Thursday, July 31, 2008

It's the middle that matters (Derashah - Masei 5768)

Some ten years ago I visited a good friend in the hospital; she was recovering from a life-threatening operation, and we talked about her two daughters, who were beginning their teenage years. I mentioned something about how people say kids grow up so fast; our son Amram was just an infant at the time, and already people were warning us about that.

She said something that has remained with me ever since; it went something like this: “I don’t wish I could keep them as they are. As long as I’m happy with the way they’re developing, the journey they’re on, I’m content.”

This, to me, is the message of the beginning of our parshah, with its exhaustive record of the Jews’ travels through the desert.

For a space of dozens of pesukim, the Torah painstakingly enumerates each and every step the Jews had taken, from one generic wilderness site to the next, on their way from Egypt to Israel.

And not only is every stop listed, but every stop is listed twice - “And they traveled from X and camped in Y, And they traveled from Y and camped in Z.” A simple X-Y-Z list would have been, apparently, insufficient.

Clearly, this is not an interesting travelogue for the reader - many of the sites along the way are mentioned nowhere else in the Torah, and have no familiar events associated with them. We know nothing about what happened in אלוש, or מתקה, or לבנה - their only mention in the entire Torah is in this list of highway rest stops. So why does the Torah dedicate all of this space to recording the nation’s trail?

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein suggested that this enumeration teaches us the value of journeys.

I’ve been reading a book called “Making the Corps,” about the Boot Camp training of a squad of United States Marines, and the way their experiences on Parris Island shaped them. The book breaks down every step of the Marine Corps indoctrination, analyzing its methods and results. As the books shows, removing any single step from that military journey would significantly alter the results - each part of the journey matters.

All journeys are about more than their beginnings and endings. Imagine an abridged version of The Wizard of Oz that would begin with a tornado and end with Dorothy returning to Kansas, skipping all of the adventures and crises, all of those points about courage and brains, etc. Hey, her ultimate goal was to get back home anyway, right? What’s the big deal? But few people would anyone be interested in a Wizard of Oz stripped of its middle.

Applying that to our parshah, then: Had the Torah just recorded that the Jews left Sinai and arrived in Israel, we would have missed the importance of the journey in between.

Witness this moment, at the end of the trip, through the eyes of Moshe Rabbeinu.

Moshe stands at the helm of this nation, just as he had stood there as a much younger man at Yam Suf, and as he looks back over a very long and exhausting road he perceives the development of each שבט, each family, each individual.

Sure, Moshe sees the leaders, Yehoshua, Kalev, Pinchas, as well as, yes, Korach, but being Moshe, who believes in leading כאשר ישא האומן את היונק, carrying every Jew in his arms, he also sees everyone in between.

Yehoshua, Kalev, Pinchas, Korach, those standout figures mentioned in each parshah are archetypes, individuals whose strong personalities and bold strokes of action represent the best and worst of the Jewish people, but among this nation of millions each and every life reflected mixtures of the writ-large traits of those leaders - and each of those lives evolved at אלוש, at מתקה, at לבנה, in ways that the biblical text could never have recorded but which those people, and their relatives, and their friends, knew quite well. Deaths, births, marriages, milestones of maturity, taking care of the animals, gathering the Mun and distributing it, engaging in Torah study and Mishkan labor and community tasks, all of these altered people’s lives, and helped them grow and change and develop.

The listing of each place name in the Torah is shorthand for those changes, a reminder for the people who had experienced them. When Moshe said, “We traveled from בני יעקן and camped at חר הגדגד,” Shmuel from the tribe of Dan nodded his head, remembering the crisis he had weathered there, in his own family. When Moshe said, “We traveled from חר הגדגד and camped at יטבתה,” Sarah from the tribe of Yissachar thought about the passing of her mother at that spot, and the way she had taken over a matriarchal role in the clan. And so on, and so on, for millions of people.

It was important for the Jews, parked at the entrance to Israel - to a new identity, to a new form of living, to a new relationship with HaShem - to take stock and remember where they had been, whom they had been, and where they were now, and whom they had become.

Arriving at the destination may have been their moment’s satisfaction, but travelling the journey was their life’s education.

The same lesson holds true for us, in our own lives.

The gemara reminds us that אגרא דפרקא ריהטא, the reward for learning Torah is in the journey to the shiur, the trip we take to get there - even if we will not fully understand the shiur, even if we will fail in our attempt to remember what we learned. It’s the journey.

Rabbi Tarfon said, לא עליך המלאכה לגמור, the key is not in completing tasks. Rather, it’s in our engagement, the journey, itself.

To quote Rav Aharon Lichtenstein, “It is important for a person to plan his future, but not to the extent that he perceives the present as purely a means to that end.” The present possesses its own value - as Moshe demonstrated in enumerating the 42 “presents” the Jews had experienced.

R’ Avraham Gombiner, in his halachic work Magen Avraham, recorded a practice of reading all 42 stages of the Jews’ trip together, without any interruption. The usual explanation for this practice is that the 42 stages represent a special, mystical, indivisible 42-letter name of Gd. But there is another explanation:

R’ Yitzchak Zimmer wrote that these 42 stages are a שירה, a biblical poem, a song like the Az Yashir song of thanks with which the Jews serenaded Gd after crossing the Sea, and like Devorah’s song of thanks after HaShem saved us from Sisra and the Canaanites.

I understand R’ Zimmer to mean that these 42 stages, recording as they do the Divinely-guided growth of each Jewish life along the way, are a hymn of thanks to Gd for the 40 years’ journey - for all of the challenges and obstacles as well as assistance, for everything Gd had done to help us grow.

Like my friend in the hospital, Moshe and the Jews were now able to look back at the border of Israel, to contemplate each stage they had endured, to feel satisfied, and to turn to HaShem, and say, “Thank You.”

1. Rav Aharon Lichtenstein's shiur is summarized here. He takes it in a direction from the one I did. He also sees this message in Rashi at the start of the parshah, but I'm not sure that's what Rashi meant in the midrash he cited.

2. Of course, much of this derashah reminds me of the famous "hyphen on the tombstone" idea, but it didn't really fit the derashah. Especially because we have a baby-naming this Shabbat, and I don't want to introduce unnecessary funeral themes; the dvar torah already lends itself to the Torah-Chuppah-Maasim Tovim journey.

3. The אגרא דפרקא ריהטא line is Berachot 7b or so, as I recall. R' Tarfon is in Pirkei Avot. The Magen Avraham is 428:8; see also Aruch haShulchan Orach Chaim 428:6.

4. R' Zimmer's line about the מסעות as a שירה, which he does not explain, is in an article from Sinai #68, found on-line here. This thought was really the inspiration for the entire derashah.

5. Of course, I am troubled by the fact that the whole 40-year trek was unnecessary, and really shouldn't be seen fondly at all... other than, perhaps, through the idea of making the best of what we have?

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When Shabbat is Erev Tisha b'Av

I always feel odd publicizing Tisha b'Av rules and schedules far in advance; it seems so antithetical to our hope that Mashiach will come any day now.

Nonetheless, the reality of mailing timetables and people's needs dictates that we send out such information. If the Shulchan Aruch could see fit to include laws of Tisha b'Av, I suppose it's all right for us to do so as well.

With that in mind, here's a reprint from my shul mailing of laws which are unique to this year's calendar, in which Shabbat is Erev Tisha b'Av (For a more complete list of rules, see Aish's page here.) Note that all times are based on Allentown, PA.

Are there any restrictions on, or changes in, Shabbat practices?
-The “Tzidkatcha Tzedek” prayer is not said at Shabbat Minchah.

-One may not declare that he is eating in order to build up strength for fasting, even if that is why he eats; using Shabbat as a preparation-day for the week would be disrespectful.

-One may eat whatever one chooses, but one may neither eat nor drink after sunset on Shabbat afternoon, even though it is still Shabbat. One also may not wash for pleasure after sunset.

-One should not invite infrequent guests over for Seudah Shlishit, and a communal Seudah Shlishit is inappropriate.

-One may bentch with a mezuman at all of the Shabbat meals.

-One may not go for a leisurely stroll on Shabbat afternoon. One may study Torah even if that would give him great enjoyment.

Saturday night practices

-Remove leather shoes, and stop sitting on chairs, after Shabbat.

-At 8:52 PM everyone should say the phrase "Baruch HaMavdil Bein Kodesh L’chol / Blessed is the One who distinguishes between the sacred and the mundane." We then remove our shoes and change into weekday clothes, before Maariv. [In shuls where Maariv is davened immediately after Shabbat, non-leather shoes should be brought before Shabbat begins.]

-One who will have to eat during the fast (other than drinking water) should recite Havdalah before breaking the fast, without the use of spices. One should use grape juice or beer for that
Havdalah, and drink only two to three ounces.

-Although we do not recite Havdalah (other than in the case above), we do recite the blessing over the Havdalah candle before reading Eichah.

-We do not wash the Shabbat dishes by hand on Tishah b’Av. One who will need those dishes Sunday night may wash them after 1:07 PM on Tishah b’Av.

Ending the fast on Sunday night

-One may not eat or drink, even after the fast is over, until after recites/hearing Havdalah. One uses wine or grape juice for Havdalah.

-Havdalah does not involve the introductory “Hineih” paragraph, or the spices or flame. One begins with the blessing over wine/grape juice, and continues with the normal berachah of

If we must fast for Tisha b'Av this year, may it be the last.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Faith, Objective and Personal

A wise rabbi once advised me that I would have to choose between “rabbinic social work” and a more intellectual rabbinate. The more I see, though, the more I understand how the two depend on each other, and how the former is, for most people, far more important than the latter. The intellectual is indispensable, but the Torah's address to the personal is far more crucial and makes a far greater impact on our lives – not only in terms of 'feeling good,' but in terms of addressing core matters of Emunah (faith).

