Counting On Faith, Fortitude Parshat Bo

I have always been most fascinated — and confounded — by the ninth plague, the plague of darkness. How can darkness be ‘tangible,’ touchable? Yes, darkness can be oppressive, foreboding and forbidding. But darkness is not substantive; much the opposite, it is usually defined as the absence of light, a phenomenon more akin to nothingness than to something that can be touched or felt.

But then one phrase in the text, especially in view of how the Hebrews got to Egypt in the first place (because the jealous brothers of Joseph never ‘saw’ the hapless favorite son of Jacob as their brother), cried out at me: “No man could see his brother” — because of darkness.

Herein is depicted a spiritual, social darkness, a veritable blindness on the part of the Egyptians, who refused to see their Hebrew neighbors as their siblings under God; therefore, since they were the more powerful, they enslaved the able-bodied Hebrews and murdered their defenseless male babies. It was this spiritual blindness that certainly could be ‘felt’ in the daily acts of inhumanity perpetrated against the Hebrews; it was this blindness that was miraculously expressed in this ninth, palpable plague of darkness.

This may very well serve as the key to understanding all of the plagues. The Egyptians turned their life-giving river into a bloodbath of innocent Hebrew babies; God turned the Nile into blood against the Egyptians.

Then, instead of much-néeded water for crops, frogs poured out of the Nile, with their death-heralding “croaks” signaling disasters to come. The Egyptians forced cruel and
unsanitary living conditions upon the Hebrews; God sent lice to the Egyptians. The Egyptians came after the Hebrews like wild beasts; God sent a plague of wild beasts to afflict the Egyptians. The Egyptians denuded their slaves of livestock; an epidemic destroyed the Egyptian livestock. The taskmasters’ whippings caused the Hebrew slaves to suffer boils on their bodies; God sent the Egyptians a plague of boils and blisters.

The whiplashes stung the bodies of the suffering Hebrews, and a heavy rain of stinging, slaying hail fell down on the Egyptians. The Hebrew slaves saw the last of their crops confiscated by their masters, and God sent swarms of locusts to remove the last residue of Egyptian produce, locusts that covered their land and filled their houses. And finally, just as the Egyptians plunged the world into spiritual darkness by enslaving and murdering God’s ‘firstborn’ Israel, God engulfed the Egyptian world in darkness and then slew the firstborn of the Egyptians — providing new hope for humanity when Pharaoh submitted to God’s will and allowed the Hebrews to leave Egypt as free men and women.

The peaceful Islam of the Sufi and moderate Sunni variety (11th to 13th centuries), the Islam which gave the world translations of the Greek mathematicians and philosophers, has given way to extremist Wahhabi Islam of world domination, of Jihad and conquest by the sword. Meanwhile, the free world is sleeping at the wheel. Iran is being allowed to continue to develop nuclear weaponry; European countries are siding with Mahmoud Abbas in his request for U.N. recognition even after he makes a pact with terrorist Hamas; Islamic State is on the march, beheading innocent people and taking over more and more territory in Iraq, and America is putting up too little  opposition too late.

Shari’a domination is every bit as dangerous as Hitler’s Nazism and is even more fanatically determined to make the world non-Islam free. The world once again is being engulfed in darkness. We are returning to the dark Middle Ages, and our response must be strong and immediate. We must prevent extremist Islam from victory.

The Jewish people must understand that in these quickly changing times, we must be cognizant of the fact that God provides the cure before the knockout strike. One of the great miracles of this fateful and extraordinary period in Jewish history is the rapprochement between Christianity and Judaism after 2,000 years of Christian anti-Jewish persecution. A great majority of all Christian leadership today renounces anti-Semitism, accepts our unique covenant with God, and deeply respects the Jewish roots of their faith.

In light of the fact that our world war against extremist Islam is a religious war and although we are fewer than 13 million Jews worldwide while there are 1.2 billion Muslims, thankfully there are also two billion Christians. Hence we, Jews and Christians who believe in a God of love, morality and peace, must join hands and hearts together and fulfill our mission as God’s witnesses and a light unto the nations. Together, we must reach out to our Muslim brothers and sisters, first to those who understand and deplore the fact that ethical monotheistic Islam is being hijacked by fanatic mono-Satanistic Islam.

