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THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF RABBI PINKY SCHMECKELSTEIN
NEW: On Complex Realities and Inconvenient Truths
I am back!!
Many of you reached out to me in recent weeks to ask about my disappearance. Many of you sent notes of concern. Some of you sent complaints that your Drashas weren’t coming in regularly Erev Shabbos and Erev Yuntif. “Where is Pinky?” you asked.
By the way, none of you sent me money. Bastards.
Truth be told, there is a very good reason for my absence. But I cannot tell you the reason. So I will let you guess. Either:
A) I have been involved in exciting global developments in my capacity as Spriritual Adviser to the President of the United States, Melech HaMashiach Donald J. Trump.
B) Erev Pesach I had a medical issue and have been focused on my personal health since then.
One of these is actually true. Let’s examine the evidence, and “You Make The Call”:
Evidence for A: I was offline, but meanwhile President Trump’s productivity on foreign policy issues went through the roof!!
— The US and North Korea will be having a formal meeting of heads of state. Nothing like this has happened since the end of the Korean War in 1953. Do you, you Mechutziff, think that this happens by itself? Do you? Don’t you think that there was a lot of secret shuttle diplomacy, and secret talks, and secret dinners, and secret Divrei Toirah, and secret massages by some North Korean smoking hot sumo wrestlers?
— The US withdrew from the Iran agreement. Does that happen by itself? Who do you think went into the Iranian warehouse and stole all those documents anyway?
Evidence for B: Every time I make Pishvasser I have a team of inspectors “testing my output” using protein tests, chemical breakdowns, and gargling. And they went to medical school for that?
Shoyn. Life goes on.
We are living at a critical time when efforts to paint the world as black or white fail to capture the nuances of a more complex reality. What does that mean?
— Let’s say you oppose President and Melech HaMashiach Donald J. Trump out of core principle, in response to his unpresidential style, his flirtation with the fringe right including hard core anti Semites, his deep anti-immigrant bias in a country where nearly all of us are descendants of immigrants, his tendency the demean people with whom he does not agree, even within his own party, and his complicated relationship with truth and transparency (I am still waiting to see his tax returns.)
However... This same man seems to be making real progress with North Korea, potentially more than any of his predecessors, Democrat or Republican. Doesn’t he deserve credit for that at least?
— On the same day that the US embassy was opened in Jerusalem, many lives were lost along the Gazan border with Israel. Those who support Israel must certainly feel pride at the embassy move, even if it is largely cosmetic. The symbolism speaks loudly about the coming of age and permanence of the renewed Jewish national entity.
But the protests on the border and their aftermath highlight the degree to which there remain unresolved issues stemming back to the establishment of the State. Yes, the Palestinians were storming the fence. Yes, they were egged on by Hamas and others. Yes, the Palestinians put themselves in harm’s way. Yes, most of those killed were Hamas operatives. Yes, if the people who stormed the border had their way, they would have killed and kidnapped Israeli civilians and soldiers. Yes, Israel exercised its legitimate right to defend itself. No debate on any of this.
But the fact that Israel and the Palestinians remain, in 2018, caught in a web of existential conflict, even though Israel has never been stronger militarily, economically, and perhaps politically, speaks to the unceasing struggle that has historically plagued the Jews wherever we lived - the struggle for stability, permanence, and self-determination. No, this issue will not go away by itself. We may not have a partner among the Palestinian political leadership, but we still have a terrible problem.
From a Yiddisheh perspective, how should we think about such issues?
I am sure that you think we should say that all is good or all is bad. But you are a Menuval, so what would you know?
Indeed, our struggle with complex reality is not unique in history. It is something that the Toirah addresses and that CHAZAL discussed over drinks at the Bais Kellev, the local kosher sports bar in Pumbedisa.
The Toirah itself cites the words of the Reboinoisheloilum in Sefer Yishayahu, Perek Mem Hey, Passook Zayin: “Yoitzer Or U’Voirei Choishech, Oiseh Shalom U’Voirei Rah, Ani Adoishem Olseh Kol Eileh” — “Creator of light and creator of darkness, maker of people and creator of evil, I am Hakadoishboruchhu who does all of these”. The Aimishteh does not hide from the complexities of reality; He takes credit for them.
However, CHAZAL themselves expended much effort simplifying complex realities. Take, for example, Yankif Avunu. He stole his brother’s birthright and deceived his father. The Toirah makes no effort to disguise those issues, but CHAZAL goes out of its way in the Midrash to create a pile of bull... ummm... “alternative facts” about Yankif and his brother Eisav to fertilize the belief that one was all good and the other was all bad.
We can say similar things about Aron HaKoihain the Menuval, David HaMelech, Shloimoi HaMelech, and many others. CHAZAL go out of their way to turn complex Biblical figures into simplistic constructs and turn a multitude of colors and shades into simple black and white.
Indeed, there is a famous Medieval Machloikess on how we should interpret such complexities.
Rabbi Yehuda HaLevy, the poet and author of the Kuzari who lived about a thousand years ago, believed that Biblical figures and Toirah concepts should be presented in the simplest manner possible because “people are too busy with their noses in their damned mobile phones to pay attention to something nuanced”. Ironically, of course, his life ended shortly after he arrived in Israel and fell off his horse because he was texting and riding at the same time.
