Passover & Pandemic

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The nature of coronavirus contradicts everything we know and do as a community. It pushes us to be individuals. We’re restricted from davening with a minyan. We’re restricted from coming together in a yeshivah or beis medrash or to attend simchas. It’s a mind-bogglingly profound disruption of our lives and everything we know to be true about how the Torah teaches us to act and be.

Yet it’s all min hashamayim. It’s all from Hashem. As such, it’s a message – a message blasting loudly at a pitch we’ve never heard before. It’s a shofar gadol shouting and screaming at us. The question is: What is the message?

Prat and Klal

Rav Yisrael Reisman has a particularly wonderful shiur called, Haggadah Thoughts II. In it, he explains that everyone is a prat and a klal, an individual and a member of the community. Every individual and every community has a din, a judgment, and the two aren’t always in sync.

For instance, it’s possible that an individual is unworthy but he can be saved through the merit of the community. If, for example, it was decreed on Rosh Hashannah that something bad should happen to him, he can be saved if it was decreed on his community that it should be saved. He can live through the year on the coattails of the community’s merits.

Conversely, what happens if an individual had decreed upon him to live the year, but maybe it was the middle of the Holocaust when there was a tremendous din on the tzibbur and people had to die? Citing Rav Elchanon Wasserman, Hy”d, (Kovetz Shiurim) in the name of the G’ra and Rashba, Rav Reisman explains that even in such a case din haklali liolam goveress al din haprati — the judgment of the community overrules the judgment of the individual.

On the first Leil Pesach 3,032 years ago, there was a din on the community of Mitzrayim that every firstborn die. There may have been righteous Egyptians. The Gemara says there were Egyptians who had yiras shamayim, who took their animals in during barad and dever. But it didn’t matter that night. There was a decree on the community of Mitzrayim for the death of every firstborn.

Until that night, Klal Yisrael lived in Egypt and was part of that community. As such, they should have suffered the fate of Mitzrayim. But on the night of Pesach, a new nation was born. On that night, Klal Yisrael came into being. That’s the miracle of Pesach night. We became a people. And even though the community of Mitzrayim had decreed upon it death of all the firstborn, Klal Yisrael was no longer identified with the greater community. Even though there were Jews who may have been undeserving, they were now part of community that Hashem decreed would live.

The Corporation

Michael was a very idealistic young secular Jew — as well as extraordinarily sincere, gregarious and generous. He began his professional career in the business world and funneled all his good intentions into the marketing firm he worked for. It was business, but Michael approached it as an exercise in helping people, being impeccably moral and making the world a better place. In his mind, he was doing great things for humanity.

I asked him how long he thought the firm would last: a decade, two decades, longer? He hoped it would continue beyond his lifetime. As such, his work would be immortalized.

“What if,” I suggested, “you could do better, more moral and more world-changing work for the longest running corporation in history?”

Michael paused.

Then I told him that the Jewish people were that corporation! Anyone who was part of a 3,000-year-old people and its celebrated mission to be “a light unto the nations” was doing more good than working for even the largest and most philanthropic corporation; that being part of this “corporation” meant being part of the biggest thing possible.

Michael was impressed. He eventually took on a Torah lifestyle — and even became a rabbi and a force in the kiruv world! (See my article, Rabbi Michael Stern, zt”l: A Heart on Legs, in Yated August 2, 2019.)

Rabbi Michael Stern, zt”l, the “Rabbi Without Walls”

It’s a famous Mishnah: “All Yisrael [i.e. the corporate body called Israel] has a portion in the world to come…” (Sanhedrin 90b).Any individual worthy of the name “Yisrael” becomes part of an eternal corporate entity. Such an individual’s actions are magnified and immortalized.

The Jewish people became a “corporate entity” on Pesach night. On that night, when they put the blood of Egypt’s idol (the sheep) on their doorposts, they risked their lives and cast their lot with Hashem. Seeing that they had separated themselves from Egyptian culture, Hashem “passed over” their homes and spared them.

We live in the center of many circles. We identify with aspects of the general culture, some of which are foreign to Torah. But even those that aren’t foreign or are more or less benign, can distract us and distance us from who we are. Only when we throw off the subtle and not-so-subtle identifies foreign to Klal Yisrael do we deserve to be considered part of a greater whole — the greatest whole: a corporate entity that is forever.

Slamming the Door

Today, coronavirus is silently and unsuspectingly rampaging across the globe, rending almost helpless even the most powerful and advanced nations. In ancient Mitzrayim, it was the Malach MaMavess who wended its way through the land striking down all the firstborn. No home was spared. On every street, loud wails of weeping could be heard.

It was a terrible night, but the Bnei Yisrael were immune – as long as they stayed in their houses. As long as each family sat huddled together around the table locked inside, the Destroyer would not touch them.

That’s strange when you think about it. If a Jew ventured outside his home that night, why should his life be in danger? Didn’t the Malach HaMavess know the difference between a Jew and a Mitzri? What did it help to go into the house? As Rav Avigdor Miller put it, “A malach can pick a Jewish lock the same way he picks the Egyptian lock. So what did they accomplish by being inside the houses? It’s a big kasheh.”

And the answer, he explains, is that the locking of the doors of their homes was a symbolic statement meant to echo down the portals of time throughout all the generations: “We are hereby closing ourselves off from the umos ha’olom entirely…. Their customs are not our customs, and their entertainment is not our entertainment…. It’s the act of slamming the door shut on the attitudes and the influences of the outside world that saves the Am Yisrael and makes us the nation that belongs to Hashem forever.”

They weren’t slamming the doors shut to keep out the Malach HaMavees as much as to keep out the influence of Mitrayim! The fact that they didn’t leave their homes that night demonstrated that we “are a people who dwells alone, not counted among the nations” (Bamidbar 23:9).

Exercising Our “Klal Muscle”

Coronavirus challenges our way of life like nothing anyone can remember. The hygienic and basic halachic necessity for “social distancing” – for acting as individuals – contradicts our instincts and obligations as a community.

Even in a time of prat, of enforced individualization, however, we must find ways to act as a community, as a klal. This most certainly should take the form of heartfelt tefillos for others, feeling their suffering, joining in their pain, asking for their refuah (if not our own as well).

