to be in touch with family and friends. Prior to technology that meant making a lot of phone calls, repeating over and over again the same pained information, and listening, call after call, to the same anguished reactions. The use of technology that keeps friends and family who love and care for each other informed on the progress of treatment and the development of illness is surely to the good. It relieves family members, young or old, of the need to make so many phone calls. It keeps friends and family informed.

    On the other hand, what happens when the treatment doesn't succeed? What happens when long and difficult illness is followed by death? How is technology used?

    Technology can surely be important and helpful in the encounter with death. People who care for each other and love each other and who are far away from each other in times of loss and pain use technology, whether it is the phone or the e-mail, to be in touch.

    Technology can sadly also become a substitute for personal presence. It enables avoidance and responsibility. It can protect us from exposure to the reality of pain and loss. Maimonides tells us that the mitzvot of caring for the sick; of rejoicing with bride and groom; and of comforting the mourner, are mitzvot to be done with one's very body and person, meaning, with face, and eyes and hands, and arms, with all that is their very presence. Consoling a mourner is never an easy task. Encountering the mourner is never easy, especially a mourner who in loss is not celebrating a life long and well lived. Death reminds us of our common human destiny. Technology has become a way for some to avoid the personal contact; to avoid the encounter with death itself; and to satisfy the self and say, "Oh, I was there for that person." Well, if you can be there for that person and do so on a Facebook posting, in an e-mail, on a funeral chapel's website, and you are but a few miles away, then you haven't been there.

    My young friends and their families tell me that all sorts of lifelong friends and acquaintances in their time of loss used the e-mail and websites to convey their sincere and heartfelt condolences instead of coming to the house of the mourner. What the mourner needs is not another electrical communication. What the mourner needs is to know that he or she is not alone. The personal visit to the house of the mourner; the gestures unaccompanied by words; the gaze of eyes; faces sculpted in pain and compassion; these are the ways in which friends and community let the parents of a child lost know that most important of Jewish gestures: you are not alone.

    National tragedy and personal loss

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    Today, three Israeli teenagers, Gilad Shaar (16), Naftali Frenkel (16), and Eyal Yifrach (19), are the children, the sons and brothers, of everyone in Israel.  Today, Gilad, Naftali, and Eyal are the sons and brothers of the Jewish people the world over.  Today, in Jewish community memorials, from North America to England, to France, to South Africa, to Australia, they have become part of the historic drama of being a member of the Jewish people.  Today, the unspeakable crime committed against them is the subject of Israeli Cabinet discussion, plans for response, and the stuff of Israeli national news headlines.  Today, the murder of three Jewish teenagers captures the attention of the White House, the Kremlin, the Elysee Palace, and 10 Downing Street.  Today, the murder of Gilad, Naftali, and Eyal transforms all Israel into one family.  Today, the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Officers, and the security and defense establishments, and the members of the Knesset are immersed in what has happened to Gilad, Naftali, and Eyal.  Today, everyone in the Jewish world knows these three names and recognizes their faces, Gilad, Naftali, and Eyal.  

    That is today, and for tomorrow, and possibly even for a few more days and weeks.  In not too many days the news and the conversation will move their names and their tragedy aside and other events will overtake Israeli, Jewish, and world consciousness.  When that happens not too many days from now, we, who will soon forget, must today remember that when all is said and done, Gilad, Naftali, and Eyal are the sons, grandsons, and brothers of only a few people.  After today is gone and the Shaar, Frenkel, and Yifrach families go home and sit down at dinner this Shabbat, there will be an empty place at the Shabbat table.  That empty seat will never be filled.  And on Shabbat morning these teenagers will not walk to synagogue with their families, and will not be late coming home for Shabbat lunch because they were hanging out with friends after shul.

    And when today is over, after all is said and done, Gilad, Naftali, and Eyal will have died only to their parents.  For each one of them has only one father and only one mother, and only those six parents lost a child.  Only those six parents will live the rest of their lives with this palpable void.  At family moments, sad and happy, at milestone moments when they would have been 18, 21, 25…, when if they were still here they would have been doing this or achieving that, or helping with this or saying that, there will be an abyss.  For in the end, while the Jewish people have a long memory, national tragedy and historic events are never as close and as real and as enduring as the death of three children to their three mothers and to their three fathers, who will live out the rest of their lives always wondering what might have been, what might have been.