For many people, objective intellectual questions like, “How old is the universe - really?” and “Did yetziat mitzrayim happen as theTorah describes it?” are not inherently important. They bother many of us only when we are troubled by more subjective, personal issues.

For many people: When we are spiritually “positive”, when we perceive purpose in life and its pursuits, many of us experience little difficulty in accepting traditional views on these matters of rational analysis.

On the other hand: When we have felt spiritually unsettled, when we have sought Gd and not found, when theodicy and its associated issues have occupied our minds, when we have not seen our meaning and place, then no intellectual answers have sufficed, and these questions have loomed large as challenges to our basic belief in Gd and Torah.

I write these thoughts because I recently came across a great compendium published by the Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik Institute a few years back, on what would have been the Rav's 100th birthday. It's entitled, “A Study and Program Guide to the Teachings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik.”

On Page 14, in Michael A. Bierman's biographical essay on the Rav, the author cites an insight from R' Reuven Ziegler, into the Rav's approach:
Thus, the Rav chose to address primarily issues related to the human existential situation: the possibility of experiencing faith within contemporary society, the relationship between the fundamental attitudes of modernity and religiosity, and the experiential crisis of the contemporary believer.
He states clearly at the outset of “The Lonely Man of Faith” that he does not want to deal with the abstract, intellectual side of the problem of faith and reason, but rather with its existential dimension: “Theory is not my concern at the moment. I want instead to focus attention on a human life situation in which the man of faith as an individual concrete being, with his cares and hopes, concerns and needs, joys and sad moments, is entangled...”

That's exactly “it” for me – the experiential crisis, the cares and hopes, concerns and needs, etc. Those are the engines driving my own faith – and, from what I have seen, that of others.

In eleven years in the rabbinate, I have answered many times over the questions of evolution and the like, and I have watched others do so as well, but regardless of how the answers were offered and to what type of audience, I have never seen them as well-received as a strong, well-developed and well-delivered approach to personal spirituality, to prayer, to theodicy, to life.

Lives don't change, in my experience, from insights into the Oneness of Gd or Divine incorporeality, or analyses of the historical and biblical Plishtim, or derashot on Avraham's openness to guests, or pilpul on who is obligated to sit in a Succah. Rather, lives change – and I have seen it – from the way Judaism addresses “ a human life situation in which the man of faith as an individual concrete being, with his cares and hopes, concerns and needs, joys and sad moments, is entangled.”

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The "Conversations" of Open Orthodoxy - one rabbi's humble review

I'm staying near the Convention Center in Philadelphia for a couple of days, so I walked to Mikveh Israel for shacharis (more appropriate to write shaharit there, I suppose) this morning. Sad to see how hard it is to get a minyan there, but it's understandable; there's no housing for a community anywhere near there.

So while we waited for the minyan to arrive, I thumbed through Conversations, a journal published by R' Marc Angel's new Institute for Jewish Ideas and Ideals. I read through the first half-dozen articles. I hate to say it – and I sincerely mean I hate to say it – but after R' Dov Linzer's opening piece, the rest just didn't do anything for me.

I hate to say it, for two reasons:
1) I am generally uncomfortable labeling any approach, whether close to mine or far from it, as 'wrong.' I know well that I am not the smartest or best-educated person in the world, that I am not a navi, and that others have access to all the information I have seen and yet they have arrived at conclusions which are different from my own, so why should I have a monopoly on truth?

2) I want to believe that the writers in this journal, largely proponents of 'Open Orthodoxy' if the articles I read are any indication, are correct. When they insist that there is great halachic basis for interaction with the secular world, and for interdenominational dialogue, I want to believe they are right; after all, those represent much of what I do on a daily basis!

So I flipped page after page, looking for the sources to support these enlightened claims. But after the first article (in which R' Linzer made a strong claim for a healthier halachic label for, and attitude toward, non-practicing and non-believing Jews, a claim that matches some of what I have written here on the blog regarding a more respectful approach to outreach), the rest simply left me asking, “Where's the beef?”

The articles' arguments came down to two:
1) Argument from history – We can take these more open approaches, because Rav Hai Gaon or Ibn Ezra or Abarbanel seemed to do so, because not everyone accepted Rambam's philosophical principles as normative until the anti-Reform backlash, because Chabad sort of does it, etc.

2) Argument from practicality – We need these more open approaches because we want to lead the Jewish world, because Jews are assimilating, because this makes us true Jews of the world etc.

The former contention relies on a straw man argument, proposing that the promoters of “closed Orthodoxy” are defeated if we can show that Rambam's philosophy is not normative, or that a few sages over the centuries have said things which can be seen as “open.”

But the “closed” approach looks not to cherry-picked quotations from individual authorities, but rather to the weight of Jewish tradition. To cite Rav Hai Gaon or Abarbanel's citation of a Christian philosopher without also citing Rabbi Akiva's statement that those who read 'sefarim hachitzonim' will not have Olam HaBa, or to cite Rambam's own statement that we should treat Karaites with respect (so long as they drop their anti-Talmudic beliefs, by the way, a view mirrored by R' Eliyahu Mizrahi later on regarding teaching Torah to Karaites) without also citing Rambam's fundamentals of belief, is unimpressive and fails to deal with the real question at hand:Can we find a chain of strong Jewish tradition, established in sources, to support an Open Orthodox approach? And if not, why should I accept your stripped-down version of Jewish tradition?

(I am also surprised that a statue of the Rambam graces the Jewish Ideas and Ideals homepage, given the way so many of the Conversations articles are devoted to rejecting his philosophy!)

The argument from practicality is equally fallacious, for it relies on defining a need, as well as a solution, with which reasonable people could - and I believe should - disagree:

Need: I'm not so sure that secular Jewry, or Conservative or Reconstructionist or Reform Jewry, really want or need my leadership. Speaking personally, I sit on a board of Jewish clergy with clergy from all of those groups, but I would never presume to consider myself a 'leader,' nor do I expect they would view me as such.

Solution: Further, the solution of “let us engage them as equals,” while appealing to a post-French Revolution sensibility, is hardly the only logical approach. I stress that I, personally, try to treat everyone with respect regardless of their views – but I hardly believe that this is the key to halting assimilation or leading the Jewish world.

In sum:
1) I want to believe in Open Orthodoxy;

2) I will not be able to do so until the proponents of this view more convincingly demonstrate that it is solidly in line with Jewish tradition and halachah, or more strongly define the need for this approach and its legitimacy as the solution for that need.

I hope for a stronger argument in Volume Two.

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Monday, July 28, 2008

Gittin 10-14 - The company we keep, Divine mercy, and more

I'm away from my home computer – in Philadelphia while my wife, the eponymous Rebbetzin, takes an exam here – and so I can't type in Hebrew for this post.

For whatever it's worth, Philadelphia strikes me as odd; having walked the streets a bit today, I found fewer smiles than I expected (I've seen many more on the streets of Manhattan), and more cigarettes than I expected.

In any case: On to the Daf. As usual, please read with a gemara in front of you, for maximum clarity.

Tosafot b'Shlichut appears to have a good approach to the “b'shlichut b'al korchah” line, with Rabbeinu Chananel's explanation. However, as Tosafot notes at the end, the language doesn't really match.

The company we keep - The gemara here discusses signing a document along with a Kuti witness, where one knows that this Kuti is careful about mitzvot. The Kuti witness is accepted, because we assume the righteous witness would not have signed without checking the legitimacy of the Kuti witness.
This is interesting, in light of Sanhedrin 23a and Shevuot 30b in which we discuss the idea that one should not sign a document along with a problematic witness (or sit on a beit din with a problematic judge). The Sanhedrin source is stricter than Shevuot; Shevuot indicates that I could sign with another party if I didn't know that person's status (which would ruin our gemara's assumption regarding the Kuti, unless we would say that default Kuti status is that of a rasha), but Sanhedrin requires that I actually know he is righteous.
See also the difference between Mishneh Torah Hilchot Sanhedrin 2:14 and 22:10.
For more on this issue, see Meiri on that gemara in Shevuot, Perishah to Choshen Mishpat 7, and Yabia Omer 2:Choshen Mishpat 1.

Note that, once again, Abayye presents an explanation which does not match our gemara's edition, and Rava calls him on it. However, Rava explicitly alters the edition, with a 'chisurei mechsira' argument.

Note that the gemara's interpretation of “lo telaket le'ani” is explicitly against the te'amim of the trop.

Divine mercy - The last Rashi on the page is extremely interesting; Rashi says that Gd will have mercy upon an eved because the eved is obligated in some mitzvot. This is problematic in light of Tehillim 145:9, a sentence cited as law in gemara and Rambam, which says, “Gd's mercy is upon all of His creations!”

See Tosafot Chada

On the third line – it should say 'nihalayhu'

Note that both Rav Natan and “Yesh omrim” appear in the same machloket here, although the gemara elsewhere (end of Horiyyot) identifies them as one and the same. Tosafot somewhere (I am without my library, but it may be the Bava Batra reference in the margin on this page) suggests that statements made by R' Natan early in his career, before he received this moniker, are cited with his given name.

See Tosafot “vaChachamim Omrim” on the interesting question of how money is handled in civil cases, where the verdict is “Teiku.”

