Let’s play a game. I’m going to introduce you to four people, and you have to figure out which one doesn’t fit in the group.

Up first is Yousef Muhammad Al-Zahari, a 53 year old man from Akhmin, a small farming village in Egypt. He’s a lanky man with a deeply lined weather-beaten face, gray stubble on his face and neck, and a large jet black mustache that looks like it was dyed with   Kiwi shoe polish. He’s wearing dusty sandals, a pair of ancient polyester slacks, a grey button down shirt that’s seen better decades, and a red and white keffiyeh wrapped around his head.

Yousef is a farmer who worked the same plot of land that his family has been farming for centuries. It used to be prime farming land, right on the banks of the Nile River. Every spring, the Nile would flood its banks leaving behind a thick layer of rich brown silt which would produce a great bounty of vigorous crops. But ever since the Aswan Dam was completed in 1970, there were no more floods, no more rich silt, and no more vigorous crops. Things had been pretty hairy for the Al-Zahari family for close to a decade, the children were malnourished and the parents often went hungry for a day or two at a time.

But then US Foreign Aid kicked in, and things took a massive turn for the better. Under the Farmers Assistance Subsidy Transfer for Concentrating American Support and Harmony program (often known simply as FAST CASH), Yousef receives both a cash allotment as well as a significant quantity of advanced hybrid seed designed to grow in arid climates. Yousef doesn’t farm anymore, he sells his seed on the black market. Between his cash allotment and seed money he makes enough that he can spend most of his day smoking hookah in the local coffee shop while playing shesh-besh (backgammon) with all the other “farmers”.

In a recent interview, Yousef was asked what he thought of the US and this is what he had to say: “America is the big infidel donkey country, brother of the Zionist pigs, may Allah strike them all down inshallah!”

Next, I want you to meet Fatima Raisani, a 29 year old woman living in Udarkhun a small village in the Pakistani province of Waziristan . I can’t really tell you what she looks like because she’s covered in yards of billowing black cloth, and all you can see her eyes, which are brown. Rumor has it that people actually saw her in the late nineties before the Taliban took over and started slashing women who dared to walk in public without the full modesty gear. For a few years she went to a US sponsored school and was becoming quite proficient in computer programming, but the Taliban bombed her school and ever since then she’s spent 99% of her time shut in her home, trying to stay in line with the Taliban maxim, “A woman should be out of her house three times in her life; to get born, to get married, and to get buried.”

The only time she comes out of the house is when she goes to the US State Department office to pick up a check to cover her food and electricity bills. The check comes to her through the USAID program known as Bringing American Kindness to Sustain Habitants In Supporting their Harems (more commonly known as BAK-SHISH). Fatima gives the check to her husband so he can buy food for the family and give the proper twenty percent to the local Taliban Elders Council.

When asked what she thinks of the US in a recent interview, Fatima replied, “The United States of Evil? The sons of dogs who think they can run our country like slavedrivers? May they all get violent itchy rashes on the part of the back their hands can’t reach!”

For our third guest, please meet Na’ava Ben-Shlomo, a 34 year old Mizrachi mother of three in the city of Hertziliyah, Israel. She’s wearing Na’ot sandals, a flowy dress that’s equal parts Biblical garb and hippie gown, and she has a colorful kerchief wrapped around her head. After completing her Sheirut Leumi national service, she got a degree in aeronautical engineering at Technion, Israel’s answer to MIT. She works in “hai-tek” for Israel Aerospace Industries an aerospace defense contractor.

She’s been at her current job for seven years, and was recently promoted to project manager. Her team is working on the next generation Iron Dome, a missile defense system that shoots enemy missilesout of the sky. Currently, they are focused on a version of the Iron Dome that can be deployed on swiftly moving ships. It is not a priority for the Israeli Navy, which is very limited and doesn’t move big ships swiftly anywhere, but it is a major priority for the US Fifth Fleet which is patrolling the Persian Gulf in close proximity to Iran’s land and naval missile batteries. But it makes sense to work on US priorities because her company is working on a five year $224 Million dollar grant from USAID called יומקבת תרסטאף סווי פי-יו (or Umakebet Terstuff Sowe Payou in English).

Na’ava lost a good friend and co-worker in the Hezbollah rocket attacks on Northern Israel in 2009, which is why she is so happy to be working on any part of the upgrade to the Iron Dome; hopefully it will help save her family from future rocket attacks. She rushes to work motivated every day, but she was detained on her way last week by a reporter. She was asked what she thought of the US in light of the recent pressure they’ve been putting on Israel to come back to the bargaining table with the Palestinians. Her quick response was, “I think the US is amazing, they fight for justice around the world and support billions of disadvantaged people in dozens of countries! I just wish more Americans would spend time here so that they could see things from our perspective a little more.”

