Sunday, December 30, 2007

Creating a Strong Synagogue

Haveil Havalim 147 is up! Thanks for the links.

About a month ago, in the course of looking at different communities for my prospective move, I developed a basic set of generic goals for a shul/community. I suppose this might be of help for someone out there, so I'll post them here. Note that the goals are not listed in order of priority.

My original file included suggestions for implementing these goals; maybe I'll get around to posting that soon, too.

1. A Warm Shul
An inviting atmosphere in which regulars and guests feel not only welcome, but a part of the shul.
Multiple points of entry into the shul community
Social inclusiveness - a willingness to transcend demographic comfort zones
Low barriers to participation

2. A Stimulating Davening
A davening experience which is attractive, inspiring and user-friendly
Ritual organizers in touch with membership

3. A Focus on Education
Push-based education for all ages and levels, to both inspire and sate religious curiosity
Formal and informal education
A “Multiple intelligences” approach

4. Ideology and Activism
An action-focused environment in which ideology is only the first step
Ideological growth
Activities to put ideology into practice

5. Strong Rabbi-Congregant Relationships
Relationships of trust, respect, dependability and openness
Personal communication
Social opportunities
Open doors
Sensitive Halachic guidance

6. Strong Administration
A management team aiming to serve the needs of the community
Responsibly functioning board and committees
Administration in touch with membership
Strong Rabbi-Board communication

7. External Relationships
A shul which lives Kiddush HaShem in relating to the greater Jewish and secular community
Involvement in the greater community
Inviting in the greater community

Feel free to comment, compliment or criticize...

Friday, December 28, 2007

Silly Rabbit, Shuls are for Kids!

What is the goal of a Shul Youth Program?

Realistically, every shul is different; some have a largely yeshiva-educated clientele, others a largely non-yeshiva clientele, and others a mix. Some have primarily very young children, while others have older children. Some have very little in the way of staff; others have a full complement of personnel, in addition to volunteer parents. All of these will affect the way the shul goes about meeting its Youth Programming needs.

Nonetheless, I believe that the overall goal of the program is a constant: To raise generations of Jewish children who feel comfortable and competent in a shul environment and in the Jewish community.

Here are several paths toward that end, recognizing that different paths are needed for different shuls:

For younger children:
Storytime sessions with the rabbi, as well as with other leading players from the shul and community.

A tour of the shul, including the bimah, the aron and the rabbi’s office, giving the kids something specific to do at each site, some measure of control of their environment, as they hear about what happens at each place.

For older children:
Training children in different parts of davening, including those which are somewhat esoteric. The schools will take care of daily davening, hopefully, but there’s a lot more they can learn, whether about Geshem and Tal or about the proper methods of Hagbah and Gelilah. (I’d leave it to the individual shul to decide whether that last is for girls as well, but my inclination is to teach them.)

Mainstreaming into formal davening – It’s hard to educate kids in a minyan setting, but if they are ever to feel comfortable in that environment, they must be given the chance to experience it. Bringing them in for specific parts of the davening, for which they have been trained, may help.

For early teens:
Youth programs that bring kids into partnership with adults – Volunteering at a kosher food pantry, working on maintenance projects at shul, helping coordinate a shul-wide social event, all of these introduce children to the mechanics of the Jewish community, as well as to some of the players. Specific adults should also be invited to participate in youth programs, toward the same end.

Giving the oldest kids a position on the shul Youth Committee, both for program planning and budget analysis.

As a former president of mine used to say, The children are the future of our shul. Most shuls are now sophisticated enough that they encourage the presence of children during davening, and they’ve stopped the shush parade (which should be directed more at the chatterbox parents anyway) – but the next step is to train the children so that when the time comes for them to take over, they are ready.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Moshe’s death begins again

I cannot stand Parshat Shmot. I fear reading it. It drives me berserk – and especially this year.

Call this hubris, but I overly identify with Moshe Rabbeinu. It’s because of my field of work, it’s because I love his “I can’t stands no more!” declaration to Gd in Bamidbar (Numbers) 11:11-15, it’s because I was born on his birthday (the 7th of Adar)… his struggle just resonates with me.

In particular, I am struck by the way Moshe is stopped at the goal line, blocked from entering Israel after putting himself through 41 years of absolute Gehennom to get there. This man exposed himself to hatred and ridicule, slaved day and night for a nation that often rebelled against his leadership, separated himself from his family, braved the mighty Pharoah and defeated Amalek and fought wars against Emorite kings, you name it – and G-d would not allow him to enter Israel. Sorry, no entry.

Of course, Moshe didn’t complain; after his appeal was rejected, he still did everything he was told to do, up to and including dying. What an outsized tzaddik we’re looking at here.

It all starts in Parshat Shmot, at a time when Moshe would give anything not to have to take this job. He doesn’t want the power, he doesn’t want to lead, he doesn’t want anything other than to be a simple Jew, but Gd won’t take no for an answer.

“They won’t believe me.” No. “Send someone else.” No. “Pharoah won’t listen.” No. “I don’t speak well.” No. You’re taking this job, Moshe, end of discussion.

And he takes the job. And Gd tells him Aharon will help him out, and Gd gives him a staff to use to engineer miracles, and Gd tells him, “Don’t worry, Moshele, it’ll be all right.”

And so the clock starts on Moshe's death.

“MOSHE, IT’S A FRAUD!” I want to yell at him as I read the parshah. "It’s not true, Moshe, run the other way! You’re going to spend the next forty-one years doing this, only to be prevented from reaching your goal! Turn around while there’s still time!"

But he doesn’t. He picks up the staff and heads to Egypt, expecting that Gd will be there with him every step of the way. Which Gd will be – until the cruel end of the story, when Moshe will be given one last order: Sure, you can go up the mountain and see Israel. Then Die.

This has been the story for so many Jewish leaders; so many well-meaning, committed rabbis and community leaders have given their lives for this stubborn nation, only to perish short of the mark. I know; I’ve buried some of them.

And this year, the story has special resonance for me. As I think about taking a new job, in a new community, where I am told by so many people that I could lead and accomplish great things, I wonder: How far short of my own mark will I die and be buried?

But I am comforted by two points:
1. True, Moshe dies short of the mark – but he has a great ride along the way. He speaks to Gd. He rescues the Jews from Egypt. He wins wars. He teaches a nation the way of Gd.

2. And, of course, Moshe must die short of the mark, and this is perhaps his greatest lesson for leaders. Moshe must die short of the mark because the sign of a great leader is that he always has a ‘mark’ in front of him: When he achieves one goal, he sets the next.
Moshe takes the Jews out of Egypt; time to go to Sinai. He reaches Sinai, time to get the Jews on the road to Israel. He gets the Jews on the road, time to teach them the Torah. His life is one long string of Dayyenus, and it never ends because it never can end.
The true Moshe will always die short of the mark, because there will always be another mark, drawing him forward.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Steroids: Use ‘em, or lose your job?

Baseball's steroid users remind me of the old Jack Benny joke: The mugger asks, “Your money or your life,” to which you reply, “Let me think about it.”

Or the gemara on loving Gd “with all of your life, and with all that you possess.” The gemara explains that some people value their life highest, and some value their wealth highest, so that the pasuk needs to mention both.

We laugh when we hear those lines - but steroid-pumping athletes have decided that their money is worth more than their lives. The athletes know the risk, they can even see the drugs’ intense effects on their bodies daily, but they take these drugs in pursuit of wealth, financial security, fame, success, etc.

