Heroes: Then and Now

In general, each of the Five Books of Moses and all the weekly Torah portions read in the synagogue are named after the first significant word of the book. For example, Shemot (Names in English) is the first important word in the first sentence of the Book of Exodus.

“These are the names of the children of Israel who came to Egypt. (Exodus CH 1:V 1) Eleh Shemot bnai Yisrael…

Despite this simple explanation, many have sought to interpret the significance of the specific appellation. Rabbi Shipell of Lockdown Univerity shared this one recently.*1

Some in the Book of Exodus are named, but many more are referred to anonymously.

A man of the house of Levi went and married a daughter of Levi. The woman conceived and bore a son.” (Exodus ch 2 v 1-2)

Although many are referred to anonymously, their mission is no less significant. If they had not each performed their specific tasks, as our Passover Haggadah text states, “we, and our children, and our children’s children would still be slaves in Egypt.”

Among the first persons named explicitly in the text are the Egyptian midwives to the Hebrews, Shifra and Puah. These two women’s acts may be the world’s first recorded historical narrative of civil disobedience.

Now the king of Egypt spoke to the Egyptian midwives, one who was named Shifrah, and the second, who was named Puah. And he said, “When you deliver the Hebrew women, and you see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall put him to death, but if it is a daughter, she may live.” (Exodus 1:17-21)

But the midwives did not follow the Pharoh’s demands.

The midwives, however, feared God, so they did not do as the king of Egypt had spoken to them, but they enabled the boys to live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said, “Why have you done this thing that you have enabled the boys to live?”

Another character who disobeyed the Pharoh’s immoral decrees was the Pharoh’s daughter.

Pharaoh and the Midwives

Pharaoh and the Midwives, James Tissot c. 1900

Pharaoh’s daughter went down to bathe in the Nile, and her maidens were walking along the Nile, and she saw the basket in the midst of the marsh, and she sent her maidservant, and she took it. She opened it, and she saw him, the child, and behold, he was a weeping lad, and she had compassion on him, and she said, “This is one of the children of the Hebrews.” (Exodus Ch 2 v 5-6)

This is the origin story of how Moses was saved from death and named and adopted by the Egyptian princess. Interestingly, Phaproh’s daughter is not named here, but she is the one who called the baby Moses, and this is the name by which he is known to this day!

She named him Moses, and she said, “For I drew him from the water” (min hamayim mishitihu). (Exodus Ch 2 v 10)

Pharaoh’s daughter finds Moses in the Nile (1886 painting by Edwin Long)

Modern Day Heros

It is now seventy-eight years since the defeat of the Nazis in WWll, and every day I learn about many hitherto anonymous people who were so significant to achieving that victory, some of them Jewish, many of them not. 

One of these liberators I recently learned about is the remarkable Portuguese-born double agent Juan Pujol García, who single-handedly decided in the early 1930s that Hitler had to be defeated. He managed to avoid conscription to Franco’s fascist army but was determined to pursue his goal of defeating Hitler and his forces. So he decided to pass himself off as a devoted Nazi in Spain. He began to send reports to Germany based on available information. He was so convincing that the Nazis enlisted him to go to Britain to enlist other double agents. Once in England, he ingeniously created a fictitious non-existent network of English double agents complete with code names and reports throughout the war. The English decoders of Nazi communications discovered what he was doing and then enlisted him formally to work for the Engish spy network, MI-6.

As MI-6 called him, Agent Garbo succeeded in deceiving the German high command several times in the allies’ favour. With the covert help of MI-6, he created a field of realistic-looking, blown-up balloon tanks and rows of planes set to go, which were photographed and sent to the German High Command. With these pictures, Agent Garbo convinced the German High Command that the invasion would be at Calais, not Normandy. He is genuinely one of the spies about whom it could be said if not for him, the war may have gone very differently. He was successful in his mission and lived to tell the tale and write his memoir, Operation GARBO: the personal story of the most successful double agent of World War II, on Jan. 1, 1985, by Juan Pujol & Nigel West.

