Life as an American is intrinsically connected to the experience of spending time on the phone with customer service reps. So much so, that when I tried to remember which company I called and had an enlightening experience, I simply couldn’t. Was it Comcast? Consumers Energy? American Airlines? My doctor’s office? Chase? I really can’t remember, it seems like all customer service phone calls are the same, twenty minutes of pareve music playing on a loop, followed by twenty minutes of exasperated conversation with someone stationed in India, who introduces himself as Bobby. If you think it’s bad being us, imagine what it’s like being them; speaking to exasperated people all day, who are calling you as the last resort, and fully expect to leave some of their sanity behind on the line!
But there was one customer service phone call I had that sticks out in my mind. The rep sounded American, and she was cheerful and helpful, the kind of service rep that leaves you thinking that for the first time ever you hope they are going to call you with one of those surveys asking you to rate you experience on scale of one to five, because she deserves the good ratings. As our call came to an end, I said thank you, and she said, “Merry Christmas!”
Hmm… That gave me pause for a moment, because I wasn’t quite sure what to respond. I wasn’t really planning on having a Merry Christmas this year. My initial reaction was to revert to a favorite American pastime, getting offended. “How dare this woman stereotype me to be a Christian, that’s so offensive!” But then I paused for a second. Would I really rather she have said “Happy Holidays?” Not really. I actually should be happy that she wished me a Merry Christmas. Not because I’m planning on having one, but because I should be happy to live in a country where there is still a healthy respect for a religion, any religion.
Atheism and agnosticism is on the rise in the US, and organized religion is on the decline. The Pew Research Center asked American about their beliefs in 2007 and again in 2014. In 2007, about 4% of the US responded that it was atheist or agnostic, and 12.1 percent said they believed in “nothing in particular.” By 2014, 7% said that they were atheist or agnostic and 15.8% said they believed in “nothing in particular,” a rise of 3% and 3.7% respectively.
The US decline in religious belief and activity is actually quite moderate in comparison to many countries in the Western world. This year, for the first time ever, a majority of Norwegians and Britons said that they are agnostic or atheistic. Church attendance in Britain is at an all time low, with only 2% of the population attending religious services on any given Sunday. Nineteen percent of Spaniards, 24% of Danes, 26% of Slovenians, 27% of Germans and Belgians, 34% of Swedes, and 40% of the French, claim to not believe in “any sort of spirit, God, or life-force.” In Canada, the number of people stating that they have no religion has gone up from 12% in 1991 to 24% today.
Now, I am not a Christian, but when I see the world dumping religion altogether, I find that concerning to say the least. The Jewish perspective is that religion is a good thing, believing in G-d is a good thing, even if you are not a Jew! As a matter of fact, one of the Seven Noahide laws, the ethical imperatives for all mankind, is to not deny the existence of G-d. We believe that people who believe in a Creator greater than themselves will have more humility, and will exhibit more kindness, as they believe themselves to be the recipients of Divine kindness. Indeed research shows that the more important religion is to a person, the more likely they are to give charity.
In a 2010 article in the USA Today, by Robert Putnam a professor of public policy in Harvard, and David Campbell an associate professor of political science at Notre Dame, they write the following:
“No matter the civic activity, being more religious means being more involved. Take, for example, volunteer work. Compared with people who never attend worship services, those who attend weekly are more likely to volunteer in religious activities (no surprise there), but also for secular causes. The differences between religious and secular Americans can be dramatic. Forty percent of worship-attending Americans volunteer regularly to help the poor and elderly, compared with 15% of Americans who never attend services. Frequent-attenders are also more likely than the never-attenders to volunteer for school and youth programs (36% vs. 15%), a neighborhood or civic group (26% vs. 13%), and for health care (21% vs. 13%). The same is true for philanthropic giving; religious Americans give more money to secular causes than do secular Americans. And the list goes on, as it is true for good deeds such as helping someone find a job, donating blood, and spending time with someone who is feeling blue.”
So I do want to see a more G-d fearing America, regardless of the religion. While many of the vocal atheists (Stephen Hawking, Christopher Hitchens, and their illk) like to talk about how many people have died in religious wars, they fail to mention that in the 20th century, more than a hundred million people died as a result of atheistic dogmas (Nazi Germany, Communist USSR, China, and Cambodia), far more than the amount of people who died in all the religious wars in all of world history!
Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, one of the great leaders of pre-war European Jewry was asked to speak about the times in a seminary for Yeshiva students in Berlin in the early 30’s. He quoted a verse in Genesis, where Abraham told Avimelech the king of Gerar why he hid the fact that Sara was his wife, “For I said there is but no fear of G-d in this place, and they will kill me on account of my wife (Genesis, 20:11).” He said that Avraham saw that Gerar was a place filled with culture and advanced science and technology, but he saw that it was lacking in fear of G-d, and he felt that a place without a G-d to keep them in check was capable of falling to a very low moral place. Rabbi Wasserman made the connection to Germany in the early 30’s. The country was advancing at a rapid pace, becoming the scientific and cultural superpower of the world. But Rabbi Wasserman noted the incredible lack of G-d recognition in Germany, and said that it didn’t bode well for the country, and that they could fall to incredible moral lows.
