Monday, August 18, 2014

Pesach Night at the Windsor Arms

At Purim time, many months ago, attendees of a weekly shiur [class] of mine got together and purchased a gift certificate for two, for my Rebbetzin and me to enjoy dinner at the Windsor Arms Hotel, here in Toronto. It's a fancy establishment, and they provide kosher dinners by reservation on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evenings. You order an appetizer, a main and a dessert, and that's $75 (before taxes), and there is a wine list as well.

The generous idea of the shiur was to offer a night's break before Pesach, but that wasn’t entirely realistic. As a result of the less-than-sane schedules we kept this past year, we couldn't take advantage of the generous and gracious gift. It was not until last week that we were able to use it.

I must say, I enjoyed the experience immensely; as some of you know, I admire and enjoy well-prepared food. [The menu is available here; the picture isn't great, and you'll need to magnify it in order to see anything above the wine list.] But more, it gave me an insight into what a Pesach Seder should be.

The room was luxuriously appointed. The server was congenial. The pace was leisurely; we could talk and take our time. And so, days after Tishah b'Av, I felt like I was enjoying what a Seder was meant to be: A slow-paced discussion, in beautiful surroundings adding to one's feeling of well-being if not royalty. We don't get to Shulchan Aruch for hours not because the Haggadah has placed page after page of text in our way, but because we aren't in any rush, we've broken from the hurly-burly haste of our lives and we are free to discuss and debate and reflect, and the food will be there when we are ready for it.

Of course, that doesn't happen at our sedarim, in general.
First, because the stress of preparing for Pesach leaves people frazzled.
Second, because the more luxury you create with fine dishes and cutlery, the more you need to clean up afterward and have piled up in your kitchen until the end of Yom Tov, ruining the atmosphere considerably.
Third, because the people who are supposed to be enjoying the seder are the same people who need to prepare the food in the kitchen.
And fourth, because the leisurely discussion is enforced by the pages of text, and isn't necessarily good for small children and elderly relatives and people who aren't familiar with the nature of Torah study and debate and don't understand what's going on.

Still, I feel that this is the answer to the age-old question of why we hold the meal at the Seder until after page after page of discussion. It's not meant to be torture; it's meant to show that we are taking our time, we are not rushed, we are enjoying a beautiful table, wonderful company, and the luxury of being able to proceed at our own pace.

[And yes, this is a direct contrast with the chipazon haste of Egypt, but that's a topic for another time.]

Monday, August 11, 2014

On Rabbinic Autonomy

A while back, I was speaking to a young rabbi who was entering his first pulpit, and he mentioned that in a shul he would have the freedom and flexibility to do that which he thought was most important for the community, and to do at the time that he felt would work best for thim and for the community. That reminded me of an important lesson regarding the synagogue rabbinate, as well as life in general: Don't confuse limited autonomy for total freedom.

It is true that shuls tend to trust their rabbis to make their own schedules; the rabbi decides when to visit people in the hospital and when to prepare shiurim, how much time to spend on counseling and administration and teaching and tzedakah distribution, and whether the shul needs another shiur or another chesed program. However, the rabbi who mistakes this brand of autonomy for total freedom is, in my opinion, making a significant error.

The shul rabbi's autonomy is like that of any contractor – the board wants a healthy community, and trusts the rabbi to decide how best to do that. However, the shul has a vision of what a healthy community looks like, and the rabbi who ignores their vision in favour of his own does so at his own peril. [Note: the wise rabbi will openly and honestly share his vision of "healthy community" when interviewed, and the search committee should vote for a rabbi whose vision matches that of the shul.]

If the shul wants a community in which members regularly consult with the rabbi about their personal troubles or schmooze with the rabbi at the kiddush, then the rabbi had better make sure to provide that.

If the shul wants a community in which the rabbi teaches a shiur for every group of three Jews who want it, then the rabbi had better make sure to provide that.

If the shul wants a community in which the rabbi is a regular contributor to the Op-Ed columns of the local newspaper and a bridge-builder to other sectors of society, then the rabbi had better make sure to provide that.

Of course, there is ample opportunity for the rabbi to sell his vision, and if the community responds well, then that may come to be the community's vision. And the sensitive rabbi is open to learning and evolving, and adapting his vision to the lessons he picks up in the community. The "healthy community" vison may well be a moving target, and both parties can/should shift and grow.

My point is only what I said at the outset: The rabbi dare not confuse limited autonomy for total freedom. Keep an eye on your job description, my friend.