And lastly, I want you to meet Maiwand Rasul  Azizi, a 42 year old colonel in the Afghani army. He’s wearing a pressed khaki uniform with two gold leaves on the collar, and shiny new Bates boots, both donated to the Afghani army by Uncle Sam. He drives a nice new Mercedes, and has a luxurious villa in Kabul. Not every colonel in the Afghani army lives so well, but Maiwand is special because he is a cook. He doesn’t cook food, he cooks books for the Afghani military, and he’s really good at it.

When the US entered Afghanistan in 2002, it was one of the most backward countries in the world. Illiteracy was the norm. Kabul, the capital, was nothing but a haphazard collection of mud huts as far as the eye could see, and 122 out of every thousand children died before the age of one. The United States has since then poured over $100 Billion in non-military spending, and billions more in military spending. Maiwand went to school on US taxpayer dollars, got a degree in accounting, and is one of the fifty people in Afghanistan who actually know what an algorithm is (not that many people in the US know what an algorithm is!). He was recruited to the Afghani army to join a high level team of accountants and financial consultants whose entire job is to determine the best ways to fleece the US out of more money.

His biggest scheme to date was to charge the US for the fuel needed for “vehicles” in the Afghani army that don’t run on fuel like the trailers that run behind the tractor in the tractor-trailer rig. (For the 2012 and 2013 fiscal years, the US provided the Afghani military with $1.1 Billion dollars to fuel their vehicles). He had been rewarded handsomely for his brilliance, the generals gave him a villa on a beautifully paved boulevard (paved with US dollars) and his new car, and promised him even fatter bonuses if he could get the US to pay for fuel for all the non-moving buildings in the Afghani military.

He recently was interviewed by a fresh Associated Press war correspondent who asked him what he thought of the US presence in Afghanistan. His response? “The US is an imperialistic country that has illegally maintained a presence in our country for over a decade. It is time for the UN to impose sanctions on the US, and maybe then they will learn to leave smaller countries alone.”

There you have it; I introduced you to people from each of the four countries that receive the most foreign aid from the US. Can you tell which one doesn’t fit?

Yes! You got it! The Israeli! She’s the only one with anything positive to say about the US! And while the people described are reality-based fictional characters, their described attitudes were formed through very real data. An extensive Pew Research Center survey of people in 39 countries found that generally it is the people in the countries that receive the most foreign aid from the US, that have the least favorable view of the country that gives them billions.

In Egypt, which gets 2.5 Billion a year from Uncle Sam, 84% of people had an unfavorable view of the US (and this study was done before the recent upheaval in Egypt which has unleashed a torrent of anti-American sentiments). Pakistan, which also gets a ten figure check from Washington, is even worse with only 11% of the people thinking nice thoughts about the US. Afghanistan drinks the same punch.

The only exception to this rule is Israel, which receives $3 Billion a year from the US (much of it for military research which directly benefits the US, the ally we share our technology with). In Israel, 83% of people have a favorable view of the US, far above the global average of 63%.

While this is clearly a super complex geo-political topic, let’s try to cull one simple lesson from this amazing set of data.

We learn that when kindness is done from one to another, there are two possible responses; Appreciation or Denial. In Hebrew we call them Hakarat Hatov and Kfiyat Hatov. The psychology behind this is as follows:

When someone does something for me, it creates an imbalance, where in some way that person is above me. We humans hate imbalance, we feel uncomfortable with imbalance. This is why people will often not allow someone else to do something nice for them, they don’t want to feel the imbalance, they don’t want to feel that they owe the other person anything). There are two ways to rectify this imbalance. The first way is to recognize the good, by simply being appreciative, or even better by trying to do something good in return. This brings you back up to the other person’s level.

If you don’t want to raise yourself up to the other person’s level, the other way to fix the imbalance is to drag the other person down to your level. You deny the good that they did to you, you ascribe it to selfish reasons on the part of the giver, you say that you didn’t need it anyway, you take away the goodness of their action. In that way, you can feel like the balance has been restored without you having to do anything in return.

Israel, is very appreciative of US AID, and gives back as much as it can, by supplying the US with technology and intel to the best of its ability. The other top recipients of US AID deny the good, and au contraire they ascribe all sorts of evil and malice to the hand that feeds them.

The greatest expression of this balance/imbalance concept might be found in the violence of many atheists. Have you ever noticed how many atheists are not simply content with stating their belief that there is no G-d, but rather spout copious amounts of vitriol directed at G-d, religion, and people foolish enough to believe in a G-d. They taunt the believer, they disdain him, and ridicule him, with such force. The books of Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great), and the like, sell millions of copies, each one striving to ridicule belief in G-d in a more outrageous way.