Joan Pujol Garcia

Juan Pujol García as a conscript, 1931

Thousands of others like Juan Pujol García are only now being discoverethatnd children took it upon themselves not to for him do the right thing.

Another hero I discovered as I watched the recent movie, Simone, Woman of the Century, is Simone Veil.

Simone Veil

Simone Veil in Deauville, May 31, 1988.

The story of Veil’s life is seen from her joyful upbringing in a secular Jewish family to her arrest and deportation to Auschwitz, the day she received her high school diploma and her post-war accomplishments: – marrying and raising a family, acquiring a French law degree and serving in the French government and managing to alleviate the plight of prisoners of war, chronic drug users,  achieving legal abortion rights in a Catholic country, and becoming the first president of the European Parliament, the EU, to finally avoid the wars that have torn Europe apart for hundreds of years.

I have often considered the line Marc Antony spoke in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar.

“The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.”

It seems to me that it is just the opposite, “the good that men do lives on and remains with us for all generations to record and recall.”



*1 Rabbi Shipell of Lockdown University gives a weekly seminar on the Torah portion of the week on Lockdown Univerity. To subscribe, contact Lockdown University Staff at info@lockdownuniversity.org.


The Arts and Finding the Ultimate Paradise

One of the arts’ significant advantages is seeing what the self may have in common with others.

After listening to Piya Chattopadhyay’s Sunday Magazine on CBC Radio, I felt I had to write to her. The segments were excellent individually and also as a whole. They seemed to dialogue with each other.

To Paradise, Hanya Yanagihara,In her new book, To Paradise, Hanya Yanagihara, a novelist rooted in Hawaii, speaks with Piya about the themes she explores in her recent work – freedom, utopia, borders, and disease over three centuries through three different versions of the American experiment, three couples of different socioeconomic backgrounds and sexual orientations. Yanagihara also comments on the damages caused by the pressures of males in our society expected to suppress all feelings.


Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John KoenigPiya then interviewed John Koenig, author of Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, about creating new words for feelings that previously had no way to be expressed. Koenig makes new words by borrowing and joining elements from many different languages. He points out that every language brings a different perspective, and each one has the potential to enrich our understanding of the world if we only care to see it.


The Next Civil War by Stephen MarchePiya’s next interviewee, Stephen Marche, has written The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American Future. Marche tries to shine a light on the present state of the US political situation by analyzing data and interrogating nearly two hundred experts, civil war scholars, military leaders, law enforcement officials, secret service agents, agricultural specialists, environmentalists, war historians, political scientists, and the man-on-the-street.


Marche calls his book speculative non-fiction, reminding us repeatedly that although his book is based on “facts,” he can not predict anything based on these “facts.” In this sense, I find it more similar to Hanya Yanagihara’s imaginative fictional novel, which creates its ephemeral reality.

Yanagihara frames her book around the search for “paradise” and how the United States embodies that dream for many people.

“Paradise,” like “joy,” can be an inner state accessible anywhere. The Bible speaks about Adam and Eve’s exile from Eden. But there is a way back there for each of us. Every week on the seventh day, one can bring an oasis of paradise quality into one’s life by engineering that total escape from our mundane cares. We call it the Sabbath.

Over the long term, we all continue to pray and strive for a world free of violence, war and pestilence, the ultimate Paradise.


Review of CNNThe Rise and Fall of Herod the Great

The second instalment of the CNN series on Jerusalem: the City of Faith, entitled 39 BC, The Rise and Fall of Herod the Great *1, tells the story of Jerusalem from the point of view of the ruling Kings of the period, their ambitions and jealousies: Herod, King of Israel, Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt and her Roman consort Mark Antony, Emperor of Western Rome and the ambitious Octavius.

Holyland Model of Jerusalem. A model of Herod’s Temple adjacent to the Shrine of the Book exhibit at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

The program makes for stimulating tv filled with plots and battles for supremacy between Egypt, Israel, and Rome, recounted by excellent contemporary historians.

