Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Eighteen Hours Straight!

I wish I could take five minutes to blog; I have many topics in mind. But it's the old story - priority time must go to my classes and avreichim.

One of my current projects may be of interest to you: An Eighteen Hour Shiur, coming up this Sunday, 6 AM to Midnight EDT -

The goals are:
* To create a major learning opportunity before Rosh HaShanah;
* To showcase the different types of shiurim our Beit Midrash offers - Tanach, Ethics, Talmud, Halachah, History, Literature, etc.;
* To raise funds for our programs for university students.

For full details, and for source sheets and to watch on-line, click here; please share this with anyone you think might be interested. This program is modeled on the original "Longest Shiur", by Rabbi Shlomo Einhorn.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Of Donald Trump and Khizr Khan: How Trump could be a force for good

Driving through rural Western Pennsylvania this week, I twice found myself behind cars with Donald Trump bumper stickers. It was a bit of surprise; I know he has many full-throated supporters, but having lived in Canada throughout the current electoral cycle, I've never met one. I know people who mistrust Hillary Clinton enough to vote for Trump, but no one who would actually sport a Trump logo.

Seeing the bumper stickers catalyzed the following thought: Donald Trump is not the first leader of angry people, who view themselves as disenfranchised; look at some of the figures who claimed to speak for the American civil rights movement - Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. And permit me to oversimplify the leaders of such people into two types: 1) Those who rabble-rouse, catering to their feelings of victimization, and 2) Those who lead, inspiring their followers to something better than selfishness and hatred.

To my mind, the followers of Trump have legitimate concerns: Finances. Terrorism. Basic Freedoms. But so do the people on the other side of these debates. The question is whether Trump will demonize everyone on that other side, or whether he will lay out the challenging questions which face society, and make a reasoned argument for his solution.

Khizr Khan's speech was a perfect opportunity to do the latter. Here's what Donald Trump could have said to Khizr Khan:

I am sorry for your loss, and grateful beyond words for your sacrifice. I would never want to deny you, and the many others like you, anything of what America has to offer. Under the Constitution we both uphold, Muslims are entitled to the same protections and opportunities as Jews, Christians, atheists, and so on. 
But here is my problem: The same people who killed your son are trying to kill the sons and daughters of everyone living in America - all genders, all races, are vulnerable to them here. I want to stop them, but it's very hard. The best way I have come up with to do that is to identify them by their proclaimed beliefs. 
My system is not a good system, and the broad net it casts will include people who are honest, hard-working, good people, like you. But let me ask you: what alternative would you suggest? Because look at the headlines around the world - the current system of combating terrorism in the name of Islam isn't working.

If Trump were a thoughtful and empathetic human being, that's what he could have said, and it could have led to a meaningful conversation. Too bad that's not the case.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Jerusalem: A City Surrounded by Walls (Yom Yerushalayim 5776)

I presented this derashah last Shabbos, and it seems to have been fairly well-received. Since I haven't had time to post, I'll offer it here for (hopefully) your reading pleasure.

Mending Wall
Something there is that doesn't love a wall / That sends the frozen ground-swell under it, 
And spills the upper boulders in the sun… 
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;  / And on a day we meet to walk the line 
And set the wall between us once again… 
There where it is, we do not need the wall: / He is all pine and I am apple orchard. 
My apple trees will never get across / And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him. 
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'.

In 1914, Robert Frost published this classic poem, “Mending Wall”, about two neighbours whose properties are divided by a stone wall. The first neighbour describes the wall as an unecessary barrier; the other neighbour preaches an unquestioning devotion to received wisdom, that “Good fences make good neighbours.”