    Of God and Man:Some thoughts on the Rebbe

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    This article first appeared in JUF News 20 years ago upon the passing of the Rebbe and is posted now in honor of the 20th yahrzeit

    That he was of a different order of magnitude than the rest of us is commonly accepted. The complex and varied responses to his death, from the perfunctory to the adulatory to the confused, on the part of all sorts of Jewish organizations and leaders, is witness to that.

    His death leaves no one untouched. How we respond to a person of Rabbi Schneerson's spiritual stature says as much about us as it does about him.

    In death, as in life, he has become a critical standard of measurement. Like the mystical philosophy of Chabad which he successfully represented and taught to the Jewish world, his very life, the living scroll of Torah that it was, is in need of unraveling, for it is composed of layer upon layer upon layer, each one more radiant and closer to God than the one that precedes it.

    His traditional garb, his public speeches in Yiddish, the appearance and dress of his devout followers  belie the fact that he was the most modern of Jewish spiritual figures. Modern in the sense that he engaged in a dialogue with modernity and reached out to, worked with and lived amongst all sorts of Jews.

    Aside from modern Orthodoxy, Lubavitch is the only Orthodox movement willing to accept and embrace all Jews, no matter who they are and where they stand. The Rebbe of Lubavitch can be better appreciated in reference to another spiritual giant, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who passed away a little more than a year ago. Their lives are in such amazing parallel that the divine hand may  not be  hard to discern. They both lived into their 90s. They both emerged out of the great, scholarly, philosophic and mystic traditions of  Lithuanian Jewish civilization in Byelorussia, with its grounding in Talmudic scholarship and Chabad philosophy. They were both educated prior to World War II at the University of Berlin, each one thereby appearing to break with the past.

    They both came to America and realized that the New World required new Jewish strategies. They both rebuilt Jewish civilization in the half‑century following its destruction in World War II. They believed in outreach, investing thousands of students with the authority and the spirit to teach Torah to the masses; the one, the Lubavitcher Rebbe through his Chasidic emissaries, and the other, Rabbi Soloveitchik through the rabbis he taught and ordained.

    They had a major intellectual difference over whether to grapple with modernity through philosophy or science. Rabbi Soloveitchik sought to engage the Western world and its challenges to Judaism through the study of philosophy in order to develop a theology of Halakhah, Jewish law, that would address the modern human condition in all its complexity. The Lubavitcher Rebbe sought to engage  the challenges of modernity through the study of science in order to understand and be in awe of God's creation.

    What both had in common was a deep understanding of the circumstances of modernity and of the need of Orthodoxy and classic Jewish faith to interact with the modern world and with the rest of the Jewish world.

    Here, however, the similarities part. Whereas Rabbi Soloveitchik used as his medium Talmudic scholarship and philosophy, which were designed to appeal to the intellectual elite who would then deal with the masses, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, a man of magisterial scholarly proportions, sought to relate to the Jewish people after the model of the kohein, the priest, who is accessible to all rather than after the model of the melekh, the Jewish monarch, who is accessible to just a few. This distinction was made by Rabbi Soloveitchik himself when he eulogized another Chasidic Rabbi, the Tal'noye Rebbe, in order to describe the difference between the Lithuanian rabbinic scholar and the Chasidic Rebbe.

    The Lubavitcher Rebbe understood phenomena  that only a great spiritual figure can grasp. For, if in fact one is involved in the life of the spirit, then one knows how spiritual life develops. One knows that children have a spiritual life, that teenagers have spiritual lives, that men and women have spiritual lives that grow, develop and follow their own course throughout the human life span. Chabad is nothing if not a system for the religious cultivation of the human personality. Preceding Freud by a century the Tanya of Rabbi Schneur Zalman Borokhovitch, the first Chabad Rebbe, is a highly developed psychology of the human inner life based on the Qabbala of the soul.

    Therefore, the Rebbe was one of the first, if not the first, to put forward the notion that in order for Jewish children to become attached to the Jewish tradition, there has to be such a thing as Jewish fun for Jewish children, not just fun for Jewish children.

    At the same time, his originality of thought in Jewish theology is prodigious. Too much of it is, to this day, confined to the Yiddish language. Hopefully that will soon change. He was that sort of person whose very being of faith infected others with faith. Those who were shaped by his faith then brought theirs to others.

    He understood that the Jewish people can be reached only through personal example and love. He, more than anyone else (yes, in this season of exaggerations one must be careful) loved the Jewish people unconditionally.

    His simple piety, his plain love for the Jewish people and his profound intellectual and spiritual gifts were daunting. Some, in all denominations, found him threatening. On a recent edition of the television program "Nightline," Chaim Potok was honest enough to admit this when he told Ted Koppel that he was afraid to meet with the Rebbe privately for fear of being "overwhelmed by the power of his charisma."

