Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Tetzave (Zachor)

Short Term Memory

by Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

When you talk to young people today about memory, it is inevitably about computers. This Shabbat, memory is also the central theme, but we are talking about a different process - a complicated process which takes place in our brains and not in a metal case.

However, this process, which seems so different from that of the computer world, is in actual fact quite similar. Computers also have a short term memory (RAM) and a long term memory. Every time we type letters into the computer they are stored in the short term memory (RAM) until we instruct the computer to store them in the long term memory (which is the hard disk). But if the computer should suddenly shut down for some reason before saving the data, these words would be erased from the computer.

We have thousands of files in the hard disk, but there are those which we do not generally open. We have saved them over the years – perhaps as a rough draft – and they are there somewhere in the disk, some of them probably never to see the light of day again. They will remain there until the end of time, until they are forgotten.

But sometimes there are files which we must save and back-up as these are the files which are vital to our lives, those without which, if lost forever, we would lose our way (and also mourn their loss!).

"Shabbat Zachor" is one of those backed-up memories which sees daylight every year. It is a vital file without which we would be lost.

"Remember what Amalek did unto thee, by the way, at your coming forth out of Egypt; How he met thee by the way, and smote the hindmost of thee, all that were feeble behind thee, when thou wast faint and weary; and he feared not God. And it shall not come to pass, when the Lord thy God giveth thee rest from all thy enemies round about, in the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance to possess it, that thou shalt blot out the rememberance of Amalek from under the heavens; thou shalt not forget." (Deuteronomy 25, 17-19).

RaSHI said, in his interpretation of the book of Deuteronomy, that the word "Korcha" is derived from the word "Kor" (cold):

"...All the nations feared to engage in battle with you (with Israel), but he (Amalek) came and made a start and thereby showed the way to others. It may be likened to a boiling bath into which no creature is able to descend. Then came a reprobate who sprang into it; even though he was burned, he cooled it off for others."

The war with Amalek was in some way a war which opened the door to terrorist warfare, a war which targets the weak, women, the elderly and the young. And even if Amalek is beaten in the war, we have to remember that same incident.

The late Rabbi Mordechai Hacohen had this to say in his book "Al Ha-Torah" with regard to the final words of the Amalek portion "Lo Tishkach":

We have already been commanded to remember what Amalek did to us, so how are we to fulfill the command "not to forget"?! And he answers as follows: "Lo tishkach" (Thou shalt not forget) is not a commandment - lest we forget, but a real story for the future and forever. That is to say that in every generation there will be an Amalek who will renew his decrees and his persecution and that you will never be able to forget him under any circumstances…"

Thus, this Shabbat we will remember once again because there are files in the history of the Jewish people which require back-up and opening up again each year, and because without the function of memory even an entire nation can lose its way.

Previous Drashot

Tetzave (Zachor) 5766 – Brain Gym

Thursday, February 18, 2010


Deeds, not Words
Rabbi Gustavo Surazski
Parashat Terumah includes the details for constructing the sanctuary in the desert and begins with the request for an offering to support this effort.

Why does the parasha open with this request? In order to be able to answer the question, we must refer to the previous Torah reading. Last week, in the last verses of Parashat Mishpatim, we heard the people of Israel say, "All that the Lord has said we will do and obey." (Exodus 24:7).

The Gemara (Eruvin 65b) tells us (by a wonderful play on words "b'koso, b'kyo ub'kaaso") that man may be known through three things: his cup, his purse and his anger.

A man's personality is revealed in these three situations: if you want to know a person, see how he behaves after drinking one too many cups of wine. What is the nature of his gayety? (The Gemara also says "wine enters, secrets leave" (Eruvin 65a) and it is worth noting that "wine" and "secret" are both 70 according to Gematria). Do you want to get to know a person? Pay attention to his behavior when he is angry. To what extent is he able to exercise self restraint? What is his temperament and you will come to know him through his temper. Do you want to get to know a person? Ask him for money! You will then see the nature of his generosity and his concern for the needs of others. You can get to know him when you come to understand why he opens his purse, to gamble or to give to charity.

Again, why does our Parasha open with the request for offerings to build the sanctuary? It appears that G-d wants to understand the nature of the people that only a week ago said "We will do and obey". "You say "We will do and obey"? Open your purses! I will come to know your true nature by your attitude to money".