Torah: Walls create unhelpful division
At first glance, the Torah seems to take the side of the first neighbour, and to argue even more strongly, that walls are worse than superfluous; they create destructive divisions, and they should be eliminated:
  • With the mitzvah of shemitah, the Torah warns that walls separate haves from have-nots, preventing chesed. Yes, our property needs protection, but every seven years we must acknowledge the downside, drop our guard, and allow the world into our fields and vineyards. The Torah states, “You shall release your field and abandon it,[1]” and the Mechilta[2] comments מגיד שפורץ בה פרצות, that the Torah wishes us to actually smash holes in our fences,[3] and remove that barrier.
  • Second, with the mitzvah of batei arei chomah, the Torah warns that walls separate urban life from agriculture. The Torah bans family estates in walled-in cities. If a family sells an open field, they receive the field back in the Yovel year. But if a family sells a building in a walled city, that building never comes back.[4] Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains that farming is the natural focus of human creativity, and the Torah wishes us to remain close to the land. Yes, we need to shield civilization from the wild, but because of this downside to urbanization, we must eliminate the wall.[5]
  • Third: The Torah’s tochachah threats of Divine punishment warn that there is even danger in the walls that separate us from our enemies, because they lead to faith in our manmade defenses. Walls of defense may be entirely necessary. But the Torah[6] warns that if these fortresses breed misplaced trust in our own strength, then a day will come when Gd will demolish our walls.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, in the Torah. There are negative, unhelpful walls – walls that insulate the wealthy from the needy, walls that enable urban stagnation, walls that lead to arrogance.

But there are good walls, too
On the other hand: The second neighbour, with his devotion to maintaining the wall, can also claim endorsement from the Torah!
  • Halachah identifies the manmade walls of Yerushalayim as sacred, imbuing the city with sanctity, just as the concentric walls of the Beis haMikdash enable a heirarchy of holiness within their precincts!
  • Further, Zecharyah promises regarding Yerushalayim, ואני אהיה לה נאם ד' חומת אש סביב, that Hashem will surround Yerushalayim with a wall of fire!
  • Further, we use walls for beautiful mitzvos – the succah in which we dwell with Hashem, the chuppah in which we initiate a Jewish home!

How, then, are we to understand the Jewish view of a wall? Are they bad, or good? Is there a single answer? What would Rabbi Robert Frost say?

In the 1940s, a team of MIT psychologists conducted the “Westgate Studies”, trying to figure out which interactions lead to friendships. They developed what is now known as the propinquity effect. To state it simply: Even though people say that “familiarity breeds contempt,” the truth of human nature is that the more you encounter someone, the more likely you are to like them, and to create a friendship with them.[7]

Those studies have influenced the way companies design their workspaces. For example: the successful animation company Pixar initially housed its computer scientists in one building, its animators in another building, and its executives and editors in a third building. Steve Jobs, as CEO, redesigned the offices to bring all of the groups together, into one space. Why? Because inhabiting a shared, collaborative space encourages relationships.[8] And this can be enhanced by a surrounding wall that accentuates the collaboration.

Two Kinds of Walls
So perhaps there are two kinds of walls: Exclusive and Inclusive.
  • The Exclusive wall is the wall around the field, meant to exclude and obstruct: the wall that locks out the needy; the wall that separates the city from nature; the wall that provides overconfident defense. This is the wall the Torah would demolish.
  • But there is also the Inclusive wall, that creates collaborative closeness, even intimacy, by enhancing propinquity for those within.

We, as Jews, identify ourselves as part of a nation, a community, a team. To promote that shared identity and cohesion, we build walls encircling and identifying our team. This wall, designed to include, to embrace, to envelop in private community – this wall is not merely appropriate, but glorious![9]
  • The walls of the Succah seclude us with HaShem![10]
  • The walls of the Chuppah isolate a couple exclusively for each other![11]
  • And the walls of Yerushalayim demarcate מחנה ישראל, a camp which the Rambam[12] said is invested with eternal holiness by those very walls.

