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Parshas Mattos-Masei (5770)

Brainwashing is a Good Thing ...

In my years of being involved in Jewish “outreach” – i.e. teaching Torah to unaffiliated Jews and exposing them to the incredible beauty and timeless wisdom of Judaism – every so often I hear someone (or, more likely, his or her mother) claim that we’re really just “brainwashing” our students so as to get them to believe in the Torah and observe its commandments against their will.

Of course, the best approach whenever I or one of my colleagues is accused of brainwashing is to clearly spell out the definitions of brainwashing and education as below, and to let the person see and understand the difference for himself. [The following definitions were taken from, and are based on the Random House Dictionary.]

~ brain•wash•ing [breyn-wosh-ing, -waw-shing] – noun
a method for systematically changing attitudes or altering beliefs, originated
in totalitarian countries, esp. through the use of torture, drugs, or
psychological-stress techniques.

~ ed•u•ca•tion [ej-oo-key-shuh n] - noun
the act or process of imparting general knowledge, developing
the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing others
intellectually for mature life.

Warning: This approach only works with someone who can think clearly and who has an open mind (but not too open that his brains fall out!).

Sometimes, however, I go on the offensive and tell the person that, frankly, I think most people today could use a good ‘brainwashing’ every now and then. And I got that idea from a very strange verse in this week’s double Torah portion.

The Torah records that the Jewish people had just waged war with the hostile nation of Midian, and they killed all the bad guys and brought all the booty and spoils of war back to their camp. The problem was that the vessels and cooking utensils that they got from the Midianites had previously been used for non-kosher foods and could therefore not be used by those who took them.

So Elazar, the new High Priest, instructed the men who had fought the battle and who had all these utensils in their possession: “Zos Chukas HaTorah – this is the law of the Torah: Only the gold and the silver, the copper, the iron, the tin, and the lead – everything that comes into the fire – you shall pass through the fire and it will be purified …. and everything that would not come in the fire, you shall pass through the water …” (see Numbers 31:21-23).

Basically, what Elazar was teaching the people was the basic law of kashering (rendering fit for kosher food use) utensils. The general rule, as spelled out in the verse, is that heat causes the pores of metal to expand so that it absorbs the taste of foods that have come in contact with it. To remove what has been absorbed, a metal utensil must be heated in the same way and to the same degree, i.e. if used for broiling non-kosher food, with no intervening liquids, the utensil must be heated until white hot to be kashered; if used for cooking non-kosher food, the vessel must be filled with water and brought to a boil. Vessels used only for cold non-kosher foods do not require purging. [To learn more about the very fascinating and complex laws of kashering utensils, see:]

The question is why did Elazar the Priest preface these laws with the statement “Zos Chukas HaTorah – this is the ‘law’ of the Torah”? After all, the law of purging non-kosher utensils is just one small part of the many different laws of the Torah, so why is it called “the law of the Torah”?!

The Chassidic commentators explain that with these words, “Zos Chukas HaTorah”, the Torah is hinting to us that this ability of purging vessels from non-kosher taste and purifying them through fire is in reality “the law of the Torah”, i.e. it is a quality of the whole of Torah itself.

This is because the Torah that G-d gave us is referred to as a fire, as it says: “Behold, My word is like fire – the word of G-d …” (Jeremiah 23:29). And just as we are taught that fire can purge and cleanse a vessel from all the non-kosher particles and gunk that it picks up, so, too, does the ‘fire’ of Torah and all the beautiful lessons and values contained within it have the ability to cleanse and purify our minds from all the immoral and non-kosher gunk that we pick up throughout life.

And these days we sure do pick up a lot of ‘gunk’, and from a very early age. Consider these statistics from a study done at the University of Michigan:

• An average American child will see 200,000 violent acts and 16,000 murders on TV by age 18.
• Programs designed for children more often contain violence than adult TV.
• Most violent acts go unpunished on TV and are often accompanied by humor. The consequences of human suffering and loss are rarely depicted.
• Many shows glamorize violence. TV often promotes violent acts as a fun and effective way to get what you want, without consequences.
• Even in G-rated, animated movies and DVDs, violence is common—often as a way for the good characters to solve their problems. Every single U.S. animated feature film produced between 1937 and 1999 contained violence, and the amount of violence with intent to injure has increased over the years.
• Even "good guys" beating up "bad guys" gives a message that violence is normal and okay. Many children will try to be like their "good guy" heroes in their play.
• Children imitate the violence they see on TV. Children under age eight cannot tell the difference between reality and fantasy, making them more vulnerable to learning from and adopting as reality the violence they see on TV.
• Repeated exposure to TV violence makes children less sensitive toward its effects on victims and the human suffering it causes.
• A University of Michigan researcher demonstrated that watching violent media can affect willingness to help others in need.

[Written and compiled by Kyla Boyse, RN. Reviewed by faculty and staff at the University of Michigan – see]

And this study doesn’t even include all the inappropriate sexual innuendo and even explicit material that we and our kids are constantly exposed to through the various media, not to mention the bad character traits, lack of respect and civility, and outright chutzpah that are so often displayed and even glamorized on TV and in the movies.

All this has got to have an effect on our minds - and on our neshamos (souls). So, as I said before, maybe we could all use a little “brainwashing” every so often – to wash our brains from all the junk that they pick up.

Maybe a little Torah – full of good family values, respect for elders, love for humanity, with a focus on growing spiritually and working on our character traits – can help us purge all that other stuff from our system and “purify” us.

As someone told me recently in the name of her grandmother, “Brainwashing is good thing … as long as the water is clean”.

By: Rabbi David Zauderer of Toronto, Canada

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