Jonathan Pollard

I was elated to hear that Jonathan Pollard is being paroled this coming November, 30 years after he was arrested for treason. I grew up seeing “Free Jonathan Pollard” placards in my synagogue on Shabbat mornings. I could not understand why someone who had aided a country friendly to the United States was being punished so severely for his actions. It felt unjust to me.

In rabbinical school I began to understand the other side. I had a roommate whose father served in the US Navy and who is currently a Navy Chaplain. On a number of occasions we argued about Jonathan Pollard’s life sentence. The argument got more and more heated as other classmates joined in. One of my classmates pointed out why there were different sides. He pointed to one of my classmates and said “Army family.” He pointed to my roommate and said “Navy family.” Then he pointed to me and said “ZOA family.” From that simple encounter I understood why we were on different sides. I grew up a staunch Zionist, with my love for Israel and importance of its security being primary. My classmates grew up with the emphasis on serving in the military and the staunch belief that you NEVER reveal any military secrets or classified information. Therefore, Pollard providing this information was a crime of the most severe order and he (according to them) should never be released. For them it didn’t matter that Pollard helped Israel-what mattered was a betrayal of the United States.

I still believe that Pollard served for far too long (much longer than anyone else convicted of the same degree of espionage against the United States). He acted wrongly but he was punished far too severely for his wrongdoings. I am glad that he will be reunited with his family and hope he will be able to make Aliyah to Israel.

He Said, She Said

Is there an argument you were dead set on winning? One where you just had to prove that you were right? If so you’re in good company, for that is exactly how I perceive Moses to be in this week’s portion.

The Book of Deuteronomy was referenced by the rabbis as mishneh Torah, the repetition of the Torah. Much of Deuteronomy is Moses repeating or reiterating events that have previously occurred. However, Moses appears to add his own revisionist history to the events. For example, in Chapter 1 verse 22, he states “all of you came to me and said ‘let us send men to reconnonter the land for us…” whereas in Parshat Shelah Lecha, it was God who told Moses “send our men to reconnoiter the land.” Furthermore, Moses asserts that his reply to the spies who gave bad reports was “have no dread or fear of them,” whereas in Parshat Shelah Lecha it was Caleb who said this. There are other examples as well, but I think the point is clear-why is Moses changing the story?

The best example I can think of as to why our mind engages in revisionist history, or a changing of the story, is from the Israeli film Waltz with Bashir, produced 26 years after the First Lebanon War. The director Ari Folman, also a character in the movie, was talking to a friend at a bar who was sharing his memories from the war when Ari realized that he had no recollection-he had blotted it out. He interviewed a lot of his friends and found that their memories of the war were also shady. He then has a conversation with a psychologist, who says, “We don’t go to places we don’t want to;” “Memory takes us where we want to go.”

I don’t see Moses as lying or deliberately misrepresenting or revising history; rather I see him as having a skewed portrait of the incident of the spies 38 years afterwards because he wants to come out on the “right side of history.” He recognizes that because of the spies’ negative report, an entire generation of Israelites had to die off and be replaced. Subconsciously Moses wants to see himself in the light of defying the spies, being reluctant to send them out and then opposing their message when it is delivered. Can we really blame him? He’s in his final years, he knows he will be unable to enter the Promised Land, so the least we can do is put him as a defender of his people and of the Almighty God. The bottom line is that Moses is remembered not for what he said in his last years but for what he did in leading our ancestors out of Egypt to the Promised Land and giving them the Torah. Whether or not Moses’ words in this portion are correct is insignificant compared to who he was and what he did.

What does any of this have to do with us? I believe everything. It is easy for us to engage in revisionist history or change our story, and while I’m not a psychologist, I believe that most of the time it is subconsciously. By nature we want to have our views accepted and embraced and to know that we always did or said the right thing. The bottom line, however, is that it does not matter. What matters is that we look in the mirror each morning and we smile, knowing that we are doing the best we can and acting in a righteous, ethical manner.