Rashi and Tosafot have a fascinating debate here, and in Ketuvot 85b, on what the gemara is recommending when it authorizes a judge to do “shuda” - to use his discretion.

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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Blog Ratings, and words we don't want to hear

I was visiting Frume Sarah’s World when I noticed, in her sidebar, a link to a Blog Rating site. They use the MPAA ratings code to label blogs for their content.

Naturally, I checked my own blog. I found I was rated G, with one appearance of “death” on the front page. That will change, though, with the following paragraphs…

I checked a few other blogs, to get a sense of where I fit on the spectrum:
Hirhurim is rated PG-13 for 3 pains, 2 deads and 1 use of kill;
Cross-Currents is rated R for 6 appearances of death, 4 of dead, 2 of gun and 1 of kill; DovBear, on the other hand, was rated G, “No bad words were found.”
Someone should probably let DB know; he’d enjoy that, I think.

Clearly, the folks who designed this ratings widget are sure that many people don’t want to be reminded of death/hurt/pain. A reasonable assumption. But there are many more things I don’t want to remember, so I think we need to expand the sensitivity list:

Mother in Israel has returned to the topic of nursing in public, a debate about whether women and children should be discomfited so that men can avoid being reminded of sexuality. (Boy, I’m really blowing my G Rating out of the water here…) So in honor of cringing males, let’s tack on nursing and chest to the Blog Rating list of keywords. (Interestingly, Mother in Israel did get an R, but not for those words - it’s 5 uses of sex, 2 of jap [presumably not in that context] and 1 of hurt.)

Everyone needs therapy is rated NC-17, for 7 uses of sex, 3 of suicide, 2 of rape, 1 of knife. Frankly, her post “Is Marriage for White People” reminds me of uncomfortable things, but that has nothing to do with the above-cited words. Maybe the raters could check for phrases like single-parent households and men disappear into the streets.

My brother’s blog, Kosher Beers, picks up a PG rating for 8 deaths, 3 deads and 1 gun. With all the legalese in his post from Wednesday July 23rd, I can’t understand why he only received a PG. I’d go for adding lawsuit, assert a right and albeit to the list of banned words. Those scare me a lot more than knife.

Concluding the round-up for now: Jack's Random Thoughts is only rated R, which is kind of disappointing after that NC-17 for the Therapydoc. His array of words is certainly more impressive, to me. Jack, I guess you’re just not trying hard enough. Same for you, Jameel; you can do better than that R you received. 5 kills, 3 murders and 1 hell… got to get those totals up. Sweeps season is coming.

[Postscript: This week's Haveil Havalim is here - and I have now received an R rating...]

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Friday, July 25, 2008

Gittin 7-9 Accidental sin, helping an eved marry, and illiterate witnesses

As always, read with a gemara in front of you. Or, you could just skip it, of course.

The gemara’s contention that Gd protects the righteous from accidental sin has its roots in various sources, such as the promise that HaShem will protect a Sanhedrin from accidentally killing an innocent victim. This is problematic, though, for we find cases of rabbinic error; whole segments of gemara deal, for example, with judicial error. Tosafot השתא tackles the problem by distinguishing between eating non-kosher and other sins; see his comments there.

דום may be taken as “be silent” or as “hope for.” But see Rosh haShanah 16b, as well as teshuvah #6 of the Tzemach Tzedek (the first, not the Lubavitcher Tzemach Tzedek), on the issue of liability for the causing the downfall of others.

Note that our gemara mis-cites Hosheia 9:1; the word there is כעמים, not בעמים. This may be a typo, but it may also be an אל תקרי approach, since the adjusted meaning of the sentence more closely fits our gemara’s point.

See Tosafot זמרא on the permissibility of listening to music in our own day. Ashkenazi poskim, like Tosafot, seem to be more lenient than Sephardic poskim in this issue.


See Tosafot אף על גב on the point that settling Israel justifies אמירה לעכו"מ, but other mitzvot do not.

See Tosafot הדר.


Tosafot שוו raises a very interesting question: We want to aid proper verification of a get in order to help a woman re-marry, but where is our incentive to make it easier to verify a document freeing an עבד? In the Torah’s version of עבדות, which is primarily long-term economic commitment, where is the harm? If he cannot marry a בת חורין, he can marry a שפחה - and the gemara later, on 13a, will contend that he prefers this! Tosafot offers a suggestion which runs counter to 13a, and an additional suggestion that the עבד wishes to fulfill mitzvot. Ramban and Ritva, though, will say that the עבד who is in limbo can marry no one, and so our expedited verification will help him a great deal.


Rashi חוץ מגיטי נשים takes the view of the Chachmei Provence (2:48) that the reason secular governments have judicial authority recognized by Jewish law (dina d’malchuta dina) is because Gd instructed them to carry out such laws, in the mitzvot of Bnei Noach. For more on this see my post here.

Rashi בגיטי נשים does not seem to recognize any עיגון situation for an eved - contrary to the remarks of Tosafot שוו on 9a.

If we are to etch in signatures for illiterate witnesses and have them fill the signatures with ink, or if we will use stencils (per Rabbeinu Chananel cited in Tosafot here), how will we recognize their signatures as their own?! Some fifteen years ago, my friend Tzvi Hebel suggested that we don’t have to recognize their signatures at all, just that the delivery agent has to see them “sign” the document, and this is indeed fulfilled.

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Thursday, July 24, 2008

Reuven and Gad and Lech Lecha (Matot 5768)

Yesterday, I went to Weis to buy challah. When I got to the checkout, though, the cashier made me what you could call a counteroffer (yes, gratuitous My Cousin Vinny reference): “You want to buy challah? If you’ll pay for meat, I’ll give you the challah you want. But if you won’t pay for meat, I’ll just give you meat.”

Sounds confusing, not to mention illogical - but that’s exactly the deal that Moshe offered to the shevatim of Reuven and Gad.

The members of these shevatim said, “We want to settle outside Israel.” And Moshe replied, “Nothing doing; either you fight for Israel, in which case you can then choose to settle outside Israel, or you can choose not to fight for Israel, but then you’ll have to live in Israel.” In simpler words: Either fight for Israel, or live there without fighting for it.

Why does this deal make any sense at all?

One possible answer goes to the core of the Jewish experience, from its nascence with Avraham and Sarah and onward: The Divine charge of לך לך, to leave the comfortable, to leave the day-to-day, to leave the safe, to travel through a wilderness, to face challenges, to fight wars, in order to acquire a land in which the Jew could develop a new society and bond with HaShem.
This is a journey of trust - trust in HaShem. And this is a journey of spirituality, of המקום אשר יבחר לשכן שמו שם, of a place in which HaShem will dwell and with which HaShem will develop a bond.

Avraham and Sarah are challenged to make this journey of trust and spirituality, from Mesopotamia to Israel.

Yaakov is challenged to make this journey, from Israel to Mesopotamia and then back to Israel.
Leah and Rachel and Bilhah and Zilpah are challenged to make this journey from their homeland to Israel.

Their great-grandchildren, the former slaves of Egypt, are likewise challenged to make this journey of trust and spirituality, to shed their fears, to overcome privation en route, and to trust in HaShem to bring them to a land Divinely designated from the start to be their home.

That trip met a roadblock at the Eigel, the Golden Calf - because the trust broke down, as the nation, waiting for its leader Moshe to return, panicked.

That trip met another roadblock when the Meraglim returned home with a negative report about Israel, and the nation rejected its spiritual goal as too challenging.

And now, in our parshah, 39 years later, a new generation had taken up the journey and stood at Israel’s boundary. But representatives of two shevatim approached Moshe and said, “This journey is not for us.”

To which Moshe replied that the Jewish nation cannot opt out of the journey of לך לך - this is essential to our identity, as it has been essential to our identity from the beginning.

And so Moshe told the shevatim of Reuven and Gad: If you want to live elsewhere - that’s acceptable. But you must at least make the journey, you must at least demonstrate trust in HaShem and you must feel that spiritual connection through the land.

If you will not live there, you must at least go there. And if you will not agree to at least spend that time there now, then you cannot live outside the land - you will have to live in Israel permanently.

The obligation for Jews to make this לך לך journey persisted after the time of Reuven and Gad in the form of עליה לרגל, the mitzvah of traveling to Yerushalayim and the Beit haMikdash for each Yom Tov. As Rav Menachem Genack wrote in his book גן שושנים, this mitzvah is a basic re-enactment of that original journey embarked upon by Avraham and Sarah.

A quirk in the laws governing this mitzvah proves Rabbi Genack’s point: The gemara rules that a Jew is obligated in this mitzvah of aliyah laregel only if he owns land.

This is an odd requirement - what does land ownership have to do with the mitzvah? Rabbi Genack explains that the point of our thrice-annual journey to Yerushalayim is to re-enact the faithful trip of Avraham and Sarah, to abandon our land in order to travel to Yerushalayim, to the site of the Beit haMikdash.

In the time of the Beit haMikdash, every Jew who owns land is expected to turn his back on it and fulfill לך לך.

Today, when we lack a Beit haMikdash and when the majority of Jews do not yet live in Israel, most halachic authorities rule that we cannot fulfill the mitzvah of aliyah laregel. Nonetheless, the לך לך imperative endures, binding all of us to display, on a practical level, our trust in Gd, to make a practical attempt to achieve the spiritual benefit of living in Israel. Like Reuven and Gad, some Jews will opt to live outside of Israel, as some Jews have always done - but לך לך is still our charge.