There are also other avenues to act as a klal such as giving tzedakah. Special mention should go out to the Rebbis and Morahs who get on conference calls with their talmidim and talmidos. And there are many other avenues as well. Even as we have to physically keep our distance, we have to act spiritually as a community. We’re far from helpless when it comes to exercising our “klal muscle.”

Yet, after all is said and done, coronavirus forces us to turn inwardly to ourselves as individuals. Before it was unleashed, sometimes we were so busy that we had no time to think. Now, if nothing else, we have more time than we’re comfortable with.

For all our gains in the generations following the Holocaust, perhaps we have not fulfilled our full inner potential as much as our outer appearance would indicate. Have we completed “mesechtas” such as yiras Hashem, ahavas Hashem, emunah, etc.

Sefer Chareidim, which sorts the mitzvos according to the parts of the body, lists 45 mitzvos asay (positive commandments) and 38 lo asay (prohibitions) of the heart. The Chovos Halevovos goes further and explains how every part of life – even those times not directly involved with a mitzvah act – can be transformed into avodas Hashem with a little thought.

Perhaps the mind is the final frontier for the generation that will greet Mashiach. The final frontier is the inner world. And we’ve made strides there too. But perhaps not enough yet for a teshuvah sheleimah.

Coronavirus is terrifying. It has us terrified about our lives, about very existence. In that sense, it’s similar to a momentous Pesach in ancient history centuries agon that likewise pushed our emunah to the limits.

The Assyrian Horde

In the sixth year of Chizkiah HaMelech, the Aseres HaShevatim, the Ten Tribes, were besieged by the mightiest army the world had ever seen, the army of Ashur (Assyria) led by the great warrior Sancheriv. After destroying the capital of Shomron (Samaria) he sent the Aseres HaShevatim into galus. His plan was to continue south, make a clean sweep into Yehudah and sack Yerushalayim.

Other wars sidetracked him a bit, but in the fourteenth year of Chizkiah, he came back with a vengeance and an even larger army. The Tanach says it was 185,000 strong, but the Gemara (Sanhedrin 95b) says it was much larger. The number 185,000 only included the highest ranking officers. How many soldiers did it have? The Gemara says, “The sum total of his camp was 260 myriad [10,000] thousands minus one.” That’s 2.6 billion!

Some explain that number as a guzma, an exaggeration (and we’ll attempt an interpretation ahead). But however you view it, it was a massive horde of enemy soldiers. So large that when they first crossed the Jordan River they had to swim across, but as horse and rider emerged drenched on the other side they reduced the amount of water in the river such that the next wave of invaders were able to cross standing. The final wave “kicked up dust with their feet and did not find water in the river to drink.”

Faltering Emunah

The loss of the Aseres HaShevatim eight years earlier was a tragedy that took a tremendous toll on the Jews in Yehudah. The better element of the people saw the Yad Hashem, but a weaker element were incensed that Hashem didn’t help the Ten Tribes. Malchus Yisrael had been much stronger militarily than Malchus Yehudah. If they fell, what chance did they have, many in Yehudah wondered.

As the Assyrian horde swept into the land, many Jews lost heart. Chizkiah tried to buy off Sancheriv and offered him all the treasure in his palace and in the Beis HaMikdash. It didn’t work. Employing psychological warfare, the Assyrians sent a Jewish traitor named Ravshakey to convince them to surrender Yerushalayim without a fight. He stood on the walls of the city and, in fluent Hebrew, called them fools for trusting in Chizkiah and Hashem.

“Don’t listen to Chizkiah, when he misleads you, saying, ‘God will save us.’ Had any of the gods of the nations saved their lands from the hand of the king of Assyria? …Have they saved Shomron from our hand? Who among all the gods of the countries have saved their country from my [Sancheriv’s] hand, that Hashem should save Yerushalayim from my hand?” (Melachim II 18:32-35; Yeshaya 36) The Jews were powerless to do anything as Ravshakey mocked Hashem and Chizkiah in their own language.

Pure Emunah

Then he added, “You’re leaning on the support of this broken reed” (Yeshaya 36:6). The “broken reed” was Mitzrayim. Chizkiah was depending upon Pharaoh, the King of Mitzrayim, to join his cause. “You’re making a mistake in trusting Pharaoh,” Ravshakey said to Chizkiah. He’s not going to come help you.

Rav Avigdor Miller used this episode to teach a fundamental lesson in bitachon. Of course, Hashem put those words in Ravshakey’s mouth, he points out. Chizkiah was a complete tzaddik. He certainly did not trust in Pharaoh. He prayed to Hashem with all his heart. And yet Hashem saw that this perfect tzaddik had a small amount of trust in Pharaoh that maybe he would help him.

What did Hashem do in order to make Chizkiah as perfect as possible? He sent the King of Ashur. As the King of Ashur was standing there with a huge army outside the gates of Yerushalayim and Pharaoh was sitting at home doing nothing, Chizkiah thought, “Where’s Pharaoh? He promised me he would be here when I needed him.”

And that cured Chizkiah. He became so cured, in fact, that now he trusted completely and only in Hashem.

At that precise Hashem sent Yeshaya to answer Ravshakey directly: “This is what Hashem spoke about him [Sancheriv]…. We scorn you… we laugh at you…” (ibid. 37:22). Chizkiah had to reach that point of absolutely pure bitachon for the Navi to speak in Hashem’s name and mock the mighty king besieging Yerushalayim.

The whole thing was a staged lesson. Hashem brought Sancheriv from far away with his entire army just to make this tzaddik purified of any hint of a spiritual flaw. Under Hashem’s magnifying glass for the greatest tzaddikim, He saw that Chizkiah possessed a certain amount of trust in a human being. For us, there wouldn’t have been anything wrong. However, for Chizkiah it was considered a flaw in his perfection. Hashem needed him to be absolutely pure in faith, so he orchestrated the whole situation where the King of Ashur came and besieged Yerushalayim.

It’s a remarkable thing. Hashem moved nations to teach the lesson: “Arur hagever asher yivtach bo’adam — Accursed is the man that trusts in human beings” (Yirmiyahu 17:5). Hashem orchestrated an entire world war of unprecedented proportions as a demonstration that they should learn to trust in Him.

