Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Is Democracy Ideal? Thoughts for Parshat Shoftim

For many years - decades in fact, the United States actively promoted the idea of spreading democracy around the world, spending many millions of dollars on efforts to promote democracy, believing that this would lead to greater freedom, fewer regional conflicts, and greater global stability.
Sometimes, this did in fact work. Japan is now a stable, democratic country, after centuries of imperial rule. But, in more recent history, this effort has backfired, and even has served to bolster those who wish to do the United States harm.
As we've witnessed in recent years, giving people the right to choose their government does not guarantee that they'll choose a liberal government that guarantees rights and freedoms. In fact, when given the right to choose, citizens of Egypt chose the Muslim Brotherhood, while their cousins in Gaza chose Hamas - sister organizations dedicated to the promotion of radical Islam. In fact, rather than leading to "liberal democracies", free elections in Muslim countries have resulted in "illiberal democracies" whose governments then proudly promote their legitimacy, as they were indeed freely elected.
None of this should come as any surprise to those who study Chumash with Ha'amek Davar, the commentary of Netziv. While following the will of the people seems inherently sensible, Netziv, noting a seeming self-contradiction in the Torah points out an obvious truth: what's seems sensible, isn't always the best choice.
Moshe instructs the nation that when the enter into the Chosen Land, they must appoint a king to lead them:
כִּי-תָבֹא אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ, וִירִשְׁתָּהּ, וְיָשַׁבְתָּה בָּהּ; וְאָמַרְתָּ, אָשִׂימָה עָלַי מֶלֶךְ, כְּכָל-הַגּוֹיִם, אֲשֶׁר סְבִיבֹתָי. שׂוֹם תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ, אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בּוֹ: מִקֶּרֶב אַחֶיךָ, תָּשִׂים עָלֶיךָ מֶלֶךְ--לֹא תוּכַל לָתֵת עָלֶיךָ אִישׁ נָכְרִי, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-אָחִיךָ הוּא.
When thou art come unto the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, and shalt possess it, and shalt dwell therein; and shalt say: 'I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are round about me'; thou shalt in any wise set him king over thee, whom the LORD thy God shall choose; one from among thy brethren shalt thou set king over thee; thou mayest not put a foreigner over thee, who is not thy brother. (Devarim 17:15-16)
Netziv notes that rather than just instructing the people to appoint a king, that appointment can only come should the nation desire a king - when the people say, "I will set a king over me." It seems that the Torah only commands the nation to appoint a king when they look at the nations around them, and wish to have a similar form of leadership. Yet, this condition seems to contradict the apparent commandment to appoint a king. In fact, Chazal do indeed interpret these verses as a commandment - a mitzvah - to appoint a king. So, must we appoint a king or not? Is it a mitzvah or not? According to Netziv, it depends. He writes:
ונראה דמשום דהנהגת המדינה משתנית אם מתנהגת ע"פ דעת מלוכה או ע"פ דעת העם ונבחריהם. ויש מדינה שאינה יכולה לסבול דעת מלוכה ויש מדינה שבלא מלך הרי היא כספינה בלי קברניט, ודבר זה אי אפשר לעשות ע"פ הכרח מצות עשה, שהרי בענין השייך להנהגת הכלל נוגע לסכנת נפשות שדוחה מצות עשה. משום הכי אי אפשר לצוות בהחלט למנות מלך כל זמן שלא עלה בהסכמת העם לסבול עול מלך ע"פ שרואים מדינות אשר סביבותיהם מתנהגים בסדר יותר נכון או אז מצות עשה לסנהדרין למנות מלך.
It seems [that the verse is ambiguous] because the leadership of the State is varied - whether it be a leadership of monarchy, or a leadership based upon the will of the people and their chosen [leaders]. There may be a state that cannot suffer monarchy, while another state without a king is like a boat without a captain. This matter cannot be enforced through a positive commandment, for matters related to the public can be issues of life and death, and would therefore supersede a positive commandment. For this reason, it is impossible to issue an absolute command to appoint a king, as long as the public has not agreed to suffer the yoke of a king, having seen the countries surrounding them functioning with greater order [due to their king]. Only then is it a positive commandment for the Sanhedrin to appoint a king.