What, exactly, is expected of today’s Jew? What, exactly, is the definition of this לך לך command?
We do a number of good things which are not לך לך. We say Tehillim. We fast on Shivah asar b’Tammuz and Tisha b'Av, and mourn through the three weeks of בין המצרים. We send sizeable checks to Israel. These are wonderful things, all important, all significant mitzvot. But when we look at Reuven and Gad we realize that these are not לך לך.

Reuven and Gad go to Israel and exhaust and endanger themselves for the sake of settling Jews in the land - just as Avraham and Sarah did, just as Yaakov did, just as Leah and Rachel and Bilhah and Zilpah did, just as Reuven and Gad and the rest of the nation did. That is לך לך.

A Jew can be very religious, a Jew can believe in the Torah and believe that Israel is ours and daven ותחזינה עינינו בשובך לציון ברחמים three times a day and learn mishnayos and say Tehillim, and read Arutz Sheva on-line until his eyeballs fall out - but with all of that wonderful merit, this is still not לך לך. לך לך is about entering the land - even just four amot, as the gemara prescribes - but it’s about going into the land.

I’m going on the Federation mission to Israel this November. I’m glad to say that more than 100 people are going with me, and there is even a waiting list.

Certainly, a mission to Israel is an all-too-brief stint, but Jews who go on such trips are fulfilling our original responsibility of לך לך, they are showing that original trust in Gd, and they are showing that original recognition of Israel as a land pledged to us by HaShem as a special place.

Of course, not everyone can go on a Mission - these are expensive trips, and they come with a very specific schedule and design. But personal trips are a possibility. Many people here do it, even staying in Israel for months at a time. ________, _________ and __________ will be there this coming year, studying. No matter what time of year you go to Israel, you’re guaranteed to find an Allentonian in Israel. We can do this.

If Avraham and Sarah can travel from Mesopotamia, if דור המדבר can spend forty years in the wilderness, if Reuven and Gad can fight wars, then many of us can save up funds by skipping and stinting for a few years in order to make that לך לך trip.

Believing in the holiness of Israel is important, of course, but it is nothing compared to going there. Like Reuven and Gad, we can choose to pay for the meat and use it, or we can choose the counteroffer, paying for the meat and taking home the challah. But we must always pay; our mission today is, and always has been, לך לך.

Sefer HaKuzari presents a religious dialogue between a non-Jewish king and a Jewish philosopher. At the end of the dialogue, the Jewish philosopher expresses his desire to travel to Israel. The king asks him, “Since you believe in the value of the land, and Gd knows what is in your heart, and Gd really cares about what is in your heart, why do you need to act on your beliefs at all, and travel there?”

To which the Jewish philosopher replied with immortal words: האדם מונח לו בינו בין מאוויו ומעשהו, והאדם נאשם כאשר איננו מביא השכר הנראה אל המעשה הטוב הנראה - A person is situated between his desire and his action, and a person is guilty if he does not convert his desire into action.

We already have the desire; what remains is for us to convert it into action.

1. Yes, another speech about aliyah and Israel. Way I figure, maybe people will be motivated to go just to get away from all of these speeches about it...

2. Rav Ben Zion Firer (מדי שבת בשבתו) asks the same question about the illogic of Moshe's offer, but gives a different answer, about the importance of national unity.

3. Rabbi Genack's article is in his Gan Shoshanim, #55.

4. The gemara's limitation of aliyah laregel to those who own land is in Pesachim 8b. There is some controversy regarding the fact that the Rambam omits this in his discussion of the mitzvah.

5. Tosafot Pesachim 3b מאליה, in his third answer for why R' Yehudah ben Beteirah did not go to the Beit haMikdash for aliyah l'regel as well as the korban pesach, suggests that someone who lives outside of Israel is not required to do so. Many commentators struggle to explain this comment.

6. On the status of the mitzvah aliyah l'regel today, see the Ran ואיכא to Taanit 10a (2a בדפי הריף), Tashbetz 3:201, and She'eilat Yaavetz 1:127.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

OU, OK, Star-K, Kof-K… and LVKC

Running a small Vaad haKashrus (kashrut certification agency - like my own LVKC) is, generally, un-fun:
Your clientele rarely see a significance bump in their business from kashrut, and so you don’t charge much, and you need to fundraise to pay your mashgichim. (Our Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley is uncommonly generous, thank Gd.)
You have to honestly inform clients that if they hope to market beyond the region, they would be better off sporting a better-known logo.
And you know that when visitors come to your area, or when people see your products on the shelf in New York, the presumption for an unknown hechsher (kosher certification agency) is – and not without reason - guilty until proven innocent.

Recently, the larger organizations – particularly OU and Star-K – made a commitment to help local vaadim. They recognize our importance for local communities, they don’t want to take over our business entirely (although we often wish they would…), and so they are determined to help us succeed.

To their credit, OU and Star-K have taken a step in this direction: Both of them now run occasional conference calls on pressing kashrut issues. Also to their credit, some of their personnel are very good at returning phone calls and giving practical advice.

At the same time, here are three ways in which you, our big brothers, cound increase your assistance:

1) Don’t try to take our client businesses for yourselves.
Faced with a bakery which wanted to push the envelope on some of our standards, we turned to a kashrus administrator with one of the abovementioned agencies for help. His answer: “Tell them to apply to us for certification.” When pressed, he offered to hire our mashgiach to do the on-site supervision on behalf of his agency. This is not what I would call helpful.

[Update (7/31/08): The kashrus administrator involved saw this post and contacted me to clarify. He was under the impression that the business had wanted his national certification, and this was why he had made this offer. I am grateful for the clarification.]

This isn’t an isolated incident. We have had a few of the national agencies actively solicit our businesses… including one client which we would have been happy to see them take, given that they never paid us a dime.

It’s true that we tell businesses with national aspirations that they should go with the big names – but that doesn’t mean we need you to come knocking on their doors for us.

2) Return our calls.
As I said, some of the rabbis at OU and Star-K are great with this. Others, with some of the other agencies, are less stellar.

We supervise a supermarket bakery. A certain wholesaler wanted to supply our bakery, and was certified by a national organization. We wanted the right to make random spot checks of our own in that bakery. The certifying agency agreed – but when it came time to visit, we were blocked. Now they don’t return my calls. This is not helpful, and we will likely end up banning their product soon, if I don’t receive a call back.

It’s really just common courtesy, of course.

3) Share information.
Some of you big agencies are very good with this, but others among you, sad to say, stonewall.

We were working with an ice cream franchise, part of a chain with many stores under a national agency. Rather than re-invent the wheel, we contacted the national agency for its list of ingredients and their supervisions – and got nowhere.

My five-year old knows how to share, but you do not.

4) Legal counsel
Oh, and big guys, one other thing: Could you share your legal department with us?

I’m sitting on scare letters from several rabbis because our businesses won’t use their products. You must get these all the time. If you wouldn’t mind sending your attorneys down here to help out, that would be great. Thanks!

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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Synagogue Dress Codes and Dress-Up Judaism, Part II

Since Part I was popular, I thought I would post some of the source material I distributed when I taught a class on the topic of Synagogue Dress Codes several years ago. It was part of a fun series of classes on "Jews and Clothes."

Clothing Provides Dignity

1. Genesis 3:7 – And the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were not clothed. They sewed fig leaves and made belts for themselves.

2. Talmud, Shabbat 113a – It is written regarding Shabbat, “You shall honor it, refraining from performing ordinary tasks.” ‘You shall honor it’ indicates that your Shabbat clothing should not be like your weekday clothing. This follows along the lines of R’ Yochanan’s practice of calling his clothing, ‘The source of my honor.’

3. Talmud, Yevamot 63b – Gd said regarding the Jews, ‘I will anger them by helping a nation which is disgusting.’…It was taught: This verse refers to the people of Barbaria and Martina, who walk about unclothed in the marketplace. There is nothing more disgusting and repulsive before Gd than walking about unclothed in public.

Approach Gd with dignity: Clean clothes
4. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Temple Vessels 8:5 - If any of the Kohen’s garments became dirty, they did not bleach or launder them. Rather, they used the clothing to make wicks, and the Kohen wore new clothes.

5. Rama, Orach Chaim 53:25 – If a Chazan is also a slaughterer or one who examines slaughter, he should not pray in his dirty and smelly clothes. If he does not wish to change his clothes before he prays, he should be removed from his status as Chazan.

Approach Gd with dignity: Nice clothes
6. Talmud, Shabbat 10a – Rabbah bar Rav Huna donned special felt shoes and prayed, citing the verse, ‘Prepare to greet your Gd, Israel!’

7. Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer 5:1, 5:5 – One who prays must be careful to do eight things, but if he cannot or does not do them his prayer is still valid: Stand, Face the Temple, Prepare one’s body, Prepare one’s clothes, Prepare one’s location, Modulate one’s voice, Bend one’s knees and Bow…How does one prepare his clothing? First he fixes his clothing and makes himself look fine…he should not pray in his moneybelt, or with a bare head, or with his feet revealed if local practice is that one would not stand before a respected person without shoes.

8. Chafetz Chaim, Mishnah Berurah 91:11 – It is also not appropriate to pray in a caftan, or an undergarment.

Approach Gd with dignity: Designated clothes
9. Tur, Orach Chaim 98 – It is appropriate for a person to have fine clothes which are set aside for prayer, like the clothing of the Kohanim. Not everyone can spend money on this, but it is good, at least, to have a pair of pants which are designated for prayer in that they are kept clean.

Choice of clothing shows respect for others in the synagogue
10. Chafetz Chaim, Mishnah Berurah 18:4 – Obviously, a Chazan who is not wearing an over-garment must wear a Tallit, for it is not respectful to the congregation to go otherwise.

