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Posted By The Stash

So Mr. Rogge commemorated the massacre of the Israeli athletes on 24 July with a minute of silence as he toured the Olympic Village 4 days before the Opening Ceremony. Is this morally correct and why should the world care?

It is worth noting and remembering that when Baron de Coubertin revived the Games in 1896 he clearly intended to revive the athletic spirit and the cooperation that marked the Ancient Olympics. The Olympic Games of ancient Greece were so beloved that wars were suspended and athletes of warring countries were given time to arrive at and depart from the games before wars resumed. Being an Olympian truly resonated.

The Modern Olympics claim to be a revival of their ancient forebearers, but fall short in many ways. The whole debate over amateurism clouded the Games from their inception—a subject Ancient Greeks would never have understood. They simply wanted the best athletes to compete—and many of these were professionals. The hypocritical politicization of the Games is even more evident and requires no further elucidation. But, in an increasingly fragmented world, the sheer feat of assembling athletes from such a vast array of countries competing together—many of whom abhor each other—remains an undeniably powerful spectacle. And the Neilson ratings attest to its success as spectacle. This has made the Olympics a wonderful commercial show for its advertisers and the television networks. Perhaps this explains the frantic efforts of Olympic branding officials to ensure that 5 bagels cannot be hung in a fashion resembling the Olympic rings.

The concern with maintaining the Olympic brand at all costs should have extended to commemorating the murdered Olympic athletes who happened to be Israelis living in the sacred sanctuary of the Olympic Village. This act is without precedent in Olympic history—and the only suitable venue for its commemoration was the Opening Ceremony. Why? The Ceremony celebrates the brotherhood and sisterhood of spirit produced by world athleticism—a unity brutally torn in Munich 40 years ago in front of a horrified world watching live. And were the 1972 Games called off? Were they shortened? Nothing of the sort. The prism of hindsight should have compelled the IOC to right this wrong in a public manner, sending a message to the world that the Modern Olympics wishes to join with its Ancient predecessor in publicly abhorring bloodshed against Olympic participants.

So why are these murdered Olympians remembered in a manner that guarantees minimal press coverage? Because they are Israelis and the IOC prefers profits to morality. It is more concerned with not allowing the phrase "gold" "silver" and "bronze" in one sentence than with trying to mend an ancient tradition of sanctuary for Olympic participants.

But let's not get too morally comfortable here. This is Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbat of Rebuke, which actually falls this year on Tisha B'Av. The Temple was destroyed because many Jews behaved as scandalously as the IOC. They cheated in business, embarrassed each other, and – most interestingly –kept the commandments in form but not in substance. And this was the greatest sin of all—and what the prophet Isaiah refers to in today's powerful haftara: "you are all wicked, a collection of thieves who take bribes, you do not fairly judge the orphan, or listen to the argument of the widow."

The IOC has done what it has done and we all know why. Its leaders are politically incapable of honesty and introspection. We can and must do better. Tisha B'av is the preflight check in for the High Holy Days. It is a time for realizing the calamitous effects that interpersonal hatreds can have on society. Society can only survive if its stakeholders believe in and trust others. We need to extend our caring to others beyond our family, irrespective of race, creed, or ethnic origin. Only by extending love and overcoming reactive hatred will we grow.

Posted By The Stash

What a long journey it must have been through the desert. The lengthy list of place names gives our second parasha its name of Masay—journeys. The sheer physical difficulty of travelling through the desert was exacerbated by the psychological knowledge that all those born in Egypt would die before they reached the Promised Land. A famous midrash states that every member of that generation dug their grave every night in expectation of the fulfillment of this Divine consequence. According to some opinions, the divinity of this consequence was underscored by the fact that exactly the same number of people perished every night for each of the 38.5 years this punishment ran its course, according to Rashi's calculation.

We need not accept this midrash literally to recognize its powerful psychology. Its writer seeks to emphasize the dread that hung over each of the Egyptian born Israelites throughout the desert journey. Each fully expected each day to be their last, and even when they gratefully awoke, it was only to realize that the sentence was still to come. What a burden for people to operate under…

Or perhaps, the Torah is giving us another message. It often uses the number 40 to denote a significant occurrence that impacts succeeding generations. Whether 40 days and nights or 40 years, the phenomenon described has a resonance far out of proportion to its size. Consider—the Flood changed the world forever and required a new covenant between G-d and Noah. The Torah forged a new covenant that has lasted until our day. And the collapse of the generation born in slavery led to the birth of a new generation born into freedom. The 40 year period after the American Civil War saw a succession of Presidents who were elected on the basis of their achievements in the war—McKinley being the last of these, elected 35 years after the war. What the Torah may be trying to say is that one generation follows another roughly every 40 years and each one has a different focus. Some of that focus is gleaned from their predecessors, but much is also a learned response to the conditions in which they grew up.

But why teach such an apparently mundane lesson? The ordinary is not necessarily the mundane. Given the breadth of human egotism, each generation believes that they are the best, the crown, the summation of all that has gone before. It is only in the cold light of generations and the chain of tradition and national survival that we can see the contributions each generation has made by its unique blend of inherited learning and response to the events of their time. Simply put then, Israel survived because one generation passed away and there WAS a new one to take its place. A new generation that grew up in freedom, hearing the stories of slavery. A new generation that would be ready to conquer a new land, bearing in mind the importance of freedom, and still choosing to follow the covenant bequeathed to it. The generation who came from Egypt was told to "observe" Shabbat, but their children were commanded to "remember" Shabbat.

And this is the Torah's point. If we do not "observe" Judaism intelligently, our descendants will not remember our deeds as meaningful and the chain of tradition will break. We have only a limited amount of time— 40 years at the most—to influence our children. If we fail, we very truly dig "our religious graves". Our responsibility as parents and grandparents is very great, but we are capable of teaching and inspiring.