    Who was this man for whom Jewish summer camping and Jewish fun for children was as important as sitting with world leaders?

    Who was this man who sat with each and every type of Jew and was able to penetrate to the depths of their individual souls and personalities?

    Who was this man who asked Jews to engage in massive campaigns of simple mitzvot that express love of the Jewish people and love of humanity?

    Who was this man at home in science and at home in prayer, at home in mysticism and at home in the languages and histories of the world?

    Who was this man?

    The truth may very well be a truth that many modern Jews are not willing to consider. But, nevertheless, here then the consideration: We are a people rooted in the belief that, at one moment in time, God broke into history and redeemed our ancestors from Egypt; and that, at another moment not too long thereafter, God broke through into our time and our space and revealed His will and His word in the Torah, and that all who were there heard Him declare, "I am the Lord your God, who took you out of the Land of Egypt."

    If that is the case, then are we not willing to consider that from time to time, possibly in each and every generation, almighty God  in the manner of the shekhina, the abiding presence, breaks through in an abundance of the ru'akh-spirit to great persons of the spirit?

    The life of the magesterial Rebbe of Lubavitch summons us to a Judaism rooted not just in mitzvot-commandments but in a commander, not just in deeds but in the spirit, not just in the history of the Jewish people but in deep and profound relationship with God. Is it not possible that in the second half of the 20th Century, as has happened  many times before, the ruakh-spirit of God came to rest upon this man, and  like prophets of old, he then made that spirit accessible to all of us?

    Is that not, after all, possible?

    The next big whatever

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    I do not like big questions.  The Ted Talks notwithstanding, I am not looking for the next big idea, or big thing, or whatever else big everyone seems to be after.  Furthermore, I don't think Judaism likes big questions or big ideas.  Please show me the next small idea, the next little thing to do.  I cannot grapple with how to achieve truth, justice, peace, love, and all of those wonderful words that are vessels for infinite thought and emotion, that glibly establish unattainable and frustrating goals ever crashing like waves against rocky jetties of reality. 

    We are a small, little people.  We are meant to be a small, little people.  As God says, "I didn't love you because you were so huge; because in fact you're the smallest of all the nations of the world."  That surely is true to this very day.  As a small people we were given a Torah.  To be sure, the Torah has some huge ideas; really massive important fundamental ideas:  There is one God, the Creator.  All humanity is created in the image of God.  These are towering, earth shaking ideas.  However, the Torah doesn't expect us to get to big ideas and huge beliefs by wrapping our arms around them.  A theological medicine ball is too big for anyone.  These big ideas can only be had in lots of little mitzvot.  That's why we have so many mitzvot, because they're all so very plain, simple, and little.  They're not big.  They're right at hand.  They're easy to do.  They manage the world, because the world can't be managed by big ideas and abstractions like love and justice.  We have so many mitzvot because life is lived and loved in the details. 

    One of the most famous passages in all of the Torah is, "Love thy neighbor as thyself."  Love?  How can I possibly love my neighbor?  I love my immediate family, but my neighbor?  Love's implementation is impossible without reading the preceding verses.  

    You shall not defraud your fellow. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning.  You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind…  You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly.  Do not deal basely with your countrymen. Do not stand idly by the blood of your fellow: I am the LORD.  You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kinsman but incur no guilt because of him.  You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:11-18)

    The Torah instructs how to love.  What is love of neighbor?  Love is one of those words that moves, that slips ever to easily and glibly off the tongue.  The Torah tells us what love means.  If you really want to love your neighbor as yourself, here are the simple little behaviors that you should engage in:

    Don't lie to your neighbor;

    Don't gossip about your neighbor;

    Don't nurture hateful attitudes to your neighbor;

    Don't be deceitful to your neighbor. 

    Nothing big here.  Just small stuff.  That's what love is.  There are many more examples of this in the Torah.  You love your neighbor by returning what he or she has lost.  You love your neighbor by not cheating them in business.  You love your neighbor by letting them into your field at harvest time if they're poor.  That's how you love.  In fact love has very little to do with "I love you."  The Torah could have said, "Love your neighbor…", and assumed that the rest is easy for us to figure out.  No such thing.  Love is in the details, just ask the devil.  Love has everything to do with lots of little details.  Save the next big thing, idea, or question for someone else.  For the Jewish people the question is always: Where is my next little, easy mitzva to be found?


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