We don’t see the passion that comes up in conversations about the existence of G-d in any other area of human endeavor. Why? Because if there is a G-d, then we are all receiving enormous amounts of G-D AID every day, and there is a huge imbalance that we need to fix by being super appreciative to G-d and by trying to give back by being G-dly ourselves. Many people would rather just deny the good, and then not have to raise themselves up toward G-d. But the soul feels that there is a G-d, so to quiet the soul’s voice they throw everything they can at religion and G-d hoping to shut out the soul, and not see the imbalance.

My brother, who does Jewish outreach at University of Maryland, had a very thoughtful young Jewish agnostic join his semester-long program called the Maimonides Leaders Fellowship. There, he learned a lot about G-d, Torah and the Jewish people. At the final banquet, when everyone had a chance to speak about their experience. This young man got up and said:

“What I’ve learned this semester is pretty simple. There’s two possibilities. Either this whole world is a random mistake, in which case life doesn’t really have any intrinsic meaning. Or there is a G-d out there who created us, in which case I better get busy….”

Let’s get busy!


Parsha Dvar Torah

In this week’s portion Moshe commands the people to set up a meticulous judicial system in the homeland the Jews are about to inherit, including courts in every city.

“Judges and officers shall you place for yourself, in all of your gates which HaShem your G-d gives you…” [16:18]

The commentators all discuss the fact that the Torah says that the judges and officers should be “for yourself,” in the singular. This means that besides the general command that the people set up a judicial system for the nation, we are also being told to set up  some sort of judicial system for ourselves. Moshe was hinting to the Jewish people that before they take care of judging other people they should be judge themselves.

That being the case, what exactly are the judges and officers that we should set up for ourselves? I would understand the idea of judging ourselves, or judging the actions that we are about to engage in to make sure they are in line, but what exactly would be the role of the officers which we should be setting up for ourselves?

We can perhaps understand this using an insight from Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (a.k.a. the Ramchal, 1707-1746, Italy-Amsterdam-Israel) in his magnum opus, the Messilat Yesharim. In the third chapter, when discussing the different aspects of the character trait called watchfulness, the Ramchal says that there are two times when a person needs to contemplate his actions to ensure that nothing he does is negative or harmful. The first is at a time when he is not involved in anything. At some point during the day, a person should set aside time to meditatively look through all his actions and judge them. However, a person also needs to pay careful attention to what he is doing while it occurs, because often a person can get caught up in the emotion and charge of the moment and forget or disregard what he previously thought about.

An example of this would be someone thinking over his day’s actions, and noticing that he got angry and lost control that day. He then thinks about how negative that experience was, and comes up with strategies to avoid losing control the next day. However, the next day, when one of his children spills hot chocolate over his freshly pressed pants, he will need to once again stop and think about what he is about to do. Is he going to yell at the child? How loudly? Is he going to say things that attack the child as a person, as opposed to what they did? In this way he thinks about his actions twice, once away from the situation when his emotion is not charged, and once in the heat of the moment.

Those two thought processes are the judges and officers that Moshe was telling us to set up for ourselves. The judge is the time we spend removed from all other activity, thinking about what we have done or will do, and judging those actions. The officer’s job is to enforce those judgments during the moment of action, when we need to regulate ourselves a little more carefully due to the strong emotions that are at play.

With our judges and officers in place, we will be able to properly reach the places we want to go, and lead the lives we want to lead!


Parsha Summary

This week’s parsha, Parshas Re’eh, begins with the declaration that ultimately, we are faced with a choice between blessing and curse, between good and evil, between following G-d’s commandments or ignoring them. G-d then tells us about the ceremony that would take place soon after the Jews entered the land of Israel . They would travel to an area that had two mountains, Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Eival . The tribes would be divided between the two  mountains with the tribe of Levi, holding the ark, in the valley. They would enunciate certain blessings, followed by inverse curses, facing the mountains and the Jews would answer Amen to each one. (We will see this in more detail in a later Parsha.) This was supposed to be a formative experience for the Jewish nation as they entered the land of their destiny.

The Torah then reminds the Jews that when they enter the land they should destroy all idols, altars, and trees that were served as idols, so as not to leave any temptation around. (This would be similar to telling an alcoholic to remove all alcohol from the house if he wants to stay clean. Having bottles of gin hanging around the house in various places is simply not conducive to an alcohol free lifestyle.) The Torah also goes into detail describing the laws of bamos, mini altars that Jews were allowed to have at times when the Tabernacle was in a transient state. One could only bring certain types of offerings upon them (optional donation, not mandatory sacrifices), and once the First Temple was built, bamos were forbidden forever.