We must strengthen their voices to recapture the true faith of Islam. Then all of us together, must reach out to our errant Muslim siblings and remind them that we are all children of Abraham, the father of those who believe in a God of compassionate righteousness and moral justice. With strength and spirit, faith and fortitude, the free world will not only survive, but will prevail.

Responding to North Korea

Last Friday, South Korea resumed its high-decibel loudspeaker propaganda attack against North Korea, which two days earlier had tested a nuclear weapon in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions. As the hermit nation led by Kim Jong Un suffered the ear- popping onslaught of K-pop songs and weather reports, talks were underway elsewhere on how to respond to North Korea’s fourth nuclear test since 2006.

The Security Council immediately condemned the test as “a clear threat to international peace.” But what response will reduce or eliminate the threat? The  Security Council, never a body that acts speedily, promises more sanctions. The key, however, lies with the United States — the lone superpower — and China, North Korea’s neighbor and patron. A day after the nuclear blast, Secretary of State John Kerry met with his Chinese counterpart and told him, in Kerry’s words, “We cannot continue business as usual.” But it remains to be seen whether China’s desire to “really step on North Korean necks,” as a former U.S. negotiator told NPR, will outweigh its fear of the collapse of the buffer between it and U.S.-backed South Korea.

North Korea’s flagrant violation of international norms could bring the United States, China, Japan and South Korea — where 28,000 U.S. troops are stationed — closer to a common response. There is room to  extend international sanctions. China could cut energy supplies to Pyongyang, something it has done in the past. Until now, the United States has targeted North Korea’s military and weapons programs and has not tried to cut off trade with Pyongyang, as it has with Iran. That could start to change. According to recent reports, the House of Representatives is likely to consider legislation that would stiffen fines on foreign companies doing business with Pyongyang, and there are those who are suggesting that an international  effort might also be considered.

But North Korea has not responded to carrots or sticks in the past. It remains insular and suspicious, with its small economy isolated. International pressures could lead to compliance or to further defiance. When it comes right down to it, North Korea may not want to part with its de facto membership of the  nuclear club under any circumstances. Anyone  advocating action beyond loud pop music must bear that in mind.

Well-Received Story

You did a fantastic job of explaining the situation and expressing concerns about the Baltimore Jewish Council (“Jewish Community Split on End-of-Life Issue,” Jan. 8). No matter how this all turns out, I, for one, appreciate the consideration and well-drawn attention to the  discussion.

The Anti-Israel Trend You’ve Never Heard Of

If you want to understand why the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) has gained so much ground in the past two years, look no further than intersectionality, the study of related systems of oppression.

Intersectionality holds that various forms of oppression — racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and homophobia — constitute an intersecting system of oppression. In this worldview, a transcendent white, male, heterosexual power structure keeps down marginalized groups. Uniting oppressed groups, the theory goes, strengthens them against the dominant power structure.

As you might have guessed, the BDS movement has successfully injected the anti-Israel cause into these intersecting forms of oppression and itself into the interlocking communities of people who hold by them. So it’s increasingly likely that if a group sees itself as  oppressed, it will see Israel as part of the dominant power structure doing the oppressing and Palestinians as fellow victims. That oppressed group will be susceptible to joining forces with the BDS movement.

At Columbia University, Students for Justice in Palestine managed to form an alliance with No Red Tape, a student group fighting sexual violence. What does opposing sexual violence have to do with Israel and the Palestinians?

Intersectionality with the anti-Israel cause, unfortunately, has not been  limited to groups working against sexual violence at Columbia. The anti-Israel website Mondoweiss recently declared that “since Mike Brown was shot by police in Ferguson … solidarity between the Black Lives Matter and Palestine movements has become an increasingly central tenet of both struggles.”

While anti-Israelism has long found a sympathetic ear among segments of the far left, it has not, until recently, enjoyed much popularity among ethnic minorities. Moreover, until recently, BDS supporters probably weren’t  organized enough to do the necessary outreach to and stewardship of fellow marginalized groups. Now, evidently, they are.