The Walls of Yerushalayim
The walls of Yerushalayim are positive walls, meant not to exclude Beit Lechem and Chevron and other surrounding cities, but rather to encircle the people within, Jews of all ages and all ethnicities and all types of observance, to create a unified community. Those walls of Yerushalayim are large enough to embrace us all - and as the fifth perek of Pirkei Avos promises, no Jew will ever say, “I cannot find my place in Yerushalayim.”[13]

Our sages acted to encourage this sense of community in Yerushalayim.
  • Three times each year, Jews from far and wide would gather there for Yom Tov, fulfilling the mitzvah of aliyah laregel. Some of these were very observant Jews, and others were less so. This meeting of populations could have been a disaster – there could have been an insistence on separate shopping spaces for the ritually pure, separate eating areas for those who tithe more carefully, and so on.
  • But the Chachamim understood that the only wall Yerushalayim will tolerate is the wall surrounding it, the wall which identifies all of us as part of the same team! As the gemara records, they decreed that when we gather in Yerushalayim for Yom Tov, every Jew should be viewed as a חבר, credible to declare his own purity, credible to have tithed his produce. We could travel together, eat together, meet together, within those walls of Yerushalayim.[14]

This is what we want. There are legitimate differences between Jews, but what we want is not a nation divided by the questions of Who is a Jew, of Who goes to the army and who learns in kollel, of Who davens at the Kotel and in what way, but a nation that sees itself as one nation, indivisible, surrounded by walls which confirm our shared heritage and our shared destiny.

Beyond Yerushalayim
And this imperative for propinquity extends beyond Yerushalayim, mandating us to build physical and metaphorical inclusive walls surrounding us, marking us as one nation wherever we are, despite our legitimate differences.
  • No matter where they daven, and even if they don’t daven anywhere.
  • No matter what standard of kashrus they keep, and even if they don’t keep any.
  • No matter which approach they have to Israel, whether they believe it’s ראשית צמיחת גאולתנו or whether they believe it’s a secular catastrophe.
  • Inviting these people into our homes for a meal – not only because it’s kiruv, but because we are ערבין זה בזה.
  • Offering to daven on behalf of their relatives and friends who are ill – not only because davening for others a mitzvah, but because we care about each other.
  • Even just smiling and welcoming people who aren’t within the circle of friends and cousins with whom we grew up, and whom we’ve known for decades – not because it’s chesed, but because it’s the right way to build a wall.
These, like the walls of Yerushalayim, are the glorious, encircling walls beloved to the Torah.

In 1987, with Soviet Communism teetering, US President Ronald Reagan visited West Berlin, and he delivered a speech which became an instant classic. Standing before the wall dividing East and West Berlin, he proclaimed, “Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

That historic line almost didn’t happen. The speechwriter, Peter Robinson, wanted it in, but nervous diplomats insisted that Germans had grown used to the wall. So Robinson went to dinner with some local residents, and he asked them if they had “gotten used to” the Wall – to which the residents responded harshly that they certainly had not. The rest is oratorical history.[15] And two years later, the wall did finally come down.

With the laws of shemitah and walled cities, with the warning of the Tochachah, the Torah teaches us to “tear down this wall” which divides. But with the succah and the chuppah and the holiness of Yerushalayim, the Torah teaches us to “build up this wall” of propinquity which encircles and envelops, creating shared identity and community. Such is the beauty of the walls of Yerushalayim.

May we see Hashem rebuild these walls with fire; may we see Hashem rebuild these walls now; and may we view them not by live stream on our phones in Toronto, but as part of that sacred community, from the inside.

[1] Shemos 23:11
[2] Mechilta d’R’ Yishmael, Mishpatim, Masechta d’Kaspa 20
[3] Although the law does not require it due to its impracticality. And see Mishneh Torah, Hilchos Sheviis 4:24.
[4] Vayikra 25:29-31
[5] Rav Hirsch to Bereishit 4:1 and Vayikra 25:34
[6] Devarim 28:52
[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Propinquity
[8] http://99u.com/articles/16408/how-to-build-a-collaborative-office-space-like-pixar-and-google
[9] Similar walls: The communal eruv, and the walls for קביעות מקום for a shared berachah
[10] One might also include Michah 6:8
[11] Bereishit 2:24
[12] Beis haBechirah 1:5
[13] The Tashbetz (3:201) claims that this miracle continues even now
[14] See Maharitz Chiyes to Niddah 34a
[15] http://parade.com/25838/viannguyen/the-story-behind-reagans-tear-down-this-wall-speech/