11. R' Ovadia Yosef, Yechaveh Daat 4:8 – One who is wearing a short-sleeved shirt, such that his arms are covered to the elbow, is permitted to serve as a Chazan. If the sleeves are shorter, such that the arm is uncovered between the shoulder and the elbow, such a person may not serve as the Chazan for this is not respectful to the congregation. One who is praying alone is technically permitted to pray with such short sleeves.

Clothes create a mood
12. Talmud, Pesachim 109a - A man is obligated to gladden his household for the holiday, as it is written, “And you shall be joyous on your holiday.”…What does one purchase for women? Rabbi Yosef taught: In Bavel, colored garments. In Israel, garments of pressed flax.

13. Comment of Maharsha to Kiddushin 40a - The purpose of wearing black and robing one’s self in black is to bend one's spirit to his will with something which breaks it, and so he will not sin at all.

Clothes create a mood of focus on prayer
14. Talmud, Shabbat 10a – Rav Ashi said: I have observed that when there is trouble in the world, Rav Kahana removes his cloak, clasps his hands and prays, saying, ‘I am like a slave before his master.’ When there is peace, he clothes himself and robes himself and prays, saying, ‘Prepare to greet your Gd, Israel!’

15. Code of Jewish Law, Orach Chaim 91:6 – It is the manner of scholars and their students to pray only when they are fully cloaked.

And then I brought a few sources to show how different Jewish groups handle this issue today:

Ambivalence toward dress codes
16. Mordecai Kaplan, “Questions Jews Ask: Reconstructionist Answers,” pg. 226-7
All the arts, all the cultural media by which men communicate ideas and emotions, depend on symbols. Religion cannot dispense with them. And those symbols that require action are particularly effective, because they involve simultaneously so many of our senses and emotional responses.

17. Boomer ReJew-venation, by Maureen Adler-Marks
Take the dress code, for example. When I was growing up, in New York, my favorite Rosh Hashanah ritual was the purchase of a new Jewish suit. Despite the threat of Indian summer heat, year after year I'd be in shul, sweltering in blue wool, dripping with sweat and pride; duped by seasonal change again.
In Los Angeles now, of course we're laid back. New clothing merely means a new black cotton T-shirt. The other day at Torah study, we discussed the controversy of Jewish jeans: Is it all right to wear denims and running shoes to services?
"Whatever," shrugged the well-dressed rabbi, dapper in Armani. But with the growing influence of the ashram, and the recent adoption of meditation-style worship, it's only a matter of time until our clothing goes with the flow.
Frankly, I'll miss dress-up Judaism and, like the recent readoption of the yarmulke, predict it will one day stage a comeback. Business attire at services, especially heels, is miserably restrictive, but that's the point, a beginning at self-containment. You've got to start somewhere, you know, and teshuvah, the spiritual chiropractic generally known as "repentance," is hard work. Many of my best intentions fail me. If I can't easily change my habits, drives, ambitions and motivations, at least I can alter my hemline. We change slowly, from the outside in.
When I was growing up, we all believed in sin. I loved my sins and maintained a running annual scoreboard, ready for purging. Four times that year I had cursed my parents under my breath. Three times I had left my brother to wash the dishes, claiming the next day a history or math test. On the "Wonder Years" scale, these were big deals, and I couldn't wait to have the blast of the shofar lift the load.
Today, of course, personal sin is gone, and with it the idea of the Holidays as Judgment Day. Part I of Boomer reJew-venation soft-pedals the guilt, calling it, instead, "missing the mark." Missing the mark is like being bad at archery, there's always another quiver for your bow.

18. USY – guidelines during prayer - Clothing on which any profanity or inappropriate language, pictures or symbols are written, printed or depicted is not permitted. No visible underwear is permitted for both males and females. During Tefillah (Services), inappropriately short skirts or shorts, or tight garments, are not permitted; shoulders must be covered for both males and females…No shorts or jeans are to be worn on Shabbat and dress shoes are encouraged during Shabbat Tefillot and meals. (Adopted unanimously by the National Youth Commission April 14, 2002)

19. Tzitz Eliezer 13:13 – Rabbi Moshe Feinstein did write that…by law if one’s head is covered in such a manner that one can say it is ‘covered’ by some definition of the word, then one may walk in the street and even recite blessings…but even he only wrote this regarding walking in the street and reciting blessings. As far as prayer in a synagogue, it is logical to argue that even he would require a hat, or at least a special Kippah which will cover the majority of the skull, under “Prepare to greet your Gd, Israel” and under the requirement to pray with solemnity. This is my conclusion, as far as the law.

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Monday, July 21, 2008

Daf: Gittin 2-6 - Get delivery, Trust, and 'These and These are the words of the Living Gd'

All right, I'll put up some notes on Gittin, but most of these are technical and will only be of interest to people who are learning Gittin right now (if that!).

Why does Gittin begin with a proxy delivering a get? Perhaps because the hand-to-hand delivery is one of the few elements spelled out biblically (the Torah explicitly mentions the husband giving the get to his wife), and so the gemara begins with that which is חביב, beloved, to the sages, that which is extrapolated and clarified rabbinically. A similar approach is used in the beginning of Shabbos (Tosafot on starting with Hotzaah) and the beginning of Yevamot (the gemara on the order of the 15 cases in the first mishnah there).

See Tosafot ממדינת on why we talk about “islands in the sea” instead of the generic “חוץ לארץ outside of Israel.”

See the first Tosafot לפי on why we single out this one law - the לשמה requirement - as a law with which Jews living in galut were not familiar.

The issue of trustworthiness here is very important. It isn’t that we don’t trust those batei din, it’s that we think they don’t know everything they need to know. This comes up in all sorts of areas, such as kashrut - we may trust the sincerity of a person, but we also need to determine his level of knowledge.

Tosafot חד explains that we are not only concerned that the husband might disqualify the Get; we are also concerned that he might cause general trouble.

Rashi ואין בו אלא עד אחד sides with Shemuel from a debate on Gittin 86a-b; this is problematic, given that we side with Rav there! Also, see Rashi there ואם.

What is Rabbah bar bar Chanah adding with his Bei Kubi-Pumbedita example? Perhaps it is just an example for Babylonians who had not seen the Israeli examples.

About ¾ of the way down the page: If there are many courts around, why will people in different cities know each other’s signatures? Just the opposite - everyone will go to their own courts!
Nachlat Moshe suggests that the courts themselves may have networked, through agents who traveled to the different courts. Also, בתי דינין דביעי may not be as Rashi took it, but may mean one central court, to which everyone went.

Rabbi Shimon bar Abba’s hypothetical invisible ally doesn’t solve the problem - we should still be concerned lest the situation worsen! (Unless we don’t make the decree because having two deliverers is unusual?)

I thank Rabbi Ian Bailey for reminding me that Bar Hedya, who is a get-deliverer trainee here, was also the money-hungry dream-interpreter in Berachot 56.

See Tosafot מכי on what changed when Rav arrived in Bavel.

Very interesting: R’ Ila’i raised a problem with R’ Yishmael’s position, out of ignorance, and R’ Yishmael did not embarrass him by correcting him. Rather, he simply said, “Leave it be” and allowed R’ Ila’i to think him mistaken.

See Tosafot זבוב on how the fly/hair explanations fit the pasuk.

The apparently pluralistic idea here of אלו ואלו דברי אלקים חיים, “These and these are the words of the living Gd” (or “These and these are the living words of Gd”), is very important. Although the story under discussion is a historical event which must have happened one way or another, Gd will value each interpretation simply because it was stated by a serious student who was trying to understand the story. Thus Gd will honor each of those statements as statements of Torah.

See Tosafot שלש.

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Sunday, July 20, 2008

Of Synagogue Dress Codes and Dress-Up Judaism

[Haveil Havalim is here. The new Kosher Cooking Carnival is here.]

I recently heard about a synagogue that was clamping down on its dress code, requiring formal attire for people who would receive Shabbat and Yom Tov honors.

I have to admit that my gut instinct is always to question raising the institutional bar for participation, and particularly on an issue of dress.

My generation believes in dressing down, and I grew up very much a part of that. I went through my freshman year in college wearing black jeans pretty much every day. In the beginning of my rabbinic years I refused to dress up, and only acceded to the white-shirt-and-slacks dress code because it made matching my clothing simpler. I don’t like fancy.

At the same time, there’s a lot to be said for Dress Up Judaism; presentation matters.

Presentation matters in the way we approach other people – in our demeanor when giving tzedakah, in our approach to honoring our parents, in the pleasant smile we offer other people.

And, yes, presentation matters in addressing Gd. Ashrei is a perfect example of our emphasis on presentation: The gemara asks why Ashrei is such an important psalm (thrice-daily recitation is supposed to guarantee life in the next world; no word on the quality of life, though), and it answers that (1) Ashrei’s content is important, since this perek of tehillim contains the affirmation that Gd provides for the needs of all, and (2) Ashrei’s presentation incorporates [almost] all of the letters of the alphabet in its acrostic.

People get complicated analyzing the role of the acrostic – “it’s about using all of the letters at our disposal,” “it’s an expression of our lack of eloquence,” etc – and there is value in those explanations, of course. But the simple and straightforward point is that an alphabetical acrostic is pleasing to the reader; it’s poetically beautiful.

The Torah values poetry. As Rabbi Elman pointed out in a course I took under him at YU, Tosafot (Bava Metzia 60b) says that the Torah will sometimes use synonymous words in the same sentence, rather than repeat the same word twice, because this is נאה יותר, it sounds more pleasant. Presentation matters.

