Song of the Torah

Let me the set the scene for you: It’s the final hours of Moses’ life and after five epical books, it’s time to wrap it up; make the quintessential points that will capture the essence and function of the entire Torah. How does Moses do this? With this week’s Torah portion of Haazinu, otherwise known as "Shiras Haazinu." In the Torah scroll, this portion is scribed in lyrical/poetic form, rather than prose.

Although the term shira, song, here refers specifically to the portion of Haazinu, the Talmud tells us that the entire Torah is also essentially a shira. All of Torah can be compared to a song. Why is this? What is it about music?

If I were to visit a lecture hall at UCLA where some professor was lecturing on a complex theme of physics, there isn’t very much he’d say that I’d understand beyond "good morning." Knowing little about the subject, I’d probably find the experience terribly boring and completely meaningless; a total waste of time. Now my older brother, on the other hand, who majored in physics, would take to it like a fish to water. He’d be involved and intrigued.

When we talk about music, on the other hand, music is a different story. Years ago, another older brother of mine once took a course in classical music. As I observed him listening to these various pieces by Beethoven, Mozart and Bach, it was apparent that he was perceiving certain aspects and dimensions within those pieces and movements way beyond anything I was hearing: the pitch, the cadence, the tempo, the integration of instruments.

One day, this brother gave me a gift — a cassette featuring the Israeli Philharmonic playing some of Mozart’s most brilliant concertos. I found the music to be absolutely mesmerizing and played it nonstop. True, I didn’t hear the complex shades and tones, rhythms and harmonies that he did, but I thoroughly appreciated and enjoyed the experience nonetheless. I had little or no understanding of the finer details of musical structure; I still don’t. I wouldn’t know a D-minor from an E-major if it were blasting in my ears through an iPod. I can’t read notes and I can’t play an instrument — although I often wish I could — but I do love listening to good music. While I don’t perceive what the connoisseurs do within musical selections, I can still sing and dance to them with gusto. Indeed, the very same song can mean different things to different people.

In this regard, Torah is much like a shira — a musical masterpiece. To a Torah scholar, every single word contains so many different layers, so many revealed and concealed meanings. Yet, even the less learned can enjoy the beauty and profundity of Torah — on his/her own particular level. The talmudist in the seminary studies the very same passage in Genesis that a 6-year-old studies in first grade. They’re not discovering conflicting or even differing ideas, just different depths of the same idea. That’s the Divine beauty and genius of the Torah’s music. We can all partake with equal gusto, regardless of our level of comprehension.

Another thing about shira is that it arouses passion — an essential ingredient in our service of God. You can stand before the Almighty on the High Holidays and read the words "Avinu Malkeinu — Our Father, Our King, we have no King but You." You can understand and accept it intellectually. Or, you can also sing those very same words to a stirring tune where you not only comprehend it, but you feel it to the core of your soul. You feel the reality of having no king but the Almighty — of worshipping nobody and nothing but Him. The right melody can do that.

Judaism is supposed to be lived and celebrated with joy, passion and enthusiasm. Indeed, among the many great contributions the Baal Shem Tov and the Chasidic movement made to Jewish life, was to enable our people to rediscover these most essential components of Torah observance.

The Prophet Isaiah said: "Let all who are thirsty, go for water," which our sages interpret to mean that whosoever thirsts for truth should drink of the sustaining waters of Torah. Our sages do not choose their metaphors lightly. Quenching one’s thirst is an exercise in refreshment and invigoration. Such must be our pursuit of Torah. Study it with your mind, celebrate it with your heart and internalize it within your soul.

After teaching five exhaustive books and conveying countless volumes of instruction and information, Moses concludes it all with shira so as to underscore that Torah is the birthright and inheritance of every Jew — regardless of level — and that its observance ought to be infused with feeling and passion. It is the music of our lives, the poetry of our aspirations.

Shana Tovah. Chag Sameach!

Prefer Your Teen to Smoke or to Cheat?

Decades of lecturing around America and of speaking with parents on my radio show have led me to an incredible conclusion: More American parents would be upset with their teenage children if they smoked a cigarette than if they cheated on a test.

How has this come about? This is, after all, an entirely new phenomenon. Almost no member of my generation (those who became teenagers in the 1960s), let alone a member of any previous generation, could ever have imagined that parents would be angrier with their teenage child for smoking than for cheating.

There has been a profound change in American values. In a nutshell, health has overtaken morality. Or, if you prefer, health has become our morality.

The war against tobacco is both a cause and a symptom of this moral confusion. It has saturated American society with the belief that smoking is wrong, even immoral, not simply unhealthy.

Anti-smoking zealots (the term is redundant) in the California Department of Health Services launched a statewide billboard campaign equating cigarettes with drugs. Parents call my show to tell me that when their children see someone smoking, they say, "Look, that person is using drugs!"

Judges in child custody disputes have imbibed the moral idiocy that smoking tells us something about a person’s character. An increasing number of judges take smoking into consideration when choosing which parent is more fit to raise a child. Millions of Americans agree with these judges that smoking is a moral flaw. That is one reason the government airbrushes cigarettes out of pictures of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and other famous Americans. If a young American were to see Roosevelt smoking a cigarette or Sir Winston Churchill smoking a cigar, what might happen to that child’s wholehearted acceptance of the smoking-is-bad (not merely unhealthy) brainwash?

