Thursday 30 April 2020

The Corona Virus: What are We to Learn? Post 4

Please see
The Corona Virus: What are We to Learn?  Post 1

The Corona Virus: What are We to Learn?  Post 2

The Corona Virus: What are We to Learn?  Post 3

It would seem to be that the basic concern of ethics is how we should properly balance consideration for the other with consideration for the self.  It is thus within these axioms that many people wish to evaluate the present call for social distancing in response to the dangers from Covid-19. Of course, social distancing will necessarily affect the balance of the self and the other. The connection to the other is obviously affected.  The call for social distancing may, however, be initiated from either consideration. The call to wear a mask, for example, does not necessarily indicate a greater concern for self for this call may equally arise from a concern for the other. One person may wear a mask because of concern for self -- he/she does not wish to catch the virus -- while another may be motivated because of concern for the other -- he/she does not want to harm the other. But regardless of the reason, the very wearing of a mask still reflects a barrier between one person and another. To express this more bluntly, we may practice social distancing because we are concerned for self or because we are concerned for the other. Nevertheless, there is still an effect on how we thereby interact and this does impact our modern ethics.

As ethical interest and discussion further developed within society over history, this endeavour to find the best and most proper balance between the self and the other actually became more challenging. The interaction of individuals became more and more intense. The nature of the collective groupings within societies and of societies became more and more multi-dimensional. The spectrum of ideas expanded. The demand of proper balance, as such, became much more complex. There was also a further recognition of the mutual co-dependence of individuals within the societal unit. This led, often, to a perspective that the optimum conclusion for the one would also be the most beneficial option for the other. As society developed in certain ways, the demands of the self and the demands of the other were not necessarily deemed to be completely at odds with each other. While there could, of course, still be conflict between the self and the other, the determination of what was best for the unit as a whole, for the grouping itself, became a powerful factor in the determination of the proper ethic. The group itself became a substantial focus and the focus of choice included what was best for the group as a whole.

This had a major impact on the very nature of society. Of course, the factors of concern for self and concern for the other still demanded balancing.  A further consideration, however, was what form of grouping would be best for the group as a whole. For example, the Capitalist argument against Communism was no longer solely that the latter option was an ethically improper method by which to balance concern for self and concern for the other. It was further contended that the Communist model would not be a good alternative, over time, for the group, and its members, as a whole. The dynamics of the group would flounder. As we are all connected, we will all suffer. The recognition and even promotion of the connections and the interrelationship of the factors of the group became significant considerations in our ethical determinations.

It is in this regard that the call for social distancing can be seen as significant. Social distancing, by definition, promotes the separation of individuals. This is especially significant in modern times for, while we basically do respect the needs of individuals for space and privacy, there is also a strong ethical call for interaction. This flows naturally from a recognition of our inherent connection within the setting of the group. As such, significant value is given to  individuality which exists specifically within the context of the overall group. Our societies actually do take steps to ensure that individuality and the call of individuality do not necessarily challenge our social base. We may wonder, though, if the value of the individual and individuality, including the treasured importance of our distinctions in self, are being somewhat overlooked in the advancement of social interaction. 

It is within this context that one who recognizes God may, perhaps, find an important message in the call of social distancing connected to this pandemic. The reality today as a result of the pandemic is clearly not the ideal. As individuals we are to socially interact and connect together as communal units (including within the overall grouping of one humanity). We, though, within our motivation to connect, can often overlook the nature of the distinctiveness of the individual. Our differences as individuals can greatly impact on our drive and ability to connect. Our social bonding is easier when everyone is seen as  basically similar and/or distinctions can be easily discounted or ignored. While we may accept some level of individuality, we may also wish to limit its impact. What is lost, though, is what we may gain from the uniqueness of the distinctive individuality. To truly reach the highest ideals of the group, we must purposefully call upon the true individuality of the members albeit that the challenge of forming the proper, correct grouping would thus be more difficult.

Within Torah thought, there is the constant demand to thus find the proper connection of the individual to the group and the group to the individual. Individuality is important and the collective is important -- and we are called upon within Torah to highlight both. We thus see, within Torah, strong, almost contradictory statements, regarding the value of both. We must embrace both. We must, as such, be careful that, within society, the call of individuality does not impede the advancement of the value of the collective. Our society has actually been careful in this regard. In the same way, though, we must be careful that the call of the collective should not impede the advancement of the value of the individual. In certain ways, our society has been weaker in this regard as indicated in its weakness in dealing responsibly with divergent and even problematic ideas. Recognizing individuality calls upon us to truly see the other distinctively as we thoughtfully determine each person's proper place within the group.