Presentation shows that we invested are in the product/situation. In truth, that’s one of the reasons we dress down, as kids – to demonstrate a lack of investment, a coolkeit. Someone who shows up overdressed is clearly an obsessed geek. In other words: Dressing up shows you care.

And, dressing up is one way to practice the Sefer haChinuch’s favorite adage: אחרי הפעולות נמשכים הלבבות, one’s heart is drawn after one’s actions. Dressing upscale can be a prologue to Acting upscale.

One of the best expressions of this point I ever saw was in an article by Maureen Adler-Marks, “Boomer Re-Jewvenation,” which used to be here but is no longer. [Note: I have now found it courtesy of the Internet Archive, here.] She wrote, regarding her Reform temple:

The other day at Torah study, we discussed the controversy of Jewish jeans: Is it all right to wear denims and running shoes to services?
"Whatever," shrugged the well-dressed rabbi, dapper in Armani. But with the growing influence of the ashram, and the recent adoption of meditation-style worship, it's only a matter of time until our clothing goes with the flow.
Frankly, I'll miss dress-up Judaism and, like the recent readoption of the yarmulke, predict it will one day stage a comeback. Business attire at services, especially heels, is miserably restrictive, but that's the point, a beginning at self-containment. You've got to start somewhere, you know, and teshuvah, the spiritual chiropractic generally known as "repentance," is hard work. Many of my best intentions fail me. If I can't easily change my habits, drives, ambitions and motivations, at least I can alter my hemline. We change slowly, from the outside in.

We’re not about to change our dress code here; I’m still stuck on the role of the institution and the individual in this attempt to raise the bar… But I would congratulate those who change their own dress code, themselves.

Continued in Part II.

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Friday, July 18, 2008

Of Meaning, Pleasure, Liver, Ice Cream, Fasting and Kugel

The other day I caught a line from Pearl Jam’s “Wishlist” – “I wish I was a sacrifice but somehow still lived on.” That, combined with some things I was already contemplating, led me down the following path of Meaning, Pleasure and Food:

Meaning and Pleasure:
Meaning is nutritious, it’s good for us, it places demands on us and promises that meeting those demands will improve us or our situation.
Pleasure makes us happy.

The two goals battle each other, undermine each other, in religion, in business, in relationships, everywhere. We want to be a sacrifice… but we also want to live on and enjoy this world.

Human beings have evolved several ways to deal with this conflict:

1) Do the Meaning things now, and your reward will be Pleasure
aka The “Eat your Liver” approach
Of course, today liver is considered unhealthy in many ways, but I was forced to eat it as a child. I can still remember how it tasted, and it gives me the chills. But I had to eat it, in order to be healthy and have a good physical life.
This approach says that Meaning leads to Pleasure. Meaning – religion, good business practices, working on a relationship – will lead to me getting the bonus pleasure in the end.
It’s an Olam HaBa method: Work hard here, and you’ll get your reward later.

2) Mix Meaning and Pleasure to satisfy both needs.
aka The “Medicine in the Ice Cream” approach
You know, when the kids won’t take their medicine and you mix it into the food they really want and tell them they have eat both together.
Under this approach, we can have it all, Pleasure and Meaning. We just need to balance them.
This is a Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) approach, in which we pursue both goals, eating and drinking but also making sure that our deeds are good and we live in awe of Gd.

3) Meaning is everything. Pleasure is nothing.
aka The Cold Turkey Diet approach
Fast, fast, fast. Stay away from the foods you enjoy. You’ll appreciate the results; this will make you a better person.
This approach undermines pleasure altogether, arguing that Meaning trumps Pleasure – that, in fact, Meaning is the best Pleasure. Pure Pleasure is overrated.
It’s a Yom Kippur philosophy; I eschew the physical, instead enjoying the spiritual through my abstinence.

4) Pleasure provides Meaning
aka The Kugel approach
Per this paper by Prof. Allan Nadler, Reb Shmelke of Selish would immerse himself in the mikvah before eating his Shabbos kugel. The Chassidim of the late 19th and early 20th century, in general, honored their kugel as both Pleasure and Meaning, teaching that one drew close to Gd by eating this Shabbos delicacy.
This approach says that Meaning equals Pleasure and Pleasure Equals Meaning, that the same activity can go both ways.

Which is best? Who knows? But I’m definitely drawn to the ones that taste best…

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Praised is the one who will grab and smash… (Psalms 137:8-9)

בת בבל השדודה אשרי שישלם לך את גמולך שגמלת לנו
אשרי שיאחז ונפץ את עולליך אל הסלע

I have reached a nadir moment I would have hoped never to reach. I finally feel I can understand some element of Tehillim 137:8-9, “Looted daughter of Bavel, praised is the one who will pay you your just desserts, as you did to us. Praised is the one who will grab and smash your infants against the stone.

What a horrible wish!

I have taught this line in various adult contexts over the years, and, invariably, it has inspired in me, as well as in my classes, appropriate revulsion. How could anyone ever hope for such a thing, for the death of children, for the violent death of children?! What in the world is this doing in Tanach?

And every time, I have tried to provide context for the class:
I explain that this is supposed to be Dovid haMelech’s nevuah, his prophecy.
He sees his son succeed in constructing a Beis haMikdash, a home for Gd.
He sees succeeding generations bring korbanot and celebrate together and build a thriving society.
Then he witnesses the decline of that society, his realm split in two, worship of Baal and Asherah, intramural violence, false prophets, the deterioriaton and decay of everything he loved.
He sees prophets like Eliyahu and Elisha and Yeshayah and Yirmiyah cry out to no avail.
His hopes swell with the Yoshiyahus and Chizkiyahs, and sink with the Achavs and Menashehs.
And, painfully, he watches helplessly as the Assyrians invade and exile the northern tribes, as the Egyptian Paroh Nechoh invades and brutally kills Yoshiyahu, and then as the Babylonians conduct their multiple invasions and sweep off the remaining population.

To watch your life’s work and the nation you love demolished and reduced to ash, to witness the bloody death of thousands of your descendants, all while you – a warrior and king – are forced to sit on your hands, helpless… yes, I believe that would be sufficient to goad King David to this sanguinary extreme.

And, still, I never really understood it. I can’t say I really understand it now. But I had a taste of it watching the ugly Lebanese celebration of Samir Kuntar, who smashed a four-year old girl’s head in against a rock. Yes, I know the facile “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” sentiment. But to glorify that brutality? To honor one who would do that? No. Absolutely not.

And I found myself, as I watched that scene, repeating Dovid haMelech’s words.

I wish they would not know the return of a murderer who has been coddled and offered a healthy diet, conjugal visits, university courses and a warm bed for all of these years. I wish, instead, that they would know what it means to be one of his victims.

See also:
Treppenwitz here.
Jack's Shack here and here.
Shira bat Sarah here.
Soccer Dad's roundup here.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Sotah 49 – Daily Prophets, Jerusalem of Gold, Eliyahu zachur latov

I’m not sure whether I will post notes for Gittin; we’ll see. But here’s the end of Sotah, best examined with a gemara in front of you.

Using Rashi’s explanation of מוכרי רבב, tallow-merchants, the connection between this passage and the preceding one is unclear. Maharsha, though, suggests that people would use tallow instead of the lost נופת צופים referenced in the gemara’s preceding passage.

The Maharsha points out that King David prayed for livelihood for merchants, but Chavakuk prayed for livelihood for Torah scholars.

Why, specifically, does the gemara stress that two Torah scholars must exchange words of Torah when they are traveling on the road, or face harm? What about at home? Perhaps this is because of the gemara’s general approach to travel, that this is a time of danger, and so one requires special protective merit.

The gemara talks about the importance of kedusha d’sidra, the kedushah recited at the end of Shacharit in “Uva l’Tzion.” The gemara identifies this as Torah study. This dovetails nicely with the view that the reason the chachamim instituted recitation of the opening section in Uva l’Tzion [as the Haftorah] was to ensure that we would learn Navi [Prophets].

This “city of gold” ornament may be the “Yerushalayim shel zahav” “Jerusalem of Gold” ornament worn in mishnaic times and given by R’ Akiva to his wife Rachel; see Mishnah Shabbat 6:1, Shabbat 59a-b and Nedarim 50a. That is the view of Rabbeinu Tam, cited in Rosh to Shabbat 6:4. Rashi would disagree, though, for the ornament here is a crown, and Rashi says the “Jerusalem of Gold” was a brooch.
According to Rabbeinu Tam, how could people wear these in mishnaic times, if they were banned after the destruction of the Beit haMikdash? The Hagahot Ashri to Rosh Shabbat 6:4 explains that the prohibition was specifically for brides and grooms, because of the joy involved when they wore these ornaments.

When the gemara talks about the special traits of each sage, and how each trait disappeared from the world with the death of that sage, Rashi offers passages to explain the relationship between each sage and his trait. For R’ Yochanan ben Zakkai’s special trait of knowledge, though, Rashi does not explain it – but see Succah 28a, where R’ Yochanan ben Zakkai is credited with possessing all sorts of esoteric knowledge.

On the second line, it should say יש לנו להשען.

One the thirteenth line, it should say ועל מי.

In the piece inserted in our gemara, located at the bottom of the page, where it mentions Eliyahu haNavi, the ensuing acronym ז"ל should read “זכור לטוב he should be remembered for the good” rather than “זכרונו לברכה, his memory is a blessing.” See Esther Rabbah 10:9 and Maharil Hilchot Purim on the association of both Eliyahu and Charvonah with this honorific.

