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Parshas Pinchas (5768)

The Good Old Days

The period which we are now about to begin is traditionally known as Bein Hametzarim, "within the days of distress", and is sometimes referred to as "The Three Weeks". It starts this coming Sunday on the Seventeenth day of the Hebrew month of Tamuz, and it ends on the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, Tisha B'av, the Ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av (this year it falls out on August 10th).

This three-week period is a time of national mourning for the Jewish people, as many terribly tragic events in our history occurred during this time. Moses broke the Ten Commandments on the Seventeenth of Tamuz, the walls of the city of Jerusalem were breached, both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed on Tisha B'av (and all that remains of the Temple today is the Kosel Hama'aravi - the Western Wall), the wicked king Apustomus burned the Holy Torah, the Expulsion from Spain was set for this time in 1492, and the list goes on and on. And, ultimately, our being exiled and dispersed among the nations only to be persecuted and tortured for the last 1900 years, is a direct result of the Romans destroying the Temple and expelling all the Jewish people from the land of Israel during this period in the year 70 C.E.

One of the recurring themes of this three-week period, and of Tisha B'av in particular, is the Jewish nation's glorification of its past, and our desire and longing to go back to the way things used to be. In one of the last verses in the Book of Eichah (Lamentations), a book written by the prophet Jeremiah and read publicly in the synagogue on Tisha B'av, we beseech G- d: "Hashiveinu ... chadeish yameinu kikedem - Bring us back to You, G-d, and we shall return, renew our days as of old." In this one verse, the Jew in the Diaspora expresses his heartfelt desire to go back to the way things were in the old days - even as far back as 2000 years ago! - when we had our beloved Temple in Jerusalem, and when life was more meaningful and more spiritual.

It's almost as though we are saying that the earlier generations were "ahead" of us, and that we wish we could go back in time to live life as our ancestors did, in full view of the Temple and in a spiritually and morally superior environment. Which is all kind of ironic, if you think about it. Because it is this type of thinking which flies directly in the face of the modern thinking of "post-Enlightenment" man living in the "Age of Reason".


You see, one of the most popularly held assumptions in the Western world today is that our generation is intellectually superior and far more sophisticated than generations past. As Rabbi Uri Zohar writes in his eye- opening book, My Friends, We Were Robbed!: "We moderns have a tendency when we consider the generations of past ages to view them as one big unbroken block. This block is made up of people who were, by and large, fairly primitive, even childlike, in their handling of the most basic existential questions of day-to-day life. We view ourselves, by contrast, as far more sophisticated in our handling of those same questions. In our thinking, this is due in large part to our good fortune of having been born during a period of history where most people are no longer bound by the stifling shackles of religiosity. We also assume that all previous generations belonged to the thankfully-no-longer-extant world of religious wars, doctrinaire thinking, dogmatism, the suppression of scientific inquiry, the Middle Ages, priests, Inquisitions, and celibacy."

This is but one of many "beliefs" that are held by modern man, some of which are accepted with what could almost be described as simple faith by our present age.

It would do us well to drag this particular assumption out of the serenely unexamined confines of cultural and historical bias, and to hold it up to the clear light of logic.

The reason why this is so important, in my opinion, is because it is precisely this notion that past generations were intellectually and morally inferior and less sophisticated than our own generations, which serves to undermine the very basis and foundation of Judaism, making it virtually meaningless and hopelessly outdated to the modern Jew. Life-impacting questions such as: Does G-d really exist? Is the Torah true? What does it mean to be Jewish? Does "being Jewish" obligate anything? etc. etc. are, for the most part, never asked. And if the questions should be raised, they are treated with a skepticism that renders them and the answers given to them largely irrelevant.

It would certainly seem that the existence of G-d, the historical validity of Revelation, and other related subjects should rank high on the agenda of topics that serious and rational men should consider. Yet, for the most part, the modern Jew estranged from his faith continues along in his culturally-induced apathy and remains ever reluctant to search for the bases of his mass-crowd "skepticism".

What, then, are some of the factors contributing to the now widely held assumption that we are far greater than the ancients, and that any doctrine which comes from the "primitive" Middle Ages or earlier - and even something as potentially significant as a Divine Revelation and the Receiving of the Torah - is of necessity philosophically backward and is not to be taken too seriously?


To be sure, there are many obvious things one can point to which seem to place those living in the Middle Ages or earlier at an intellectual and moral disadvantage when compared with twentieth-century man. We live longer and healthier lives, due to our progressive medicine and other technological and social advances which serve to increase the quality of our lives. We seem to be far more tolerant and peace- loving than our ancestors were. We also seem to be far more rational and open-minded than our superstitious, close-minded ancestors living in Prague or Warsaw in the 1500's. And there are other arguments as well.

But I am willing to bet that a large part of this prevailing way of thinking is based on ignorance and on the desire to, as Ortega y Gasset once put it, "march through life together, along the collective path, shoulder to shoulder, wool rubbing wool, and head down". In other words, many of us are caught up in a way of thinking that we inherited from the previous generation, who in turn inherited it from their parents, without giving much thought to the origin or truth of those assumptions.

It would be nice and neat for us to discredit the Jews of earlier generations, who believed in the Existence of G-d and in the Revelation, as being backward and primitive and philosophically unsophisticated. That is exactly what the French philosophes did in the salons of Paris in the early 1800's when they set about dismantling the foundation of religion, declaring the dawn of a new "Age of Reason and Truth", in which humanity alone would solve the world's problems, freed from the shackles of G-d and religion. But even a peripheral study of the events of the past century will show just how wrong these misguided intellectuals were. More human beings were butchered in the name of nonreligious, secular, humanistic movements - just think of Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, etc. - than ever before in the history of mankind.