While he never uses the term intersectionality, Mark Yudof,  chair of the recently established Academic Engagement Network, which aims to fight anti-Israel sentiment on campus, ominously describes efforts to “connect the dots” and “co-opt the language of human rights.” The BDS movement is “moving to integrate itself with nearly every progressive campus cause,” Yudof said.

The growing acceptance of intersectionality arguably poses the most  significant community relations challenge of our time. Ultimately, how popular — and threatening — intersectionality becomes depends on the degree to which the far left is successful in inculcating its black-and-white worldview, simplistic perspectives and resentment toward those perceived as powerful with the mainstream left. But we can influence the direction of this discussion.

The Jewish community must do more to establish our own intersectionality with groups on the mainstream left, which is not nearly as prone to radical currents. Strengthening ties to these more moderate groups will erect a firewall between the far left and mainstream left on Israel, making it far less likely that the latter will ever take the bait from the BDS movement.

David Bernstein is president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the representative voice of the Jewish community relations movement.

A Turning Point for Area’s Jewish Community

When my son, Charlie, now a sophomore at Friends School of Baltimore, asked to join BBYO last year, I swelled with pride. As an alum myself some 50 years ago in Hibbing, Minn. — a town of only 17,000 people and fewer than 10 Jewish teens — BBYO was my lifeblood in connecting with Jewish teens outside our area.

As soon as Charlie joined, he immediately valued the teen-driven focus and the social connections he developed throughout the Baltimore area and beyond. He is vice president of membership of his local BBYO chapter and is also working on his leadership role for BBYO International Convention (IC) 2016, a five-day convention that will be hosted in Baltimore over Presidents Day weekend, Feb. 11-15.

More than 4,000 of the Jewish community’s top teen leaders, educators, professionals and philanthropists from around the world are coming to the Inner Harbor for IC 2016 to  experience the community that BBYO creates. And this is just a taste of the BBYO experience. This year, BBYO will reach more than 80,000 teens in 35 countries with an AZA and BBG membership that will surpass 19,000 leaders. These teens plus more than 400,000 alumni make up the BBYO family. Playing host to this powerful movement is a turning point for BBYO in Baltimore.

While BBYO is supporting Charlie in developing leadership skills, social responsibility and connections throughout the world, I am working with fellow Baltimore community members Robb Cohen and Laurel Freedman to support IC and the BBYO experience in Baltimore. Robb and Laurel have also seen the value of BBYO through their teens’ involvement.

Robb’s daughters, Lizzie and Alex, a junior and freshman at Roland Park School in Baltimore respectively, are members of BBYO in Baltimore. It’s clear every day: BBYO has helped strengthen their Jewish identity, given them leadership skills and made them part of a global network of Jewish teens. Lizzie particularly loves being on BBYO’s Global Networking Committee, a group of Jewish teens from around the world who meet regularly online to work together through a unique partnership between BBYO and the JDC.

Laurel’s twins, Alanna and Rebecca, are juniors also at Roland Park School. The twins found BBYO as they were transitioning out of a Jewish day school and into a secular high school. Today, Alanna and Rebecca hold multiple leadership roles at both the chapter and regional levels, and, like Lizzie, Rebecca is on the IC 2016 Teen Steering Committee. BBYO has helped them find their voices — as teens, as Jews, as young women and  as members of the Baltimore and worldwide Jewish communitiess.

Seeing the impact BBYO has had on Charlie, Lizzie, Alex, Alanna and Rebecca has brought me back full  circle and inspired me to get involved in supporting the BBYO experience here in Baltimore — most immediately by helping to host IC. As Robb often shares, having IC in Baltimore is an invaluable opportunity to unite Jewish teens and give them leadership skills, Jewish community and connections for life. We can leverage IC to  build long-term Jewish community  engagement in Baltimore and beyond.

Join us online in following the pre-IC excitement at and on social media through @BBYOInsider and #AZABBGIC2016.

Bob Hallock, a BBYO alum from Hibbing, Minn., and a Baltimore community member for the past 35 years, is a consultant who helps companies and organizations grow their  businesses.