A few years ago, a group of Catholic clergy came to meet with Rabbi Yisrael Belsky OBM, and asked him what they should do to help invigorate their youth to come back to religion. Rabbi Belsky spent considerable time with them, and started with a story to explain why he wanted to help them. He told over that the great Sage, Rabbi Boruch Ber Leibowitz (1862-1939, Russia-Lithuania), once hired a wagon to drive him and a student to a distant city. They paid the driver, climbed aboard and set out on the journey. As they were leaving town, they passed by the local church. Rabbi Boruch Ber noticed that the wagon driver did not cross himself when passing the church, a sure sign that he was not a religious man. He then turned to his student and whispered, “We must jump out of the wagon and run away, if this man doesn’t follow any religion, I don’t trust him to take me on a long journey on secluded highways!”
This is not to say that I think any particular atheist is a dangerous person, it is simply that I believe that a society following the Noahide law of not denying the reality of G-d is a better society than one that believes that mankind is the center of the universe. The latter society, can be very advanced in many ways, and can be supremely peaceful for a long time, but lacking the mooring of a Greater being, can also get unhinged quickly.
It is for this reason, that I’m actually happy to hear a customer service representative wish me a Merry Christmas. Thankfully, the vast majority of Americans still have a religion, and if that means that sometimes they give me a greeting that doesn’t fit my religion, so be it. I find it better than a religion neutral “Happy Holidays.” I want people in the US to feel proud and comfortable with their religion!
It is for this reason that I was extremely honored when State Representative Robert Wittenberg (D-Oak Park), asked me to deliver the invocation at the start of a session for the Michigan State House of Representatives last week. I had to Google some other invocations to see what I was expected to do, and while I found some of them to be a bit less ecumenical, the majority of them were simple callings to G-d to bless the people in the chamber, and to bless the State of Michigan. I feel proud that I live in a state that still has a religious invocation every day before their legislature meets. Sometimes it is delivered by a rabbi or imam, and most of the time it is delivered by a priest or pastor, but every day, the entire House of Representatives is reminded that while they have powers, there is a Supreme Power far greater than them. (Here is a link to the invocation, I hope you enjoy it!)
This Saturday night we begin the holiday of Chanukah. While we think of the war as being between the Jews and the Greeks, it was actually a war between two deeply held philosophies. The Greeks were a nation of great culture and civilization. They build beautiful building with soaring pillars, lots of light, and grand architecture. They were very focused on the body and health and wellness, building huge bath complexes that included workout areas, and soaring stadiums. They loved philosophy, and indeed Western civilization traces much of its core tenets to the Big Three; Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Socrates taught Plato, Plato taught Aristotle, and Aristotle taught the young Alexander, who would later take on the surname The Great and go on to create the massive Greek Empire spanning most of the civilized world.
But what did Greek philosophy teach? The Greeks saw humanity as the center of the world, they were the ones who would create morality, they would establish what was right and what was wrong. The Greek gods were just a bunch of vengeful, immoral, caricatures of human being whose lives were filled with murder, rage, immorality, kidnapping, and revenge. The Greeks believed mankind to be the center of the universe and created gods in their own images.
The Jews on the other hand believed that G-d was at the center of the universe, that he created morality, and that it was their job to try to mold themselves in the image of their Creator. While the Greeks worshipped the strong warrior, and the philosopher who was wise enough to create a system of virtue, the Jews worshipped G-d and venerated the Sages who were humble enough to understand G-dly wisdom, and would pass it on to those around them.
The victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks was a victory for the society of those who wanted to align themselves with G-d’s vision for this world, over those who wanted to force the world to accept the ethical and philosophical system they had developed of their own wisdom.
The Menora, which represented light and wisdom was the epitome of where this ideological battle played out. And when those lights on the Menora stayed lit far after their fuel was depleted, everyone knew that the G-dly wisdom would prevail far after many of its supporters had abandoned it.
This Chanukah, as we look into the softly glowing candles of the Menora, let’s think about how we live our lives; are we trying to mold ourselves after G-d’s wisdom, or are we like the Greeks, trying to use our wisdom to create the morality we want to see in the world. And if we are ready to be part of a G-d guided society, recognizing humbly the power and prudence of a Greater Power, than our light as a people will shine far longer.
Parsha Dvar Torah
“And his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, so they hated him, and they could not speak with him (l’shalom) peacefully.” (Genesis 37:4)
In this week’s parsha, we read about the rift between Joseph and his brothers – one that not only led to Joseph being sold into slavery, but also to the eventual formation of the Jewish people in Egypt. As the rift gathered steam, the Torah notes us that the brothers couldn’t speak peacefully with Joseph. Rashi comments, “From what is stated to their (the brothers) discredit, we may learn something to their credit, that they did not say one thing with their mouth and think differently in their heart.”
