Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Archive for February, 2011|Monthly archive page

Webyeshiva broadcasts from Poland, visits a friend who is ill and proves that the bonds of a virtual community can be strong indeed.

In Uncategorized on February 3, 2011 at 3:05 pm

My student, Joel Nowicki, has taken classes my classes on Webyeshiva from its beginning. Joel is gravely ill with lung cancer. He and his family live as the only Jews in an isolated Polish village. At the behest of Rabbi Brovender, marshalling the power of a virtual community, the students of webyeshiva chipped in to help Rabbi Brovender and Rabbi Jeffrey Sachs make the trip to Poland to bring a little light into this devoted student’s life and broadcast live from Joel’s apartment. Olam Chesed Yibaneh. The world is built on lovingkindness. For more on this story, click here for the Jerusalem Post article.


According to the Sages: What’s worse, chaos or a corrupt leadership? Well…

In Uncategorized on February 3, 2011 at 9:06 am

As pro and anti government crowds duke it out in Cairo, the rest of the world sees at least one outcome as a foregone conclusion; The age of Mubarak is over, but people are puzzled about what comes next.  Isn’t if fair to say that any change that is not for the better, is not worth the upheaval upon which its precipitated. If you fire a mediocre employee only to replace him with one who is even worse, was such a step worth the misery brought on the life of the one whose employment was terminated?

Jews have had much experience as “guests” of foreign powers. In Pirkei Avot we are warned not to curry favor with the government because they will exploit you for their own ends (Avot 2:3) Nevertheless Rabbi Hanina Segan Hakohanim warns that we should pray for the wellbeing of the government, because without order, citizens, left to their own designs, would “swallow up each other’s lives” (Avot 3:2)

Is a corrupt government better than no government at all, especially if the repressive regime can at least maintain order? Well, such a debate occurs in the Petichta (Introduction) of Midrash Esther Rabba:

The duplicitous man will rule,  as do those who ensnare people (Job 34:30)

Rabbi Yochanan (learning from this verse) said: Because of their hardened hearts and their sins, they have estranged themselves from the Creator of the Universe [therefore they are deserving of a duplicitous government].

Resh Laqish said: It is better for people to grow wings and fly up in the air rather than submitting to the yoke of a duplicitous authority. (Esther Rabba Petichta 9)

One verse; two opinions. Rabbi Yochanan determines that people get the leadership they deserve, and presumably, they need to accept their punishment, repent, and wait until the decree is rescinded.

Resh Laqish would have accepted chaos as a more dignified fate than submission to a corrupt ruler. R. Yochanan sees the verse as stating a religious fact of life. If we rebel against our Creator, He will teach us what life is like without His involvement.

Resh Laqish says the opposite. We are being taught not to put up with such behavior, and better to “grow wings” than submit to corruption.  The question is what does it mean to “grow wings”? Is the only option to run away, or does Resh Laqish give one license to join the opposition? Since one cannot grow wings, I would assume it means that corrupt regimes are intolerable.  But aside from growing wings, R.L. leaves other remedies up to our imagination.

The question I would put to R. Hanina is what happens when it is the government that is swallowing up peoples lives? Is order still preferable to anarchy? Rabbi Menachem HaMeiri unpacks R. Hanina’s logic in his commentary. Presumably, he argues, Jews fidelity to Torah trumps their loyalty to a flesh and blood ruler. Meiri says there are two masters working side by side here. From a practical perspective, if there is no Torah wisdom, political order is still possible, but if chaos reigns than Torah wisdom will also suffer. Political order is a necessary prerequisite for Torah to thrive. Even a hostile ruler that keeps its subjects in line allows for more opportunity to thrive in Torah, than a reality of constant looting and rioting.  Therefore, as a matter of enlightened self interest we pray for the wellbeing of foreign rulers.  The Torah alludes to this through the seventy offerings sacrificed on Sukkot from which the sages derive that the nations of the world were required to bring offerings to the Temple. He quotes from the Biblical book of Ezra where Cyrus decrees that the Temple and its service should be supported by his kingdom, so that the Jews will”… pray for the life of the king and his sons.” (Ezra 6:10)

The Meiri is bothered by a different question. Is it not disloyal to God to pray for the wellbeing of a mortal ruler? From the earliest times, he responds, we have not discouraged honoring foreign rulers, especially when they have treated us favorably.  Resh Laqish may have qualified Rabbi Hanina’s prayer for the government’s wellbeing by making it conditional. If the government is just and equitable then prayers should be offered, if not, one should “fly away”.