The Torah also talks about the laws of eating non-sacrificial meat. Rashi points out two very interesting things we can learn from this portion. The Torah begins the discussion “When Ad-noy, your G-d, expands your border as He promised you, and you say, “I would like to eat meat” because you have an appetite to eat meat; to the full extent of your appetite eat meat. When the place is distant from you that Ad-noy, your G-d, chooses to set His presence there, you may slaughter some of your cattle or your flocks that Ad-noy gave you, as I have commanded you; and you will eat in your cities with all your appetite.” (Deut. 12:20-21) The first thing Rashi mentions is that the Torah is teaching us the proper way to live. We should not expect to eat a lot of meat until after G-d expands our borders (i.e. makes us more wealthy). This is a prime lesson in living within your means.

The second thing he shows us is that in the second verse, the Torah tells us to slaughter animals “as I have commanded you.” The only problem is that no where in the entire Torah does G-d tell us how to slaughter. This is one of the indicators that the Torah was given in two parts, the Written Law which contains the mitzvot’s basic info, dialogues with G-d and our leaders, and events that happened to the Jews, and the Oral Law which gives details to many of the mitzvoth that were only outlined in the Torah. This is just one of many indicators that a Jew can’t say “I will only do what I see written in the Pentateuch,” as it is clear that it is impossible to do so successfully. How would someone like that slaughter animals? It is not until we study the Oral Law that we find the laws of slaughtering. (Originally, the Oral Law was meant to be transmitted only orally, as to preserve the Torah as a living experience not a simple subset of facts you could leave to collect dust on your shelves. However, when the Jews started to forget that which was transmitted, R’ Yehuda the Prince decided that he must commit those teachings to writing lest they be lost forever.)

The Torah continues with the prohibition against adding or subtracting from any of the mitzvot i.e. wearing 3 tzitzit fringes instead of four, or keeping two days of Shabbos.  The Torah then warns us about a false prophet. This prophet may perform miracles and do wondrous things, but if he dares to advocate idolatry or attempts to permanently delete any of the mitzvot, then we know he is a false prophet and he is given the death penalty. This same penalty is given to an individual who tries to seduce other people to serve idols. The Rabbis tell us that one who influences someone to become evil is in a sense worse than one who killed someone. A person who kills someone takes away the ephemeral world, Olam Hazeh, whereas one who sways someone to evil robs him of the infinite world, Olam Haba. This is why we treat someone who tries to seduce others to serve foreign gods with such severity.

The Torah continues talking about the severity of idolatry, by discussing a city in which the majority or all of the inhabitants have turned to idolatry. The law regarding such a city is that all the guilty parties (people who served idols) are put to death, while all the property of the city must be burned and left as a heap, never to be rebuilt.

The Torah continues with the laws of which animals are kosher (ones that have split hooves and chew their cud), and which ones aren’t (ones that don’t), which fish are kosher (ones that have fins and scales), and which birds are kosher (all except 24 enumerated species. Since we are no longer certain what all of those species are, we only eat birds which know are OK through tradition).

The Torah then commands to take a second tithing on our crops (the first one goes to the Levite – that’s me!) and, depending on the year of the Sabbatical cycle, either give it to the poor or bring it to Jerusalem and eat it there. If you can’t bring it to Jerusalem you can redeem them by transferring its sanctity onto coins of the same value, and bring those coins to Jerusalem where you use them to purchase food. Next, the Torah  mentions its loan forgiveness program, i.e. every Sabbatical (Shemita) year, all debts that have no collateral or liens are forgiven. The Torah continues by commanding us to loan money to the poor and destitute if we have the means to do so (an incredible mitzvah as it gives people a method to get back on their feet without having to be reduced to begging door to door). And the Torah tells us not to worry that the debt will get wiped away by the Shemita/ Sabbatical year, as G-d will take care of those who take care of his most vulnerable children, the poor and the destitute.

The Torah continues with a discussion of the Jewish bondsman, see my email from Parshat Mishpatim for more details (I am quite confident that all of you have been saving each and every email you got from me, so it should be no problem to pull up the one on Mishpatim.) The Torah concludes with a recap of the three festivals, Pesach, Shavout and Succot, and the commandment on the Jews to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to spend the festivals in the holiest city on this great green earth with which the Lord has blessed us!


Quote of the Week: A person without a plan for the day is lost before it starts. – Lewis Bendele

Random Fact of the Week: A Boy Scout must earn 21 badges before he is eligible to become an Eagle Scout.

Funny Line of the Week: I got a job at a bakery because I kneaded the dough!


Have a Splendiferous Shabbos,

R’ Leiby Burnham

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