So what’s wrong with it? Why ban these drugs? After all, they are accessible to all athletes, so no one owns an unfair advantage!

Some blame the prohibition on society’s puritan approach to pharmacology, but I have a different take: I think steroids ought to be banned because of their effect on players who don’t want to juice themselves.

Consider this: Let’s say steroid use was legal, but you didn’t want to use it due to health concerns. If you were a baseball player of superb talent, serious team commitment and a solid work ethic, and you worked hard throughout high school and, perhaps, college and minor league ball, you might still earn a spot on a professional team and, at long last, pull down millions for your skills and effort.

But then along comes another player whose work ethic isn’t quite as great as your own, but who is willing to take “the cream.” He bulks up, his vision improves, his bat speed improves, and suddenly you’re riding the bench while he’s riding high.

What choice do you have? This is your career, how else will you feed your family? Besides, you’ve earned a spot on that team through your years of hard work! And so you get pressured into becoming a steroid user, harming your health for the sake of this game/job.

How many good, hard-working players were shut out of baseball by Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, or Barry Bonds?

Think of Wally Pipp losing his position at first base to Lou Gehrig, who went on to play the next thirteen years straight without missing a game; would we feel the same affection for Gehrig if we knew he had stolen Pipp’s job with drugs that Pipp refused to take? Worse - what if Gehrig had taken the job because of drug-enhanced skills, and then Pipp had resorted to drugs to get it back?

I think that on some level it reminds us too much of the ancient Romans and their lions - it's not right to force the athletes to face the lions.

That, to me, is why steroids ought to be illegal in pro sports: Because if some players are allowed to harm themselves for the job, then other players will be forced to do the same.

Just as society won’t permit minors to hire themselves out as sweatshop workers because of the harm to their health;
Just as society won’t tolerate the sale of a kidney for someone to put food on his plate;
Just as society won’t tolerate prostitution of the poor;
So, too, we won’t tolerate a situation in which players are forced to harm themselves in order to play the game.

Article from my White House Chanukah visit

I wrote an opinion article regarding my White House/Chanukah trip, and it ran in the Allentown Morning Call on Thursday, December 13. They edited it marginally, just enough to wreck some of the grammar. This is their version:

(Their title: White House Chanukah signals democratic health)

The phrase ''Only in America'' is trite, but apt for the occasion: On Monday evening Dec. 10, my wife Caren and I joined a few hundred other Jewish Americans for a Chanukah party in the White House. The hosts were President and Mrs. Bush, and all I could think was, ''Only in America.''

Cynics carp that such cultural celebrations, like the president's marking of Eid al-Fitr this past October, are essentially political tools, meant to appeal to minority voters.

But, I believe that the cynics are missing the point. The lesson of such occasions is that only in America, and in the societies America has inspired, can a minority gain this sort of political notice, this level of electoral significance.

If the motivation is to win the favor of a cultural minority, that's a good thing, a sign of our country's democratic health. The Chinese government doesn't need to worry about catering to a minority, and neither do Arab nations; only in America does the president have to pause to think about the feelings of each ethnic group. Only in America will the president's staff contact the Orthodox Union and offer it the chance to invite four rabbis to celebrate Chanukah at the White House.

And so, we marked Chanukah with a menorah from the family of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter brutally murdered by terrorists for the crime of being Jewish. Daniel Pearl's parents, wife and family were honored guests for the evening.

And so, we enjoyed kosher food, prepared in the White House kitchen with equipment that had been specially treated to render it kosher. Cookies bore the phrase, ''Happy Chanukah,'' and we munched on traditional Chanukah jelly doughnuts beneath the portraits of past presidents and first ladies.

And so, we heard the Jewish Zamir Chorale, as well as a military band, perform such Chanukah classics as ''Rock of Ages'' and ''I Had a Little Dreidel.'' Those big brass sections really add something to the traditional tunes.

And so, a rabbi and rebbetzin (rabbi's wife) from the third-largest city in Pennsylvania were honored by the Orthodox Union with the opportunity to meet the President of the United States and First Lady and stand beside them for a photograph. (We actually took two photographs; the President explained that he had blinked on the first one.)

And, to return to those cynics for a moment: The Chanukah celebration at the White House was not entirely politically inspired; the White House also marks Chanukah privately, more quietly, with a commemoration for its Jewish employees.In a nation of businesses who stage ''holiday parties'' meant to serve as catch-all celebrations for employees of all ethnicities, this White House holds separate parties for White House staff members on their own holidays. This means that Jewish staff members have their own Chanukah party, not as part of the public celebration and not as part of some generic ''holiday'' celebration, but as a commemoration of their own. Would that our nation's businesses were similarly sensitive!

America, after all of the constitutional legislation and all of the political debate, is culturally Christian. I walk the malls bemusedly staring at all of the red and green. I turn on the radio and hear holiday music, I drive down the street and see lone candles in the windows and chains of lights draped over shrubbery. The White House was filled with tinsel-decorated evergreen trees; even the invitation for the Chanukah party featured a picture of a festively decorated fir tree.

But none of this troubles me. The beauty of America, at least to me, is that the citizens of this great nation can celebrate their own festivities and simultaneously recognize the celebrations of others.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Four approaches to Kiruv

There's nothing groundbreaking here, just a few observations on the way kiruv is done, triggered by an article on New Jew.

Last week, New Jew carried a link to a Jewish Federation of San Francisco article about an intermarried woman celebrating both Jewish and Christian December holidays.

New Jew was perturbed by a Federation’s use of its tzedakah dollars to promote an intermarried lifestyle. I am troubled, too, but I see this issue in the context of a greater question: How do we reach out to intermarried couples - or to anyone, really - in a manner that is simultaneously honest, respectful and substantive?

1. Close the door
Some take the tack of closing the door entirely. They refuse to insult the intelligence of the intermarried by pretending to accept them, and they refuse to bend on the issue of acceptance.
The positive side is that they are entirely honest and upfront.
The negative side is that although the occasional Jew is brought home by this ostracism, those are exceedingly rare exceptions.

2. Take the door off the hinges
On the other extreme, some embrace the intermarried and tell them to come as they are, wherever they are, pledging an open heart, open arms and an open mind no matter the sins being embraced.
The positive side is that they give the transgressor every opportunity to repent, on any level - even that of a single mitzvah.
The negative side is that there is usually - although not always - an inherent dishonesty involved in the “openness” pledge. My experience is that many mekarvim who take this approach are not usually sincere about it; they are just taking the path of least resistance into people’s hearts.

3. The revolving door
Then you have the approach of that San Francisco Federation - to openly and honestly accept the intermarried couple where they are, actively and vocally supporting their choices. This is also the approach of the Jewish Outreach Institute, known particularly for their Mothers Circle program.
The positive side is that they are honest in their respect for all choices.
The negative side is this question: What sort of Judaism and Jewish community are we marketing here, if we recognize intermarriage as a choice we will support, and even promote?

4. The door opens and closes, as you choose
And then there’s a fourth approach: Respectful disagreement, delivered with open arms.
By this I mean that the mekarev recognizes the Gd-given right of Free Will, which empowers every human being to make independent decisions.
That doesn’t mean that I agree with or support your choices, just that I respect your right to make them. I can advise you of my own opinion and present my arguments, and you can do the same in return, and either one of us will convince the other or not, but we will emerge with the recognition of each other’s integrity.
The positive side: It’s honest and forthright and accepting, and the mekarev gets to present his point of view.
The negative side: It’s probably more accepting than some would like, and may not have the greatest success because it’s not a hard-sell tactic.