His brother, Rabbi Matthew HaLevey, had a different philosophy. Speaking of his educational philosophy, he noted that we should never underestimate the intelligence of children, and we should therefore “fill their heads with as much richness and detail as we can, so that they can be as confused as the rest of us”. It should be noted that Rabbi Matthew changed the spelling of his last name by adding an extra “e” because he thought it made him look WASPier and would get him into a fancy country club.
Of course, if we look at Jewish intellectual tradition, we can find a third way, one of esotericism, of levels of understanding that vary based on the social and intellectual sphere of the observer. This is the theme of Moreh Nevuchim and the Zohar and other writings: There is a basic understanding for the masses. And there is a more detailed, complex, and nuanced understanding for the educated and indoctrinated.
In other words, the simple understanding is for good-for nothings like you, and the richer, “correct” understanding is for brilliant intellectual elites, like the Democratic leadership, CNN, and the New York Times Editorial Board.
However - and this is an important point - there is a vast difference between intellectual tradition and current events. Intellectual tradition is about the world of ideas. It is not directly about actions. However, how we understand the events of this world, be they national security, foreign affairs, economics, or social issues means all of the difference in the world. Because interpretation and understanding will ultimately result in activity. Should a nation take step X or Y? Should a citizen vote for A or B? Should I curl my Payis clockwise or counter clockwise?
This is the essence: So much of Judaism is centered around “concept” and “idea”. The Gemara can debate for thirty Blatt on whether to put your left shoe on first or your right. But, really, who cares? No one’s life will be ruined, except for the OCD Talmid who becomes stuck on Meshigas.
But how is it that when it comes to practical issues, issues of war and peace, life and death, health and sickness, relationships, finances, instead of gathering all the facts and exploring all the nuances, as complicated as they can be, we often subjugate our opinions to the lowest common denominator of political rhetoric, passionate but overly simplistic argument, and Rabbis who do not know how to fry an egg yet position themselves to be the grand arbiters of personal health, relationships, and finance, even though they have no related training, qualifications, or unique insights?
When we accept the simple narrative, be it of the right or the left, or the religious or the secular, or the charismatic figure, we surrender our intellect as individuals and as a society, and we are bound to make the wrong choices eventually. Reality is far too complicated to reduce every issue to a binary decision.
I am reminded of a beautiful Maiseh Shehoya.
Every year before Shavuois the Chofetz Chaim would close his little grocery store early so that he could go to the Mikvah and make some photocopies for the Shiur he planned to give on Tikkun Layl Shavuois.
One year, as he was locking the gates on the windows of his store in Radin, a man came running up to him from the street, out of breath. “Rebbe, Rebbe, Rebbe” he called out, panting as he tried to catch his breath. “Boruch HaShem I caught you.”
“How can I help you, my Talmid?” the Chofetz Chaim asked, animatedly and obviously glancing at his watch.
“Rebbe, my son was born last week, and the Bris is tomorrow.”
“Mazal Tov. Nu?”
“Rebbe, I would like your opinion on the name. I want to make sure that it does not bring an Ayin Hurrah. Can you please tell me - Is ‘Shraga Feivel Nebuchadnezzar’ a Mazeldikkah name?”
The Chofetz Chaim suddenly stood still, frozen in his place, his gaze on the man now an icy stare. “Tell me young man, where on my store window, where in my Yeshiva, where on my Shtender, where on my business card, where on my website, or where on my Wikipedia page does it say that I am a fortune teller or an astrologer or that I read tea leaves? Where?!?!”
The man was stunned, and after a moment responded quietly, almost in a whisper, “Well, I will give you one thousand rubles for your advice.”
The Chofetz Chaim paused for a second, looking down at the ground, then looked up as a smile broke out on his face. “Son, I think Shraga Feivel and whatever that third name was is a beautiful name. Mazal Toiv!!”
“Thank you Rebbe. I will drop off the thousand rubles after Yuntif” the man said, and then turned to walk away.
As the man took his first few steps, the Chofetz Chaim called after him. “By the way! For an additional thousand rubles I will perform Metzitzah BiPeh!”
Rabboisai, we have to distinguish between that which is l necessary and that which is expedient.
For example, let’s say, just hypothetically, someone is told to rush to the hospital for a major surgical procedure, but he feels fine. Should he go ahead with the surgical procedure and prepare for weeks and weeks of recovery, or should he assume that because he has no symptoms he can ignore his doctor? Does he focus on the simple fact of how he feels, or the more complex and challenging implications of doctor’s recommendations that were based on a synthesis of medical details and professional judgment?
Ummm... I can tell you what I would hypothetically do in that purely hypothetical situation. But I have no time. I have to go now to make Pishvasser in a jug, pop a few Percocet, and learn some Zoihar once the drugs kick in.
I wish you a Gutten, peaceful Shabbos and a joyous Yuntif without any medical emergencies, you Menuval.
Rabbi Pinky Schmeckelstein
Yeshivas Chipass Emmess