It is as if G-d says, "Standing at Mt. Sinai was very exciting, but the real test is now: only now will I understand how much you believe in the words that were said there, and what is the real distance between the written record and reality.

We can learn more about this idea by a more modern example, the history of the peace agreements signed by Israel and the Arab states. I remember when the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt was signed, I was nine years old and the world stood still for two hours. I was then in the fourth grade in a Jewish school in Buenos Aires, all lessons were stopped and we all sat opposite the one black and white 14 inch television and witnessed that historic moment. The second ceremony that I remember, between Israel and the Palestinians in 1993 I watched by myself at home. The third ceremony between Israel and Jordan in 1994 I watched by myself, on and off. I don't even remember if I watched the fourth ceremony at all. I don't remember when it was and I think it was scarcely mentioned in the news. Today, every sensible person understands that a ceremony is a ceremony and nothing more than that. Ceremonies and declarations are important things, but behind the ceremonial must lie honest and serious intentions.

Our Parasha which deals with the building of the sanctuary shortens the distance between the world of words and the world of deeds. "We will listen and obey" was only an impressive declaration. But declarations do not make history unless they are followed by deeds. G-d himself hints at the beginning of our parasha that the stage of words only has ended.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


To go according to the majority?

By Rabbi Gustavo Surazski

A well-known text appears in our Torah Portion, Mishpatim: "Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil, neither shalt thou speak in a cause to incline after a multitude to pervert (justice)." (Exodus 23:2) Actually, only the last words Acharei Rabim Lehatot (to incline after a multitude) are the famous ones. To go according to the majority is a kind of slogan that supports democratic regimes.

However, if we discuss the spirit of the verse, we will see that the Torah says the opposite of the impression gained from the text during the generations. The Torah says that the majority does not always make right decisions.

There are several midrashim on this verse that try to settle the issue, especially as it is known that the majority opinion was a supreme value in several fields of the Halachah. However, if we focus on the literal meaning of the biblical text, we will see that the Torah says the opposite of what is generally understood

At any rate, those last words (to incline after a multitude) received high standing among the Sages regarding several legal issues in the Gemara, and particularly in the famous case of Achnai's oven (Baba Metzia 59b). "Achnai's oven" deals with the severe controversy that erupted among the sages regarding the impure clay oven that broke and was put together again with sand.

The Gemara tells us that Rabbi Eliezer declared the oven to be pure and the sages declared it impure. Rabbi Eliezer, who held a minority opinion, called forth many signs from heaven to prove his point. A carob tree was pulled out of its place. An aqueduct changed its course. The walls of the Beit Midrash tilted as though they would fall, and even a celestial voice was heard to justify his stand. However, the majority opinion prevailed over the minority, even though G-d was on Rabbi Eliezer's side.

This issue has current relevance beyond the limited field of halachic decision.

Democracy is not just a matter of statistics that result from election campaigns. Democracy is not just a matter of "going according to the majority". Democracy has an obligation to safe-guard the rights of minority groups and freedom of expression. Democracy must be subject to high moral standards.

For example, many voted for the Hamas movement in the Palestinian Authority. Does that make the movement a legitimate entity? Does a majority vote legitimize a terror organization?

According to prevailing opinion (even among those states that that do not support the Hamas financially) there is some legitimacy here because it was the choice of an absolute majority of the population.

But sometimes democracy is only the illusion of justice, as is said in the well-known saying: "Democracy is like Mathematics: The one (1) draws strength from the number of zeros that follow it."

RaSHI, the greatest interpreter of Biblical texts tries to settle he issue. RaSHI says:

"Regarding this verse, there are various expositions by the Sages of Israel but they do not fit the syntax of the verse". After he mentions several midrashim on the subject, he continues: "But I offer an explanation to fit the verse's syntax according to its plain meaning. And this is its interpretation: If you see wicked men distorting justice, do not say, 'Since they are the majority I may as well lean towards them'."

RaSHI says unambiguously that the majority occasionally offers an illusion of the right way. This is hinted at in the famous fable about the flies. "If a milliard flies eat garbage, a milliard flies can't be wrong."

At any rate, let's leave the garbage to the flies…

Previous Drashot

Mishpatim 5766 – The most important letter