Holding on to Kedushah
A friend recently sent me from America a letter written by a Rosh Yeshiva to parents of his talmidim concerning summer vacation. The Rosh Yeshiva had learned that some talmidim from the best of families were planning to drive across America together with other bochurim, and felt he had a duty to warn parents of the potentially grave consequences of acquiescing.
Bein hazemanim, he writes, is a time for strengthening one's kochos hanefesh and kochos haguf, but certainly not a time for hefkerus and prikas ol. He warns the parents that they could inadvertently be placing at risk more than eighteen years of mesirus nefesh to develop their sons' ruchnios. On what basis, he wonders, could parents send their sons out into a world filled with abominations and denial, and be convinced that they will emerge unscathed in any way. He adds that he knows instances where serious bochurim were badly affected by such trips.
The Rosh Yeshiva continues that many parents in our generation are afraid to say no to their adult children about any matter (as Rabbi Shneur Aisenstark has discussed in these pages), and therefore he has written in order to firm up the backbone of parents to express their opposition to such trips.
About the advisability or lack thereof of such trips I'm totally unqualified to comment. I'm not a educator, and I don't live in the United States. I can remember a renowned talmid chacham recounting to me over thirty years ago how he and a group of his friends from Lakewood drove to Amish country, as part of a longer journey, and some of the amusing exchanges they had there with the natives. And I have interviewed other talmidei chachamim in their eighties who recalled car trips with other bochurim to Vermont and even across the Mississippi River.
But every mechanech today says that every five years is a new generation in terms of yeridos hadoros. And if that is true of the products of our finest yeshivos and seminaries, how much more so of the surrounding society. Historical analogies and precedents are irrelevant to assessing today's dangers.
ABOUT THE FRAGILITY of the kedushah so painstakingly acquired in yeshiva, and the corresponding need to engage in a thorough cost benefit analysis before exposing oneself or one's children to potentially harmful influences, the Rosh Yeshiva was surely right.
In his commentary on Chumash, the Chasam Sofer brings Rashi's explanation that Yosef sought to prove his identity to his brothers by speaking in lashon hakodesh to them. The Ramban challenges Rashi's explanation. Given the close proximity of Egypt and Canaan, writes the Ramban, surely lots of people in Egypt knew Hebrew.
To answer the Ramban's question, the Chasam Sofer engages in a sophisticated analysis of the term lashon hakodesh, which, he notes, is a term never used in Tanach. In Tanach, Hebrew is referred to simply as "Yehudit – Jewish" (see Yeshaya 36:11).
He points out the historical anomaly that Jews exiled from Germany continued to speak a Germanic language – Yiddish – for hundreds of years even as they spread out to Eastern Europe. And Jews exiled from Spain continued to speak a Spanish-based language – Ladino – in their new host countries. Yet the Jews exiled to Babylonia after the destruction of the first Temple appear to have soon forgotten Hebrew so that during the period of the second Temple Aramaic and not Hebrew was the spoken language of Eretz Yisrael.
The difference, the Chasam Sofer suggests, is that the forgotten language was indeed lashon hakodesh. Yet only after it was forgotten did it become called by that name, for the rapidity with which it was forgotten was the proof of its inherent kedushah.
It is the nature of kedushah, the Chasam Sofer explains, to seek to flee from physical world. For instance, Torah is forgotten more quickly than any other form of chochmah, and without siyata d'Shmaya it is impossible to arrange one's Torah learning in an organized form no matter how much a person reviews (Megillah 6b). Torah is referred to as a "bird" because like a bird it is seen one moment and gone the next (Berachos 5a). Similarly, the pure soul seeks to flee upwards from the body every moment, and Hashem must force it to remain attached to the body and not to return to its source of origin above.
According to the Chasam Sofer, what Yosef sought to prove to his brothers was not that he was Yosef. That they could have readily discerned for themselves. But rather that he was Yosef, their brother – their brother in kedushah. And the proof of that was that he had retained his knowledge of lashon hakodesh, despite all his years in Egypt and among the Egyptians. For had he not been at a high spiritual level, he would not have retained his knowledge of the Holy Tongue.