King Herod married the Hasmonean princess Mariamne in a plot to be loved and accepted by the Israelites. However, Herod’s love did not prevent him from murdering his wife, their five children and anyone else he suspected as a rival. He was also part of the global web of power relationships, an ally of Marc Antony of Rome and a mortal enemy of Cleopatra. These relationships are amply elaborated in the CNN plot.

He also tried to build his way out of depression.

The series advises that Herod’s ambition and envy ensured he had no peace in his public or private life. CNN describes him as “going mad” by the end of his lengthy reign.

After his death, Roman colonial ambition led to the invasion and military occupation of Israel (then called Judea) and the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple that Herod himself had enhanced in the grand tradition of Roman edifices.

This true story is eerily similar to The Game of Thrones tv series. But, unfortunately, the viewpoint of traditional Jewish texts, Torah and Talmud, which tell the story of Jewish Kingship, is missing from the CNN narrative.

Moses himself lays out the roadmap for Jewish governance and Kingship in the book of Deuteronomy.

If, after you have entered the land that the LORD your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, “I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,” you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by the LORD your God. Be sure to put as King over yourself one of your people; you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your relative. Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses since the LORD has warned you, “You must not go back that way again.”

And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart goes astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess.  (Sefaria: Deuteronomy 17:14-17 *2)

This roadmap for a Jewish King is referenced in later historical descriptions of the history of the Jews as recorded in the later prophetic books, Samuel 1 and 2, Judges and Kings. In these canonical Jewish texts, transparency about situations, characters, motivations, and outcomes are impressive. Successes and failures are recorded along with the “sins” of the mighty and ordinary people. Additionally, the sins of the kings from Saul to Herod are amply documented.

The sins of the Jewish leadership of this period had started with the Hasmoneans one hundred and fifty years earlier. The Hasmonean Dynasty (140 BCE to 37 BCE) was successful in ridding Israel of Greek hegemony. This early victory is what we celebrate annually on the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. The Hasmoneans were of the priestly caste and served as priests and High Priests. However, after their victory, they assumed the crown of Kingship and the office of the High Priest. This went against the Mosaic law mentioned above. They also forcefully conquered neighbouring tribes and enforced their conversion to Judaism. This is also frowned upon by Moses’ injunction. King Herod, a Jewish member of one of these tribes that were converted by force, also coveted both crowns. He consulted neither holy books nor priestly advisors, yet he strove to be the High Priest and King of Israel.

Rabbi Meir Soloveichik’s podcast episode #32, Kohen vs King: Two Models of Leadership *4, points out that it is inevitable that both Kohen/Priest and King will make mistakes or “will sin.” Moreover, Rabbi Meir points out that the Torah’s prescription for recognition and repentance for mistakes/sins is different for Priests and Kings. When Leviticus the Torah refers to the High Priest, it says “if,” “If he sins,” but when speaking about Kings, it uses the word “asher-when,” “when he sins.” The Biblical text closely prescribes the conduct of the priests as they perform the rituals of worship, and so are very clear, but the narrator understands that the “errors” of rulers are inevitable. A ruler or King has to assess every situation as it crops up and make his own decisions.

Herod the Great

The King Herod the Great

The high priest

The High Priest


To help him with these decisions, he needs to:

“Have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the Levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the LORD his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long amid Israel.” *3 (Sefaria: Deuteronomy 17:14-20)

Roman colonization and rule by Roman governors followed Herod’s reign. As a result, his magnificent Temple – the Second Temple he had greatly enhanced – was crushed and demolished. Still, as we know it today, Judaism survived this destruction over two thousand years ago by a hairs’ breadth.

A small group of scholars/rabbis fled Jerusalem surreptitiously and gained permission from the Roman Emperor to establish their community in Yavneh, a remote town in Galilee. This is where the Talmud – the conversations of the Rabbis on every subject mentioned in the Torah, what Jews call “the oral biblical law” – became formalized and written down over the next six centuries. The Torah and Talmud form the basis of Jewish communal life today, both in Israel and the diaspora. Torah and Talmud continue to be studied daily by Jews of all ages in yeshiva worldwide, synagogue classes, and even universities. These canonical texts have been the backbone of Jewish communal life worldwide in the diaspora and Israel. It has been the guide for life for commoners and kings.