Friday, July 25, 2014

A new blog

For the near future, at least, I've decided to start a new blog. I'm not sure how long I will keep at it, but it's at least an outlet for frustration and at best a constructive way to disseminate useful material. You can find it at Feel free to email me your thoughts.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Easier not to write

I thank those who have been emailing me to check in. Thank Gd, all is well. I am actually making progress on a sefer, finally!

Yes, I still think about blogging, pretty much daily. I have had many topics on my mind.

Israel, of course.

The rabbinate: The economics that drive the low salaries of shul rabbis. The problem of the well-meaning shul rabbi. Different models for an assistant rabbi position.

General: The fear of mediocrity. The difference between being a non-conformist and being original. Lebron James.

Personal: I've bought a house in Toronto instead of Israel, and that has upset my internal equilibrium; I'm having a hard time accepting the mazal tovs.

And so on.

But I have broken the habit of blogging, and now the fear of writing something that doesn't really capture my thoughts, or that doesn't impress me as good writing, is greater than my fear of leaving the page blank. These days, I find it easier not to write than to write, and I reach for the keyboard and then fall back, to work on something else.

I don't know what this means for the future of this blog, but that's where things are right now.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Helping a parent with dementia

Two weeks ago, I presented a shiur on halachic issues involved in caring for a patient who is experiencing a level of dementia. Along the way, I cited responsa addressed to people who felt they could manage their parents' physical needs, but who were concerned that they would violate the mitzvot of honouring and revering their parents by losing their temper with them.

One of the attendees asked me: What if one's mother has advanced dementia, and she asks for her deceased husband? Clearly, one should not upset her by telling her the truth - but even if the falsehood is appropriate, isn't it still a violation of the mitzvot of honouring and/or revering one's parents?

I wasn't sure how to respond to this. I suspect that there would be no violation of kavod (honour), but one could contend that this violated mora, reverence, a category of behaviours which includes not sitting in a parent's place or contradicting him/her. So I put the question to a group of rabbis, and received an interesting response from a veteran chaplain.

The chaplain stated that in his work, they tell facility staff to practice "validation therapy". When a resident asks after a particular relative, or says something like, "I need to be here, my children are coming home from school soon," she is clearly interested in turning the conversation in a particular direction. This direction may be good for her, especially since her long-term memory will be far more reliable than her short-term memory. So others who are present should not shut down the conversation; rather, they should embrace it, expressing interest in the subject and so validating her interest in it, and helping her to continue the thread to the extent she can. Asking appropriate questions - questions which won't frustrate her in her dementia, presumably - is a positive way to go.

I hadn't thought of this at all, but once I heard it, it made so much sense! And, it solved the halachic problem.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Tehillim Fatigue

I've been thinking a lot about Tehillim Fatigue - the way that our prayers for our kidnapped boys, Gilad, Eyal and Naftali, lose their strength and intensity over time. It's not out of a lack of feeling for them and their families, Gd forbid; it's just a product of emotional overload, of a creeping feeling of hopelessness due to the lack of positive news, and perhaps of the general doubt as to whether Gd listens to our prayers.

Last week, in a different forum, I wrote about visualizing the joy of their return, but after a week of numbing updates about arrests and searches that have not yielded visible fruit, that joy is becoming harder to imagine. As we approach this coming Shabbat, though, I am reminded of two important points regarding light and hope.

This Shabbat is Rosh Chodesh, the New Moon. The Moon has a special resonance for Jews; our tradition compares our nation to the Moon, with its waxing and waning, and it compares Gd to the Sun, the provider of our light. Here are two relevant lessons of the New Moon, in particular:

1. As illustrated well in the series of pictures above (courtesy of Wikipedia), at the New Moon's time of apparent darkness, the Moon actually is experiencing its most direct, fullest sunlight! The Moon is positioned between the Earth and the Sun, so that the side of the Moon facing away from Earth is maximally lit up - we just can't see it, because of where we are. Often, when things look darkest, the light is full and strong. It's just behind the scenes.

2. The source of the Moon's light is still there at the New Moon; the side of the Moon that faces us is dark only because the Moon has moved, leaving us looking at its shaded side. Once the alignment of Moon and Earth shifts a little bit, the Moon's visible illumination will be restored. The same is true for us: Sometimes we can't see light, but it's because we have let ourselves get out of the proper alignment. Some people might say, then, that all they need to do is wait, and the universe will shift and the alignment will change. But perhaps at a New Moon we ought to ask ourselves: what do I need to do to shift the alignment myself, in order to enter the light?