Picture the situation. Klal Yisrael was staring annihilation in the face. An overwhelming implacable foe completely surrounded their last stronghold. There was a constant propaganda barrage against them in their native tongue. They had doubters from within. They went to sleep Pesach night with no realistic hope. It was the most desperate moment.

Death by Song

However, they woke up the next morning and the threat was gone. A malach smote the army of Assyria with a plague (Melachim II 19:35). Suddenly, in one night, everything changed.

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 95b) offers several explanations how the Assyrians died, including this one by Rabbi Yitzchak Nafcha: “He [the malach killed them when he] made their ears hear the song from the mouth of the angels.” When they heard the greatness of the shirim of the malachim they perished.

Rav Miller explains: “This is included in the principle, ‘No one can see Me and live.’ No one can view the splendor of the Shechinah and remain alive; it’s too much for our nerves. Our blood vessels would burst at the excitement. They weren’t given that zechus, but they were given a little peak into what’s doing when the malachim say shirah to Hashem. Therefore, it was a case of perishing from seeing greatness beyond their ability to endure. Hashem, so to speak, opened their ears and allowed them to hear the music of the malachim, which to us would be a tremendous happiness, but to them was their downfall.”

2.6 Billion Minus 1

A malach smote the army of Assyria with a plague (Melachim II 19:35). Suddenly, in one night, everything changed.

We live in scary times. Terrifying, in fact. It has eerie similarities to the time 3,032 years ago when the Malach HaMavess was let loose on the streets in the form of an unstoppable plague. Just as then, no one is safe and there is no real defense.

The only defense then and now is to slam the doors of the world behind us and to fall into the loving embrace of Hashem. Without a pure emunah, all the quarantines and vaccines amount to nothing. With emunah everything is possible.

That brings us back to the Chazal that Sancheriv’s overall army was 2.6 billion strong “minus one.” The Gemara debates if it was “Minus 10,000 or minus 1,000 or minus 100 or minus 1?”The Gemara concludes “Teiku.” We have to wait until Eliyahu HaNavi comes and tells us.

But perhaps the deeper meaning is as follows: The “one” is Hashem. The number “260 myriads”(2.6 billion) is a reference to His name Yud-Key-Vav-Kay, which is 26 in gematria. The lesson is that it’s not a “numbers game.” A person can have the largest army in the world. If Hashem isn’t with him, he will lose. On the other hand, there can be 2.6 billion enemies aligned against us but if Hashem – the One — is on our side we have them outnumbered. They have no chance.

Until coronavirus we thought we knew we believed in Hashem. Then we discovered we believe in Hashem… plus some element of President Trump, plus the economy, plus our investments, plus modern medicine, plus our advanced technology, etc. On the dollar bill it says, “In G-d we trust” — but who do we really trust? Hashem or the dollar bill?

If we study our history we see how Hashem has been teaching our nation this principle again and again and again. He’s been systematically teaching us the great lesson that He and only He is in full charge of all the affairs of the world. Only He can be trusted.

Coronavirus is a shofar gadol. It’s rattled us down to the core. It’s prepared us for Pesach. Whether or not it’s preparing us for Mashiach depends on teshuvah — on a teshuvah sheleimah based on a pure emunah. A teshuvah sheleimah like nothing we’ve ever done in recent memory as a prat or a klal.

Communism & Coronavirus

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By request, I’m posting my article that was published last week in the Yated Ne’eman.

In Mao’s Shadow

Coronavirus is on all our minds these days. It’s been discussed by physicians, politicians, clergy, laymen and everyone in between. It’s shut down or interrupted school districts, airlines, food industries, sporting leagues and more. We’ve heard about it from almost every conceivable angle.

One angle that’s arguably not been discussed as much is its connection to and origin in communism – not the country of China as much as the ideology upon which modern China is formed. Yes, ideas can kill, and communist regimes have killed more people in the past century than the combined death tolls of World War I and World War II. Interestingly, coronavirus too has its origins in a decision rooted in the perverted idealism known as communism – specifically communism’s Chinese founder, Mao Zedung.

This needs a little explanation.

China’s Wet Markets

I was in China in 2013 as a lecturer for Legacy Kosher Tours. Despite visiting memorable sites such as the Great Wall, my revulsion at viewing all the foods offered in the numerous outdoor markets we encountered in every major city remains indelibly etched on my mind. These included such “delicacies” as skewered scorpion, spiced centipede, spider kebab, silk worms on a stick, fried pig’s feet, sautéed cuttlefish (a shrimp-like creature), raw clams, pickled sea cucumbers, minced iguana tails, glazed dung beetles, fried sparrows, grilled snake, turkey vulture schnitzels, skewered seahorse, fried cicada – pretty much everything on two legs… four legs, eight legs, one hundred legs and more.

While visiting a silkworm factory, someone asked the Chinese woman giving us the tour if it was true that the Chinese ate silkworms. Before anyone could stop her, she popped one in her mouth and said “Yes.”

This experience gave me a particularly deep appreciation of the Rashi in Makkos (23b) which states that, to increase our merits, Hashem gave us not only Torah and mitzvos in abundance, but “many admonitions, warnings and commandments about crawling things and carrion that everyone refrains from anyway — all so that we should receive reward for abstaining from them.” How great is Torah! We get rewarded for not eating things we would never want to eat!

At one point, I asked one of the Chinese guides if the people had always eaten such a variety of creepy-crawling things. He told me that they hadn’t — it began after the Great Famine. “Back then,” he said, “you would have been glad to have had what’s on today’s menu.”

Cracking a Few Eggs

“The Great Famine” was the greatest manmade famine in history. It began as an economic crusade initiated by Communist China’s founder and dictator Mao Zedung. Mao called it “The Great Leap Forward.” It was to be a massive mobilization of China’s population with the goal of turning China into an industrial power overnight.

In Western Europe, the Industrial Revolution developed gradually over more than a century. Even at that pace, it created a social upheaval of untold proportions. The transition from a world where most people lived on farms and tilled the soil to one where most lived in cities and worked in factories was wrenching, chaotic and the cause of much turmoil. (It was particularly wrenching to Jewish life, where for centuries Jews had lived in small, isolated communities – shtetls – but now relatively suddenly had to expose themselves to the moral challenges and dangers of urban life.)