Social distancing can thus serve as a reminder of this challenge of seeing each individual properly as we connect within society. All individuals are not the same and, while there is some value, in certain ways, in seeing everyone as the same and treating everyone the same, this can also be a problem. Individuals are different and distinct and we must also sometimes step back to see the other apart from ourselves. When we come together as a group and in our connection with Hashem, our individuality is a treasure we must also bring to the relationship as appropriate. This demands of us to see our distinctiveness. This demands of us also to evaluate these distinctions and determine the proper application. This may make our connecting as a unit more challenging and difficult but it is also most valuable and will necessarily improve our connection as a society. It may be that, in a certain way, what we are to learn from this pandemic and the call of social distancing is the necessity of confronting and thereby integrating into our beings the significance of individuality and individual distinctiveness..

Rabbi Ben Hecht

Tuesday 28 April 2020

The Heroism of Kibbutz "Yad Mordechai"

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First
Related to Yom ha-Zikaron and Yom ha-Atzmaut

                                   The Heroism of Kibbutz “Yad Mordechai”                                                                          
There is a kibbutz just north of the Gaza strip called “Yad Mordechai.” It fought valiantly during the War of Independence and its tenacious fighting for six days was able to significantly delay the Egyptian invasion. The kibbutz was on the main road between Cairo and Tel Aviv. If not for that delay, the Egyptian army could have quickly reached Tel Aviv and the other important cities in the north. 

              In 1965, Margaret Larkin wrote a book about the kibbutz. The book is titled: “The Six Days of Yad-Mordechai.” I am going to summarize it here.
               Two groups of pioneers from Poland (members of Hashomer Hatzair) came together to found this kibbutz in 1936. It was originally in an area near Netanya.  They called it “Mitzpeh Ha-Yam,” because by looking out to the sea, they could watch for the coming of the comrades they had left behind.
              After several years the membership grew. They were 140 adults and 43 children, and the few acres of land they had were not enough to support them. With the help of the Jewish National Fund, they found a new site five miles north of the Arab town of Gaza. Here there would be 400 acres of land and both grain and oranges could be grown. As Larkin writes, “Rarely did the Jews move onto fertile land in Palestine. Nearly always they had to reclaim the soil from years or centuries of neglect. In some places they drained the malarial swamps; here, sand would be the enemy.” They moved to this new site in December 1943.
               The new name for the kibbutz would be “Yad Mordechai.” It was named for Mordechai Anielewicz, the leader of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. He fell in a battle in May 1943. The meaning of the name: “A Memorial to Mordechai.” (I will discuss this meaning of “yad” in another column.)
              A few years later came the Nov. 1947 partition plan. As Larkin writes: “The foundation of a Jewish State had been their dream and hope since their youth. For this they had severed their ties with their families and with their native land. For this they had remade themselves…into farmers. With their own sweat and energy they had extracted wealth from ruined soil; with high idealism they had created a unique way of life. And now that their efforts were about to crowned by the establishment of their own state, it seemed that they were not to be a part of it. The new borders, as defined by a Commission of the United Nations, put Yad Mordechai in the Arab state.”
               When independence was declared in May, they rejoiced, but with sorrow. Many of the members thought of Moshe: he saw the Promised Land from afar, but after all his years in the desert, he could not enter it.
               The “good news” was that since the Arab leaders announced that they would not respect the U.N. decision anyway, the exact partition plan line did not matter much. The Arabs were going to fight all the Jewish settlements. Everyone understood that the settlements must provide centers of resistance, and must hold out until final borders or armistice lines were established.