Lopsided Presentation

The JT’s recent piece on the “Death With Dignity” bill did a fine job outlining the positions of the bill’s  proponents (“Jewish Community Split on End-of-Life Issue,” Jan. 8). In terms of balance, though, it was rather lopsided: one small — and hardly compelling — quote from Rabbi Ariel Sadwin (director of Agudath Israel of Maryland) versus, essentially, every other quote and characterization. Just count the words in your piece that make the case for the legislation and then the words that make the opposite case.

That’s unfortunate, not only for opponents of the bill, but also for readers seeking to truly understand both sides of the issue.

Rabbi Avi Shafran, Director of Public Affairs, Agudath Israel of America

Israeli Espionage

The JT’s editorial “No Reason to Spy” (Jan. 8) notes that “there is an asymmetric relationship at play”  in the U.S.-Israel relationship.  Precisely!

If there is one overriding, super-salient fact that sets the Jonathan  Pollard case apart from that of other Americans caught spying for  so-called friendly or neutral countries, it is this: Not only has America been Israel’s only truly reliable ally in a hostile world — especially at the United Nations — but the U.S. taxpayer has long subsidized Israel, most recently to the tune of a $3 billion appropriation. Who ever heard of a country generously underwriting  another nation and then that nation turning around and spying on its financial patron and long-term political savior? Not to mention seeking to influence American (Jewish) officials to undermine administration foreign policy, as in the case of U.S.-Iran negotiations.

Indeed, according to media  reports, Israel constantly ranks in the top tier of nations actively  engaging in industrial and military espionage against the United States. Doesn’t one of the Big 10 specify “Thou shalt not steal”?

The editorial quotes Israeli commentator Eitan Haber correctly: “Everyone knows that the entire world spies on the entire world.” Or as the rabbis would put it: midah  k’neged midah.

Balance of Rights

President Barack Obama has set his sights on the rights that gun violence has taken away. (PHILIP COBURN)

President Barack Obama has set his sights on the rights that gun violence has taken away. (PHILIP COBURN)

In announcing executive action to reduce gun violence across the nation last week, President Barack Obama called for balancing Second Amendment gun rights with other liberties. As he did so, he recited a litany of those whose elementary rights were taken away by gun violence: The “right to worship freely and safely … was denied to Christians in Charleston, S.C., and that was denied to Jews in Kansas City, and that was denied to Muslims in Chapel Hill, and Sikhs in Oak Creek,” the president said. “They had rights too.”

That simple truth has been lost in the endless debate over gun safety and gun rights. The president’s attempt to close some loopholes in existing law through a package of executive orders hardly justifies the “Obama wants your guns” frenzy that has greeted the announcement. A major provision of the package requires those who sell guns on the Internet and at gun shows to be  licensed and to conduct background checks on prospective buyers, a position with which 80 percent of Americans agree.

A number of Jewish organizations have  announced support of the president’s action. We commend the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Religious Action Center of  Reform Judaism and Jewish Women International for speaking out, and we add our voice to theirs. We encourage more Jewish groups — which seem to have a position on every issue great and small — to take a stand in favor of this one. At the end of the day, we should all stand firmly behind policies that will make our country safer.

The president’s move was sensible and certainly within his prerogatives. While there is a clear constitutional right to own guns, that doesn’t mean the government doesn’t have an interest in keeping weapons out of the hands of killers. One of the fundamental rights we have as Americans and as people is life. We challenge Congress to get serious about gun reform with that right in mind.

Living with a ‘Softened Heart’ D’var Torah - Parshat Vaera

The Torah portion Vaera describes a conflict between God and Pharaoh with Moses as God’s messenger. Moses asks Pharaoh to free the slaves. Pharaoh not only refuses, but increases the Israelites’ burden. God says to Moses that He will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and for this, Pharaoh and all of the Egyptians will be punished with plagues.

To me, this sounds unfair. Why should Pharaoh and his people be punished if God is responsible for hardening his heart? Maimonides was bothered by this as well. He
explains that once a person hardens his or her own heart many times, it becomes a habit that is almost impossible to break. Even though the Torah says that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, this happens only after Pharaoh hardens his own heart six times. After that many times, it is unlikely that he would have ever changed.