I advocate this fourth approach. It’s anchored in a Torah-based tolerance, as well as a Torah-based sense of responsibility to engage others in discussions of mitzvos and aveiros, so I’m comfortable with it, and it has worked well for me.

As I said, no novelties here; just my musings, triggered by that article.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Derashah: Vayyichi 5768: Yosef and the Jewish-American Citizen

The chamber is beautifully appointed, a fittingly luxurious bedroom for the viceroy’s father… but illness burdens its sole occupant. Yaakov, knowing he is near the end of his storied life, calls for his son.
This son rarely visits, as evidenced by the fact that a special courier must inform him that Yaakov is ill… but, at last, the son enters. The viceroy of Egypt, Tzafnat Paneach to his Egyptian court, Yosef ben Rachel to his father, enters the room.
Yaakov speaks. He pleads with his son, “Please, grant me this one request: When I die, return my body to Canaan, to the cemetery of my ancestors.” What son could refuse such a plea from his father? And yet, Yaakov feels the need to twice demand an oath from Tzafnat Paneach, viceroy of Egypt: “Swear to me. Swear you will fulfill my last wish." And then the bedridden Yaakov bows in gratitude to his son.

What happened?! In a Torah filled with dysfunctional family relationships, Yaakov and Yosef were an island of love, a model for their descendants!
Yaakov gave Yosef a ktonet pasim, a special tunic, to mark Yosef’s favor!
Yaakov sent his other children to herd sheep, but sheltered Yosef at home!
Yaakov mourned Yosef’s absence every day for 22 years; contrast that with his utter non-reaction when Shimon was imprisoned in Egypt!
When Yaakov and Yosef met at last, Yaakov declared, “Now I can die, for I have seen your face!”
How did this loving father and son lose their closeness such that now they never met, such that Yaakov felt the need to bow to Yosef, such that Yaakov felt compelled to twice demand an oath of him for the most basic request?

This problem has bothered many classic commentators, who have offered a range of solutions. Based on a terse note in the Siftei Chachamim on ויפג לבו, we might add our own suggestion:
The Siftei Chachamim commentary to Rashi on last week’s parshah suggested that Yaakov didn’t believe that Yosef was alive because he couldn’t conceive of a situation in which Yosef, his loyal Jewish son, could be permitted to reign in Egypt. What kind of job is Egyptian viceroy for a nice Jewish boy?
Now, though, Yaakov sees his son indeed reigning in Egypt - and he fears that Yosef is no longer a “nice Jewish boy,” that Yosef has, in fact, been Egyptianized. Just as Yishmael and Esav had rejected the path of Avraham and Sarah to adopt Canaanite ways, Yosef has now left the fold, becoming an Egyptian citizen.

In fact, Yosef does appear to have become an Egyptian, based on the Torah’s definition of citizenship.
Mordechai Zer-Kavod suggested in an essay entitled הנכרי והגר במקרא, “The Foreigner and the Stranger in Tanach,” that the Torah recognizes four categories of citizen: Ezrach, Ger Toshav, Ger and Nochri.
An Ezrach, a full citizen, is entitled to political rights and social support, and shoulders communal obligations. A Ger Toshav has fewer rights and responsibilities. The Ger, the sojourner, possesses still fewer rights and responsibilities, and the Nochri, the stranger, has no claims upon, or responsibility toward, the community.

The first three generations of Jewish history see Jews in the three sub-citizen roles of Ger Toshav, Ger and Nochri; neither Avraham nor Yitzchak nor Yaakov become true אזרחים, true citizens, anywhere they live.
Avraham and Sarah are everybody’s best friends; they are close with Aner, Eshkol and Mamre; Avraham befriends Malki Tzedek of Shalem; Avraham and Sarah welcome outsiders into their home. Despite this extroversion, though, Avraham identified himself only as a Ger Toshav; he had the right to purchase land and to live among the Canaanites in peace, but he was not an Ezrach, he was not of them.
Yitzchak and Rivkah were less engaged in society; they interacted only with the Philistines of Grar, and that was quite a debacle. In fact, the midrash (cited in Rashi on Shmos 12:40 and elsewhere) notes that the prediction of גר יהיה זרעך, that Avraham’s descendants would be Gerim, sojourners in a land not their own, was first fulfilled with Yitzchak.
And then it gets worse - Yaakov’s family can’t seem to get along with anybody! Their contacts are with Esav, Lavan and Shechem, each one a bigger disaster than the last. Yaakov is a Yosheiv Ohalim, a tent-dweller, and that seems to be where he fares best; the world, for him, is a series of dangers. Yaakov is practically a Nochri in his own land. The disastrous foray to Egypt for food, viewed from the perspective of Yaakov’s sons, must have seemed like more of the same.

But then Yosef reverses the trend of social estrangement; he fulfills every biblical criterion of Ezrach, of citizen, as an Egyptian.
An Ezrach is a permanent resident, while a Ger intends to stay temporarily, לגור שם. Yosef intends to remain in Egypt until his death, as evidenced by his request for burial in Canaan.
An Ezrach owns land; Gerim live בארץ לא להם, in a land not their own. Yosef claims land in Goshen.
And, as Zer-Kavod notes, only an Ezrach has true political power, while a Ger survives on the mercy of the law. Yosef is the law, Yosef is political power incarnate. Remember what he told his brothers? “Go tell Dad, שמני אלקים לאדון לכל מצרים, Gd has made me the master of all of Egypt.”
And so Yaakov wonders if his son, Yosef, has gone the way of Yishmael and Esav, abandoning his Jewish heritage and identifying as an Ezrach, a citizen of Egypt, instead.

But while Yaakov sees Yosef walk like an Egyptian, but Yosef yet thinks like a Jew. Yosef has acquired Egyptian citizenship without abandoning his Jewish identity.
First, Yosef never forgets that he is in exile. When naming Ephraim, he labels Egypt ארץ עניי, the land of my suffering, even though he is now the Egyptian viceroy. He asks that his bones be returned to Israel, another sign that even if he will not leave Egypt alive, this is still not home for him.
Second, every step of the way, Yosef identifies himself as an Ivri. Like Avraham before him, Yosef emphasizes that he comes from a different place and tribe. Yosef even tells Paroh that his success is Jewish, credited to only one source, the Jewish Gd; הלא לאלקים פתרונים.
Yosef is a new breed of Jew, a break from the model of his ancestors, a Jew who can not only survive among the nations, but who can even lead, using his Jewish identity as the basis for his leadership.

This should not be viewed as a quirk of Yosef; Yosef’s participation in the whole of the human community is the model prescribed by R’ Shimshon Raphael Hirsch for the MenschYisroel, the complete Jew.
In an essay entitled “Religion Allied to Progress,” Hirsch wrote of a Judaism that “extends its declared mission to the salvation of the whole of mankind.” As he put it, “The more the Jew is a Jew, the more universalist will be his views and aspirations.”
This is Yosef - Concerned with the salvation of the whole of mankind and taking a leadership role within society… as a Jew.