But it’s not enough to study these texts; execution is even more critical because Jewish history teaches us that the acts of both kings and commoners have consequences.



  1. CNN series on Jerusalem: City of Faith, 39 BC, The Rise and Fall of Herod the Great (www.cnn.com/2021/07/18/middleeast/jerusalem-original-series-faith-and-fury-timeline/index.html). This tv program is based on historic writings studied by modern-day scholars, like Sebag Montefiore, the contemporary author of Jerusalem: The Biography and others.
  2. Sefaria, Deuteronomy Ch 17 – V. 14-20, a website that presents the Jewish biblical canon, including Torah and Talmud, along with many commentaries (www.sefaria.org/Deuteronomy.17.15?lang=bi&with=About&lang2=en).
  3. Sefaria: Deuteronomy 17:18-20
  4. Rabbi Meir Soloveichik’s podcast, Bible 365, episode #32, Kohen (Priest) vs King: Two Models of Leadership https://bible365podcast.com/bible-365/kohen-vs-king-two-models-of-leadership/
  5. Rabbi Jonathon Sacks, Covenant & Conversation, Learning and Leadership (Shoftim 57)
  6. Sefaria, Deuteronomy Ch 17, v 18

Zachor Al Tishkach: Remember, Don’t Forget

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (Z’L) has pointed out that there is no word for “history” in Hebrew. The word closest to the notion of history in Hebrew is “Zachor” – the injunction “to remember.”

The Torah has two commandments around the word “Zachor.” One is Zachor et Yom haShabbat, – remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy: The second one – Zachor et Amalek – Remember Amalek! Below is the translation of the Torah verses that recalls Amalek.

“You shall remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you went out of Egypt, how he happened upon you on the way and cut off all the stragglers at your rear when you were faint and weary, and he did not fear G-d. So it will be, when the Lord your G-d grants you respite from all your enemies around you in the land which the Lord, your G-d, gives to you as an inheritance to possess, that you shall obliterate the remembrance of Amalek from beneath the Heavens. You shall not forget!” (Deut. 25:17-19).

These verses are chanted annually in the synagogue on the Shabbat before the holiday of Purim. Below is what it sounds like.


Jewish memory of the last five thousand years is embedded in our texts and holidays. The following documentaries and talks by current scholars about our recent world history bring the recent past vividly to mind. As you read this blog, you will realize why it is vital “not to forget what went before.”



Stephen Kotkin has published two volumes on the life and times of Josef Stalin (1878-1953) based on his research into recently released Soviet archives. In addition, I have enjoyed watching him interviewed by Peter Robinson of the Hoover Institute’s Uncommon Knowledge.


In the first volume, we learn that Stalin was not the product of an abusive home. He was educated in Catholic elementary and high schools because these were the best schools his parents could afford in his neighbourhood. His path was open to becoming a Catholic priest. But as a young man, he became enamoured with revolutionary Marxist ideology and made a career of being an anti-czarist activist. Before 1917, he was exiled and imprisoned by the Czarist police five times.

In 1917, the czarist regime was overthrown, and a provisional democratic government was installed. Stalin was close to the group around Lenin that overthrew the interim government. In the spring of 1922, after Lenin engineered a coup replacing all independent parties in the provisional government with the Communist Party, he appointed Stalin as his manager and right-hand man. Officially, Stalin became the Secretary-General of the Communist Party.

Six weeks later, Lenin had a stroke from which he never recovered. This left Stalin open to maneuver himself into the role of a dictator by ruthlessly destroying anyone opposed to him or his ideas. Stalin could do this because he was a workaholic with great people skills and managerial prowess. With no one looking over his shoulder, he was ruthless and used “every underhanded method and then some” to justify his ends. He used manipulation, torture, and outright murder of any potential rivals to maintain his autocratic power.