The rabbi who officiated at Karina and my wedding pulled us aside after the ceremony. He said “I don’t want to hear 6 months down the road, ‘He said, she said…’” The point he was making was that it does not matter who said what or even who did what-what does matter is that we work together day after day to strengthen our relationship. When you fight or feel stress, what is imperative is to come back together as a unified couple, to use the cliché but true “kiss and make up.” We all know of feuds where people don’t even remember what they are arguing about, and this is antithetical to what we try to achieve in marriage. My prayer for you as we approach your wedding is to always keep in mind the big picture-your love for one another and your desire to build a household and family together, and that this will be stronger than anything else. May you never enter into the realm of “he said, she said” for that is far less significant than what you share together and why you came before us this morning. Like Moses, who you are and what you believe is the essence of what you will become through your marriage. Mazal Tov on your upcoming simcha!

Sanctification of God’s Name

Who was Balaam son of Beor? According to this week’s Torah portion, he is a true non-Jewish prophet. He blesses Israel, being the author of our “Mah Tovu” prayer. He also follows the will of God, doing exactly what he is commanded to do-with one possible exception.

Our weekly Torah portion begins with Balak hiring Balaam to curse the Israelites. Balak saw Israel defeat Sihon the king of the Amorites and Og the king of Bashan, and he knew that his territory, Moav, was next. Just like Pharaoh, Balak sensed that Israel is too numerous and will defeat him-unless a prophet of God intervenes on his behalf. As a true prophet, Balaam said he could not curse Israel unless God ordained it, and God did not permit him to do so. Balaam dismissed the dignitaries, making Balak all the more desperate, so he sent new, noble dignitaries. Balaam had the dignitaries stay the night so he could await instructions from God. God told Balaam that he could go with the men as long as he did what God commanded, so Balaam went off with Balak.

Here is where we run into the quandary: Two verses later, God got enraged by Balaam going with the men, so much so that he sent an angel with a drawn sword to block his path. Balaam’s donkey wouldn’t move, so he beat her thrice until the donkey opened Balaam’s eyes to the angel. Why did God reverse His permission to let Balaam go with the men? Was he doing reverse psychology or engaging in passive-aggressive behavior? Why instead did God create a supernatural event?

Rashi, from 11th century Troyes, said that God saw that Balaam badly wanted to go with the men so he let him. Balaam jumped at the opportunity to go, thinking he’d be able to change God’s mind so he could curse the Israelites. Rashi’s interpretation feels like apologetics to me, as if God did not want Balaam to go, why give him the option? Abraham ibn Ezra, from 12th century Spain and Italy who was also a poet, comments that God wanted Balaam to go with the second group of honored princes, rather than the first group of commoners. The challenge with this is why should it make a difference who Balaam went with if the intent to curse the Israelites remained, and why would God become incensed if Balaam was acting correctly? The interpretation that resonates most with me is that of Ramban, or Nachmanides, a 13th century Spaniard who was also a Kabbalist. Ramban asserts that God always wanted Balaam to go with the men so he could bless the Israelites. Like Moses talking to the rock, this was intended to be an act of Kiddush Hashem, sanctification of God’s name through great action-the greatest gentile prophet praising the Israelite God. All Balaam had to do was reiterate to the second group of men that he would do exactly as God commands. Instead Balaam said nothing, giving the impression that he agreed to curse the Israelites. Thus, instead of a sanctification of God’s name, this became a hillul hashem, a desecration of God’s name.

Nachmanides’ interpretation applies directly to our lives. Whenever we perform an action, we need to look for opportunities to sanctify God’s name. At times this can be so simple as saying, “I am performing this action in order to honor God,” as Kabbalists do. The little signs of intent, like saying a blessing before eating to acknowledge the work that created it, or helping your neighbor carry a heavy load, are what bring sanctification of God into the world. Through striving to be mindful, we can ensure that the world in which we live is one where godliness shines through.