Yosef’s path has never been the path of every Jew. For every cosmopolitan Rambam, for every political Shemuel haNagid and Abarbanel, for every influential Rabbi Yehudah haNasi, dozens if not hundreds of Torah giants have stood back from society, considering the influence of the greater world a poison without antidote - and the world has been quite content with that separation.
Today, though, in America and beyond, the Jew is summoned to lead secular society. Socially, politically, scientifically, morally, philanthropically, the body politic turns to the Jew and asks, “What can you provide?” Congressional hearings on medical ethics routinely solicit Jewish opinion, victims of international disasters seek Israeli aid, non-profit organizations appeal to Jewish philanthropies, newspapers and television pundits ask the Jewish community for comment, Jews are accepted as professors and authors and politicians and producers and members of every level of the workforce. Every opportunity of which the ghetto-bound Jew was deprived is available to her descendant.
Given this opportunity to seek what Hirsch termed “the salvation of the whole of mankind,” and given this opportunity for Kiddush HaShem, we would ill-serve the purposes of Torah were we to back away into our Ohalim. Certainly, we must tread carefully, as Yosef did - informing the world of our Ivri status and retaining an awareness that secular society is not truly home. But we can do this; Yosef is given to us as a model.
Yosef leads as a Jew - and we can do the same.

This past December 10th, the 7th night of Chanukah, Caren and I were privileged to be invited to the Chanukah party held by the President and First Lady at the White House. The event was remarkable on many levels, but one particularly relevant point is the way we were honored as Jewish leaders in America. The food was all kosher - with two certifications, of course - a kosher menorah was lit, a maariv minyan was held, every possible halachic concern was satisfied. This was a celebration for us as Jews, because we are Jewish, because we visibly retain our identity, even as we are active members of American society.
We are the heirs of Avraham the Ger Toshav, and the heirs of Yosef the Ezrach. The models of Yitzchak and Yaakov remain very much a crucial part of Torah - we need to have people sitting and studying Torah in the Ohel - but in this land of opportunity we have been given the greatest opportunity, the chance, as Hirsch said, to work for the salvation of the whole of mankind. Like Yosef, we can shoulder this responsibility - and, with Gd’s help, like Yosef, we will succeed.

Additional thoughts:
1. The affection seems to go from Yosef to Yaakov as well - from the moment Yosef meets his brothers in Egypt, he can’t stop asking them how his father Yaakov is doing. And when Yosef reveals his identity and then speaks of Yaakov, he refers to his father four times - and he doesn’t say אבינו, our father, but rather, all four times he says אבי, my father.

2. In terms of Yaakov's suspicions: Although Yaakov gives Yosef a double portion in Israel, he eliminates Yosef’s name; the double portion will instead be given to Yosef’s sons, Ephraim and Menasheh!

3. On this reading of the Yaakov/Yosef suspicion, see also Avraham Ahuviah in

4. A side note: Yaakov demands an oath from Yosef. Yaakov’s first speaking part in the Torah, his purchase of the bechorah, ends with him demanding the same thing, saying השבעה לי כיום.

5. Note that there were also Jews who fulfilled this Yosef "citizen" role in the days of the Gemara; cf the discussion of Jews who travel among the aristocracy wearing the קומי haircut, such as Sotah 49b.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Program Idea: The Chumash Project

Side note: I will be interviewed briefly on our local NPR station, WDIY 88.1 FM, tonight at 6:30 PM. The show is called “Lehigh Valley Discourse,” and they’ll be asking me about my trip to the White House for the December 10th Chanukah party. I feel like between articles and the derashah I’ve said pretty much everything I can about the event already - but if you’re curious, feel free to tune in.

Rechovot is expanding! I’ve decided to use some of this space to describe successful programs I’ve seen, or that I’ve heard about from others.

One of my all-time favorite programs was a small project we ran in 1998, when I was the rabbi of Congregation Ohawe Sholam, Young Israel of Pawtucket, Rhode Island.

The goal: We wanted to get people involved in regular Torah study, as families, but had not succeeded with a few different attempts.

So we decided to try “The Chumash Project,” an exercise in collaborative learning.

This is not much different from the Chevra Mishnayos or Siyum Nach concept, but we did it with families, and we used Chumash to encourage participation by children as well as by people with little Jewish educational background.

We ran this between Simchat Torah and Chanukah. Individuals and families signed up for parshiyyot (Torah portions), which they studied on their own. Their names appeared on a poster we placed, prominently, in the shul lobby.

Some simply read the parshah with translation, while others did it with commentary. Some did it in one sitting, others spaced it out. But everyone sat down to learn through at least one parshah.

We celebrated at the end with a big Siyum and associated seudah (meal), with divrei torah from individuals on the portions they had learned. And then we did it again, because everyone was so excited about it. And then we did it a third time. Presumably we would have done it several times more, perhaps adding books of Neviim (Prophets), but I moved from Rhode Island in June of 2001.

You can see some information about the program on-line at the Ohawe Sholam website, here.

The cost of the whole enterprise, both financially and in terms of my time, was minimal.
The benefit to individual participants was that they sat down to learn a fixed amount during a fixed period of time.
The benefit to the community was that it helped create an atmosphere of learning, and drew new people into the program each time.

Low cost, big shul and communal benefit… what more could you want?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A World Without Gifts?

This, unlike much of the other material posted so far on this blog, was not a derashah; it’s just a thought which may, one day, make it into a speech…or not.

I plead guilty to the charge of humbuggery.

Presents beget the expectation of more presents; the more gifts my children receive from our relatives, the more they expect to receive tomorrow, and the next day, and the next. And so I have soured on the whole gift-giving phenomenon; I feel it spoils kids (and adults!), conditioning them to expect such favors incessantly.

Obviously, this is inspired somewhat by the just-past Chanukah celebration, but it applies year-round – birthdays, random visits from family, even lollipops in shul.

Still, I can’t go too far along those lines without remembering that Judaism revolves around gift-giving.

Avraham gives presents to the children of his concubines, and Yaakov gives Yosef a special tunic. Granted the tunic didn’t work out so well, it’s the thought that counts, right?

We give gifts of food on Purim, as prescribed in Megilat Esther. All year round we give gifts of tzedakah to those in need, and we also have a special mitzvah of tzedakah gifts on Purim.

Farmers are expected to provide מתנות עניים, gifts for the needy, from their fields – the Peah corner of the field, the gleanings, etc. All of us are expected to provide מתנות כהונה, gifts for Kohanim, from produce as well as from animals.

The gemara says one ought to give his family members gifts for each Yom Tov, to increase their holiday joy. The gemara even offers gift ideas – toys for kids, new clothes for women, and wine for men (but please, give non-alcoholic grape juice for those who are sensitive to wine!).

Part of our emphasis on gifts relates to social bonding – people feel close to those whom they have helped, and, per Rav Dessler in Michtav meiEliyahu, people feel close to those whom they have helped. (I believe strongly in this latter idea; this seems to me to be a function of a degree of cognitive dissonance. I helped them, they must be worthy of help and they must be close to me.)

But I think part of it is also a way to build up generosity toward HaShem. The korban is the ultimate gift, a way to “give to Gd,” if such a thing were possible. We offer something of our own to Gd, as a way to demonstrate love – and the more familiar we are with giving away something of our own, the more readily this act will come to us. This is somewhat reminiscent of the practice of honoring parents as a means to sensitize ourselves to honoring our Creator.