                Interestingly, there was a widespread belief at the time that the kibbutz would not have to face the Egyptian army. Egypt’s opposition to the invasion plans of the other Arab countries was known. It was assumed that the kibbutz would only have to hold out against Arab bands of irregulars.  In a meeting of the Arab League on April 30th, the Egyptians had refused to commit themselves to the use of their army. Their Minister of Defense had stated: “We shall allow our men and officers to volunteer for service in Palestine and we shall give them weapons but no more.” (The reality was that their army was not prepared for war.)
               But a few days later his government changed its mind. Larkin writes that “the fears of the politicians that a triumphant Trans-Jordan, engorged with the lands of Palestine, would emerge as the leading power in the Middle East had proved stronger than caution.” Egypt was fighting in Palestine mainly to prevent King Abdullah from taking more than his share.
              Thereafter, one of the members of the kibbutz was able to get into Gaza while pretending he was a Red Cross driver. He spoke to an Egyptian major. The major told him that the next day there would be an attack on Yad Mordechai.   
              What to do next? Who to evacuate? The kibbutz had not been thinking this way, as they had been assuming that there would be no invasion of the Egyptian army.  “Nothing lowers the spirit of a fighter so much as when he sees first steps in evacuation,” a Palmach commander once wrote. The kibbutz hastily decided to evacuate the children, the nursing mothers, and the few other women who were more sensitive than most. Some made a point of giving their children their photograph albums (in case the worst happened). The children were evacuated to a nearby settlement ten miles to the east.
           On May 19, the Egyptian planes came. Larkin writes that “within fifteen minutes they had destroyed much of what had taken the settlers years to build.”
           When the battle began, the defenders numbered only 113 men and boys, only slightly over half had guns. They were fighting an Egyptian army of about 2000.   What happens during the fighting?  The phone lines are cut, the kibbutz members cannot communicate with one another. They have to risk their lives and run amidst gunfire to send messages to one another, as they are scattered in different (barely) fortified places in the kibbutz. They have very little ammunition. (Sometimes they obtain new ammunition by taking it from dead Egyptian soldiers.) They did not have enough mines.  Instead they put up signs to scare the Egyptian invaders: “Warning-Mines.”
          They hoped that the Haganah, recognizing the strategic importance of the kibbutz, would send reinforcements and strike or bomb the Egyptian army from the outside. But the Haganah was too overwhelmed. There were too many other isolated points that needed help.
        The end result was that after a few days, after suffering 23 dead and 40 wounded, the defenders had to retreat and abandon the kibbutz. During the following days, they tried to convince the Haganah that with more men they could recapture the kibbutz. But the Haganah had other priorities at the time.
         But a few months later, on Nov. 5, Israel was finally able to recapture the kibbutz.
         In that initial time in May, the Egyptian army had expected to take the kibbutz within a few hours. Instead, they lost their momentum and had to change their battle plans. The Haganah benefited greatly because of the delay and were able to fortify other areas.
           Today, there is a memorial statue to Anielewicz next to the destroyed water tower at the kibbutz. He is depicted standing heroically and holding a grenade. There is also a Holocaust museum at the kibbutz: “From Holocaust to Revival Museum.” The kibbutz is known for producing honey and olive oil, and supplies about 50% of all the honey consumed in Israel.
         I have left out so many details and I highly recommend that you read this book!
Mitchell First can be reached at For more of his articles, please visit his website