The Industrial Revolution did not penetrate Russia in the 1800s. It remained technologically backward even into the 1900s and beyond, including the beginning the Communist Revolution there in 1917. In the 1930s, however, the Soviet Union’s leader, Josef Stalin, decided to impose industrialization on his population – and to do so in a few short years. He did it not only to modernize Russia but to secure communist rule by eliminating private ownership and crushing millions of peasants who might dare resist his policies.

Imagine, one day, officials coming to your farm without warning and confiscating all food products —potatoes, wheat, barley, oats, peas, beans, carrots, onions and every kind of fruit, geese and cattle. Not only that but they also seize farming tools such as wagons, horses, oxen, cars and trucks. The communists called it “collectivization” but it was just another name for massive government theft. In effect, it turned farmers into slave laborers on what was once their own land. Although Soviet authorities promised to return a portion of the food they confiscated, they gave them back very little to eat.

That was by design. When told his policies were killing millions, Stalin didn’t flinch. He justified it saying, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” The “broken eggs” would turn out to be an estimated six to eight million human beings who starved to death. The “omelet” was the communist dream of a utopian society where no one owned land. If millions of people had to die to achieve that dream, so be it.

To cover up their atrocities, Soviet authorities barred peasants from traveling to cities, and city dwellers were kept away from the countryside. Stalin even had the census chief arrested when his report showed a population decrease. Whoever was left alive after the terrible winter of 1933 quickly joined the communist cause.

Mao modeled much of his behavior after Stalin – and would end up breaking even more “eggs” in an attempt to create his communist “omelet.”

The Great Famine

The Great Leap Forward

Mao wanted his to country leap into the modern era and industrialize within an even shorter time that the Soviet dictator’s.

The Great Leap Forward began in 1958 in the countryside with a huge reorganization of farming. In less than 12 months, some 700 million peasants — almost four times the population of the United States at the time — were pushed and cajoled into enormous collective farms. The government expected grain production to quadruple. Indeed, from the beginning reports poured in that there were fantastic increases in output!

The only problem was that they were outright lies.

This is the pattern of communist states. In the process of promoting an ideology that almost invariably makes life worse for people it promotes the lie that it is the best life for people. They can get away with it because invariably communist authorities control the press, are masters of propaganda and oppress – often brutally — anyone who opposes them.

Even as communist leaders told Mao they could produce 20 million tons of grain, they knew the truth was maybe half that or even just one-tenth the amount. However, since Mao wanted to hear good news, nobody dared to contradict him or dampen his optimism. If he said grain production would quadruple, it would quadruple — even if it would not. Even if it was only a fraction of the normal output.

The murderous part of this fraud was that the communist government used those completely inflated numbers to project its ability to feed the entire country. When only a percentage of the predicted crop actually came in, many people were left without food — starting with the farmers who labored to produce it!

By the winter of 1959, as a result of communist social engineering, whole villages died of starvation. One survivor described how at first his very elderly great grandparents passed away and were buried. But as the rest of his family died of starvation, the others were too weak to even bury them. The bodies were just there in the open and the survivors lay listlessly, waiting for death. Out of 36 family members, only he survived.

Estimates suggest that 30-40 million Chinese died of hunger between 1959 and 1961. It was the worst manmade famine in history.

Incredibly, the scale of the disaster was concealed from the country. In a communist country the façade is paramount. It must be maintained at all costs or the masses might rebel. Therefore, the only ones in Mao’s China who knew of the horrific reality were the farmers who were starving and the Communist Party leadership who were starving them. The masses in the cities had no clue. When Mao smiled and clapped, they joined him.

The Shadow of Mao

When I visited China in 2013, it was remarkable to me that it was still living in the shadow of Mao. Literally. Tiananmen Square – big enough to hold around 600,000 people and visited by 14 million people each year – even today is dominated by huge pictures of Mao. Long lines snake around a mausoleum where people wait sometimes two hours to get in to see his embalmed body on display.

(Witnessing this and other examples how the Chinese tend to revere the highest – even most corrupt – human authority, it struck me that perhaps China looks the way that the Western world would have looked if Avraham Avinu had never defied Nimrod; and if Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah had never defied Nevuchadnezzar; if there had never been any Jews, people willing to sacrifice their lives for the idea that man is not G-d.)

Be that as it may, when our Chinese guide said that after the Great Famine people first began eating all the repulsive creatures on display in the markets, it resonated with me. What began as a necessity became a habit and was even billed as a delicacy. Indeed, eating exotic creatures is considered a symbol of wealth because they are more rare and expensive. 

On one hand, I said to myself, “To each his own.” On the other hand, the Sefer HaChinuch mentions that one reason Hashem forbade us from eating non-kosher creatures was because they have something physically (not just spiritually) unhealthy about them (see Mitzvos 73, 147, 148, 154).

It turns out that some of these creatures the Chinese love so much potentially carry viruses that can jump into humans.

Communist Capitalism

After Mao’s death in 1976, China was falling apart. In 1978, on the verge of collapse, the communist regime decided to do something very un-communist — give up control and allow private farming. This set China on a dramatic new course and would have made Mao turn over in his grave (or in his mausoleum).

While large companies increasingly dominated the production of popular foods like pork and poultry, some smaller farmers turned to catching and raising wild animals as a way to sustain themselves. Since it started to feed and sustain people, the Chinese government backed it.

Then in 1988, the government made a decision that changed the shape of animal trade in China. They enacted the Wildlife Protection Law which designated the animals as “resources owned by the state” and protected people engaged in the “utilization of wildlife resources.” With that, an industry was born. Small local farms turned into industrial-sized operations. While this helped the economy, bigger populations also meant greater chances that a sick animal could spread disease.

Moreover, farmers were also raising a wider variety of animals. These included exotic reptiles such as snakes and crocodiles; and mammals such as Himalayan palm civets, raccoon dogs, wild boars and pangolins (the latter being illegal because it is considered endangered). A wider variety meant more viruses on the farms. Despite that, these animals were funneled into the wet markets for profit.

By the early 2000s, these markets were teeming with wild animals when the inevitable happened – an animal-borne virus jumped into the human population. In 2002, the deadly SARS virus outbreak was traced to a wet market in southern China. Scientists found traces of the virus in farmed civet cats. Chinese officials quickly shut down the markets and banned wildlife farming.