So I’ll live with the whole gift phenomenon, and muddle through it. But I really would be happier if my kids would learn to give – to friends and to Gd - rather than to receive.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Derashah: Vayyetze 5768: The Selfless Mikdash

The Derashah:

The story of the site of the Beit haMikdash
Thousands of years ago, they say, two brothers lived on either side of a hill. One brother had a wife and many children, the other brother lived alone. Each brother brought home an excellent harvest. The brother with the large family said to himself, “My brother lives alone, he should at least have wealth,” and so he decided to secretly bring his brother grain, in the middle of the night. The brother who lived alone said to himself, “My brother has to support an entire family,” and decided to secretly bring him grain, in the middle of the night. The two were surprised to meet each other in the middle. They embraced, and Gd declared that on the spot of their selflessness, the Beis haMikdash would be built.
Of course, there’s also a second version of that story, in which the brother with the large family said to himself, “My brother has no one to support, he doesn’t need all that grain.” The brother who lived alone said to himself, “My brother has a huge family, his kids can work for him; I need the grain more.” And so each set out for the other side, to steal the other’s grain for himself. The two met in the middle and fought, and Gd declared that on that spot, the Kenesset would be built.

The flaws of the story
But all kidding aside, the story of the brothers is obviously not consistent with Torah.
The Torah tells us how the spot of the Beis haMikdash was selected - it was the spot at which Avraham offered his son, Yitzchak, as a gift to Gd! According to the midrash, this was also the spot at which Yaakov declared, in this morning’s parshah, that he would give Gd 1/10 of everything Gd would provide him! Apparently, this spot was selected for the relationship between Man and Gd, not for the relationship between people!
And, of course, from a historical perspective, the story seems to have started as an Arab legend about Al-Aqsa, not a Jewish story about the Beis haMikdash.

The point that resonates: Selflessness
We know this - and yet the story resonates with us. We like it, we tell it to our children. Not because we are suckers for a good story, but because the story captures the central element of both the Akeidah of Yitzchak, and Yaakov’s offer to Gd. The Akeidah, and Yaakov’s vow, sound like they are about Man and Gd, but they are really about selflessness.
Avraham is so driven to give that he will tear down his life’s work and offer it up on the altar.
Yitzchak is so driven to give that he will give up his life on that altar.
Yaakov is so driven to give that in a moment of bleak poverty and hopelessness he is willing to pledge away the wealth that will come to him in the future.
On that site of selflessness, we can have a Beis haMikdash - a place where we will selflessly bring our Korbanot, and a place where Gd will selflessly overlook our sins and forgive us.

A track record of selfishness
The problem, though, is that as much as the message of selflessness resonates with us, our historical reality has been one of selfishness.
Yosef’s brothers worried about what they would get for themselves, and so they sold Yosef into slavery.
The Jews in the desert worried about what they would get for themselves, and rebelled against Moshe.
וישמן ישורון ויבעט, even when we have been wealthy we have kicked at Gd and demanded whatever we could get.
The gemara (Bava Metzia 30b) says לא נחרבה ירושלים אלא...מפני שהעמידו דיניהם על דין תורה, ולא עבדו לפנים משורת הדין, Yerushalayim was destroyed as a punishment for the fact that people demanded their due under the law, and refused to forgive their rights.
When we want to know who lost Yerushalayim, when we look at the Annapolis negotiations and see a government prepared to split this city, we should realize that we lost Yerushalayim, whenever we were selfish.

What we can do - the Religious Zionist imperative
There is much we can do for the sake of Yerushalayim.
There are letters to write. Gd-willing I’ll be sending out an email this week listing addresses of powerful people who should hear from us that Yerushalayim should not be on the table.
We should discuss Yerushalayim, learn about Yerushalayim, and - most important - we should make sure that our children understand its importance, because even after this round is over, Yerushalayim will come up again. Four years ago Yossi Beilin tried to put Yerushalayim on the table with the Geneva Accords, and within four years from now someone else will try again, and we need to be ready, our children need to be ready.
But more than that, Religious Zionism teaches that we must eliminate the selfishness. If Religious Zionism simply means “I want Israel because I believe in the religious teachings about its past,” if Religious Zionism means I have a birthright in Israel because the Bible says so, then Religious Zionism is empty and should be discarded. Religious Zionism must also mean a commitment to the basic narrative of merit and sin, of believing that a birthright is only a start, and our righteousness is what earns us the city and the land. And so we must commit ourselves to following the model of Avraham and Yitzchak at the Akeidah, and Yaakov in this morning’s parshah, and giving of ourselves.
Opportunities abound. Whether it means:
coming into the house and first asking how your spouse is, making sure your spouse is all right before launching into your own tale of woe-
or it means joining in some community volunteering effort-
or it means giving of your time to your children-
or it means giving tzedakah-
we must commit to selflessness.
Five weeks ago, on Parshas Noach, I spoke about the need for צדקה ומשפט, righteousness and justice. Both of those begin with our commitment to overlook our own rights, and instead work on behalf of the rights of others.

Tefillas haDerech
At the start of our parshah, Yaakov was promised Divine protection; he saw angels descending a ladder, coming to watch over him during his trip to Charan.
In the middle of our parshah, those angels came to Yaakov and made sure he would not be cheated by his father-in-law, Lavan.
At the end of our parshah, as Yaakov returned to Israel, he again encountered angels; he watched the departure of those who had protected him outside Israel, and the arrival of his Israeli protectors.
We invoke those angels whenever we go on a trip; we say Tfilas haDerech, the Traveler’s Prayer, and we recite the psukim of Yaakov’s arrival at Machanaim and his encounter with those angels. We ask for that protection for ourselves.

Religious Zionism teaches us not only that the past of Yerushalayim is in our hands, but that the future of Yerushalayim is in our hands. We will write our letters. We will learn about Yerushalayim. We will speak to our children about Yerushalayim. And we will give of ourselves. Yaakov was willing to give of himself, and therefore he was protected. We are promised that if we are willing to give, we will receive the same.

Further thoughts:
1. Should we be bothered by the fact that the opening story is taught to our children in day school as though it were Torah miSinai?
2. At what point are we selflessly foregoing our rights, and at what point are we simply being patsies?
3. When we say Tefilas haDerech we talk about the angels from Yaakov's return to Israel, rather than his return to Israel?

Derashah: Vayyishlach 5768: Our obligation to a minority

Note: This was the third of three speeches delivered in honor of Israel's 60th birthday.

The derashah:

Dealing with a non-Jewish minority
For twenty centuries, Jews have been accustomed to viewing non-Jewish populations large and small as enemies. We have looked to Yaakov’s actions at the start of this morning’s parshah as precedent for every encounter with a foreign group - whether dealing with biblical empires, feudal lords or hostile mobs, we have been, perenially, on the defensive.
But in Israel, at the age of 60, we are no longer a true exile nation, a minority without political clout; instead, we make the rules. Yaakov’s precedent cannot inform the actions of today’s Israel, a land in which no matter how hostile the minority population may be, they will never, in the normal course of affairs, pose a serious existential threat to the country as a whole. Instead, it is the Jewish population that has the non-Jewish population at its mercy; everything from basic municipal services to civil rights depends entirely on Jewish say-so.
This became a major issue last month, during Druse riots in the Israeli city of Pekiin, when questions were raised about the way Israeli police handled the Druse citizens.
When dealing from a position of power, how do we address a non-Jewish minority? Must all non-Jewish nations be viewed automatically as the enemy, or can we admit the possibility that another nation, and a minority among us, might have a claim upon our aid and support? And if so, then what happens when resources are limited, and we need to divide them between the Jewish majority and the non-Jewish minority? In short: Does the Torah present us with a model for Jewish government of an Arab minority?
The answer, of course, is Yes - or this would be a very short speech.

