Bad ideas, many bordering on sheer lunacy, are leaving destruction in their wake, and for all to see
early thirty years ago, Rav Moshe Shapira delivered a Thursday night shiur at Yeshivas Ohr Somayach in which he explicated the difference between the miracles in Mitzrayim and those al hayam, in a manner that captures our current cultural moment.
The Haggadah makes a large point of the difference quantitatively: The Makkos in Egypt are characterized as the Finger of Hashem; those at the Sea as the Hand of Hashem — i.e., five times as numerous. But the difference is qualitative, not just quantitative: The Maharal differentiates the Makkos in Egypt, which he describes as pratis, from those at the Sea, which he describes as klalis.
Rav Shapira described the two sets of blows to Egypt as reflecting two separate middos with which Hashem combats evil in the world, netzach and hod. Netzach describes a situation in which Hashem overwhelms the enemy by weakening them over time. Those were the Makkos in Mitzrayim.
Hod derives from hoda'ah (confession). Evil simply goes up in smoke and vanishes — v'chol harishah k'ashan tichleh — destroyed by its own internal contradictions.
Thus, writes the Ramban (Shemos 14:4), the greatest miracle in the events of Yetzias Mitzrayim occurred when the Egyptians rushed headlong into the Sea, as if the Sea had split for them and not for Bnei Yisrael. An act of collective insanity. At the height of their powers, represented by "horse and rider together," they plunged to their deaths via their own folly.
A similar process has been manifest throughout history. Great empires fall not because they are overwhelmed by external enemies, but because of their own internal rot — the decadence of their ruling classes, loss of civic virtue, and the corresponding loss of the will to defend themselves.
We are witnessing that throughout the West today, perhaps most prominently in the United States. Bad ideas, many bordering on sheer lunacy, are leaving destruction in their wake, and for all to see. The following examples are merely illustrative, not exhaustive, and each could (and will) merit full length treatment.
DEFUND THE POLICE AND DECARCERATION — American cities are increasingly uninhabitable and characterized by high crime rates, spreading homeless encampments, and the flight of major retailers — Walgreens, Target, Walmart, Whole Foods — due to unrestrained shoplifting. Half of San Francisco residents say they have been victims of theft in the last four years, and a quarter victims of assault.
Chicago, where a dozen or more murders over the weekend are commonplace, recently elected a new mayor, Brandon Johnson, who has called for defunding the police. Hundreds of local teenagers celebrated by invading its downtown on successive nights to smash cars and terrorize citizens unlucky enough to fall into their path. The D.C. city council responded to rapidly rising crime rates by voting to reduce penalties for carjacking, robbery, home invasion, and other violent crimes.
DIVERSITY, EQUITY, AND INCLUSION — United Airlines announced two years ago that half of the 5,000 pilot trainees over the next decade would be women or people of color. And on a recent transpacific flight, passengers were informed that the entire crew was LGBTQ. While there are undoubtedly plenty of competent female pilots and people of color, United Airlines has had to reduce its acceptance standards for pilot and air traffic controller training.
The results rightly raise the question of whether safety has been sacrificed on the altar of "equity" goals. One veteran flight instructor described a trainee who failed to hit the center of the runway even once on 25 simulated landings and ended up in the dirt on 15 of those landings.
Standards have similarly been sacrificed in medical school acceptances in order to meet those same "equity" goals. Getting rid of all objective tests and the like to facilitate creating a more balanced student body is pernicious enough. But when standards are lowered in the selection of doctors or airline pilots, lives will be lost as a consequence.
PROGRESSIVE SCHOOL DISCIPLINE — In 2000, the Conservative government in Ontario instituted a Safe Schools Act, which enunciated a "zero tolerance" policy toward school violence. But because of the "widespread perception" that those policies have a disproportionate impact on students from "racialized communities [that] can further exacerbate their already disadvantaged position in society," the new Liberal government introduced the Progressive Discipline and School Safety bill in 2007.
It might better have been called the non-discipline bill, with suspension and expulsion removed as possible punishment. Most amazing, the more aggressive and threatening a student, and the longer his history of such behavior, the less likely he is to be punished, as the history of violence becomes his "baseline" for assessing punishment.
In 2005, only 7 percent of Ontario teachers were victims of physical abuse. By 2017, the number had jumped to 54 percent; and in a 2021 survey, 90 percent of teachers reported experiencing some form of violence. Whom does this benefit? Certainly not the students, minority or otherwise, who are forced to learn amid mayhem.