Saturday 25 April 2020

A Love/Hate Relationship

Originally published 3/27/11, 10:54 am.

Sefer Mitzvat Moshe - Kitzur Sefer Hareidim 2:6
It is forbidden to hate anyone in Israel sheneemar "lo tisna et achicha blivavecha...."
However if you see someone doing a sin and that person refuses to accept hochachah it is a Mitzvah to hate him. As it is written, "halo m'sanecha Hashem esna"


I would personally modify this mitzvah to "hate" to something more akin to "disapproval" in the spirit of Loving the Sinner but hating the Sin.
Just note that, at times, being too forgiving may devolve into enabling. In other words, there is no "Chessed" IMHO to give liquor to an alcoholic no matter how much the alcoholic may plead for it. Similarly, supporting a Sinner can foster his or her self-destruction.


Friday 24 April 2020

Ayin-Bet-Resh: I pray that our present situation will "pass" and be "over" soon.

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                            Insights into the Biblical Root “Ayin-Bet-Resh”

         This is a very important root in Tanach. It basic meaning is “cross over.” I cannot discuss every aspect of this root. I will limit myself to a few.
        1. The word “evrah” appears many times in Tanach with a meaning like “anger.” For example, it is at Gen. 49:7: “ve-evratam,” regarding Jacob’s rebuke to Shimon and Levi. Also, we recite Psalms 78:49 at the Seder: God sent “charon apo evrah va-zaam…”  What does “anger” have to do with “cross over”?
            There are several possible explanations. One is that an angry person has “crossed the line” of acceptable behavior. This seems to be the meaning of the expression in English. Alternatively, in English we have an expression “to be carried away by anger.” Perhaps this is the explanation in Hebrew. See, e.g., E. Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, p. 462. Finally, another possible explanation is that the anger overflows out of the person. See, e.g., the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon. See also the comments of Rav S.R. Hirsch to Deut. 9:8: “Evrah is the highest degree of rage, formed from the point of view of coming out of oneself; passing beyond oneself.”
         2.  The word “avur” appears two times in the book of Yehoshua (5:11 and 5:12) in the expression “avur ha-aretz.” From the context it means the “produce of the land.” Can we find any underlying “cross over” here”? Perhaps it means “what flows from the land, or grows out of the land.” In English, we might use the word “yield.”  A different approach is suggested by the Radak in his Sefer Ha-Shorashim and in his commentary to these verses. He suggests that the produce from the “shanah she-avrah” is called “avur,” while the produce from the “shanah ha-baah” is called “tevuah.” Finally, another view is that the word did not originate in Hebrew but in Akkadian. See, e.g., the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon, Daat Mikra to the above verses, and H. Tawil, An Akkadian Lexical Companion for Biblical Hebrew, pp. 269-270. According to Tawil, its meaning in Akkadian was “harvest.” 
               The Daat Mikra also suggests that the reason that the unusual word for produce was used in these verses was that Yehoshua 5:10 had used the words “erev” and “arvot.” The goal was to find a word for produce that sounded similar.
               The Daat Mikra also points out that “ibur” is an Aramaic word for “dagan.” See, e.g., Onkelos to Gen. 27:28 and comm. of Metzudat Tziyyon (citing Onkelos to Deut. 28:51: “ibura.”).
              3. A big challenge is the word “ba-avur” which appears 49 times in Tanach. It has meanings like “on account of,” “for the sake of,”  “because of,” and “in order that.”
              The Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon suggests: “perhaps originally for the produce or gain of.” See similarly E. Klein, p. 461. But a better view is that the word reflects the movement from purpose to accomplishment or cause to result. See similarly Rav S.R. Hirsch, comm. to Ex. 20:17: “the transition to something in the intention to achieve something.”

           4. What about the word “aveirah”? Where does this word come from?  It is not found in Tanach. Rabbi David Bashevkin write in his Sin-a-gogue (2019), pp. 8-9: “The word aveirah is clearly derived from the biblical word la-avor, to transgress… We frequently find the term la-avor as a verb indicating that a sin has been committed. The absence of the word aveirah in biblical literature may be part of a larger biblical trend that avoids abstract nouns in biblical writing. For instance, in the Bible we find the term sho’khain, a verb denoting God’s dwelling, but only in later rabbinic literature do we find the conceptualized noun shekhinah… According to [professor Steven] Fraade, Mishnaic terms marked a shift towards conceptualization of many biblical terms...Sin, with this new word [aveirah], was no longer an action; suddenly sinning had become a concept.” Bashevkin then asks why the word aveirah, not mentioned in biblical literature, became such a common term for sin in rabbinic literature? One possible solution is that, as the legal boundaries between what was permitted and what was prohibited became clearer from Biblical times to Mishnaic times, it became fitting to use the term “aveirah,”  since a sin is a transgression of a boundary.
       (He adds, on a homiletical level, that calling sin an “aveirah” ties it to the past, while repentance is seizing control of the future.)
    5.   Eventually the root Ayin-Bet-Resh ended up as a word for pregnancy.  I always wondered how this occurred. Only now, at age 61, did I learn the answer! In Tanach, there is only one hint to a pregnancy  meaning. At Job 21:10, the word “ibar” is used for a male animal making a female animal pregnant. The verb is in the “piel” form and means “to cause to be pregnant.” In rabbinic literature, we have “meuberet,” a word that describes the condition of the female. According to E. Klein, p. 364, “meuberet” is a pual form; the pual is the passive of the piel.  It seems that the “crossing over” that occurred in the piel form is the transfer of the seed from the male to the female. See, e.g., M. Clark, Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew, p. 178, entry A-B-R, item 8, and Brown-Driver-Briggs, p. 718b. Now I know why no one discusses this topic! (Of course, I am kidding. Surely very few people  realize that this is the probable origin of “meuberet”=pregnant.)
           Before I researched this, I had a completely wrong idea of how Ayin-Bet-Resh came to mean “pregnant.” I thought the growth of the pregnant woman’s belly made her considered “over the line”!
  6. From the “pregnancy” meaning, came the next expansion, to the calendrical meaning. The word is used to describe a year which has an extra month.
Mitchell First crosses between being a personal injury attorney and a Jewish history scholar.  He can be reached at For more of his articles, please visit his website