First: Support them, if they keep the שבע מצוות
First, the Torah tells us that every society, Jewish and non-Jewish, is expected to live by a minimum standard of morality, as defined by the Torah.
When HaShem first tells Avraham that He is going to evict the Canaanites in favor of Avraham’s descendants, He tells Avraham that the reason for this eviction is כי לא שלם עון האמרי עד הנה, that the sin of the Canaanite Emori is not yet complete. Meaning: Gd has certain expectations of the Canaanites, and the Canaanites are not meeting those expectations. In Avraham’s day their guilt is not quite great enough to warrant their destruction, but Gd expects that by the time the Jews emerge from Egypt, the Canaanites will be so corrupt that the time will have arrived for their punishment.
This message of obligatory moral standards underlies numerous catastrophes in Bereishis. The Mabul, the destruction of the tower of Bavel, the demolition of Sdom, all of these speak to the idea that a population must meet an expected standard of moral behavior, in order to deserve survival.
This minimum standard is the שבע מצוות בני נח, the seven Noachide laws: Not to worship idols, Not to kill, Not to commit sexual immorality, Not to steal, Not to blaspheme against Gd, To kill an animal before taking its flesh to eat, and to set up a judicial system.
A population that accepts this standard deserves survival - and then we are obligated to help them survive. As Rav Aharon Soloveitchik explained (in Od Yisrael Yosef Bni Chai) based on the Rambam, we are obligated to support them with tzedakah, providing them with the means to survive. If they live in Israel they are also obligated to pay taxes to the government, but we are responsible to take care of them, in general, and make sure they have what they need.

Second: Create Kiddush HaShem in dealing with them
Second, we are obligated to create Kiddush HaShem, acting toward them in such a way that they will come to respect HaShem and HaShem’s Torah.
The best illustration of this obligation is Yehoshua’s pact with the Givonim.
Gd told the Jews, before their entry into Israel, that they would have to carry out the mission of evicting the 7 nations. However, we are taught that before the Jews first entered Israel, they sent messages to those seven nations, offering a chance for peace and acceptance of the seven Noachide laws. None of the nations accepted this offer.
Then, once the Jews had entered Israel and won a couple of wars, the Canaanite residents of Givon, also known as Givonim, decided that peace might be a good option after all. But they had a problem: The Jewish peace offer had already expired! So the Givonim sent messengers who pretended to have come from far away, wearing torn clothes and bringing stale food, so that the Jews wouldn’t realize that they were actually from the seven nations.
The ploy worked; the Jews agreed to spare the Givonim, and only afterward did they find out that these were people who were supposed to be evicted. The pact had been signed on fraudulent terms!
On discovering they had been cheated, Yehoshua and the Jews could have legitimately voided their pact - but they didn’t. Instead, they upheld their contract because they had given their word. They were concerned about what people would think, if they heard that the Jewish people had reneged.
This is the element of Kiddush HaShem, of making sure that our actions toward the minority are Kiddush HaShem, sanctifying the reputation of the Torah we uphold.

Third: Worry about their welfare, even at our own expense
So we have said that a Jewish majority is obligated to support its non-Jewish minority if they keep the seven mitzvos, and that we are further obligated to fulfill Kiddush HaShem, sanctifying Gd’s Name. But there’s an additional, punitive step: If we don’t take care of this minority, we will suffer for it. The evidence is in the further story of the Givonim.
As punishment for their fraud, the Givonim were put to work supplying water and wood for the Mishkan. In return, they were supported by the Kohanim. Many years later, Shaul haMelech destroyed Nov, a city of Kohanim - and the result was that many Givonim, who had depended upon Nov for support, died of starvation.
After this, there was a three-year famine in Israel - and Shaul’s successor, Dovid haMelech, was informed prophetically that the reason his nation was starving was because the Givonim were suffering.
HaShem thus provided us with a harsh lesson: We are responsible for the welfare of the minorities in our midst.

Application: Israel, and us
Before anyone runs away with this, let me state explicitly that I’m not suggesting this applies fully to the Palestinian Arabs, many of whom have a problem with a couple of those Noachide mitzvos. But the underlying principle is still relevant: We don’t treat all other nations as automatic enemies, and when they live among us we are responsible for their welfare. For the Druse, and for any other Arab population which might choose to live in peace in Israel, we are obligated to follow this model of the Torah.
This applies far beyond Israel, too; whenever we are in a position of power, even if we have the moral ground, we are still responsible to look out for the welfare of those around us.

ויירא יעקב מאד ויצר לו, we read this morning, as Yaakov prepared to meet his brother, Esav. “Yaakov was afraid, and he was troubled.” The midrash explains that Yaakov was afraid of being killed, and he was troubled that he might kill another. Although Yaakov knew he was dealing with an enemy, Yaakov did not wish to kill, even for his own survival.
As Yaakov’s descendants, we, too, would avoid such actions. מעשה אבות סימן לבנים, the lesson of our ancestors is clear: We must be prepared for all options, just as Yaakov was prepared for all options in the beginning of our parshah, but if true peace is offered by a minority prepared to observe its Noachide mitzvos, then we ought to be glad to accept, to provide them with their needs and even at our own expense, and to act toward them in a manner of Kiddush HaShem.

Further thoughts:
1. What happens when you believe the minority is working against you?
2. Who is the arbiter of "Kiddush HaShem" and "proper support" when you believe you are doing enough, and they disagree?
3. How does tie in to Zer-Kavod's concept of the Ger vs the Ger Toshav, in

Derashah: Chanukah 5768: The Day of Small Things

The Derashah:

Zecharyah’s Yom Ketanot
With just four words the prophet Zecharyah summed up a problem which plagued the Jews of his generation - and which persists in plaguing us twenty-five hundred years later.
In Zecharyah’s day, like today, Jews lived in assimilated exile, then gained a homeland due to the mercy of a foreign power - they gained it from the Persian Empire, we gained it from the UN.
In Zecharyah’s day, like today, most Jews opted to remain in exile rather than move to their restored homeland.
In Zecharyah’s day, like today, Jews who did come back to Israel joyfully celebrated their return, but their enthusiasm waned after they encountered practical difficulties
Zecharyah summed up the malaise of his generation with the four words, “מי בז ליום קטנות,” “We degrade the day of small achievement.” The Jews of his day looked at their glorious past, at their memory of the majestic and miraculous first Beis haMikdash, at fire descending from heaven to the altar and the mysteriously spacious room in which they gathered on Yom Kippur, at the Aron holding Moshe’s Luchos, and they contrasted that with the small steps of their own day, at their strife with the Samaritans, at their own spiritual and economic poverty, and said, “We are in a Yom Ketanot, we are accomplishing nothing!”