In the name of his communist Marxist ideology, Stalin and his collaborators engineered the collectivization of farmlands, and the elimination of private property and personal freedom, which led to poverty and death from starvation for tens of millions of people before World War ll. The name given to these events is the Holodomor.

Although Stalin was idealistic, one of his ideas was that the end goal justifies any means. Secondly, he recognized absolutely no restraint in his quest for personal power.




I also studied Hitler’s ascent this month and reigned via the excellent documentary Rise of the Nazis on PBS. So far, I have watched two episodes bringing us up to 1938.

In 1930, Germany was a liberal democracy. Just four years later, democracy is dead, and a single party, the Nazis, rules the country. Hitler was an autocratic ruler, and his collaborators, Ernst RöhmHermann Göring, and Heinrich Himmler, controlled all German national institutions:

  • The police, the army and the courts – Heinrich Himmler controls the police.
  • Herman Goring created his espionage cadre called the Gestapo.
  • Ernst Rohm is in charge of the SA, the Storm Troopers.

In the first episode, we meet the chief actors vying for parliamentary power in 1930. General Kurt von Schleicher, an ally of the right and himself a politician, fearing socialist and left-wing parties enlist Hitler thinking to take advantage of his popularity and his private militia power base, the SA (the Storm Troopers).

Hitler and his cronies first became known to the German public during what is now referred to as the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, which was an attempt at seizing the reigns of power via the armed violence of the Storm Troopers (SA). Goring and Himmler escape and Hitler is tried and imprisoned.

  • Hitler was sentenced to prison for five years but served only nine months in the relative comfort of Landsberg castle. Instead, he used the time to dictate the first volume of Mein Kampf, his political autobiography, and a compendium of his multitudinous ideas.
  • Hitler’s ideas included inequality among races, nations, and individuals as part of an unchangeable natural order that exalted the “Aryan race” as humanity’s creative element. According to Hitler, the natural unit of humankind was the Volk (“the people”), of which the German people were the greatest. Moreover, he believed that the state existed to serve the Volk, i.e. Weimar Germany. In Hitler’s Germany, these criteria judged all morality and truth. (Source: Britannica)

Hans Litten is also highlighted in the series. Litten was a German lawyer from an established German family. His father, Fritz, was a distinguished jurist and dean of Königsberg’s law school who later became rector of that institution. His mother, Irmgard, was from an established Lutheran family in Swabia, the daughter of Albert Wüst, a professor at the University of Halle-Wittenberg.

The 1924 court case against Adolf Hitler and other events convinced Litten that Germany was approaching a hazardous period. In addition, his perception that right-wing radicals were getting away with murder – unfettered criminal violence in the pursuit of power – convinced him to become a lawyer.

In May 1931, Litten summoned Adolf Hitler to testify in the Tanzpalast Eden Trial, a court case involving two workers stabbed by four SA (Storm Troopers). He cross-examined Hitler for three hours, finding many points of contradiction and proving that Hitler had exhorted the SA to embark on a systematic campaign of violence against the Nazis’ enemies. This was crucial because, meanwhile, Hitler was trying to pose as a conventional politician to middle-class voters and maintain that the Nazi Party was “strictly legal.”

Although Litten managed to expose Hitler in this trial, with some success, all German national institutions were corrupted once Himmler and Goring were appointed to manage the Nazi forces. As a result, Litten is imprisoned in several Nazi concentration camps and continuously and mercilessly tortured. He is also declared a Jew and imprisoned in the Jewish prisoner wing. His father was a Jew who had converted to Lutheranism.

The second episode exposes the competition between Goring and Himmler for Hitler’s approval after Hitler acquired his position of Chancellor and sole governing ruler of Germany. Himmler expanded his power by acquiring systematic control of all provincial police departments and announcing the creation of Dachau as a place to house/imprison enemies of the state, the thousands arrested by the SS immediately upon Hitler accessing autocratic powers. Goring advances his power base by creating the Gestapo, a private espionage unit. Their pursuit of power leads them to collaborate to denounce Ernst Rohm and his Storm Troopers to Hitler. Ernst Rohm and his stormtroopers are also imprisoned in concentration camps and systematically murdered in the Night of the Long Knives.