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Blemished are Better Role Models (Emor 5776)

For any man in whom there is a blemish shall not approach: a man who is blind or lame or whose nose has no bridge, or who has one limb longer than the other; or in whom there will be a broken leg or a broken arm… (Artscroll translation of Vayikra 21:18-19)

Strangely, the Torah prohibits kohanim exhibiting certain physical defects from serving in the Beit haMikdash. Excluding a physically marred priest was not unusual for the ancient Near East (This Abled Body, pg. 26), but it seems inconsistent with the Torah’s broad messages regarding the relative unimportance of physical perfection.

Our greatest prophet, Moshe, the source of our Torah and the closest “confidante” of G-d, identified himself as having a speech defect, and G-d did not choose to heal him. (Shemot 4; although note that Sanhedrin 36b indicates that Moshe was not a baal mum, strictly speaking) When the prophet Shemuel was sent to select a king, and he was impressed by a candidate’s physical form, G-d rebuked him, “Human beings see with their eyes, but G-d sees the heart.” (Shemuel I 16:7) The Talmud records a story of a man who was insulted as ugly, and it approves of his response, “Go tell the Craftsman who made me.” (Taanit 20b) Torah and tradition render absurd the idea that there is any inferiority in, or any Divine rejection of, a human being whose form is damaged or incomplete.

Further: the demand for physical perfection hardly guaranteed a proper priesthood. The ranks of “unblemished” priests included Chofni and Pinchas, who abused their power in control of the Mishkan; the high priest Evyatar supported Adoniyahu’s coup; the descendants of the priestly Chashmonaim abused their power and fell in with the Greeks; and the heretical Sadducees claimed lineage from the high priest Tzaddok. We must also realize that exclusion of people with physical challenges runs counter to the respectful and protective approach to the vulnerable trumpeted throughout the Torah. How could the Torah, which inveighs incessantly against abuse of the weak, perpetuate a stigma regarding people who are blind, lame, or suffer broken limbs?

One explanation is that the Torah is concerned about popular perception of the Beit haMikdash and its service. As Sefer haChinuch (275) suggests, “if [the priest] is of deficient form and unusual limbs, then even if he is righteous in his ways, his deeds will still not be found as positive in the eyes of his beholders.” This rationale is difficult, though; in other areas of religious practice the Torah harshly condemns weaknesses of the human psyche, including hedonism and miserliness. Imagine the lesson had the Torah explicitly required the inclusion of priests who exhibited physical defects!

We might understand the exclusion of the challenged kohen by recognizing that physical defects are acceptable for kings, sages, prophets and judges. [A judge on the Sanhedrin must have no physical defect, per Hilchot Sanhedrin 2:6, but Lechem Mishneh says this is only for the highest court. Regarding a king, I should note Shevet haLevi 8:251:3.] In every arena of Jewish life, public and private, we promote respect for every individual, regardless of physical challenges; only regarding the kohen is the law different. Perhaps this is because the kohen who serves in the Beit haMikdash is not viewed as a human being at all; rather, the kohen is a representative of G-d. [See Yoma 19a and Kiddushin 23b.] Indeed, the prophet Malachi identifies the kohen as an angel of G-d. (Malachi 2:7) In G-d, there is no defect.

Life offers two categories of success: the easy victory, and the triumph over adversity. For human beings, the latter may be the greater achievement; as Pirkei Avot 5:23 says, “The reward is commensurate with the pain endured.” Therefore, our role models – king, sage, prophet and judge – include human beings who struggle with, and overcome, physical obstacles. The kohen, though, represents G-d, for whom there is neither obstacle nor struggle, and in whom no defect can be perceived. The Divine agent, like his Master, must represent success without challenge.

The unblemished kohen, inhabiting the Beit haMikdash of G-d, is not a role model for us. We are all incomplete and challenged in some way, and therefore our ideal role models are other challenged human beings. We would be criminally foolish if we failed to value the role model in every human being, recognizing the unique personalities, talents and contributions of people who triumph over all manner of adversity.