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Optimism of Do-It-Yourself Plumbing

Everyone Needs Therapy posted an article here entitled Denial of Aging, a heading which guaranteed it would catch my geriophobic eye. She described a relative’s insistence on self-reliant plumbing in the face of advancing age.

I, too, inhabit those shores of de Nial. I am terrified of aging. I’m not old by anyone’s standards (except those of my children, of course), but I can’t tolerate the idea that aging has removed my ability to do anything, even the most mundane task. Until last year I mowed my own lawn with a push-reel mower, and stopped only because I don’t have the time to do it often enough to keep the neighbors happy. I go to the gym regularly and insist on lifting weights rather than doing a more sane treadmill routine. I try to read signs from blocks away. And so on, and so on.

But, for me, it’s not really about age. Aging is but one of many factors that cause me to insecurely wonder if I still-have-it/ever-had-it, such that I feel a need to prove I can do it - whatever it is. Along with aging, I can count Failure, Competition and even Boredom as prime movers motivating me to bang my head against a wall, waiting for the wall to give in.

It's a basic need to overcome obstacles, to feel Accomplished. More than ambition, it’s self-validation: I will feel more worthy when I achieve X. And it's an optimism that convinces me I can.

So if something comes along to make me feel like I can’t do X – signs of age, failure at a task, evidence that others can do X, etc – then I feel compelled to try X, even when the effort is not only futile but actually borderline self-destructive.

I have a Materials Science textbook at home, and I try to read a couple of pages each day. Why? Because after seeing Iron Man, I wanted to prove to myself that I could understand cool engineering stuff, too. I’ve cooled off a bit in the past few weeks, but wait until The Dark Knight comes out…

I have a Bar Ilan CD ROM library of the latest vintage (a gift courtesy of my shul at our most recent shul dinner, thank you very much!), but I am loathe to use it to search for passages in gemara, Tanach, Shulchan Aruch and basic sefarim; it feels like relying on a crutch when I should be able to do it myself.

And, yes, I try to do my own plumbing. And deck-staining. And a few years back I did my own repair and paint job on my car’s fender. All to prove something to myself.

I don’t actually consider this a bad trait, as long as it’s kept within healthy boundaries, as long as the word “borderline” continues to preface “self-destructive,” as long as other people are not harmed by my own need to do it myself, in my own way.

Just the opposite, this trait reminds me of the importance of Optimism in Judaism. We are taught to be optimistic about mashiach, we are taught to be optimistic about our own ability to repent and become righteous, we are taught to optimistically dream of a better world, and then make it so. Avraham, Yaakov, Rachel, Yosef, and so on, we are a nation of dreamers.

So whatever it is I’m denying, I’ll just keep on denying it, thank you very much. But if anyone knows the number of a good plumber…

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Monday, July 14, 2008

Sotah 46-48 – Theodicy, Elisha learning Talmud, and Complaining to Gd

As always, better to read this with a gemara in front of you.

Some more notes on 46b

The gemara (taking its discussion as a whole) identifies three benefits to escorting another person: (1) Protecting him, (2) Honoring him, (3) Learning Torah from/with him.

In discussing Elisha’s curse of the “young boys” in Melachim I 2, the gemara confronts the problematic scene of a prophet of Gd attacking children over a personal insult. Granted that the gemara (47a) views this as a sin on his part – for which he is punished – the gemara is still troubled by his actions.
In answering the question of מה ראה at the bottom of the page, the gemara offers three explanations of Elisha’s actions – which coincide with three of the answers the sages offer to address the fundamental problem of theodicy: If Gd rewards good behavior and (only) punishes harmful behavior, and Gd is omnipotent and omniscient, then why do apparently bad things happen to apparently good people?
1) Elisha didn’t consciously harm them; it was an automatic result of their insult to the prophet. In the theodicy discussion, this is known as the “natural consequences” view, that harm occurs outside the context of punishment, in the natural order of things.
2) Elisha saw that their parents were guilty of heinous sin. In the bad things/good people discussion, this is known as the “sins of the parents” view, that harm occurs to a family, even to innocent members of the family, because of collective guilt.
3) Elisha saw that they were personally guilty of grave sin. In the bad things/good people discussion, this is the approach of, “They weren’t really such great people in the first place.”
There are, of course, other approaches to the theodicy problem. I just find the parallel interesting.

The gemara mentions that Elisha was involved in “שמנה שרצים,” which I would have taken to mean he was involved in laws of purity related to those eight creepy-crawlies listed in Parshat Shemini. Rashi, though, takes it to mean that Elisha was learning the chapter in Gemara Shabbat entitled שמנה שרצים, which deals with far different matters. I wonder what compels Rashi to take that view.

Ben Dinai, the outlaw mentioned at the bottom of this page, is known to us in the Kinot prayers of Tisha b’Av as well.


The word רוצחנין should, presumably, be רצחנין or רוצחין.

In the punishment for our corruption, the text in our edition has ונולא and Rashi says it refers to the fall of the Jewish monarchy, but the Maharsha has it as ונזלא and explains it refers to the growth of the Roman monarchy.

If our gemara is uncomfortable with the Leviyyim saying the line from Tehillim (as they suffer Roman persecution), “Gd, awaken, why do You sleep,” then why did the sages canonize that line in Tehillim in the first place?
The Maharsha explains that when we have a Beit haMikdash and we are able to live in Israel, we are not entitled to complain. The line in Tehillim was written regarding the period of exile, at which point we are entitled to voice this complaint.

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Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Synagogue World’s Four Letter Word: RSVP

[Haveil Havalim is here!]

Tonight we held a dessert/discussion program (“Two Modern Orthodox approaches to secular study” - it was actually pretty good, if I may say so myself) we had advertised a full month in advance. Every event listing included RSVP options for both email and phone. Because we were serving food, we stressed the need to respond in advance.

- We had eight RSVPs.
- Two of those did not show.
- And we had twenty people at the program.

This is not unique to our shul; the phenomenon is not age-specific, gender-specific, synagogue-specific or even religion-specific. It’s human. People just don’t RSVP.

Classes. Friday night dinners. Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur seats. No RSVP. No ר.ס.ו.פ.

Somewhere in the back of my mind lurks an old Archie comic, in which Svensen explains the acronym: “Rite Soon Vit Pen!” Oddly, I can’t find any reference to it through Google. I must be typing something incorrectly.

Approaches to RSVP-failure vary:

Some people apologize as they enter, “I completely forgot to RSVP,” “I'm sorry, I didn’t realize I was going to be able to make it,” “I didn’t want you to count on me, because I wasn’t sure I’d be here,” “Don’t worry, I won’t eat, I just decided to come at the last minute.”

Others are blame-shifters: “Oh, did the announcement mention an RSVP? I didn’t hear that.” “Didn’t you get my message? I left it on the machine in shul.” "My e-mail must have bounced." “I told my husband/wife to call; (s)he always forgets.”

And some people are simply above the law, with lines like the immortal, “Oh, you know me, I never RSVP for these things,” as though RSVPing were like choosing the right style of dress for the occasion, or knowing what goes with white wine at a meal. Another reliable excuse in this category is, “Oh, but you knew I would be there; I always come to these!”

So tonight I decided to Google “people who don’t RSVP” to see what sort of advice might turn up. I received 1,880 results, but not much advice.

I found a wedding planner who solicits her couples’ permission to bounce non-RSVPs. But I can’t do that - I want to reach everyone with these programs, and it would be a case of cutting off the old proboscis for me to keep people out. It’s not as though people will learn from being kept out. (Granted, I excelled at nose-cutting-face-spiting in my youth, but I'm trying to avoid it as I age.)

414 of the responses were from Blogspot sites, including this one discussing RSVPs for general parties and this one for that all-time non-RSVP event, children’s birthday parties. No advice, though.

If the synagogue were to charge for events, we could always have a discount rate for early RSVPs. Trouble is, though, that it likely wouldn’t work; people would rather pay the going rate than decide and notify ahead of time. And, we rarely charge for events.

So I guess I’ll go on with the same non-strategy as the people in this Washington Post article: Grin and bear it.

And, at least try to make sure I RSVP on time, myself.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

Sotah 45-46

We are now a bit behind the pace here in Allentown, slowing me down in getting these out to you. Not that much here in any case; mostly technical notes, other than some interesting references on Yerushalayim and on the gemara's own discussions.

First, one last note on 44b – The court for eglah arufah must have an odd number of judges, per our mishnah, but I am not clear on why that should be so. The requirement for an odd-numbered court is practical (to prevent a tie in voting) rather than ritual, as is proved by the fact that if an even-numbered court renders a ruling, the ruling is valid. So why do we need an odd-numbered court for this purely ritual activity of measurement?

Note that בית פאגי is the origin of the place-name “Bethpage.”

Technically, if the מזג-dilution reference teaches that we require that the Sanhedrin seat no fewer than 1/3 of its members, the minimum number should be 24, not 23!
However, one could take the approach brought at the end of Tosafot Sanhedrin 14b אל, in which he understands the מזג reference as Gematria – the Sanhedrin should not be lacking 50, the gematria value of the word מזג. In that case, the threshold is 22, and we add one more because of the desire for an odd-numbered court. I know I’ve seen another elsewhere, perhaps on the mishnah printed on Sanhedrin 37a, but I don’t recall it at the moment.

Of course, the separate problem with the above passage is that the gemara’s wine-dilution is traditionally 1-3, not 1-2; see Tosafot Shabbat 77a דאמר רבא on this point.


