Friday, October 31, 2008

Alphabets, Politics, Dating, and Jewish Pedagogy: When the Medium is also a Message

[This week's Haveil Havalim is out here! And a very good edition it is.]

Lois McMaster Bujold, in her Miles Vorkosigan books, tells a story of rebels attempting to smuggle support to their mountain resistance. Their oppressors check every horse entering the mountains, but find neither weapons nor supplies. Only in the end, when the resistance is successful, do they realize that the horses were not carrying weapons - the horses were the weapons.

That story came to mind as I prepared for a class I gave this past Shabbos, on the evolution of the Hebrew alphabet - because, as I saw in my research, sometimes the Medium is also the Message.

A bit of background: Every November we cover a monthlong theme through classes, events and displays in shul. We started this practice several years ago with “17th century Jewry” in honor of the 350th anniversary of Jewish life in North America, and then we followed up with Sephardic Jewry, Chassidus and Israel at 60. This year we are looking at The Jewish Book, so my classes this month focus on different aspects of Jewish printing. Our centerpiece scholar-in-residence will be Professor David Stern of University of Pennsylvania, and he’ll talk about the printed machzor, chumash and gemara. But back to our topic:

This Shabbos, I taught a class on "Who Invented Rashi Script?" The answer, it seems clear to me, is that Rashi never used Rashi Script. Rashi may well have used one of the semi-cursive hands which were popular in his day, but Rashi Script does not turn up until the 13th century. Also, I am convinced by Herbert C. Zafren's contention ("Early Yiddish Typography," in Jewish Book Annual, Vol. 44, 1986-1987/5747) that Rashi script most closely mirrors a Sephardic semi-cursive which was current in the Middle Ages - but which Rashi, as a German-trained French scholar, would not have seen.

Rather, Rashi script was used by printers when they first produced chumashim with Rashi's commentary. They used this font, I believe, for two reasons: First, they wanted to distinguish between the text and the commentary, for religious reasons. Second, once they were choosing an alternative font they chose this Sephardic-based font because it's smaller than block print, allowing them to fit in more text in a smaller space (see Meir Benayahu's הסכמה ורשות בדפוס ויניציאה pg. 258).

The idea of distinguishing between text and commentary is particularly important, and is the way in which the medium is the message. The Rambam wrote (teshuvah 268) that one may not use Ktav Ashurit, the Assyrian alphabet which we consider traditional Hebrew script, for normal correspondence and mundane matters. Granted that Tashbetz (teshuvah 1:5) disagreed, many halachic authorities followed the view of the Rambam; it's even cited in the Rama (Yoreh Deah 284:2). Therefore, we can tell, by looking at which script is used, just how sacred the content is. (And so there is a very interesting halachic discussion on whether one should, or should not, use Ktav Ashurit for a Get.)

There is much more to say on this, but it was a 45-minute class and this is a blog post. So to return to the main idea, that the medium is, sometimes, also the message:

We see this in politics. When a politician has a Facebook page, the news is not what's on the page; the news is that he has one at all. Or when a politician sends a surrogate to speak before an audience, he tries to use a surrogate with whom the audience can identify, based on religion or skin color or career or geography. It doesn't matter what the surrogate says, since it'll only be a re-hash of material available elsewhere, but the message is that people like You (the audience) support this candidate.

We see it in dating, too: The way you dress, the car you drive, even the stationery on which you send a note (for those who still use pen and paper), these are the medium, but they are also the message. My Rebbetzin baked me chocolate chip cookies for our first date, because I had mentioned it was my birthday. The cookies were great, but the fact that she took the time to do it was the real message.

And, of course, since I am a rabbi and a Jewish father: In Jewish pedagogy, the medium is very often the message. The way we dress for shul (and when we show up!), the way we stand or sit while davening, it's all medium, but it's all message.

I can see it in the way my children daven with me; they are very attuned to these signals of medium. If they see me looking out of the siddur as I say the words, they don't take that tefilah seriously. If they hear me use a serious tone or cadence when saying another part of davening, they take it more seriously.

The kids actually pick up more cues about what I'm doing than I do, and all without consciously trying to do so. Maybe it's because they have heard the message so often that it's no longer compelling for them - but the medium may offer something new or varied each time.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

And leave the house of your father...

My closest relatives - parents, siblings, grandmother - live at least 90 minutes from our family. My wife’s family is even more distant. This is not a new state of affairs for us; our first shul was in Rhode Island, at a time when our closest relatives lived no further north than Manhattan.

To be honest, while we’ve always felt ourselves at a disadvantage - missing family events, not developing the close relationships we want, our children not knowing their aunts and uncles and cousins well - I never really felt like I was losing out on something huge. Part of that is my natural self-centeredness, and part is simply that I didn’t know what I was missing.