When we gaze upon the representatives of G-d, let us see a world in which success comes easily. But when we ask ourselves whom we wish to become, let us look upon the “blind or lame”, the one with the broken leg or broken arm, the Moshe. These are our heroes, and from them we will learn success.

[For other ideas regarding the exclusion of priests with physical blemishes, see Toronto Torah 4:29 and 6:31.]

Friday, May 6, 2016


I expect to take my teenage son to a levayah (funeral) for the first time today; it's for the grandparent of a friend of his.

I have mixed feelings, of course, about his readiness and so forth. But it seems to me to be important that a person's first exposure to intense grief come 1) vicariously, and 2) with the possibility of helping to mitigate it for others.


Wednesday, April 27, 2016

I get it!

An epiphany, as I prepare my shiurim on the closing chapters of Iyov -

Iyov = Shir haShirim!

Not exactly, of course. The roles and dynamics of the relationship at the core of each book are different. But fundamentally, both are books about:
1. a passionate desire for a relationship between the protagonist and G-d/King,
2. then launched into conflict,
3. addressed by outsiders who do not understand, and
4. brought to a resolution which is not a resolution.

Shir haShirim uses the model of two human beings pursuing a loving relationship (אהבה). One may be a king and the other a peasant, but the two are relatively accessible to each other. The conflict arises when the woman/reader falters, she then encounters people who attack her and malign her beloved, she defends her beloved. She returns to the relationship - but the book does not present a full reunion with her Beloved.

Iyov uses the model of King and citizen, with the citizen pursuing a relationship of reverence and fear (יראה). The King is not accessible, but the citizen/reader persists in the relationship. The conflict arises when the King fails to carry out justice, alienating the citizen. The citizen encounters visitors who attack him and misrepresent G-d; he defends G-d to them, even as he demands that G-d communicate with him. G-d ultimately communicates, but only to explain that true communication is not possible. Nonetheless, G-d presents the citizen with gifts, demonstrating that there is some form of relationship.

Two different religious experiences and outlooks.

It's beautiful.

There is much more here; this is going to be fun to write up for Tuesday's shiur.

Monday, April 25, 2016

A generation that does not know how to ask

A bit of a depressing thought (which is why I didn’t publish it before Pesach). I should develop further, but this is not the time of year for cynicism...

The Talmud Yerushalmi (Pesachim 10:4) lists four types of children for whom we are instructed והגדת לבנך, “Tell your children” about the Exodus. One is חכם – wise. One is רשע – wicked. One is טיפש – foolish (in contemporary haggadot, the edition often says תם, simple, but the meaning is the same). And one is שאינו יודע לשאול – the one who does not know how to ask. These are the four children of our Seder.

Maharal, like many others, explains that the one who "does not know how to ask" is of weak intellect. This is difficult, though; is the אינו יודע לשאול like the תם-טיפש, just less bright?

Rav Nachman of Breslov (Likutei Moharan 30:6) explained this child differently – he “does not know how to repent and ask for forgiveness from G-d for sins of which he is unaware.”

Taking Rav Nachman’s idea further: The “one who does not know how to ask” is indeed bright. He can make deductions and declare assertions and debate brilliantly - but he does not know how to ask questions, with a genuine interest in learning that which he does not already know.

We are riding the wave of a communication revolution, in which all of us can publish. Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and any number of photo-sharing apps offer platforms for us to proclaim our beliefs. But these media offer very little in the way of two-way communication. (And writing, “Let me know in the comments” when you really mean, “Compliment me, or tell me why you disagree so that I will be able to rebut your arguments,” doesn’t count.)

And we live in a world which interprets humility as uncertainty, and a gentle demeanour as timidity, encouraging us always to express ourselves, and to do so with force. Just look at our presidential candidates.

The result is a style which emphasizes zingers, supporting data, boasting, questions solely for the purpose of rhetorical device, and QED. There is very little inquiry for the sincere purpose of learning another point of view. We have become a generation that does not know how to ask.

Perhaps we need people to set our teeth on edge…