DEFENSE PRIORITIES — As China upgrades its military and reveals new weapons systems, the US secretary of defense worries about the US military using the right, most sensitive pronouns for its diverse forces, and the navy, which will bear the brunt of the fighting in any Chinese move to take over Taiwan, focuses on reducing its carbon imprint.
The Obama era fantasy, that if treated with a little respect, Iran can be normalized — a fantasy that continues to grip former VP Joe Biden — has resulted in an ever more aggressive Iran that hovers at the nuclear threshold. Iran is a member in good standing of a new triumvirate of evil, including Russia and China, dedicated to battle against the West.
CLIMATE CHANGE FOLLIES — Germany announced with great fanfare the end of its nuclear energy program, while boasting of its determination to rely on "renewables," solar and wind. The result: Germany now burns far more coal — the dirtiest fuel — than any other European country, while its energy costs are way above every other country besides Denmark. (One German utility announced a 45 percent price hike to its customers, the same day the last three nuclear power plants were shut down.)
Pronouncing climate change a global threat to humanity, President Biden announced his 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, which included $369 billion for "clean energy" programs. Danish climate expert Bjorn Lomborg ran the expenditure through UN climate models and found that it would reduce expected global warming by 0.0009 degrees Fahrenheit through 2100.
Sadly, I'm only scratching the surface of our collective rush into the sea, even as the waters of such failed ideas begin to close in upon us.
Unreal Insight — the Chazon Ish
For sheer reading pleasure, it would be hard to top At His Rebbi's Side (Shaar Press and now available in Hebrew as well), based on Rabbi Yehoshua Liff's personal stories of the vast array of gedolim under whom he learned or with whom he had a personal relationship. His father, Rav Abba Liff, was a maggid shiur in Ner Israel, and Reb Yehoshua grew up playing stoop ball on the steps of Rav Yaakov Yitzchak HaLevi Ruderman's house, even as the latter tried to prepare his shiur.
Author Rabbi Nachman Seltzer has greatly enhanced the power of the book by preserving a deliberately understated style throughout. The stories are introduced without any fanfare or strings of adjectives, but simply related. The gedolim emerge as "real" people, without in any way diminishing their stature.
It helps that Rabbi Liff himself is such an Amerikaner, despite living in Israel for well over 40 years, and was accepted as such by all the gedolim with whom he interacted.
He and I first met on a basketball court during Pesach vacation over 30 years ago. How many times since have I heard the story of him beating the Baltimore Bullets' Mike Riordan in a game of H-O-R-S-E, with Riordan's teammates looking on and hooting in laughter.
Let me hasten to add that he has himself been a rosh yeshivah for close to 40 years and has in that time turned around the lives of hundreds of his talmidim in dramatic fashion, often relying on the the lessons of his own rebbeim to guide them.
The following story about the Chazon Ish was told to Rabbi Liff by the late Mirrer rosh yeshivah Rav Beinush Finkel, whose rebbetzin was the Chazon Ish's niece. (Rav Beinush invited Reb Yehoshua and his new kallah to spend their first Pesach with his family, when he learned they would not be returning to the States for Yom Tov.) The story reveals the phenomenal psychological acuity of the Chazon Ish and provides a lesson from which each of us can benefit.
While still in Lithuania, the Chazon Ish's rebbetzin supported her husband and herself by selling fabrics. A wealthy local businessman would purchase the material for her on his travels, without any middleman's fee.
In gratitude, the Chazon Ish offered the man the most precious currency he possessed: an opportunity to learn b'chavrusa. Though the man was a highly successful businessman, he simply could not understand the Gemara or retain anything, despite the Chazon Ish's famed patience and gentleness.
One day, the Chazon Ish proposed that the next morning they should go swimming together in the river at 4:30 a.m., before vasikin. When they entered the river the next morning, the Chazon Ish immediately started splashing his companion, who, naturally, did not respond in kind. The Chazon Ish drew nearer and drenched the man in his splashes. Still, the latter still did not splash back until the Chazon Ish ordered him to do so, "Ir zoltzt shtiffen — You should splash." Finally, the man gave in, and soon he and the Chazon Ish were splashing one another and laughing like two schoolboys.
Only after they had gotten out of the river did the Chazon Ish explain his stratagem. He told the man, "You're too serious! No simchas hachayim. Everything you do is without a smile. That is not good for a person."
And it worked. From that day on, the businessman was a different person when he came to learn with the Chazon Ish: His mind opened up and the Torah was able to penetrate.
Now, that is a lesson with innumerable practical applications.