Our Yom Ketanot
Twenty-five hundred years later, we, too, degrade the Yom Ketanot. We, too, contrast our present with our past and find today’s progress depressingly insufficient.
Last week we marked the 60th anniversary of November 29, 1947, the day the UN approved Partition and the formation of a Jewish state alongside an Arab state.
It’s true, November 29, 1947, was a great day, and it cannot be compared to today’s progress. That day re-wrote the story of Jewish identity, Jewish activity, Jewish learning and Jewish life, entirely transforming what it means to be a Jew.
Just two years earlier Jews had no place to go, no refuge from the Holocaust; now we suddenly had a place to go - and Jews used it, coming from Yemen and Iran and Egypt and Ethopia and the former Soviet Union and Argentina and France.
With the demolition of European Jewry, the Yeshivot died and Torah was adrift - but now the remaining seeds found a place to take hold, sprout and thrive, so that today we have a home for yeshivot and study, and Jews from around the world can go to Israel to spend a month or a year or a lifetime immersed in Torah.
A beaten and downtrodden nation had lost its pride, and the next generation asked itself, “What future can there be for a Jew?” And November 29th answered the question with an emphatic exclamation point - Yes, there is a future for the Jew!
And now, sixty years later, immersed in wars both cold and hot, drowning in intramural religious and political strife, working incrementally on questionable peace treaties and investigating corrupt governments, we, like Zecharyah’s generation, are בז ליום קטנות, we degrade this modern day of small progress.
As Rav Elisha Aviner wrote in Lev Avot, “האידיאלים קטנו, ההנהגה קטנה, החברה הישראלית שפופה, היהדות התגמדה במדינה, הציונות והחלוציות קטנות. יש נסיגה ערכית מתמשכת מכל מה שעורר בעבר התפעלות, יש שחיקה של כל הגדלות.” “Ideals have shrunk, leadership has shrunk, society has become small, Judaism has shriveled in the land, Zionism and Pioneerism have become small. There has been an extended withdrawal from everything that used to inspire, there has been an erosion of greatness.”

The Haftorah of Hope
But Zecharyah, in the Haftorah of this morning, offered a solution for our national Jewish lethargy. Zecharyah taught that for us to hope, to accomplish, to again move mountains, we need to train ourselves to look past small potatoes and eye big things. Zecharyah promoted the idea that the day of Big Things is not over.
In our Haftorah, Zecharyah envisioned Yehoshua, the Kohen Gadol of his day, clad in בגדים צואים, filthy clothing. The filth of Yehoshua’s clothing represented our exile, our sense that we will never cut it, that we will never have a Beis haMikdash.
And in Zecharyah’s vision, HaShem told a malach to remove Yehoshua’s filthy clothing and replace it with resplendent Bigdei Kehunah, the glorious garments of the Kohen Gadol. Stop seeing yourselves as terminally small; you are Bnei Yisrael, and you will have a Beis haMikdash, and a Kohen Gadol, and all of their associated splendor. Just visualize it.
The solution to being בז ליום קטנות, the way to stop degrading the day of small things, is to break away from the everyday and think BIG, to think of BIG ideas and to develop BIG dreams.

The lesson is as true today as it was in Zecharyah’s day, and it is as applicable for personal lives as it is on the national scene. When we are forced to spend our time on picayune duties when we find our horizon reduced to the few feet in front of our faces, when we become בז ליום קטנות, it’s time to retrain our vision on Big things, to realize that Yehoshua does not have to wear בגדים צואים, filthy clothes, but instead he wears the uniform of the Kohen Gadol.
When the emotionally eroding tasks of parenting children through sibling squabbles, homework hassles and bedtime battles take their toll, we can turn our eyes to the Big picture, to their ultimate health and spirituality and happiness, realizing that if they are learning, if they are healthy, if they are happy, then these little day-to-day specifics are all adding up to something great, and we are accomplishing something big.
When the small defeats in our spiritual growth wear us down, when we grow tired of the challenge of getting up and davening daily or watching every word for lashon hara, we can turn to the canvas of our big achievements - keeping kosher, keeping Shabbos, performing acts of Chesed for each other.
Yosef, day-to-day slave and prisoner, understood he could channel Divine wisdom, and so he got out of jail.
The Chashmonaim, contending with day-to-day internal strife and intimidating odds, envisioned themselves battling the Greek empire, and created the Nes Chanukah.
And Zecharyah, and his partner navi Chaggai, dealing with day-to-day poverty and ignorance and logistics, convinced the Jews they could restore the Beis haMikdash. What it took was that vision of Yehoshua shedding his filthy clothes, and donning the grandeur of the Kohen Gadol.

HaShem will help us achieve those big goals
We might ask: When we turn from everyday smallness to the Big picture, what guarantee do we have that we will succeed in reaching that great goal?
This was the second part of Zecharyah’s vision of Yehoshua Kohen Gadol.
The filth of Yehoshua’s clothing represented the message of every prophet the Jews have ever known - the criticisms of Moshe and Eliyahu, of Yeshayah and Yirmiyah, of Amos and Micha - the message that we, as a nation, don’t measure up, that we, as a nation, are immersed in sin and have lost our worth.
But after HaShem removed the filthy clothing from Yehoshua, He told Zecharyah to tell the people, ראה העברתי מעליך עוניך, behold, I have removed your sins from you. You are worthy, and I will help you. The Big things will come, לא בחיל ולא בכח, not through wealth and strength, כי אם ברוחי, but rather through HaShem’s assistance.
This is why I can turn my attention from day-to-day smallness, why I can believe in the Big Picture - Because I believe in Zecharyah promise that Gd will help me achieve those Big goals.
The Gemara (Sotah 48b) conveys the same message through another take on Zecharyah’s line, מי בז ליום קטנות. The Gemara reads it homiletically as מי בז ליום? What caused our day to be degraded? What caused us to lose our strength? קטנות, a smallness, a lack of belief that we deserve HaShem’s help. The answer to our question is that HaShem will help us reach those Big goals.

Closer: Rav Elisha Aviner
To quote Rav Elisha Aviner again, in the context of the situation in Israel, לא עת להפנות עורף למדינה, לא עת לסלוד מהחברה הישראלית - It is not the time to turn our backs on the state, it is not the time to step back from the community.
The same message applies to us here. The יום קטנות is not a day to become depressed and cowed. Rather, this is a day to think Big, to plan Big, and to trust Zecharyah’s promise of כי אם ברוחי, that HaShem will bring us the rest of the way.

Further thoughts:
1. Rav Elisha Aviner's essay is available on-line at
2. Surely the mishnah in Pirkei Avos, אל תהי רשע בפני עצמך, fits into this theme.
3. When do we look at our poverty and say "We can make this big," and when do we say, "We're on the wrong path?"

Derashah: Vayyigash 5768: My trip to the White House Chanukah Party

Trip to the White House
The White House Chanukah celebration was fantastic.
Among other highlights:
Caren and I toured the White House “Shell Room,” a remarkable tribute to the First Lady’s interest in the National Parks, featuring four large cones coated with seashells, seashell wreaths and a seashell display table;
We took not one, but two photographs with the President, because he blinked on the first one;
We heard the Marine Band play “I had a little dreidel” and saw Malcolm Hoenlein and Senator Lieberman, among other celebrities.
The highlight, for me, was the moment when we entered the room where the president was, and I looked up and saw him, standing just a few feet from us. I’m a native New Yorker, I lived in Manhattan and went to school there for more than a decade, I think I don’t lose my breath easily - but I have to admit that I just gasped when I saw him.
And there was another highlight - I have to admit, I came away with pockets full of napkins bearing the Presidential Seal.