We often see people in the world today who place the responsibility on God for the atrocities that are taking place. It seems that whenever there is a mass shooting or other terrible event, government officials tell us to pray to God for the victims, as if God has control over what’s happening. I believe in God, but I don’t believe that God plays an active role in these events. I believe that humans are responsible for their actions and for allowing their hearts to become hardened. Just like Pharaoh, leaders of countries as well as regular people harden their hearts. In Syria, the hardened heart of Bashar al-Assad has allowed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians to be killed while others flee their homeland and become refugees. Many of us watch silently, every day becoming more used to and hardened to their suffering.

The opposite of a hardened heart is a softened heart. A perfect example of this is how, during the last 50 years, the Roman Catholic Church has come to a closer relationship with Judaism and the Jewish people. Just a few weeks ago, the Roman Catholic Church said that Catholics shouldn’t try to convince Jews to convert to Catholicism. This followed many other efforts to improve what had been a very difficult relationship
between Catholics and Jews. We could say that God played a role in this, but I believe that it is the result of human beings who choose to soften their hearts toward each other. That is the world that I would like to live in.

Upon becoming a bar mitzvah and taking on the obligations of an adult in the eyes of the Jewish community, I hope to make choices and live my life with a softened heart, caring for others and having compassion.  I wish this for all of us as well.

‘The Greatest Feeling’



The way a child sees the world is truly astonishing, and those parents (or uncles, aunts, siblings, babysitters and teachers) among us who are privileged, for even a moment, to enjoy a glimmer of that unique combination of wonder and certainty are truly blessed.

I’ve written about this before, but holding my own kids up as an example, I am constantly amazed at how simplistic and matter-of-fact the world around them can be in their eyes. And upon reflection, they’re usually right.

Such was the case during a recent weekend visit to Washington, where we took in the sights on the Mall and, as luck would have it, scored 10 tickets at the last minute to ride the elevator to the top of the Washington Monument. Looking down from one of the windows on the observation level, one of my sons remarked how the giant edifice honoring our first president’s military service was really a giant sundial.

I don’t know of anyone else — save for an artist I was able to find through Google who demonstrated the monument’s sundial properties in 1974 — who’s made such a comparison. I certainly haven’t, and neither has my wife. And yet for my son, it took all of a couple of minutes.

Maybe it’s children’s innate ability to see past all of the hoopla — past the 50 American flags, in the case of the Washington Monument — and reduce a scene to its essence that makes their perspective so quintessentially different than that of adults. And far from being confined to the physical world, such an ability exists on the emotional plane as well — like when a child instinctively gives a homeless man a granola bar to stave off his hunger. More often than not, children, more so than adults, have the capacity to not lose sight of the trees for the forest. They appreciate the reality right in front of their face: If there’s a hungry man over there, he deserves some food to eat.

We as a society tend to do our best the more we preserve this childlike way of distilling through all of the garbage that age piles on top of the simple reality that sits at the core of most experiences. That’s not to say that complex decision-making isn’t a hallmark of maturity. It’s just that failing to appreciate simplicity when it really matters is actually dangerous, threatening to eat away at our moral and emotional core.

In this week’s cover story, we see one local playhouse celebrating the ability of a live organ donor to make a very painful decision by recognizing the simple fact that a fellow human being is in need. Everyman Theatre has some experience with the issues involved, as its own lighting designer, Jay Herzog, was saved through the kindness of a man who donated some of his own liver tissue so that Herzog could survive a form of nonalcoholic cirrhosis.

The self-sacrifice of Herzog’s savior is echoed as well in the case of Harry Burstyn’s cousin, Yossi, who donated a kidney to his relative several years ago.

“It’s the greatest feeling,” Yossi told our reporter, Daniel Schere. “You can’t imagine. Knowing that you’re able to help someone and give someone life, and it doesn’t sacrifice anything for myself.”

To be able to look at the loss of your own kidney as no real sacrifice is the hallmark of selflessness. For Yossi, it was all very simple. If only more of us saw the rest of life that way.