Some nations - at some times - cannot suffer a monarchy, while others (or even that same country, in a different era), would literally disintegrate without the firm guidance of a powerful leader. It interesting to note that the Obama Administration seems to have come to this very conclusion (a bit late, in my opinion), drastically cutting funding to promote democracy in the Middle East.
Look what happened to Egypt (and Tunisia and Gaza - and probably Syria as well): While democracy sounds good, it seems clear in retrospect that only the firm grip of a powerful leader kept those countries from destroying themselves, and those around them.
Is Democracy the best choice? It can be. But, Netziv reminds us that it's only a good choice of government when the nations themselves are ready for it.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Audio Shiur: Parshat Shoftim - Is Democracy a Jewish Value

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Shoftim - Is Democracy a Jewish Value

The modern State of Israel chose a democratically elected form of government. Had the founders of the State followed the Torah, would they have made this choice? The answer, based on a section in Parshat Shoftim, might surprise you.

Click here to navigate to the shiur on

Click to play the Shiur (or right-click to download)

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Assertiveness in the Holy Land

My sister and her family are visiting from the US, and decided that they'd like to visit Tzefat and take a tour. She had heard of a place that offered walking tours of the Old City, and their website does advertise a daily walking tour at 11am.
Just to be on the safe side, I figured that I'd call and confirm that a tour would take place today. And, sure enough, they did indeed confirm that there would be an 11am tour.
"Do I need to make a reservation?" I asked.
No need, I was told. Just sure that they're here at 11.
Great. They woke up early, and were on the road a bit after eight, to be sure that they got there on time.
At 11:05am, my cell rings. It's my sister.
Did you get there on time? I asked.
"Yup. We're here, but there's no tour," she says.
"What do you mean there's no tour?"
"There's no tour. That's it." She was calling to see if I could quickly find something else for them to do.

Yet, I've learned that in Israel it really doesn't work that way. There's always another way, usually if you're insistent enough, and especially if you're right.
Let me speak to her, I said.
My sister was reluctant. What, do you think you can get her to give us a tour? There's no tour. Why do you want the phone?
I persisted: Let me speak to her. After some additional protest, she handed the phone to the young woman - "Tamar" - running the desk.
There's been a mistake, Tamar explained. When I said that both their website and a subsequent phone call had confirmed a tour, she apologized for the mistake, but said that while my sister could join any shiur she chose (they apparently have a full slate of lectures at the place), there would not be a tour.

I was insistent, and somewhat forceful. She asked me not to yell - which I don't really think that I did - OK, I did yell a bit - but I was certainly upset, because they were wrong. They had made a commitment and I expected them to live up to it. After a few minutes of listening to me, she gave my sister the phone back, and guessed it - decided to call her manager. Together, they managed to locate an English speaking guide, and in the end, there was a tour.
What frustrates me most about the exchange is that while she insisted that I not yell (speak forcefully), I know that the only reason that she took the initiative and actually found someone to give a tour was because I did. It's not fun to be "Israeli" with people, and Americans often recoil when Israelis act this way. But, had my sister acted typically American, she would have walked away upset that she had driven two hours up to Tzfat for nothing, and rightfully so.
Why couldn't the cheerful Tamar at the desk have done the right thing, acknowledged their mistake, and tried to fix it - without needing someone to insist that she do it first?
In the end, they gave the tour of Tzefat, but still left everyone with a bad taste.

I know that many Americans struggle with this aspect of life in Israel. I agree with them. It's unpleasant. But perhaps things will improve over time. After all, if people wait patiently on line at the butcher in the grocery, and at the post office, perhaps things are in fact changing, ever so slowly.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

How to Replace Your License Plate in Israel

Sometimes, the most challenging aspects of aliyah are the small, simple things. Like license plates.
Rena called me from the road to tell me that our rear license plate had fallen off, and she didn't know what to do. I began to envision a long, drawn-out process. Thoughts of the DMV entered my mind, temporary license plates, receiving new ones via registered mail...I thought it would be a long, drawn-out process.
It turns out, that it was nothing like that at all.

I told her to drive home, and began scouring the interwebs for information about replacing our license plate. Only one problem: how do you even say "license plate" in Hebrew? It turns out that it's called a לוחית רישוי. Now you know.
I called the local policeman in Yad Binyamin, who explained that you have to come to the police station and file a report. We went, and he asked us a bunch of questions, and then filled out a form that he gave to us. We took that form to the local "test" location (technically, it's called מכון ישראל) - but everyone knows where their local "test" place is, because it's where you have to take your car to be tested each year, and they yell incomprehensible instructions in broken Hebrew ("Turn right! Left! Brake! Neutral!") while you frantically attempt to comply, hoping that they don't fail your car for something stupid like dry windshield wipers out of spite. Yes, that "Test".
Anyhow, we gave the form to the proprietor (a rather colorful man, for a number of reasons) who, in literally a minute, had his worker stamp out a new license plate, and screw it to the car. We paid 50 shekel and were on our way.