Our gemara here relies on the view that Yerushalayim was not divided among the tribes. This is a fascinating topic; see Rashi and Radak to Shoftim on the trade-off of the ruins of Jericho for the tribe who would surrender land for the building of the Beit haMikdash, taking the view that it did come from tribal land.

It’s interesting to see the debate on how embryonic cells begin to differentiate; we know from other gemara passages that despite the historic cultural (aside from halachic) aversion to autopsy, the sages of the gemara did have autopsy knowledge of embryonic development.


The word איכא about ¾ of the way down should be ואיכא.

Note that Rashi and our gemara have different editions regarding the calf, at the bottom. Our gemara has שלא עשה פירות, Rashi has שאינו עושה פירות. These clearly mean different things – but Rashi translates his edition as though it matched ours.

Language point: On the changed-edition about ten lines down, note that אמר רבא means Rava is making a new statement, but רבא אמר means that Rava is disagreeing with the preceding comment.

On the third of the widest lines - What will R’ Yoshiyah do with the lesson we are drawing from אשר?

Why does pointing to the city entrance count as “escorting” someone? Maharsha explains that this is because the essential purpose of the escort is to show the traveler the best path, where he will not encounter harm. Personal escorting may not be necessary. (But how much greater the reward if one does escort personally!

On the term קץ, used here to refer to disgust (disgust with life, in this context) – see Rashbam on Bamidbar 21:5, ונפשנו קצה בלחם הקלוקל. It seems to me that his explanation, that the Jews were disgusted because of 39 years of the same dry, round food, fits the word קצה better than the explanations of other commentaries fit that word.

How do we know Paroh took 4 steps, in particular? Perhaps by counting the word ויצו עליו פרעה אנשים, but perhaps because we assume this was a 4-cubit trip, by default explanation of how one escorts. Of course, his reward ended up harming himself and his country, but no one forced him to spend his reward that way…

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Bilam the Blogger (Derashah: Balak 5768)

This derashah would be perfect as a closing post for this blog; I'll have to remember to re-print it on day I decide to stop blogging.

We live in a world of unabating noise. Whether it’s from rumbling traffic or blaring headlines or roaring movie theater speakers, we are surrounded by decibel levels unknown to previous generations. And beyond sheer amplitude, the noise is ubiquitous - everyone is talking, politicians and celebrities and people on the street and reality TV stars and columnists and bloggers and so on, as though humanity has forgotten how to stop talking.

Thank Gd for the Internet; now, everything is published, to a worldwide audience. Everyone is publishable, from a one-line Twitter note like “I’m packing for a trip” to a video of yourself singing a song on YouTube to a blog post about the note you just saw on Twitter or the silly video you just saw on Youtube. The result: Utter cacophony.

This cacophony reminds me of Bilam, the villain of our parshah, a man who spends the entire parshah talking to and at anyone who will spare him a minute. He’s a combination yenta and used-car salesman on fast-forward - never, ever, ever at a loss for words. Bilam never heard the wise counsel attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

• Gd tells Bilam not to go curse the Jews, but Bilam keeps talking until even Gd surrenders, saying, “Fine, go.”
• Bilam’s donkey starts talking to him, and Bilam doesn’t miss a beat in the conversation.
• Bilam sees a sword-wielding angel and, instead of rearing back in fear as Yehoshua would do later in the Torah, Bilam chats with him.
• Bilam can’t prevent himself from blessing the Jews, but he keeps right on talking anyway, urging Balak, king of Moav, to give him another chance, and then another.
• Then, frustrated at Bilam’s blessings, Balak kicks him out in disgrace. Bilam is dragged off-stage by the scruff of his neck - but even then he’s hondling, saying, “Wait, hang on, there’s just one more thing I want to tell you!” and he proceeds to deliver yet another message.

Bilam is a parent’s ultimate nightmare - a Talk-to-Me-Elmo toy that doesn’t need batteries and has no Off button.

Contrast Bilam’s constant prattle with the pragmatic advice of our sages:
• סיג לחכמה שתיקה , Silence protects wisdom.
• מילה בסלע, משתוקא בתרין - If a word costs a dollar, pay two dollars for silence.
• Or, in the words of Mishlei, which presumably inspired Lincoln: “Even a silent fool is thought to be wise, and one with sealed lips is thought to be a man of understanding.”

But the Torah stresses silence as more than a pragmatic ideal, or a blessed respite for tired ears; silence is a supreme spiritual value.

• When Gd tells Avraham to offer Yitzchak as a sacrifice, Avraham is silently acquiescent - and Gd praises and rewards him for that silence.
• When Aharon loses his sons Nadav and Avihu, he is praised for the articulate inexpression of וידם אהרן, his silent response.
• When Chanah pleads with Gd for a child, she does it silently; רק שפתיה נעות וקולה לא ישמע, her lips move but she produces no sound, and our own silent Shmoneh Esreih is modeled on that inaudible prayer of hers.

Most importantly, consider the remarkable story of Eliyahu haNavi. Exasperated with a nation that refused to consistently worship Gd but instead habitually strayed after idols, Eliyahu lashed out in a tirade, “קנא קנאתי לה' I have been zealous for You Gd, the Jewish people have violated Your covenant, they have destroyed Your altars, they have murdered Your prophets by the sword, and only I remain, and they want to kill me as well!”

To which Gd replied, “Go stand before Me on the mountain, and I will pass before you.” And then a great wind blew, smashing stones, but Eliyahu was told, “Gd is not in the wind.”

And then the ground shook and there was a great noise, but Eliyahu was told, “Gd is not in the noise.”

And then there was a great fire, but Eliyahu was told, “Gd is not in the fire.”

And then all that remained was a קול דממה דקה, a thin whisper, and then Eliyahu left the mountain.

Gd was telling Eliyahu that noisy explosions and great, thundering tantrums are not the highest power; the silence of one who is capable of explosions, and chooses to refrain from them, is still greater.

Mind you, Eliyahu, don’t mistake silence for impotence; the same being Whose will is expressed in the thinnest note is simultaneously capable of consuming flame, of shattering cataclysm, of mighty wind. Silence is not the inability to act, but rather the ability to refrain from acting. איזהו גבור, הכובש את יצרו - True power is not in conquest, but in deciding when to conquer, and when to be patient.

On a human level, this self-censorship is the supreme spiritual benefit of silence - a recognition of limits, a decision that what we have to say will not help achieve our goals. Silence is the “voice” of someone who thinks to himself, “I could speak, but it wouldn’t accomplish what I want to accomplish,” and so he chooses to refrain.

And on a Divine level, as Rav Yosef Albo and Ralbag taught, silence represents Divine subtlety, in which the Hand of the Creator which could so easily impose itself upon us all is barely sensed, rarely visible and never imposed upon His creations.

As the Kabbalists put it, Divine Silence is צמצום, HaShem’s self-imposed limitation on His explicit involvement in our world. When we ask why bad things happen to good people, when our belief in the ultimate morality of the universe is shaken by tyranny empowered by Free Will, when Eliyahu challenges his Gd for his own suffering and for the absence of the mighty Hand of Justice, the Divine absence is expressed by this silence that says, “I” - the Divine “I” - “have nothing to say yet.”

This noble restraint is what Bilam fails to comprehend. For Bilam, it’s all about the noise, the words, putting together a message that will get him what he wants - generally, silver and gold. If yesterday’s words didn’t do it, today’s words, tomorrow’s words, the next speech, the next curse, will do it.

Bilam once had a home, servants, a great reputation, even the ability to talk to Gd. Had Bilam been silent and remained at home when so instructed by Gd, he could have had everything - he would have survived, with or without wealth. But he insisted on filibustering Gd, and the result was that he lost everything - reputation first, and ultimately his life.

This isn’t a speech promoting silence in shul - although that might be a good place to start, I suppose. But, no, it’s more about silence in general, and a lesson for everyone - me first, frankly.

In a world that takes “Publish or Perish” as an imperative driving every human being to express every thought and even record it for posterity, encouraging the reporting of every item of לשון הרע and רכילות, the airing of every personal observation and dispute in public in violation of our value of שלום, we ought to study this Divine קול דממה דקה, this small voice, this צמצום restraint, and apply it to our own existence. I can only speak for myself, but this I can say: I talk way too much.

We are taught that the opposite of Bilam is Moshe; Moshe’s appreciation for silence is one of the central ways in which he differentiates himself from a man who was his equal in prophecy but his opposite in character.

Moshe is introduced to us as a כבד פה, a man with trouble speaking, who doesn’t feel comfortable in his public role. The man who would bring to Earth the most important words ever spoken is a humble, reluctant orator.

Moshe understands that Gd is discovered in a sound so thin as to be nearly inaudible, and yet deep enough to contain the majesty of the Creator of All. Moshe understands the power of a Being who surely can thunder like Eliyahu but who chooses the containment of Chanah. Moshe is the one to convey that Being’s message to Earth.

Bilam leads the people of Moav and Midyan to corruption, and, ultimately, to destruction. Moshe, on the other hand, leads the Jews to the verge of their entry into Israel. Perhaps, if we can learn the value of Silence, we will soon merit the same.

1. Yes, this derashah was inspired by my post here.

2. The Lincoln quote is also attributed to Mark Twain.

3. The quote about paying two dollars for silence is from Megilah 18a. The Mishlei sentence is 17:28. Eliyahu's story is Melachim I 19. Ralbag is from his comments to that chapter. R' Yosef Albo is from Sefer haIkkarim 2:31. Bilam's death is mentioned in Bamidbar 31:8.

4. On the Divine non-imposition, see the beautiful comments ofR’ Jonathan Sacks at and

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