And with even a slight knowledge of Jewish history, one can easily realize how philosophically and intellectually advanced our ancestors were. Rare indeed is the twentieth-century Jew who has carefully examined the Torah-based philosophy of, for example, Rabbi Moses Maimonides. Much rarer still would be the modern Jew who has even heard of such significant and powerful Torah advocates as Rabbi Yehudah Halevi or Rabbi Bachya ibn Pakuda, much less considered the persuasiveness of their major works. So it is no wonder that we moderns think the way that we do.


One important factor which definitely contributes to the modern notion that we are far superior to generations past is the apparent conflict between traditional religion and progressive science. And, in all fairness, it should be pointed out that religion itself (at least the Christian religion, that is) is somewhat responsible for this. It is well documented that the Church of the Middle Ages excommunicated Galileo for expressing his scientifically-proven contention that the earth revolves around the sun.

Now, to be sure, the Torah does not oppose science and nature, and, if anything, embraces the study of nature and the sciences as a way of appreciating all that G-d has created for us here on earth. (Much has been written on the topic of the Torah and its relationship to science and nature, and it is a subject which I can't do justice to in the limited format of the z- mail.) But it is true that in the Talmud - the repository of the Divinely-communicated Oral Tradition - there are to be found statements made by Talmudic scholars which seem to run counter to what modern man knows to be true today through the process of scientific inquiry.

This apparent conflict was indeed addressed by no less than the great Mahara"l, the great philosopher and Bible commentator of sixteenth-century Prague, in his major work titled Be'er Hagolah. (This work has recently been translated into English and expounded upon brilliantly by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein in a book titled Be'er Hagolah: The Classic Defense of Rabbinic Judaism Through the Profundity of the Aggadah, published by Artscroll Mesorah.)

In this book, the Mahara"l explains that those who criticize the Talmudic sages arrived at their conclusions because they noted many places where the Rabbis provided reasons for natural phenomena that are simply unbelievable. The essence of their mistake, however, is that they assumed that the sages were providing the natural causes for these phenomena. The Talmudic sages, however, were not so interested in the immediate, natural cause for different phenomena. They left this inquiry to empirical scientists. Their concern was the cause behind the expression of natural law. They knew that for every explanation, for every rationale, there is a reason behind the reason. (See the above mentioned book pages 208-240 for a lengthy treatment of this idea.)

Additionally, the sages of the Talmud often used allegories when explaining the causes behind the rational world that we experience with our five senses. So that the statements that they sometimes make, even when their surface meaning seems to run counter to modern science, always have to be understood on a deeper level.

Let me share with you one example of a strange Talmudic statement which seems to run counter to our scientific knowledge, yet which masks incredible depth and insight into the inner workings of the world in which we live.


The Talmud in Chagigah 12b makes the following statement:

Rabbi Yosi says: "Woe to those people who see but do not realize what they are seeing, who stand but do not realize upon what they are standing. What does the earth rest upon? Upon the pillars, as it says: 'Who shakes the earth from its place, and its pillars tremble.'(Job 9:6) The pillars stand upon the waters, as it says: 'To Him Who spreads out the earth upon the waters.'(Psalms 136:6) The waters stand upon the mountains, as it says: 'The waters stood above the mountains.'(Ibid. 104:6) The mountains on the wind, as it says: 'For behold, He forms mountains, and creates wind.'(Amos 4:13) The wind stands upon the storm, as it says: 'The wind, the storm does its bidding.'(Psalms 148:8) The storm is suspended from the Arm of the Holy One, Blessed is He, as it says: 'And from beneath are the Arms of the world.'(Deuteronomy 33:27).

Clearly, anyone with any knowledge of science knows that the world does not rest upon any of the things that the Talmudic sages claim it does. So what's really going on? The great Talmudic commentator, the Maharsh"a, explains this strange passage in the following manner:

People see a vast and populous world, full of movement and interaction, but they don't realize what actually maintains the world. They are not aware of the spiritual elements that enable the world and everything in it to exist.

The earth rests upon the pillars - that is the three pillars enumerated in Pirkei Avos 1:2 - upon Torah study, upon the service of G-d, and upon kind deeds. If people stop doing these three things, they topple the earth's pillars and bring the world to collapse.

The pillars stand upon water - meaning the Torah, which is often symbolized by water in the writings of the Prophets. This means that the proper performance of study, Divine service and kindness depends upon the definitions and frameworks established for them by the Torah. A misguided act of kindness can do much harm, and the Torah's guidelines give a certain stability to our daily actions and endeavors.

The "mountains" upon which the waters stand are the spiritual giants of each generation. These Torah luminaries are entrusted with the all-important task of interpreting the Torah and its guidelines for each generation.

The "wind" or "spirit" (ruach in Hebrew) upon which the mountains stand refers to the human spirit, meaning specifically man's capacity for free choice between good and evil. The stability of the spiritual giants depends upon their constant battle to choose good over evil. Should these "mountains" falter, they will fall and bring down with them everything standing above.

The "storm" upon which the wind stands, refers to the yetzer hara, or Evil Inclination. Free will is possible only because G-d's Infinite Light is concealed in a "storm", and the truth is not obvious to all. In this darkened environment, evil can seem to be a reasonable option.

And finally, even man's battle with the Evil Inclination is dependant in part on G-d's "arm", i.e. His assistance. If G-d did not come to the aid of a person against the assaults of the yetzer hara, that person would never be able to withstand its enticements.

This is but one example of the strangely worded, yet deeply enlightening, passages that one can find in the Talmud. And it is from the likes of these Talmudic sages and other great Jewish thinkers and philosophers of the Middle Ages and earlier, who possessed great wisdom and an intellectually superior understanding, that all of us "moderns" have inherited such a wonderful and glorious tradition and way of life, which should make us all very proud.

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