So, if you've lost a license plate (or it was stolen):
1. File a report with the local police
2. Take the report to your local "Test" center
3. Pay 50 shekel
4. Drive away

What seemed threatening and daunting, potentially laden with beurocracy, turned out to be a simple process that took less than an hour.
Hope this helped!

Monday, August 4, 2014

How Can You Support Israel During this Difficult Time? Send Me on Vacation!

Supporters of Israel around the world, watching the Jewish State get battered by Hamas and bashed by the international community, have wondered: What can I do? How can I help. There are many different ways to help, both personally and financially. I'll mention a few you might already know about, and then suggest one perhaps you haven't considered.

1. Prayer: If you're reading this blog, there's a good chance you already do this. Keep doing it. I also suggest adding Psalm 144 to your list, but take the time to read and understand it. I spoke about it in this shiur, and it gives me a lot of comfort.

2. Political activism: This can take a number of different forms: (a) Participating in rallies (b) Writing letters to the editor, and supporting Israel in the media (c) Communicating with an elected official. I want to emphasize this point.
Over the past few weeks, we've seen the important role that Congress plays in supporting Israel's right to self-defense. Without the Congressional counter-balance to the pressure that has been brought to bear upon Israel to stop fighting, we'd be right back where we started, and Hamas would already be rebuilding tunnels with concrete supplied by the United Nations. Did you notice that Congress passed a number of resolutions supporting Israel's right to fight over the past few weeks? It cannot be coincidental that the FAA reversed its decision to halt American flights to Tel Aviv after a prominent Senator began asking pointed questions. And the money to pay for those expensive Iron Dome rockets helps a great deal.
I was involved with AIPAC when I was a rabbi, and continue to support AIPAC's work even from Israel. This is the very best time to get involved with AIPAC. Congressional elections take place later this year. Prominent supporters of Israel, including great friend of Israel Senator Carl Levin - who is retiring - will be fighting for their seats. Michiganders: Who will take Levin's place? Will he or she be as supportive of a strong US-Israel relationship as Levin is (hard to believe, truthfully, as Levin was as supportive as they come...) That really depends: Who's working for the candidate that will take his seat? Who's canvassing for votes, and working the phones? Who's writing the checks to support the campaign? It really is as simple as that. The people who get involved early have access later on.
It's not about supporting a candidate you don't believe in. Rather, it's about getting involved in the political process, and supporting someone you really do support, so that the friendship you create now can have a lasting impact down the road.

3. Send me on Vacation for You: All of this prayer and activism is fine and good, but you need to make a real difference right now. How best to do that? Send food to the soldiers? Already been done, and besides, the IDF insists that it's sending enough food to the soldiers already. (I know a guy who runs a food service company here in Israel supplying tens of thousands of meals a day.) Buy soldiers cell chargers? Again a good idea. But all the good IDF ideas have already been tapped out. How much Bamba can a poor private consume? How many pairs of dry-fit tzitiziot can a soldier wear?

What people may not realize Israel's economy, and specifically the tourist industry, has suffered badly during the war. People simply stopped coming, taking trips, cab rides, eating in restaurants, etc. This is, of course understandable, and it's also quite challenging for people who want to support Israel, who can't simply leave their homes, jobs and families and take a trip to the Holy Land.
The Solution? I will take your vacation for you!
I've taken the liberty of setting up an Indiegogo campaign to raise money for the express purpose of bolstering the Israeli economy. Over a two week period I (and my family) will:

  • Stay in a luxury hotel
  • Eat in fancy restaurants
  • Travel by taxi only
  • Take tours with paid tour Guides
  • Visit popular and expensive attractions
  • Offer service-people generous tips

These activities will provide vital support for the tourism industry in Israel, so badly battered by the continuing war in Israel. They need our support, and by teaming together (your support and my willingness to take a vacation in your place), together we can do our part to help those in Israel who are in need today!
So visit my campaign and join me in doing our part to help Israel win this war!

Small print: Donations are not tax deductible. They also don't count as ma'aser. Or tzedakah.