Seudaso shel Achashverosh?
But all through the preparation for our trip, and all through our train ride to Washington, and all through the party itself, I was dogged by one concern, the message of a brief passage of Gemara (Megilah 12a):
Rabban Shimon bar Yochai was asked by his students, regarding Purim, “Why did the Jews of that generation deserve destruction?” Even though tragedy is not always a result of sin, the first response of a Jew is to ask whether he deserves whatever trouble he is experiencing, and so the students wanted to know if some sin was the cause of our vulnerability to Haman.
In reply, Rabban Shimon bar Yochai pointed to the beginning of Megilat Esther, and Achashverosh’s party. He said that the Jews were punished for attending Achashverosh’s feast. Even though the Jews attended out of fear of looking unpatriotic if they didn’t go, they should not have attended.
So I rode down to Washington wondering whether this was the equivalent of attending Achashverosh’s celebration. I was certainly surrendering certain mitzvah opportunities in order to go - I davened Minchah and Maariv privately instead of with a minyan (there was a maariv minyan in the White House, but I didn’t know that until later). I lit Menorah very late at night. I spent significant money on train tickets, money that might have gone for tzedakah. Was I doing all of this just to go to an Achashverosh party?
I especially wondered about this as I looked around the rooms at the celebration and saw Satmar and Lubavitcher Chassidim, and a few black-hatted gentlemen who were from various Yeshivos. What were we doing there, in a White House dominated by evergreen trees and tinsel?
But upon further reflection I saw two key differences between our event and Achashverosh’s meal.

Achashverosh’s party marked our downfall; the White House party marked our ascendancy
First, the two parties sent opposite messages about the future of the Jewish people.
The Gemara explains why Achashverosh held his big party: It was to celebrate the exile of the Jews from Israel.
A little bit of history - our neviim predicted that after the destruction of the first Beis haMikdash by the Babylonians, we were to be exiled for 70 years, and then return to Israel. There were at least three different ways to count the seventy years, and based on Achashverosh’s count, the seventy years were now up, and we had not returned to Israel. To him, this was a sign that we were exiled for good, and Gd had abandoned us - and so he made a party, and so the Jews attended a party marking their own downfall.
To me, that’s one difference between Achashverosh’s feast and the White House Chanukah celebration: Achashverosh was marking the demise of the Jews, the White House was marking the strength of the Jews.
For all of our concern about Jewish assimilation, intermarriage, and loss of identity;
For all of our concern about rising Arab power and declining Jewish influence, and Condoleezza Rice’s newfound Palestinian heritage;
Here we were in the center of power of the nation that is still the world’s only superpower, celebrating Chanukah.
As I said in The Allentown Morning Call this past Thursday, America is a remarkable country and its democracy an incredible system, the way it honors minorities. Even if this honor is a political nod intended to earn votes, it shows that in the American system, everyone matters. We matter - and we have a future.

The White House party marked our identity
Second, the two parties sent opposite messages about the importance of Jewish identity.
Achashverosh’s party marked the downfall of the Jews and of separate Jewish identity, and by participating, the Jews themselves signaled that they had bought into his message.
In contrast, the White House celebration marked the vitality of Jewish identity, and of Torah, for America’s Jews.
The fact that this was a kosher dinner, the fact that the president extended the bulk of his invitations to the Torah-observant community, shows that we matter specifically as Jews, and as standard-bearers for Torah. We were there because we are Jewish, we are popular because we retain our Jewish identity.
It’s really only logical that our identity should matter, and that we should be there as Jews and Torah-observers, specifically. If I were to adopt the label of a political movement, if I were to identify as an Environmentalist or a Progressive or a Free-Marketer or a Globalist, and I didn’t have the name “Jew” in my title and I didn’t include Judaism in my mission statement, then why would I belong at a Chanukah party?
This was a true Kiddush HaShem, a sanctification of Gd’s Name. Our influence as Jews, and our recognition as Jews, has come because we have retained our identity.

These two messages - about the future of the Jewish community and about the importance of Jewish identity - apply far beyond the White House Chanukah celebration and our representation in the corridors of power. This message is for our daily lives.
Our day-to-day existence in this benevolent and wealthy land has the potential to go either way, to be a White House Kiddush HaShem or to be Seudaso shel Achashverosh. Earning a living at work, going to a park or restaurant, taking part in a community initiative, we can choose to bury our Judaism as was done at Achashverosh’s party, or to highlight it in the way that we did at the White House.
If I take off my yarmulka to attend a sporting event, if I hide my Judaism at work, if I deny to the world that I am part of this Jewish nation, then my life in America is attendance at Achashverosh’s seudah - I am enjoying the pleasures of this land, and paying a price by surrendering my Jewish identity.
But if I wear my yarmulka proudly, if I let people know I am Jewish, if I unabashedly support Israel and promote the ideals of my Judaism, then I create Kiddush HaShem, and I earn the right to celebrate Chanukah in the corridors of power.

Closer: The Menorah in the Beis haMikdash
The Gemara asks why Gd told us to light a Menorah in the Beis haMikdash each night, year-round. After all, Gd is the provider of all light - Gd doesn’t need our illumination! To which the Gemara replies that the Menorah’s light teaches us a major lesson: שהשכינה שורה בישראל, that the Shechinah is manifest among us. The light of the Menorah signals that we, as a nation, matter, that there is significance to being a Jew, to living as a Jew.
This light was on display in the White House this past Monday evening, the 7th night of Chanukah; may it be equally displayed in our actions every day and night of our lives.

Further thoughts:
1. Tragedy is not always a result of sin - see the gemara at the end of Chullin, as well as Moed Katan 28a.
2. Achashverosh's party was also kosher. Serving Kosher food can be a temptation for assimilation - See, you can still be Jewish even if you become like us - or it can be a display of respect.
3. Does attendance at this party override minyan, or lighting Menorah on time? Why?
4. Why does the Menorah's light, in particular, show that the Shechinah is among us? Is it to replicate the pillar of fire in the Midbar?

What is this blog?

Why a blog?

A few reasons:

Reason 1. Part of being a rabbi is being an educator. In that role, I want to teach, to inform, to challenge, to inspire, to lead, to convey a new point of view, to wrestle with ideas and perhaps - but not necessarily - reach a new conclusion. I want to offer depth and nuance, and participate in dynamic interaction.
The standard methods - speeches/classes/articles - just don't provide that venue.

Speeches - There is little room for serious challenge in a forum that must entertain as well as inspire. The davening and kiddush that follow guarantee that the inspiration, for most listeners, will quickly fade. There is little room for nuance in a presentation that does not allow for note-taking and requires that the rabbi address too broad a semi-listening audience.

Classes - Classes allow for nuance, but because of the large groups involved, timid (and even not-so-timid) voices are drowned out, and ideas that should be explored to a greater extent are instead reduced to a few moments and a "let's move on."

Articles - Articles in shul bulletins as well as newspapers are a stronger candidate, but those lack the capacity for dynamic interaction, for feedback and discussion and debate.

Reason 2. Oh, and I want to be able to be funny, too, or at least spontaneous, and in speeches you have to worry about breaking the flow of the speech, in classes there's never enough time, and in articles there's never enough space. So, perhaps the blog will provide a venue for that.

Reason 3. And, while I'm at it, another reason - I don't see why an idea, once expressed in a derashah, should vanish into thin air.

Reason 4. And, all right, another reason - to avoid the temptation of recycling my own material.

So here I am, proud owner of a new blog, which I have named Rechovot: A Place to Expand. My goal is to post some of my derashot, class-themes or general musings here, to continue the conversation.

And with that... here goes.