This episode ends with the little-known story of Joseph Hartinger, Deputy State Prosecutor, who, when called to examine the death of four prisoners at Dachau reported to have been shot while trying to escape, notices that all four are Jews and that they have all been shot in the same way at close range. He collects his evidence and writes his detailed report expecting those responsible for being condemned and brought to trial, but his superior refuses to sign off on it. Shocked, he decides to take it further up the chain of command on his initiative, but Himmler is warned, and the report arrives at the highest court and gets locked away in a safe. We know this because the information was discovered by the American armies and was used as evidence at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial, which began on November 20, 1945.

These Nazi leaders were personally ambitious, cruel and murderous. Nevertheless, they managed to seduce and intimidate much of the German populace with their racial theories, blaming all of Germany’s ills on Jews, communists, socialists, capitalists, and anyone else who was not a “pure German and Nazi sympathizer.”


History-Zachor Al Tishkach


In another PBS documentary, China Undercover, FRONTLINE investigates China’s oppression of the Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjiang province. In addition, the documentary exposes China’s alarming use and testing of surveillance technology.

The regime’s growing capacity to survey an entire population, using surveillance technology and concentration-type camps visible via satellite to punish and imprison, should cause global alarm. Cameras are placed everywhere, allowing the regime to monitor all its citizens closely, even identifying them by analyzing facial structure. The country’s faithful soldiers systematically download peoples’ phones and label their houses with barcodes. They enlist Chinese families to invade the homes of Uyghur families and “become a part of Uyghur families” on holidays, eliminating any possibility of privacy or resistance.

This reality seems even worse than the dystopia depicted in George Orwell’s classic novel 1984.

Why Is the Injunction to Remember – Zachor – So Important? 

Why is it important to understand the history of Hitler, Stalin, and the current landscape? First, it shows us what can happen when individuals or institutions, unmoored from any moral scruples, and often in the name of “social justice,” have the hubris to declare themselves keepers of the flame and to claim supreme governing authority.

The Torah reminds us to work to eliminate these rulers, even after we prosper, not to wreak vengeance but to create a safer world for all of us, one that is committed to the kind of justice that protects the weakest among us everywhere. We all become witnesses whenever we have the opportunity to review these events.


Golda’s Balcony: The Film, 2019

“I begin with the redemption of the human race, and I end up in the munitions business… We intend to live. Our neighbours intend us to die.” Quotes from Golda’s Balcony

Yesterday, the LAJ film festival screened, online, Golda’s Balcony, the one-woman play, which has now become a film. There was also a 90-minute interview by Hilary Helstein with Tovah Feldshuh, the actress who plays Golda.

The play is a tour-de-force exposing Golda Meir’s character as a mother, a wife, and a passionate Zionist, who also happened to be the Prime Minister of Israel during the devastating Yom Kippur war (1973). However, the crux of the play is the Yom Kippur War, and the choices Golda herself had to make.

The play exposes the travails of leadership and brings history to life. But will she or won’t she use the secret weapon? What goes through her mind as she faces these agonizing moments? In the interview, Tovah shares her personal history, research, and active participation in creating this work of art – the tweaking of the play and the development of the character. Tovah brings it off brilliantly.

This film deserves all of the many awards it has recently garnered. It shares history, not from a linear and intellectual standpoint but as if from the visceral connection of personal memory – the first person singular – memory itself.

Although the film referred to events up to Golda’ Meir’s death in 1973, it is sadly relevant today as it reveals both the birth of the state of Israel and the constant agonizing struggle for its survival, which continues to the present day.

Check out Tovah’s website for purchases, such as a study guide to Golda’s balcony or a DVD, The Journey to Golda’s Balcony.