Tattoos offend because they are based on an assumption that whatever I am today I will always be
The obvious and correct answer to the above question is that the Torah forbids them: "You shall not make in your flesh a scratch over a soul, and you shall not place a tattoo upon yourselves" (Leviticus 19:28). I would like to believe that my revulsion at the proliferation of tattoos everywhere derives from the Torah prohibition.
But the truth is that most of us have occasion to witness many even more serious transgressions on a regular basis, and eventually we become somewhat inured to them. To avoid that effect, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach ztz"l would say quietly to himself, "Shabbos," when cars drove by on the streets of Jerusalem. And after bringing his family from Kelm to London, Rav Eliyahu Lopian ztz"l insisted that they remain at home on Shabbos so that they not become desensitized to chillul Shabbos.
But the visceral reaction that tattoos bring out in me, I suspect, owes more to the stupidity involved than the Torah prohibition. I tend to react strongly to public displays of stupidity, such as smoking.
And what is so stupid about tattoos? The permanence. Rashi emphasizes this aspect in discussing the prohibition: A tattoo cannot be erased; the ink enters the skin in depth and remains permanent.
Presumably those who get tattoos at 16 or even 35, think they are beautiful, or express something fundamental about them. But who says that 20 years or even 20 minutes down the pike their aesthetic sensibilities will remain the same and that their youth will not embarrass their older age, as they find themselves turned into walking billboards for ideas now rejected, loves lost, depictions now considered ugly.
Put simply: It is not only stupid but depressing to imagine at 16 or even 35 that the person I am today is the same person I will always be — to act as if change and growth are impossible. And it is antithetical to the Torah, which teaches us to be in a constant state of growth.
In a lengthy discussion of the various prohibitions against all forms of foretelling the future, the Ramban (Deuteronomy 18:9) emphasizes that the reason these methods are forbidden is not that they are foolish or ineffectual. They are not even abominations for which the Canaanite nations were dispossessed of the Land — unlike, for instance, passing children through the fire. "All human beings desire to know things that are to come upon them, and engage in what they consider pursuits of wisdom [in discerning future events]," writes the Ramban.
And the nations do, in fact, possess wisdom in this regard. As Chazal point out, the verse (Kings I 5:10) says of Shlomo Hamelech, "His wisdom exceeded the wisdom of the children of the east." In part, their wisdom is based on their understanding of the stars and constellations, whose power is for eternal duration.
Nevertheless, we, the Jewish People, are enjoined from engaging in all these forms of seeking foreknowledge because we are subject to a Higher Power, which retains the power to alter the directions of the stars or constellations. In short, it is forbidden for Jews to predict what will be based on extrapolation from a natural order imprinted in the Creation.
Rather, the rule for us is "tamim tihiyeh — you shall be wholehearted with Hashem, your G-d." That means, writes the Ramban, recognizing that "He changes the set order of the stars and constellations at His Will." And as a consequence, what determines future events is man's "drawing closer to His service."
Rav Yisrael Salanter discusses a similar concept in his famous ma'amar Eitz Pri. Each of us is born with certain capacities and gifts. The Gemara (Niddah 16b) describes how 40 days prior to conception it is decreed "what will be with respect to this drop" — will it be rich or poor, strong or weak, intelligent or dull. Those qualities set the parameters for our lives; they are the stuff of our unique mission in This World.
But, Rav Yisrael adds, the Gemara says, "What will be with this drop" — not "Hashem says." If the latter, the situation would be irreversible. A Divine declaration cannot be rescinded. The language of Chazal indicates, however, that the possibility exists for great changes in a person, from one nature to another.
And just as in the earthly army one who performs his mission in an exemplary fashion may be promoted to a higher task, so, too, in the Heavenly army one who fulfills his mission in an outstanding fashion, with the tools he was given, may be given an even more important mission.
The possibility of growth and change must be with us at all times, and the determinant of the changes in our life will be how close we have drawn to avodas Hashem (Divine service) and used all that He has given us to perform our Divine mission.
Nor are we discussing abstract theology. If we open up our eyes, the potential for great changes within ourselves and others is ever before us. Decades ago, I learned in a kollel that shared a beis medrash for boys who had obviously not applied themselves with diligence to their high school studies. The hair care products in the bathrooms outnumbered the seforim they brought with them at the beginning of the year. Yet today, many of those who wandered into the beis medrash toward noon in those days have been learning for years and are talmidei chachamim and teachers of Torah. And every rebbi in a similar yeshivah can give dozens of such examples.
How many times have we heard someone remark, "The children who caused me the most gray hairs as kids have become my source of greatest nachas"? Or have we thought to ourselves upon hearing of some classmate who has gone on to distinguish himself in some way, "I would never have guessed that he would amount to a hill of beans"?
But as important as it is for us to never lose sight of the potential for growth of our children, and even those with whom we are not so intimately involved, it is even more important to know it about ourselves.
Tattoos offend because they are based on an assumption that whatever I am today I will always be. And that view is not only stupid, it is, like smoking, self-destructive. —
Why So Angry?
The votes are counted in Israel, and as has been the case the last two elections, the "results" are still unknown. Elections in Israel only determine the parties' position in the weeks of coalition negotiations to follow.
But one thing is clear: The Arab parties claimed more seats than ever before — 15 — up from 13 the last time around. The higher Israeli Arab turnout has been universally attributed to anger over the Trump plan.
The international press will spin that as anger at Trump's failure to guarantee a Palestinian state. But that's nonsense. There is no imaginable state that the present Palestinian leadership would ever accept, and their Arab cousins in Israel understand that.
Rather the anger of Israeli Arabs was directed at one provision of the Trump plan — the one putting on the table the possibility of transferring the Arab triangle in the Galilee to a future Palestinian state. That is genuinely new and genuinely frightening to Israeli Arabs.
But think about that. If you are a consumer of the international press, you are familiar with the portrayal of Israel as an apartheid, racist state.
Israeli Arabs know, however, that the claim is nonsense. They have far more freedom and political representation in Israel than they would in the state of Palestine. And their standard of living is many times greater than that of their brethren in any neighboring state.
Israeli Arabs are found in Israeli universities in exact accord with their percentage of the population. They dominate several well-paying professions, such as pharmacy. And when I had to make a middle of the night visit to an emergency health-care clinic a couple of years back, all but one of the doctors and nurses were Arabs.
So the next time you are forced to endure a rant against Israeli apartheid, ask the accuser: If Israel is such an apartheid state, why does the mere possibility of losing Israeli citizenship in favor of citizenship in the state of Palestine sow such panic among Israeli Arabs?