However, a few months after the outbreak, the Chinese government declared 54 species of wildlife animals, including civet cats, legal to farm again. By 2004, the wildlife-farming industry was worth an estimated $100 billion yuan. By 2018, it had grown to $148 billion yuan. With those numbers it’s been a challenge to put human safety first.

Soon after the coronavirus outbreak, the Chinese government shut down thousands of wet markets and temporarily banned wildlife trade again. It remains to be seen how long this will last.

Communist Coverup

Arguably the most infuriating part of this tragedy is the coverup. The communist regime initially repressed the news of the outbreak and by doing so contributed to its spread.

Li Wenliang, 34, was an ophthalmologist at Wuhan Central Hospital. In December 2019 he sent a warning to other physicians about the potential of a respiratory illness he had seen in several patients. Chinese authorities ordered him and other doctors to stop promulgating “rumors” about the SARS-like cases. On January 31, he confirmed he contracted the disease in a social media post. A week later he was dead. The authorities moved aggressively to squelch any protest over his death.

Similar tactics were applied to journalists and amateurs who reported on the virus. They have been told to stop and some have even disappeared. That includes a member of the government — Ren Zhiqiang, an outspoken government critic.

All this is par for the course in the communist paradise. Since the times of Lenin and Stalin, dissidents in communist lands have been disappearing, many sent with a one-way ticket to the “gulag” — forced labor camps hidden from the public. China is said to have between one and three million prisoners in their gulags, or as they call them “re-education camps.”

In case of coronavirus, the classic communist coverup not only harmed the native population, but contributed to the rapid worldwide spread of the virus. US National Security adviser Robert O’Brien said that an initial cover-up of the coronavirus in China “cost the world community two months” and exacerbated the global outbreak. If teams from the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had been invited in early on, he said, “I think we could have dramatically curtailed what happened in China and what’s now happening across the world.”

The Power of One

What’s done is done, you say. What practical value is there in exposing this?

At the root of it all is a communist ideology that is diametrically opposed to the Torah. Rabbi Berel Wein explains this beautifully it in one of his lectures on Jewish history:

“In the 18th century, the world was infected by the Marxist idea that human beings don’t count. There are forces, economic and social, that govern all of history. They are immutable forces that no one can change under any circumstances. The collapse of capitalism and rise of communism are historic forces, and human beings do not play a role.

“The corollary to that is that the individual has no worth. The only thing of worth is the state… the idea… the party. Not surprisingly, Chairman Mao killed tens of millions of Chinese to bring about the great, new utopian China. Stalin also killed tens of millions of people to achieve his communist utopia. All those people died because the individual did not exist in the Marxist ideology.

“On the other hand, if you look at the stories in the Torah they are not stories about nations and empires; they are stories about people. The backdrop is the empire, but the story is about the person. The story is about Abraham. The story is about Yitzchak. The story is about Yaakov. The story is about David. Where they lived, what went on — that’s the backdrop. In the Torah, people are important.

“The Sages (Sanhedrin 37a) ask, ‘Why was only one person created to begin the world?’ Why didn’t G-d begin the world with 50 million people? One of the answers is that each of us is obligated to say that the entire universe was created for the sake of one person — and that one person is me! The fact that there are others doesn’t change anything. It was created for me.

“The whole world was created for you! That’s how the Torah looks at people. Judaism is about the power of the individual, the power of one.”

In search for the spiritual roots of this event unprecedented in our times, perhaps we can point to the lesson of the “power of one.” Do you know that the world was created for you? Do you really know it? Do we know that each of us is made b’tzelem Elokim, as a reflection of Hashem? Do we treat others accordingly? Do we treat ourselves accordingly?

Let’s ponder that during some of the quiet moments of the increased opportunity for self-reflection this virus min hashamayim forces us to take.

A Cosmic Hatred

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Zman 81 cover - Bassem Eid - Palestinian Authority scandalsA Cosmic Hatred

Bassem Eid offers a surprising angle on the Arab-Israeli conflict: “The first thing that we as Palestinians must do is to stop viewing ourselves as victims of the Israelis. This constant blame that our situation is the result of Israeli politics has brought us nothing and will continue to do nothing for us.”

This is downright refreshing, even revolutionary. Change is impossible without accepting responsibility. The kneejerk reaction to blame others (even where justifiable) is a recipe for misery. It takes strength of character to acknowledge one’s failings and move onto the hard business of fixing oneself, first and foremost, instead of giving that power to others by blaming them. Kudos to Mr. Eid.

Now, if only the rest of the Middle East felt that way….

Blaming Israel for everything – like traditional anti-Semitism that blames Jews for everything — permeates today’s world, but especially Middle Eastern culture. Ironically, some of the soberest thinkers on this subject are Muslims. “I am an observant Muslim committed to combating Islamism,” stated Dr. Quanta Ahmed, an outspoken British-Muslim physician, in a recent interview. “Islamism is a political totalitarian ideology, one of the central tenets of which is Islamist anti-Semitism.”

She then adds, “There is a deep-rooted anti-Semitism… which is greatly fueled by Islamist ideology… which is actually in the philosophy of major groups… like Hamas and Hezbollah, who explicitly identify the Jew or Judaism as a ‘cosmic’ enemy, not just a mortal enemy.”

Here she has hit the proverbial nail on the head: Islamists do not hate, persecute or murder Jews because of anything apologists and politicians imagine, such as alleged economic inequality or territorial disputes. They do so because of their ideology. Similar to the Nazi ideology, Islamism turns Jews into an evil, cosmic, supernatural force to be opposed at all costs.

Hundreds of stabbings of Jewish Israelis by young Palestinian Arabs over the past year are, at their root, natural outgrowths of the raw anti-Semitism spewed daily from places like the Voice of Palestine Radio teaching school children that killing Jews and dying in the process is a sacred duty. Many of the assailants (like Muslim terrorists in general) were financially well-off. It was ideology that drove their behavior.

“Is it any surprise that after decades of indoctrination in a culture of hate that people actually do hate?” Nonie Darwish, who was raised as a Muslim in the Gaza Strip, said of her birth-culture.

Sadly, thanks to what Dr. Ahmed calls an “incredibly ignorant marriage of Left and Islamism,” presidents and pundits alike perpetuate the dysfunctional attitudes that plague the Middle East and which are exported to the West. They need to diagnose the problem soberly, which begins by having no illusions about the central role ideology plays in Islamist terror.

Be that as it may, we can only control what we can, which means living by our faith, growing our communities and continuing to serve as conduits for the “cosmic” good.

Yaakov Astor, Editor-in-Chief

My Mother-in-Law: Jewish Heroine and Nazi Killer

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This was published on Aish.com

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Rachel Blum around age 20, about five years after surviving the Holocaust.

It was a daunting assignment: speaking to 120 eighth grade girls about the Holocaust in the last hour of the last day of their school year. Compounding my challenge, it was gloriously sunny outside. The girls would be anxious to take leave for their summer vacation.

In my favor, I was going to tell them a remarkable story: that of my mother-in-law, Rachel Blum, may her soul rest in peace – a story I have told to spell-bound audiences and have recently published in book form under the title Nothing Bad Ever Happens.

I told these teenage girls that my mother-in-law was roughly their age during the war years, beginning in June 1941 when the Nazis invaded her town, until July 1944 when the Russians liberated Lublin where she had been hiding with a non-Jewish family.

Then I dove into the story, which is truly incredible and gripping – including a Hollywood-worthy climax as Rachel rides in the caboose of a speeding train transporting a thousand SS soldiers to Germany. Fearful an SS officer is about to discover she is Jewish, she convinces the conductor – Ivan Roluk, husband of the non-Jewish couple who took her in – to overturn the train by speeding up around a sharp bend and blowing the horn just beforehand to allow her and his family to jump. (It worked, the family survived and many Nazis were killed; 15-year-old Rachel was responsible for the death of more SS Nazis in one shot than the combined efforts of all the legendary fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising!)

Despite the dramatic nature of that story, I will save the details for the book and instead share another story, one which is in some ways even more incredible.

Rachel’s childhood town, Ludmir, was home to about 22,000 Jews before the war. On Rosh Hashanah 1942, the Nazis, with the help of local collaborators, began marching columns of bedraggled Jews to a spot outside town and machine-gunned them to death into open pits. Between 15,000 and 18,000 Jews lost their lives that way. And Ludmir was just one of countless Jewish towns in Eastern Europe; all told, some million-and-a-half Jews suffered a similar fate under Nazi domination (even before the gas chambers started operating).

Rachel and her family survived thanks to an ingenious attic hideout. And for the next year, she survived by staying in hiding, smuggling in food for her family and ultimately joining the few thousand survivors in the Ludmir ghetto who had been conscripted into brutal slave labor battalions. Over the year, though, each family member was killed or died of starvation.

Finally, on December 25, 1943, the Nazis came to finish off everyone left in the ghetto. In miraculous fashion – Rachel found a hiding place beneath a wooden porch. A few days later she emerged and made her way to a Polish woman her family knew before the war.

This woman risked her life to keep Rachel – until one day when an anti-Semitic neighbor discovered her. Frightened for her own life now, the Polish woman told her she had to leave by the early morning.

It was January 1944. A fresh layer of deep snow lay on the ground. The air was biting cold. And a little girl, improperly dressed, was alone and on the run again.

She wandered the streets of non-Jewish Ludmir for a while before entering a barn. Her entire body chilled to the bone, she found a spot at the far end and stuck her feet into a stack of hay to warm them up.

Suddenly, a woman walked in. Their eyes met. Rachel pleaded with her to be quiet, promising she would be gone by the next morning. The woman said nothing, gathered some items and left.

As the day turned into evening, Rachel prepared to leave. The night before she had experienced a powerful dream where her recently-deceased father appeared to her and told her everything would be alright. Drawing courage from the dream, she exited the barn and approached the house next to it.

She knocked on the door. The woman she had seen earlier in the day opened it and invited her inside. The woman then introduced husband and their seventeen-year-old son (who Rachel later found out worked in the local SS office!). They offered her a bowl of soup. During conversation it emerged that this family, the Roluks, knew Rachel’s father. They praised him for being a very righteous and honest man they had had business dealings with. If they did not have money to pay for the items he gave them on consignment, he did not pressure them to pay.

At this point in the war, both Rachel and the Roluks knew the Nazis would kill any family caught harboring a Jew. Understanding the predicament, Rachel asked Mrs. Roluk if she and her family were religious. She answered affirmatively. Rachel then asked her if they had a Bible. Again affirmative. Rachel next requested that she take the Bible and place it on the table. She did. Finally, Rachel said to the entire family, “I want all of you to place your hands on the Bible.” They complied.

“Now, promise me the following,” the 14-year-old recently orphaned Jewish girl said. “I have nowhere to run. I’m tired and I’m alone. After this, I will go outside to your backyard and lie down in the snow. There I will freeze to death. You will bury me. Now, promise me on this Bible” – and it is difficult to convey the quality of conviction in my mother-in-law’s voice even as she retold it decades later – “that after the war you will find Jewish people and tell that there is a little Jewish girl buried in the backyard. Promise me that you will tell them that her last wish was that she be reburied with other Jews in a Jewish cemetery.”

A deathly silence fell upon the room. The Roluks looked at each other. One by one, they rose from the table and walked into the next room. Rachel could hear them talking. After a while, they returned and said to her, “You will stay with us. We will tell people that you are our niece from another village.”

What the Roluks did not know at the time was that in saving Rachel they were saving themselves – not only in soul but in body too. (This is detailed in the book. Hint: it has to do with the train story above.)

By the end of my lecture, the 120 girls were mesmerized. The most amazing part of Rachel’s story is that – despite the fact that by war’s end she had no family, friends or money – she became the happiest, most active, most loving and helping human being; someone who regularly said with absolute sincerity, “Nothing bad ever happened to me.”

The story of my mother-in-law inspires on many levels. She is a genuine heroine. As Jews, her story impresses upon us an added message: the value of what it means to be Jewish. Perhaps most of all, we learn from her that even if very bad things happen to us, we have within ourselves an astonishing, mysterious, inextinguishable untapped capacity to love; to be truly happy, active, focused and a magnet of joy for others. God knows, the world needs more of that.

Nothing Bad Ever Happens (retitled: Run Rachel Run) tells the thrilling, true story of Rachel Blum’s struggle to survive in a world bent on destroying her. Click here to order.

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Massive New Pesach Zman!

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Cover Zman-52The Munich Massacre

The 1972 Olympics was to be a new Olympics symbolizing a new Germany with a new feeling of universal brotherhood. Then Arab terrorists seized 11 Israeli athletes, sparking memories of the Holocaust in the land that perpetrated it. Zman interviews Israeli Olympic delegate Shmuel Lalkin who was only a few feet away in the neighboring apartment at the time of the attack. He provides a fascinating yet harrowing and chilling insider’s account of this terrifying event.

Slavery… Today

“We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt….” Slavery in modern times has been strongly denounced and much effort has been made to uproot it. Despite that, there are — shockingly — more slaves today than perhaps ever in world history! Zman takes a look at modern slavery and how we can use it as an opportunity to appreciate the words of the Haggadah telling us how fortunate we are that we are not enslaved.

 King Tut – Not One To Say “Tut Tut” To

The discovery of the tomb of King Tutankhamun, a relatively minor pharaoh, with its fabulous treasures virtually intact, took the world by storm. Everyone could now see for the first time the unbelievable wealth that surrounded the monarchs of the ancient world’s most famous and imposing empire. Read about the discovery of the tomb and learn about its significance in the annals of history and in the eyes of the Torah.

Airliners Gone AWOL

The news this past month was full of the story of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 that disappeared on March 8. More than two dozen countries searched from land, air, space and sea for any visible sign of the plane. Two weeks of intense searching produced nothing. The plane simply disappeared. But this was not the first time in history that such an event caught the world’s attention. Read the stories of other airplanes that mysteriously vanished.

Apollo 13: Disaster In Space!

The entire world was transfixed. Many said it was the first time they prayed. It all began when the Apollo rocket heading toward the moon experienced a major malfunction. On the ground, specialists worked feverishly to develop a plan to return the astronauts to Earth. It was a race against time. Oxygen, heat and electricity on the craft were fast running out. A series of risky maneuvers were initiated in the slim hope of returning them alive. Would they succeed in time?

 Kids Who Made The News

It isn’t every day that children are featured in the news, but when a child does make headlines the circumstances are bound to be extraordinary, if not completely bizarre. Here is an array of curious reports about children that have captured the interest of the media and the public all over the world.

 Raised By Wild Animals

Although there are many myths, legends and fictional stories depicting children reared by wild animals — such as dogs, wolves, apes and bears — modern day cases suggests that at least some of those legends may have been based on true accounts. As surreal as this may seem, there have been documented instances even today where children have been adopted and raised by animals.

 Humble First Jobs… Of Some Not-So-Humble People

The only truly predictable thing about life is its unpredictability. Nowhere is this more evident, arguably, than in the lives of the most famous (and infamous) world leaders who had the most humble beginnings. Be it the billionaire who once waiting on tables… to the dictator who began as a peasant… to the current President of the United States who used to scooped ice cream, history (past and present) proves time and again that anything can and does happen.

 NASI – Anatomy Of A Crisis

It has been called the shidduch crisis. In order to shed light on the nature of it and its possible causes, Zman interviewed Rabbi Moshe Pogrow, the director of NASI, the North American Shidduch Initiative. To provide a more complete picture, we also interviewed several shadchanim who have been involved in NASI shidduchim, including Mrs. Libby Lieberman, and mother of “older singles” who would potentially benefit from the program.

 The New Seminary

Seventeen years ago, Rebbetzin Sora Bulka, along with Rabbi Yeshaya Levy, envisioned an educational institution that would achieve two different but related goals. The first was to provide young women with the proper values, skills and knowledge to become professionally involved in quality Jewish education. The second was to allow women to obtain degrees from respected universities while remaining in an environment committed to tzniyus and yiras shamayim. Thus was born The New Seminary.

The Munich Massacre

Munich, Germany – the birthplace of Naziism. The year is 1972, more than 27 years after the end of World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust. This was to be a new Olympics, symbolizing a new Germany with a new feeling of universal brotherhood and peace for all mankind. Then Arab terrorists infiltrated seized 11 Israeli athletes, sparking memories of the Holocaust in the land that perpetrated it. The world literally watched the horrific events unfold and wondered: Would negotiators and commandos be able to save the Jewish athletes in time?

 Hi Tech Veggies

Vegetables and greens are an important part of Pesach tradition, and take a prominent role at the Seder. In this month’s special food section, Zman explores the wild world of insect infestation, and how to have your broccoli and eat it too!

 

New Book!

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TUGH-72dpi-CMYK-3D I’m very excited to announce a new book I had the privilege to put together.

This book highlights the spiritual activism which took place both inside and outside the Soviet Union between 1975 and 1992. Although a movement to help Soviet Jewry began in the United States and elsewhere in the 1960s, its focus was essentially political, not religious. Its goal was to get the Soviet authorities to allow Jews to immigrate to Israel, not necessarily teach them what it meant to live a Jewish life. For the most part, many of the intellectuals and scientists who became activists in the sixties and the seventies never embraced an observant life. They saw their return to Jewish identity in mostly secular terms. There were a handful of old Jews who miraculously held onto their beliefs and observance even from Lenin’s time, but by Soviet design they had no influence on the younger generations. From a Torah perspective, the Soviet Union was a vast spiritual wasteland.

Then a spark was lit – albeit among a handful of young Jews who were alone, scattered, persecuted, under constant surveillance by the KGB and without books or teachers. Fanning their spark into the fire of a spiritual revolution required Jews from outside the Soviet Union to get involved. And, indeed, a few such Jews stepped into the breach.

One of them was was couple: R’ Mordechai Neustadt and his wife. From husband-and-wife travel agents trying to make a small difference there eventually grew this vast network called Vaad Lehatzolas Nidchei Yisrael (Organization to Rescue Dispersed Jews) that dispatched hundreds of shlichim (emissaries) to the Soviet Union to teach and encourage members of a budding baal teshuvah movement. Moreover, as the Soviet Union began collapsing and started letting its Jewish population emigrate, the Vaad helped already-freed Soviet Jews make the transition to life in Eretz Yisrael and America. It would set up yeshivas, kollels and educational institutions geared specifically for them. In short, the Vaad turned a trickle into a torrent. It changed the course of history.