Rashi gives the brothers credit for not pretending to be friendly with Joseph while secretly hating him, but still considers their not speaking with him to be a discredit. Rabbi Yonason Eybeschutz (1690-1764, Krakow-Altona) explains why it was wrong for them not to speak to him given the fact that they hated him. It is human nature, he explains, for dislike of another person to grow with the passage of time. Without any intervening positive interactions, “dislike” commonly evolves into full-blown hatred.
This would explain the unfortunately reality of people going to their graves with unresolved family feuds that started out as minor squabbles. Issues that could have been resolved earlier on, somehow became insurmountable mountains. Instead of allowing the issue to fester, the offended person could have said, “You know, I was really hurt by what you said/did/didn’t do. I really wish you wouldn’t have said/done that.” The other party would then have the opportunity to apologize, offer a legitimate explanation, say he wouldn’t do it again, or simply say that he didn’t mean to be offensive. The fight could have ended right there, saving years of bitterness and alienation.
It is possibly for this reason that the Torah prohibition “Do not hate your brother in your heart” is immediately followed with, “You shall surely rebuke your fellow.” (Lev. 19:17). The Torah seems to imply that if one hates his brother in his heart, he is setting himself up for an eternity of enmity. If you don’t hold the anger in your heart and respectfully rebuke the person, the situation could be resolved without lingering hatred.
This, according to Rabbi Eybeschutz, is the discredit referred to by Rashi regarding Joseph’s brothers. When the Torah testifies that, “ and they could not speak with him peacefully,” it is in effect saying that if they would have spoken to him, even openly telling him what bothered them, it could have been l’shalom, for peace, thus dissolving their enmity. Since they were unwilling to engage Joseph in any sort of dialogue, they ended up increasing their hatred towards him, and eventually sold him into slavery.
After arriving from Europe, one of the preeminent leaders of American Jewry, Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky (1891-1986), served as a congregational Rabbi in various communities, including a stint in Toronto. While there, the extremely grateful congregation presented him with a beautiful silver Kiddush cup as a gift. Shortly thereafter, a congregant happened to see him bringing the silver cup to a pawn shop! When the membership learned of this, they were understandably distressed. How insulting was it for him to sell the congregation’s gift!
A congregant was designated to approach the Rabbi to express their displeasure. To his pleasant surprise, Rabbi Kamenetsky explained that he was having the cup assessed to find how much tax he owed for it. As the gift was given in recognition of his service, he considered it taxable income. In addition to the impressive testimony this provides regarding Rabbi Kamenentsky’s integrity, it also shows us the importance of talking things out, and how much resentment and hurt can be avoided if we would simply talk “l’shalom,” for the sake of peace.
This week’s Parsha sort of breaks new ground by beginning to discuss in depth the lives of people other than the patriarchs. Now we start to talk about the lives of their children, the Twelve Tribes. This week’s Parsha begins with the tense relationship between Yosef and his siblings. He felt they were doing certain things wrong, and told his father about it. The brothers became angry with him. Then he had two dreams, the gist of which were that all the brothers were bowing down to him, and these dreams further infuriated the brothers as they felt he was trying to force his rule over them.
One time when Yosef was sent to check on them, while they were tending sheep in Shechem, they made an ad hoc court and condemned him to death for what they felt were serious crimes. Reuven persuaded them out of it, convincing them to throw him into a pit instead. Reuven’s plans was to come back and get Yosef out, but while Reuven went back to serve his father, Yehuda convinced the brothers to sell Yosef to a passing caravan of Ismaelites. Yosef was traded from one group to the next until eventually he was bought by Potiphar, the Chamberlain of Pharaoh.
The brothers brought back Yosef’s tunic to their father covered in blood, which made Yaakov believe that his son was killed by a wild animal. He was deeply grieved and no one was able to properly console him. At this point, Yehuda fell out of favor in the eyes of his brothers for his role in the sale of Yosef, so he moves away from them. In his new land, he marries and builds a family. Through an interesting twist of events, Yehuda ends up living with someone, who he thought was someone else, and one of the resulting offspring ends up being the ancestor of King David and by definition, Moshiach.
In the meantime, Yosef runs into some trouble at his new workplace. He is enormously successful as a servant and soon Potiphar’s house is being run by Yosef. However Potiphar’s wife was attracted to Yosef who was very beautiful and she tried daily to seduce him. Finally one day when everyone was at a pagan festival she came home and tried to force herself onto him. He ran out leaving his coat in her hands. She made a big stink claiming that it was Yosef who tried to force himself onto her, and Yosef gets thrown into jail.
Even in jail he wass very successful and soon he was in charge of the whole jail. One day he notices two of his fellow inmates, the royal butler and baker look depressed. He asked them what was wrong and they said that they had dreams they couldn’t interpret. Yosef interprets them both properly. The Parsha concludes with Yosef asking the butler to remind Pharaoh about his, and to get him out of jail, however the butler totally forget Yosef for two years! That’s all Folks!
Quote of the week: The future is only the past again, entered through another gate. ~ Arthur Wing Pinero
Random Fact of the Week: The number of left handed men is double the number of left handed women.
Funny Line of the Week: Don’t sweat the petty things and don’t pet the sweaty things.
Have a Gorgeous Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham