Tag Archives: Gmach

The Greatest Proof for the Torah’s Divinity

In this week’s parasha, Re’eh, we read about some of the Torah’s outstanding ethics dealing with finance, charity, and social welfare. The Torah was way ahead of its time in this regard. For instance, every seventh year (the shemittah, or Sabbatical), outstanding loans were cancelled, and every 50th year (the yovel, or Jubilee) rural lands would transfer back to their original ancestral owners. Loans were given out freely, without interest. Every farmer had to leave a corner of his fields unharvested for the poor and needy. There were a series of tithes to support the priesthood, the Holy Temple, and pilgrimages, as well as for the poor, orphaned, and widowed. On top of that, the Torah commands each person to be charitable and to contribute even more whenever the need arises. We read in this week’s parasha:

If there be among you a needy man, one of your brethren, within any of your gates, in your land which the Lord, your God, gives you, you shall not harden your heart, nor shut your hand from your needy brother; but you shall surely open your hand to him… (Deuteronomy 15:7-8)

We find that, of all the mitzvot in the Torah, it is these that deal with charity that Jews have been especially careful with throughout history. Regardless of level of observance or denomination, Jews across the spectrum of time and place have opened their hands generously to help their fellows, both Jewish and gentile. Today, of the world’s top 20 philanthropists, seven are Jews (Michael Dell, James Simons, Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Bloomberg, George Kaiser, Eli Broad, and—gasp—George Soros). Jews make up more than a third of this list, despite Jews making up just 0.2% of the world’s population.

Arch of Titus depicting Jerusalem’s Temple treasures carried back to Rome

In ancient times, Jews from all over the world regularly sent money for the upkeep of Jerusalem and the Temple. The Romans knew this and it was a key reason that they destroyed the Temple when they did. The Romans had just come out of an expensive civil war that ended in 69 CE, and they badly needed funds. The Jerusalem Temple was the place to get them. Jews often overlook the role of economics in this tragedy. The Arch of Titus still standing in Rome today famously commemorates how the Romans took the Temple riches. A lot of those funds (not to mention enslaved Jews) were used to construct the Coliseum!

This didn’t stop Jews sending money to Israel. Throughout history, money was collected and sent to support the Yishuv, the Jewish community in the Holy Land. Jews in exile recognized that their brethren living under foreign rule in the Holy Land were making a huge sacrifice and fulfilling a major mitzvah (perhaps the major mitzvah). By supporting those communities, they would be able to participate in the mitzvah of settling the Holy Land as well.

These charities were eventually organized into a special fund called the halukka, which made sure to distribute the money fairly. One third went to the widows, orphans, and impoverished; one third went to Torah scholars and yeshiva students; and the final third was for other communal needs and building expenses. Special envoys, called meshulachim, were sent out to travel throughout the diaspora and collect for the halukka fund. In the 18th century, they invented the now-famous “tzedakah box”, allowing diaspora Jews to throw in their coins over the course of the year so that the meshulach would have something to take home when he arrives.

There was actually a very interesting halakhic debate regarding where diaspora Jews should contribute funds first: their own diaspora communities, or for the community in Israel. The debate is based on the verse in this week’s parasha, quoted above, that says we should open our hands to the needy “within any of your gates, in your land which the Lord, your God, gives you.” Some rabbinic authorities say this means you should first give charity to those within your gates, in your own community. Others point to the words that follow in the verse saying the charity should go to those in the land that God gave us—meaning Israel. Rav Yosef Karo (1488-1575) ruled with the latter in the Shulchan Arukh, though it should be noted that he lived in Tzfat among the Old Yishuv.

Of course, Jews always made sure the members of their own community were provided for, wherever they lived. The gmach (a contraction of gemilut chassadim, “acts of kindness”) was a key institution for this. The gmach was originally an interest-free loan fund. Such funds still exist in pretty much every major Jewish community in the world (there are over 500 in the USA alone). Over time, gmachs developed for other things as well, including clothes (especially wedding dresses), books, baby needs, and furniture.

Such innovations are a major reason why Jewish communities have always thrived. Despite the external pressures and persecutions, Jews survived and prospered. Whereas other communities were (and still are) plagued by internecine violence, Jews tended to work together—especially when it came to helping the needy. While Jewish views have always been diverse and debate was at the heart of each community, when it came to taking care of each other, Jews did that exceptionally well.

I recall my grandmother telling me how when she was a little girl, her mother would wake her up before dawn every Friday morning to start baking challahs for all the needy in their community (in Kokand, Uzbekistan). They then distributed the loaves and made sure every family had bread for Shabbat. On the other side of my family is Rabbi Shlomo Moussaieff, who co-founded and built much of Jerusalem’s Bukharian Quarter. When he made aliyah and settled in Jerusalem in 1888, he didn’t just build a home for himself, but also for 25 poor families. He went on to construct four synagogues, a mikveh, and even a museum. Today, the Moussaieff Synagogue is still among the most famous in Jerusalem, with eight different minyanim serving 3000 regulars.

Such stories can be heard in every Jewish family. And it is because of this charitable behaviour specifically that God has blessed the Jewish people, as we read multiple times in our parasha (Deuteronomy 14:29, 15:10). We are also told that:

the Lord, your God, will bless you, as He promised you; and you shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow; and you shall rule over many nations, but they shall not rule over you. (Deuteronomy 15:6)

The Torah prophesied that Jews would, among other things, be highly successful bankers who lend to many nations. And Jews would become influential in politics as well, holding positions of power. Unfortunately, many gentiles have seen within this development some kind of evil conspiracy, God forbid. In reality, this is simply the fulfilment of ancient prophecy and the realization of God’s blessing. Those wealthy and influential Jews have, for the most part, sought only good for the world. This is particularly true about the Rothschilds, who are at the centre of most anti-Semitic conspiracies.

In fact, the Rothschilds played key roles in financing the Industrial Revolution, laying the first rail networks, building hospitals and schools, investing in science, and supporting the arts. Nathan Rothschild, often vilified for supposedly making money from war speculation, was actually a generous philanthropist who played a key role in the abolition of slavery. His son, Lionel, created the largest private relief fund during the Great Irish Famine. His cousin Edmond invested countless sums to make the Holy Land a habitable place, paying for the drainage of swamps, the laying down of the first plumbing and electrical grids, and building the infrastructure necessary to improve the lives of both Jews and Arabs.

Across the Atlantic, another wealthy Jewish family was making a difference: the Guggenheims. Daniel Guggenheim invested huge sums in the development of aviation technology, while his brother Simon started a scholarship fund that has since given out over $250 million to support education for all. Indeed, American Jews have a long history of philanthropy, dating back to the first Jews that came to the New World. Few remember the incredible story of Haym Solomon (1740-1785).

Solomon was born in Poland, the son of a Sephardic rabbi, and settled in New York as a young man, where he went on to make a fortune. He also joined the Sons of Liberty and was a vital figure in the American Revolution. It is estimated that he gave the equivalent of what would today be $40 billion to help establish the United States of America. This includes the crucial funds for the Battle of Yorktown, which ended the Revolution in America’s favour. He gave so much of his wealth that he died in poverty. Some scholars have suggested the US would not exist without Haym Solomon.

Many Jews in America followed his example. Judah Touro (1775-1854) paid for some of America’s first hospitals, schools, orphanages, and cemeteries. When he died, he left half a million dollars to charity—an unheard-of sum in those days—of which two-thirds went to non-Jewish causes. The Yulee family helped abolish slavery and laid Florida’s railroads. Nathan Strauss (1848-1931, of Macy’s fame) fed millions of hungry mouths and took care of America’s orphans, saying “The world is my country, to do good is my religion.” Levi Strauss (1831-1908, of jeans fame) funded multiple orphanages, synagogues, and universities in California.

The philanthropic tradition of America’s Jews continues to this day. Larry Ellison, once among the richest men in the world, has donated hundreds of millions to charity, including a whopping $200 million donation to the University of Southern California for a new cancer research centre. Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank, founders of Home Depot, have given over $200 million for environmental causes, and millions more for medical research, military veterans, and children’s causes. The Fishers, founders of clothing giant The Gap, give $20 million each year to Teach for America in support of education.

The same is true all over the world. Mathilde and Arthur Krim played key roles in ending apartheid in South Africa. The Sassoons built an array of public institutions across India and the Far East, while Germany’s Lina Morgenstern (1830-1909) brought the world kindergartens and soup kitchens. The largest private donation to a museum in British history was given by a Jew, Sammy Ofer. In Russia, Wolf Wissotzky (1824-1904, of tea fame) left over a million rubles to charity, the equivalent of about $2 billion today. Sir Isaac Wolfson (1897-1991) of Scotland gave almost everything he had to charity, saying “No man should have more than £100,000. The rest should go to charity.” There are countless other great names in Jewish philanthropy, from Moses Montefiore (who made modern Israel possible) to Sami Rohr (personally paying the salaries of over 500 rabbis) and Lev Leviev (who still supports hundreds of communities around the world).

Of course, Jewish contributions are not only financial, but span the gamut of science, technology, medicine, law, ethics, philosophy, and beyond. Waksman and Schatz discovered the first antibiotics, while Baruch Bloomberg created what is considered the first cancer vaccine, resulting in a reduction of liver cancer deaths by 90%! Like Jonas Salk before him (who developed the polio vaccine), Bloomberg did not patent his vaccine and gave it away freely to save as many lives as possible. No list could be complete without mention of Waldemar Haffkine (1860-1930), who developed the first cholera and bubonic plague vaccines, saving so many lives that Lord Joseph Lister called him the “saviour of humanity”. There are innumerable others.

Here we have focused specifically on monetary charity, which brings us back to this week’s parasha, and God’s blessing to His people. The Torah told us long ago that, despite being constantly persecuted and exiled to the four corners of the globe, the Jewish people would nonetheless prosper and tremendously influence the world. Incredibly, we have seen this ancient prophecy and blessing immaculately realized over the ages. Moses himself instructed the people that, if their faith is ever in doubt:

For ask now of the earliest days, which were before you, since the day that God created man upon the earth, and from the one end of Heaven unto the other, has there ever been such a great thing, or has something even been heard like it? (Deuteronomy 4:32)

This piece of advice is so important that Moses repeats it later on, reminding the nation to “Remember the days of old, understand the years of former generations…” (Deuteronomy 32:7) All it takes is one honest look through history to see the truth. Therein lies the greatest proof.

Shabbat Shalom!

Three Reasons to be Religious

An artist’s rendition of the Ark of the Covenant

In this week’s parasha, Vayelech, we read how Moses completes writing the Torah and places it inside the Ark of the Covenant. The parasha cautions multiple times that we must not stray from this Torah, for our own benefit. At this introspective time of year, it is especially pertinent to ask: what is the benefit of living a Torah life? Why bother being religious? Aside from the simple answers, like fulfilling God’s will, earning an afterlife, or knowing this is the right way, what are the tangible, clear, positive impacts of living religiously? While there are, of course, many reasons, the following are three vital benefits of a life according to God’s Torah.

1. Personal Development that Works

Although Mussar as a large-scale movement only began in the 19th century, it has always been a central part of Judaism. The root of the word mussar (מוּסַר) literally means “restraint” or “discipline”. It is about developing self-control, awareness, morality, and being in tune with one’s inner qualities. The origin of this word is actually in the Book of Proverbs, which begin with this very term: “The proverbs of Solomon, the son of David, king of Israel, to know wisdom and mussar, to comprehend sayings of understanding, to receive mussar of reason, justice, law, and ethics.”

Before Proverbs, the word mussar appears once in the Torah, in reference to God disciplining us (Deuteronomy 11:2). The Torah instructs us to be kind and generous, humble and wise, restrained and strong; to take care of the widow and orphan, of the poor and oppressed. The prophets of Israel continued to instruct the people in this way, reminding them to be upright and just individuals. The tradition continued into the Rabbinic period, with ancient treatises like Pirkei Avot (a tractate of the Mishnah) wholly devoted to inspiring personal growth and self-improvement.

One who lives a Torah lifestyle is immersed in such teachings. Whether it’s simply reading the weekly parasha, or listening to the rabbi’s dvar; going through Avot in the weeks between Passover and Shavuot, reciting Selichot in the Forty (or Ten) Days of Repentance, or participating in the various fasts throughout the year, a religious Jew is simply unable to abstain from personal growth of some kind. We are constantly reminded of the humility of Moses, the selflessness of Abraham, the devotion of David, and the wisdom of Solomon; the incomparable patience of Hillel, the studiousness of Rabbi Akiva, and the tremendous qualities of countless other great figures. These are our heroes, and we are constantly prompted to emulate them.

There is no doubt whatsoever that a Jew who is truly religious (and not just religious in appearance, or because this is how he grew up) is continually becoming ever kinder, more humble, and generally a better human being. Now, it may be argued that even a non-religious person can focus on personal growth, and there isn’t a lack of secular self-help literature out there. This is true, but there is one key difference:

The secular person is improving for their own benefit (and the benefit of those immediately around them), while the religious person is improving not only for that benefit, but also because he understands that God demands this of him. This is important because the secular person might feel like reading a self-improvement book this week, or working hard on himself this year, but might completely forget about it next week, or might have a very busy year in which he didn’t have any time for this kind of thing at all. The religious Jew does not have this luxury. He will be fervently repenting and reflecting during the High Holiday season, and during Sefirat HaOmer and during the Three Weeks, because he is obligated to do so and cannot abstain. Religion forces us to improve. It demands that we become better, and God will judge us if we do not. This makes all the difference.

Take, for example, a person going on a diet. We all know that the vast majority of diets fail. Why is this so? Because there is nothing external forcing a person to stick to the diet. Eventually, they will slip up once, and then again, and soon enough the diet will be a forgotten thing of the past. Meanwhile, a religious person who takes upon themselves a kosher diet is unlikely to lapse. Most religious Jews happily stick to a kosher diet their entire life, despite the fact that it is so difficult. Why is such a diet successful? Because there is an external factor—God—that keeps us firmly on the diet.

Thus, while every 21st century Westerner might be engaged in some sort of secular personal development, these fleeting periods of growth are inconsistent at best, and completely ineffective at worst. Religious-based personal development works, and this is one major benefit to a Torah lifestyle.

2. The Importance of Community

While other religions may be practiced in solitude, Judaism is an entirely communal faith. The ideal prayer is in a minyan of ten or more, the ideal Torah study in pairs; marriage and child-bearing are a must, a holiday is no holiday without a large gathering, and even a simple daily meal should ideally have at least three people. Judaism is all about bringing people together. Indeed, Jews are famous for sticking together and helping each other out. There are interest-free loans, and a gmach that freely provides to those in need of everything from diapers to furniture. Jews pray together, feast together, study together, and take care of each other. A Jew can visit the remotest Chabad House in the farthest corner of the world and still feel like he is having a Shabbat meal at home.

“Belongingness” fills the third rung of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Judaism neatly facilitates the fulfilment of all five rungs.

Jews are not a nation, culture, ethnicity, or even a religion; we are, as Rabbi Moshe Zeldman put it, a family. And it is worth being a part of this extended family. We know from the field of psychology how important “belongingness” is. We know the troubles that people go through just to feel like they belong, or to have a community around them. We know how loneliness plays a key role in depression and mental illness. We know that “no man is an island”, and how important it is to be surrounded by a supportive community. The religious Jewish community is tight-knit like no other. Doors are always open for Sabbaths and holidays, charities are always open to help, and the synagogue serves as the nucleus of the community.

It is important to mention here how necessary it is for a community to stay physically close together. This is one major positive side-effect of not driving on Shabbat. In so doing, we must remain within walking distance of the synagogue, and therefore within walking distance of the whole community. The fatal error that the Conservative movement made was in allowing driving to the synagogue. As soon as this change was made, people saw no need to live close to the synagogue, and bought homes further and further away, tearing the community apart. Once the largest Jewish denomination in America, Conservative Judaism has been on a steadily decline ever since.

And so, the second major reason to be religious is the close community that comes with it. Dan Buettner, who famously spent decades studying communities around the world where people live longest and healthiest, concluded that being part of a “faith-based community” adds as much as fourteen years to a person’s life!

3. Cultivating the Mind, Mastering the Universe

Today, we find ourselves in an incredible age where centuries worth of philosophy, mysticism, and science are converging. Going back at least as far as George Berkeley (1685-1753), and really much farther to Plato (c. 427-347 BCE), philosophers have long noted the illusory nature of this physical world, and some denied the very existence of concrete material as we perceive it. The only real substance to this universe, according to them, is the mind. We live in a mental universe.

While this may sound far-fetched, the physics of the past century has brought us a great deal of proof to support it. The Big Bang taught us that the entire universe emerged from a miniscule, singular point, and that all was once in a ball of uniform energy, and that all matter (which appears to come in so many shapes and forms) really emerges from one unified source. The famous double-slit experiment showed us that all particles of matter are also simultaneously waves. Sometimes particles behave like solid objects, and other times like transient waves. The only difference is the presence of an observer, a conscious mind. Our minds literally impact our surroundings. Max Planck, regarded as the father of quantum physics, remarked:

As a man who has devoted his whole life to the most clear headed science, to the study of matter, I can tell you as a result of my research about atoms this much: There is no matter as such. All matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particle of an atom to vibration and holds this most minute solar system of the atom together. We must assume behind this force the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.

The “matrix” of this vast universe is the mind. Of course, this has been a central part of Kabbalah and other schools of mysticism for millennia. The Tikkunei Zohar (18b) transforms the first word of the Torah, Beresheet (בראשית), into Rosh Bayit (ראש בית), ie. that this entire universe (bayit), is a product of God’s “Mind”, or perhaps existing in His head (rosh). In fact, the Kabbalists say that if God were to stop thinking about a person even for the briefest of moments, that person would cease to exist. This is related to what we say daily in our prayers, that God “each day, constantly, renews Creation.” God is that Mind that holds the universe in existence.

And we are all a part of that Mind. After all, He made us in His image, with a small piece of that universal consciousness. This is related to the “quantum brain” hypothesis we have spoken of in the past, a scientific theory suggesting that our brains are entangled with the universe, which may itself be “conscious” in some way. In short, thousands of years of human reason, mysticism, and experimentation points to one conclusion: the only real currency in this universe is the mind.

In that case, the only thing really worth developing is the mind. The more powerful one’s mind is, the greater control one wields over the universe. This isn’t just a pretty saying, we know scientifically that our minds affect the universe around us. More personally, studies have shown that meditation (and prayer) can actually impact the way our genes are expressed! We may be able to consciously affect the biology of our bodies down to the molecular level.

The placebo effect is the best proof for this. Science still cannot explain how it is that a person who simply believes they are receiving treatment will actually heal. Surgeons have even done placebo surgeries, with results showing that people who were only led to believe they were operated on still improved just as well as those who actually went under the knife. How is this possible?

The answer is obvious: our minds have a very real, concrete, physical affect on reality. Unfortunately, most people are unaware of this latent power, and must be duped into it (as with placebos). But that power is definitely there, and its potential is immeasurable. One must only work to develop these mental powers.

Judaism provides us with exactly this opportunity. Like no other religion, Judaism is entirely based on ceaseless mental growth. We must always be studying, praying, blessing, meditating, contemplating, and reasoning. Scripture tells us to meditate upon the Torah day and night (Joshua 1:8), and the Talmud reminds us that talmud Torah k’neged kulam, learning Torah is more important than all other things. The mystical tradition, meanwhile, is built upon mental exercises like hitbonenut (“self-reflection”) and hitbodedut (“self-seclusion”), yichudim (“unifications”) and kavannot (“intentions”). A religious Jew is constantly developing not only their outer intellect, but their inner mental capacities.

And this is the true meaning of Emunah, loosely translated as “faith”. The first time the word appears in the Torah is during the battle with Amalek, following the Exodus, where we read how Moses affected the outcome of the battle by holding up his arms emunah (Exodus 17:12). Moses was very much affecting the universe around him. The only other time the word appears in the Torah itself is in next week’s parasha, Ha’azinu, where God is described as El Emunah (Deuteronomy 32:4). In light of what was said above, this epithet makes sense: God is that Universal Mind that brings this illusory physical world into existence. God is the ultimate mental power, and our minds are only tapping into that infinite pool.

Not surprisingly, the prophets and sages describe Emunah as the most powerful force in the universe. King David said he chose the path of Emunah (Psalms 119:30), while King Solomon said that one who breathes Emunah is the greatest tzaddik, and has the power to repair the world with his tongue (Proverbs 12:17-18). Amazingly, the Sages (Makkot 23b) reduced the entire Torah—all 613 mitzvot—to one verse: “The righteous shall live in his Emunah” (Habakkuk 2:4). Perhaps what they meant is that the purpose of all the mitzvot is ultimately to develop our Emunah; to strengthen our minds, to recognize the Divine within every iota of the universe, and to align our consciousness with God’s. This is the secret of the rabbinic maxim: “Make your will like His will, so that He should make His will like your will. Nullify your will before His will, so that He should nullify the will of others before your will.” (Avot 2:4)

Being religious Jews provides us with a regular opportunity (and requirement) to develop our mental faculties. Aside from the many positive health effects of doing so (including staving off mental and neurological illnesses, and even living longer), we are also given a chance to become real masters of the universe around us; to transcend our limited physical bodies. At the end of the day, that’s what life is all about.