I smoke a pipe and cigar, and I am amazed at the certitude and chutzpah in the 5-year-olds who have visited my home who confidently walked over to me to tell me I shouldn’t smoke. Had they seen me drinking alcohol, as children regularly see adults do, it would never occur to them to say such a thing.

That we have a war against tobacco rather than alcohol well illustrates the moral confusion of our time. Eighty years ago, when American society warred against a vice, it was alcohol — because the society cared more about fighting evil than fighting potential dangers to health. Alcohol leads to more child and spousal abuse, as well as to murder and rape, than any other single factor. Was one child ever abused because a cigarette or pipe dulled an adult’s conscience? Have any drivers ever killed whole families because they smoked before they drove?

But in this Age of Moral Confusion we have chosen tobacco, not alcohol, as the villain. Because health and living long are our greatest values.

When I was a boy, I attended baseball games where most spectators smoked, but none cursed. Today, there is no smoking at ballparks, but obscene language is shouted out with impunity. We have traded in opposition to firsthand cursing for opposition to secondhand smoke.

So, ask your children if they think you would be more disappointed in their smoking or their cheating. If your child responds "smoking," you are morally failing your child. If you are pleased with that answer, the situation is even worse. If enough Americans prefer that their children cheat than smoke, we are a doomed society. Nor can the issue be avoided by claiming you don’t want your child to either smoke or cheat. That just means you can’t say that cheating is far worse than smoking. You are another American led to believe that healthy and decent are synonymous.

But if you do believe that, ponder these questions: Would you rather your business partner smoke or cheat? Your lawyer? Your friends? Would you feel better if your doctor cheated on medical exams or smoked?

The questions would have been considered absurd a generation ago. The war against tobacco is a symptom and cause of a shallower society. It has done far more harm to America than tobacco. Just ask your teenager.

Dennis Prager hosts his nationally syndicated radio talk show on KRLA-AM 870
in Los Angeles. He is the author of four books, including “Why the Jews? The
Reason for Anti-Semitism” with Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, which will be updated and
rereleased by Simon & Schuster in August. To find out more about Dennis
Prager, visit or
the Creators Syndicate Web site at

Israel in the Arab Mind

As tensions in the Middle East soar, many Jewish Angelenos search for answers to the generations-old question: Can there ever be peace between Israel and her Arab neighbors?

"No," says journalist and Middle East expert Avi Davis. "There cannot be peace until there are fundamental social, political, cultural and religious changes in the Arab world."

Davis, a commentator for Fox News and CNN, will expand upon this distinct charge during his eight-week lecture series, "Israel in the Arab Mind." A joint presentation of the University of Judaism and the Freeman Center for Strategic Studies, the class will explore the deep-seated Arab beliefs that have led to the Middle East conflict and the mechanisms that must be in place to someday establish peace.

"This class is different because it will not explain the Arab world, it will investigate it. We will find the distinguishing characteristics that create a culture of animosity and discuss what changes are necessary to create peace," Davis said.

Davis will examine the patriarchal society and the struggles and violence that stem from its structure. He will detail the religion of Islam as juxtaposed against the challenge of modernity. He will also look into the culture of honor.

A regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times, New York Jewish Week, The Melbourne Age and The Jewish Journal, Davis will alternate his lectures with talks presented by noted Arab leaders. World-respected scholar and philanthropist Shaykh Muhammad Hisham Kabbani, TransIslam Magazine Editor Dr. Khalid Duran, former Director General of the Iraqi Nuclear Weapon Program Dr. Khidhir Hamza and Jerusalem Post columnist Joseph Farah will all speak on the highly charged subject.

As pro-Israel Arabs, the guest speakers will approach the topic from a unique perspective. They will expand upon Davis’ theme and identify fundamental roadblocks that must be changed before the peace process can move forward. Building upon Davis’ talks, the guests will discuss "The Search for Democracy and Secularization in the Islamic World," "Saddam Hussein’s Nuclear Threat to Israel and the Western World" and "The Future of the Arab World’s Relationship with the West."

Davis created the series in reaction to the events of Sept. 11. "The problems in the Arab world have given rise not just to anti-Semitic feelings, but anti-Western feelings. We need to have a means with which to cope with these feelings," Davis said. As this animosity affects all Americans, not just American Jews, Davis aims the series at the general community. "This is not a class for Jews, it’s a class for everyone in Los Angeles," said Davis, who attends Westwood Kehillah and is active in the UCLA Bayit Project.

Davis, who writes opinion pieces for The Wall Street Journal, The Jerusalem Post, Chicago Tribune, Washington Times and others national publications, is the senior fellow of the Freeman Center. With an emphasis on Jewish survival and continuance in a hostile world, The Center boasts an extensive database and library, sponsors research papers and hosts symposiums and conferences. The center, a Houston-based research facility, recently opened a Los Angeles branch.

In addition to the "Arab Mind" series, the Los Angeles center will organize a regular salon that will bring together Jewish intellectuals to debate the future of Judaism in today’s society.

The eight "Israel in the Arab World" lectures will be held Tuesdays, April 23-June 11, 7:45-9:15 p.m., at the University of Judaism’s Gindi Auditorium, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. For more information, contact UJ’s continuing education department (310) 476-9777.