Let us shift the alignment, and enter the light. Let us continue to give a few minutes of our time, each day, for Tehillim with concentration. Let us continue to add an extra act of kindness for another, or an extra dollar for tzedakah. Let us dedicate a few minutes of extra Torah study. Let us send the families of Gilad, Eyal and Naftali letters of support. And may we celebrate the light of their return very soon!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

'Tis More Honourable to Give (Parshat Korach)

A thought I've written up for Toronto Torah, on Parshat Korach:

After the collapse of Korach's rebellion, G-d presents Moshe with three instructions that counter elements of that misguided mutiny:
  • First, the tribe of Levi is charged with protecting the Beit haMikdash from future incursions by those who are ineligible to enter. (Bamidar 18:1-7)
  • Second, the nation is instructed to give special gifts to the Kohanim, explicitly recognizing that Korach was wrong for challenging their right to their positions. (ibid. 18:8-20, as understood by Rashi 18:8)
  • Third, the nation is instructed to give a tenth of their produce – maaser rishon - to the Levites, enabling their service. (ibid. 18:21-32)

Within that last segment, though, an eight-verse passage describes the mitzvah of terumat maaser. When a Levite receives maaser rishon, he must separate one-tenth of that donation and give it to a Kohen; until he does so, he is prohibited from eating the maaser rishon he has received. How does terumat maaser respond to Korach's rebellion?

Three approaches are put forth by classic commentators; each stems from a different view of Korach's moment on the biblical stage. More broadly, each stems from a different perspective on the nature of human generosity:

1: Display Respect
One may read Korach's rebellion as a protest against the elevated position of the Kohanim; Korach, a Levite, wants the power of the Kohen for himself. Opposite this arrogance, the Divine command to give a gift mandates a display of respect. The requirement to give terumat maaser – a tithe paid by the Levite to the Kohen – reinforces the Kohen's dominance.

Taking this approach, Rabbeinu Bachya, in his 13th century Kad haKemach (Rashut 8), explained that just as the Jew's one-tenth gift to the Levite marks the Levite's leadership position, so "the Levite is obligated to give the Kohen a tenth from their tenth. Just as Israel is bound to the Levite, so the Levite is bound to the Kohen."

2: Recognize G-d
On a deeper level, Korach's rebellion may be read as a rejection of Divine control. The selection of Kohen and Levite comes at the Divine word, and so Korach is actually challenging G-d's architectural design for the Jewish people. Giving a gift on Divine command, on the other hand, demonstrates a recognition that G-d is the true owner of my property. The requirement to separate terumat maaser provides a constant reminder that there is an Authority above all, who establishes the rights and roles of every citizen.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Horeb 304) put forth this position, writing of the terumah given by every Jew to the Kohen, as well as the terumat maaser contributed by the Levite, "You should not use that portion for personal purposes but dedicate it to G-d, declaring thereby that G-d is Lord of the earth  and that only through Him have you any right to the earth and to the fruit it yields."

Similarly, Sefer haChinuch wrote (mitzvah 396), paraphrasing Kohelet 5:7, "Thus they will put into their hearts that there are higher-ups above them, and that higher than all of them is the exalted Guardian of all."

3: Take Honour from Giving
A third approach reads Korach's rebellion as a misunderstanding of Honour; Korach believes that holding an elevated position and receiving a gift is the height of human dignity. Thus Korach does not seek the right to serve as Kohanim do, but only to hold their position of authority. (Bamidbar 16:3) Giving a gift inverts Korach's initiative, displaying an understanding that there is great honour in giving. The requirement to give terumat maaser teaches the Levite the stature to be found in generosity.

Sefer haChinuch (ibid.) saw this as a clear benefit of terumat maaser; he wrote, "There is also merit and honour and stature for the Levites, lest their name be eliminated from the mitzvah of tithing when they receive their portion of produce. Lest the children [of the Jews] say to the children [of the Levites], 'You receive the produce, we receive the mitzvah,' there will now be a response: We have Torah, and we have flour [to give]." Of course, the Levites already give, with their service in the Beit haMikdash and in their role as teachers of Torah, but sharing material resources with others is a unique and honoured form of generosity. [For more on this from a secular perspective, see Tamara Brown, Raising Brooklyn: Nannies, Childcare and Caribbeans Creating Community, Chapter Four.]

Taken together, these approaches provide three lessons in generosity: Giving gift shows respect, giving a gift mandated by G-d demonstrates recognition of Divine authority, and giving a gift earns true honour. As explained by these commentators, Korach did not grasp these three points, but the mitzvah of terumat maaser ensured that his descendants, and all readers of the Torah, would absorb these lessons for themselves.