The lesson for us from the Chasam Sofer for us is clear. Kedushah is foreign to our world. The physical world is an unnatural environment from which kedushah constantly seeks to escape. And for that reason whatever level of kedushah we succeed in attaining can only be maintained through constant vigilance.
Turning the Tables
Schandefreude – taking pleasure in the misfortune of others – hardly seems an appropriate term to connect in any fashion to the U.S. bombing of a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, in which 22 doctors and patients were killed. The term would better apply to a major "work accident" at an Iranian nuclear facility or a Gaza bomb factory, but not for the bombing of a hospital, even if many of the patients might have been Taliban fighters.
But anyone who pays close attention to the automatic international condemnation of Israel for its "disproportionate" responses whenever it tries to defend itself from missile and rocket attack could not have failed to enjoy watching State Department spokesman Mark Toner literally squirm under cross-examination from the A.P.'s Matt Lee.
Lee is one of the few serious journalists left in American, someone who can be counted on to be as tough on Democrats as Republicans. Unflappable, but relentless, once he fixes his laser beam on the State Department spokesperson in question, the latter knows that the chances are this exchange will not go well for him or her. He is not content with just one round of questioning, and will keep following up until he gets the response he is seeking. Other reporters in the State Department pool readily defer to him, content to let him do their work for them.
After the Kunduz bombing, Lee reminded the day's sacrificial lamb, Mark Toner, that the United States had issued a "very, very strong statement" after Israeli fire hit a UNRWA school in the Gaza Strip on August 3 2014, describing the Israeli strike as "disgraceful and appalling." That statement went on to state, "The suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians."
"Is that still the Administration position?" Lee wondered, in light of the Kunduz bombing. "We always take great care," Toner insisted.
But taking great care hardly distinguishes the United States from Israel. Nor is there a drop of evidence that the U.S. is more careful to avoid civilian casualties than Israel. U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan have killed hundreds of civilians. According to a U.N. report, Allied forces, including American, in Afghanistan were responsible for civilian 1,500 civilian deaths in 2007 alone. And NATO bombers, again including Americans, were responsible for close to 1,000 civilian deaths in the Balkans in the 1990s.
At the very least, the United States has not successfully followed the standard enunciated by Toner "where there could be civilian casualties . . . avoid civilian casualties." Incidentally, that standard is misleading. While there is a general duty to try to minimize civilian casualties to the extent possible, the responsibility under the laws of war for civilian casualties resulting from attacks on legitimate military targets in civilian areas falls on those who place the targets among civilians.
It is impossible to deduce the care taken to avoid civilian casualties from the number of civilians killed alone. But again all evidence points to the fact that Israel is far more careful than the United States to minimize civilian casualties. It now appears that the hospital in Kunduz may not have borne the internationally recognized emblems of a hospital on its roof. But neither was it a self-evident military target. Indeed the American pilots appear to have had little, if any, idea why they were bombing the large compound.
Israel has mapped every building in Gaza and knows exactly what it is. That doesn't mean that an errant mortar shell might not fall on a UNRWA complex, but such errors are more likely the result of Hamas and other terror groups fighting out of or adjacent to an UNRWA compound and using them as ammunition depots.
But there is another crucial distinction that mitigates errors by Israel. Israeli soldiers and pilots are operating to bring to a halt lethal missile and rocket attacks on their homeland and families. U.S. pilots are not under the pressure of imminent Taliban attacks on the United States or worried about the safety of their loved ones.
Moreover, Israel puts its soldiers on the ground and at great risk to reduce civilian casualties and does not content itself with drones or bombing away from a safe remove. As Col. Richard Kemp, former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, puts it, "Israel did more [in Gaza] to safeguard the lives of civilians in a combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare."
Whether Matt Lee intended to suggest in his questioning that the United States tends to be a good deal more generous in assessing its own performance with respect to civilian casualties than Israel's I cannot say for sure. But it sure seemed that way.
After he kept probing as to whether the events in Kunduz reflected an American retreat from the standards enunciated in its earlier condemnation of Israel, Toner replied that it was necessary "to wait for the investigation to take its course."
At that point, Lee noted dryly that the condemnation of Israel came before "an investigation was carried out," something Israel does in every such case.
His final question: "So can you say now, knowing what you did, . . . that this shelling of the hospital was disgraceful and appalling?"
Long pause before responding.