Posted By The Stash

A significant number of management studies have been written on succession in family firms. Many firms find it difficult to pass the mantle from one generation to the next. The Torah’s narrative of Joshua’s formal designation as Moses’ successor, the “founder of the Cohanim”, offers very instructive language on this issue. Moses is told to publically proclaim Joshua as his successor with the High Priest Elazar as the witness. This is formally indicated by Moses placing his hands upon Joshua, at which point the Torah states: “and you [Moses] shall put some of your greatness upon him [Joshua] in order that the Congregation [of Israel] pay attention to his words.” (27:20)

This ceremony raises two questions. Why does the Torah require that Joshua have “some of Moses’ greatness” in order for the people to accept his authority? Should not the fact that he is designated leader be sufficient? And, perhaps most poignantly, why were Moses’ sons not chosen to carry on his leadership?

A study of midrashim indicates that our Sages understood the psychology of leadership succession. Reading between the lines, one midrash learns that G-d’s command to select Joshua was merely a confirmation of Moses’ own desire. So why did Joshua’s appointment require Divine direction? A midrash strikingly observes: “Joshua's appointment by God as Moses' successor had been Moses' most cherished wish, but he had not ventured to give expression to it, for he was mindful of the punishment God had sent over him when he had entreated Him to send Aaron instead of himself to deliver Israel out of Egypt, and from that time he feared to make any proposals whatsoever to God. He was like the child who had once been burned by a coal, and seeing a brightly sparkling jewel, took it to be a burning coal, and dared not touch it.” But surely it pained Moses to learn that his sons were unworthy of leadership because their scholarship was inferior to Joshua’s who “never left Moses’ tent”? Surely it did, but he was great enough to understand that heredity alone does not suffice as a requisite for leadership. Yet, our midrashic transition is very aware that undercutting heredity was dangerous, and it therefore argues that Joshua’s appointment as leader took place in front of Elazar the Priest to remind the nation that eligibility for being a Cohen was hereditary, though only Cohanim who met other physical and emotional criteria were fit to actually serve in the Tabernacle or Temple.

Moses was so delighted with the permission to appoint Joshua that even though he was instructed “place your hand upon Joshua” we read “Moses placed his hands upon Joshua” even though the verse states that “Moses did everything that G-d commanded him.” The midrashic commentaries resolve this apparent controversy by suggesting that Moses had permission to go beyond the minimum and his use of both hands not only gave Joshua the right to leadership but it ensured that he would grow in prophetic power as he matured. Taken together, our midrashim indicate that Moses’ recognition that an orderly succession was answered in a way we can certainly relate to. Heredity without merit and the appropriate personal and professional qualifications is insufficient grounds for leadership. Many Biblical narratives, while acknowledging its importance, reinforce the idea that heredity is not destiny. The message for Intelligent Jews is what family businesses have learned: sustainability depends on leadership, and heredity is a poorer predictor of success than merit. If we are too mired on who we are and how important our family is, we will never feel the urge or set aside the time to self-improve.

Posted By The Stash

Today is the 17th of Tammuz, a Rabbinic fast that commemorates, among other tragedies, the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE. The fast is postponed till tomorrow because it lacks the halachic status of Yom Kippur, the only fast day that can coincide with Shabbat. Our Sages famously observed that the Temple’s destruction was due to sinat chinam, blind hatred between Jews. Indeed, this is a significant line of Rabbinic thought; one of its best examples being the main portion of the Musaf Service of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, which begins “because of our sins we were exiled from our land…..”

It is tempting to simply categorize this approach to history as an attempt for religion to use G-d rather than facts to explain history. But this critique misses a far deeper idea that Jewish ethics wishes to imbue. By linking human actions to historical outcomes, the Sages sought to teach that individual human actions do affect history and thus taking individual responsibility weighs significantly on group consequences. The Torah clearly indicates this in the law of the eglah arufa, “the broken necked heifer”. This law applies when a corpse is found outside a city and no one knows who the murderer is. Moderns would call this an unsolved murder and CSI would make a show about it. Not so the Torah. It mandates that the elders of the closest city come out to the corpse—whether an Israelite or not--ritually offer a “broken necked heifer”, and then say in unison: “Our eyes have not seen this person’s blood, nor have our hands shed it. Give absolution, O L-rd to your people Israel, and do not blame them for the spilling of innocent blood.”

A fascinating formulation! Like Harry Truman’s famous desk sign “the buck stops here”, the Torah mandates that even those who are not connected to the murder must proclaim their corporate responsibility. Why? “Because the Land will not forgive for the innocent blood that has been spilled” proclaims the Torah. What makes the land holy and the Jews a holy nation—the fulfillment of the demand that someone in society acknowledge that murder, even when the assailant cannot be found, taints all the society’s members and diminishes them in some manner. Only the formal acceptance of responsibility by society’s leaders can begin to atone. That is why the High Priest was mandated to first atone for himself and his family before he attempted to seek atonement for the nation on Yom Kippur.

We are now able to understand why the Sages mandated that today ushers in the 3 Weeks, a period of contemplation over the tragedies of our history that will extend until Tisha B’Av. And it is part of their deep psychological understanding that these three weeks are immediately followed by the “Seven Weeks of Consolation” that lead directly to the High Holy Days. This connection nudges us to the realization that “all of Israel share responsibility for one another”, that all of us must care about what goes on among us, and care about the rest of the world as well. Personal self-improvement is thus only the first step towards Tikkun Olam, building a more just world. The fact that we seek the light even during the darkest days of our history says a great deal about our faith, and demands that we raise our personal bar very high as the New Year looms on the horizon even as the lazy days of summer stretch ahead




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