The Vaad’s shlichim were particularly noteworthy in that many of them were prominent roshei yeshiva, venerated mechanchim and acclaimed talmidei chachamim. This cadre of distinguished emissaries placed themselves in the line of fire, risking arrest, detention and hostile interrogations from the KGB just to teach Torah to a lost generation. They were frontline participants and living witnesses to one of the greatest miracles in recent history – the resurrection of Torah-true Jewish life in the former Soviet Union. Their testimonies not only tell the story but tell it with an especially high dosage of Torah perspective.

The hope is that this book becomes the source for young and old, novice and maven, who want an in-depth firsthand account of what happened to Jews in the Soviet Union, the miracle of how Torah sprouted from behind the Iron Curtain, and why, for all its tragedy, the story of Soviet Jewry turned into an incredibly inspiring chapter in the unparalleled ongoing story of the Jewish people.

New Zman: …And Mordechai Will Not Bow

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Bowing To No Other

As background to this month’s cover story, let me share a thought told by Rav Shlomo Brevda, zt”l.

One of the key moments in the Purim story is when Mordechai refuses to bow to Haman (Esther 3:2). Haman was the second most powerful man in the Persian Empire, which ruled the entire civilized world, including all its Jews. Everyone bowed to him — except Mordechai. When Haman found out, he vowed to kill Mordechai.

That set in motion the events that led to the royal decree to exterminate all Jews – as well as the miracles that thwarted the decree, ending with the execution of Haman, his sons and thousands of other anti-Semites throughout the empire.

Rav Brevda, quoting the Vilna Gaon in his commentary on Aggados Megillah, says that Mordechai’s act served as a tikkun for an old communal transgression that had never been properly expiated. When the Jews were first sent into exile by Nevuchadnetzar he erected a huge statue and called all the leading dignitaries of all the peoples in his domain to meet in the valley where the statue resided. At the designated moment, everyone was supposed to bow. Those who refused would be thrown into a furnace.

Everyone bowed, including all the Jews, except for three brave youths, Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah, who were miraculously saved.

The Gemara (Megillah 7) tells us that those Jews who bowed to the idol of Nevuchadneztar did not intend it to be an act of avodah zarah. Rather, they acted out of fear of Nevuchadneztar. However, it had the appearance of avodah zarah, and thus was a chillul Hashem.

It was several generations after Nevuchadnetzar when Mordechai refused to bow to Haman. “Why are you defying the royal decree?” the royal servants asked him.

Mordechai informed them that he was a Yehudi (a Jew), and avodah zarah was forbidden; he would never bow down to Haman, who had made himself into an object of worship (Megillah 10b, 19a; Sanhedrin 6Ib).

Mordechai’s kiddush Hashem served as rectification, tikkun ha’chet, for the chillul Hashem of bowing to Nevuchadnetzar’s idol. In so doing, he undid the earlier wrong and thus set up the deliverance of the Jewish people.

Rav Brevda goes onto explain that the real sin here was that the Jews had come to rely on a power other than Hashem. They looked for help from foreign powers, from persons of great influence or on their own ingenuity and efforts. The tikkun was to absolutely disregard all powers on Earth; to turn only to Hashem for a salvation through prayer and teshuvah.

That is one of the great lessons of Purim: our reliance on Hashem and the primacy of tefillah and teshuvah.

The situation in our cover story was not exactly the same, but there are striking similarities. As such, perhaps it is meant to drive home the point that this lesson is still very current, and one of the primary challenges of our times.

Yaakov Astor, Editor-in-Chief

Paradise Found

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Paradise_Found_(medium)_(english)“Rebbe, please pray for me not to be drafted into the army,” a young man beseeched the Viznitzer Rebbe in the years before World War I. Although non-observant, he knew the Rebbe to be a miracle worker, a man whose prayers were really answered.

The Rebbe’s method was to have the person in need tell him one mitzvah, one good deed, they had done; then the Rebbe would say in his prayers, “Master of the Universe, this person is keeping kosher… or Shabbat, etc. – in that merit please save him.”

The Rebbe looked at the young man now asking him to pray he not be drafted in the army. “Do you pray every morning?” he asked.

“No,” he said, “I don’t wake up till long after noon and then I go to play soccer.”

“Do you keep the Sabbath?”

“How can I? Saturday is reserved for the most important soccer games.”

“Do you eat kosher?”

“It’s cheaper to eat pork.”

The Rebbe persisted, but time and again received the same answer. The young man did not have one single point of merit. Finally, the Rebbe said to him, “I envy you.”

“You do?”

“Yes. Can you imagine, in one moment you can become a greater tzaddik (righteous person) than I.”

“Yeah?”

“Yes. You see, anyone who does teshuva (repentance) out of fear of God has his sins erased. But anyone who repents out of love of God has his sins turned into merits. And you definitely have more sins than I have merits. In one minute, you can turn everything around and end up with more merits than I.”

A reflective, thoughtful look flashed across this young man’s face. Without batting an eyelash, he said, “Rebbe, wait another year and you will envy me even more!”
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The Liberating Experience of Judgment

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ImageAccording to Judaism,1 each of us undergoes three different types of Days of Judgment Days:

  1. Rosh Hashanah, which is an annual review of one’s actions over the previous year used to determine one’s material circumstances for the upcoming year;
  2. Day of death, which reviews the deceased person’s life and determines whether it is ready for Paradise;
  3. The Great Day of Judgment, which is an event in the future, at the end of history as we know it, when all who lived are resurrected, and are judged whether they are worthy of everlasting life in a spiritualized renewed physical world (according to most authorities) to frolic in the splendor of God’s Presence.

All this judgment strikes the contemporary mind as backward, even offensive. It only reinforces the stereotypic image of “Old Testament” Judaism as a religion of fear, not love.

Well, yes, judgment — whether on Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Death, or the “Great Day of Judgment” — contains the general air of awe and seriousness. There is no sense trying to sugarcoat or diminish the magnitude of these events.

Nevertheless, what’s often lost to the contemporary mind is the liberating experience judgment entails. Perhaps the best illustrations of this are found in a surprising place.
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