So when I have read the beginning of Lech Lecha over the years, and I’ve seen HaShem tell Avraham, “Leave your land, the place of your birth, the house of your father,” I have understood alienation from the comfort and familiarity of a homeland, and from the nostalgia and natural fit of a birthplace, but I never really understood the gravity of the “house of your father” piece of Avraham’s challenge. It always seemed more or less like and add-on to the other, more serious elements of estrangement.

Today, though, I learned more about what it means to “leave your father’s home.”

Through an unlikely chain of events, I was at a conference in midtown Manhattan on the same day that my cousins Jacques and Berthe Torczyner were visiting my parents, also in midtown Manhattan.

I had rarely (never?) met my illustrious nonagenarian cousin Jacques, about whom I once blogged here, or his wife Berthe. I had heard a ton about them, people asked me, "Are you related to Jacques" all the time, and I wanted very much to see them, but because they live out in California and I never get out there, and because they don’t travel much anymore, we had not met in person, or at least not in my adult life.

So when I heard that Jacques was in New York, I immediately left my conference and walked across town to meet him. I walked 25 minutes each way and we only had 15 minutes together, but Wow, that was great.

Of course, in one way it was great because of who Jacques and Berthe are, of the life they have led. For those who were too lazy to click on the link above, here’s a brief digest of some of the items on my cousin Jacques’ resume: Holocaust survivor, leader in the World Zionist Organization, president of the Zionist Organization of America, major activist in the Republican party, head of the North American delegation to the critical World Zionist Congress in December 1946, associate of David Ben-Gurion and Teddy Kollek, activist in preparing for the UN vote on Israel’s independence. And this is not even close to a complete list.

But, more than that, today I met two members of my family, two people who knew the paternal grandparents I was too young to know, two members of the chain of people whose existence encompasses my own. Seeing them gave me an expanded sense of belonging.

Now I have a better understanding of what Avraham did with his Lech Lecha march. Yes, leaving the familiarity of his land and his birthplace must have been difficult, but leaving that circle of people among whom he belonged was a challenge in itself.

And one last note: My favorite part about meeting Jacques and Berthe? When Jacques told me he reads my blog!

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Synagogue Gun Clubs

The “Hit a Jew” communal hate crime (sorry Principal Lelonek, but let’s call it for what it is) at Parkway West Middle School in Missouri last week has sparked a local reaction: Some people are saying it’s time, or past time, to arm up, train our youth and be prepared to respond to anti-Semitic mobs. As one man put it to me, “If the Muslims have training camps, and Christian groups have training camps, why not us?”

I am of two minds on this:

*I do think it’s important for American Jews to face the reality of the threat around them. I don’t see the American government turning against Jews on a militant level, but we have to face reality: Individual citizens looking to blame someone for the demise of their 401(k) plans are going to look for their time-honored Jewish scapegoats.

*Many people in our shul are already gun users, whether they own weapons or just choose to use them at firing ranges. Why not get organized to promote self-defense?

*I see nothing wrong - and a lot right - with learning to fire a gun. I personally have rifle training from my days at Kerem b’Yavneh.

*Synagogues are a good point for communal organization; we arrange hospitality and chesed ventures, we hold events for youth, etc. It’s logical, then, to organize around the synagogue in this regard as well.

*I don’t want people with small children keeping guns at home. Yes, I want to be able to defend myself. But no, I don’t want any more of those horror stories about kids who get to their parents’ weapons.

*The nightmarish prospect of someone bringing a weapon into shul and firing it in some misguided moment, thinking we are under attack or some such thing, is also horrifying.

*We don’t bring weapons into a beis medrash (study hall), and King David was told he could not build the Beis haMikdash (Jerusalem Temple) because he had shed blood - even though that bloodshed had been justified. So should we really start an official synagogue gun club?

*And the other problem is that creating a high-profile program like this is bound to attract the wrong kind of publicity, and to some it would be seen as a challenge, a dare. Better to keep security low-profile and under the radar.

Overall, I’m inclined against it at the moment; the negatives are too overwhelming. If people want to train themselves, let them do it without the official synagogue banner.

But, of course, that last line could just be a subterfuge, to keep the Congregation Sons of Israel Gun Club low profile and under the radar…

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Israel, Canaan, Palestine, Eretz Yisroel: The Power of Nomenclature [and Noah-menclature]

[A great new edition of Haveil Havalim is out here.]

A few years back I noticed that Israel’s Dalton Winery was producing a line of wines called Canaan. It rubbed me entirely wrong; aren’t we supposed to be getting away from the whole Canaan thing? Isn’t there a biblical instruction about not emulating the ways of Canaan?

(Of course, the Canaan name might be a tip of the hat to the rabbinic teaching that Canaan was the one who discovered his drunken grandfather Noah (Genesis 9) - but, really, how much better would that be?)

At this time of year I feel the same discomfort as I speak about the parshiyyot in which Avraham and Sarah, and then their descendants, are introduced to the land that would, eventually, become known as Eretz Yisrael. Technically, I should describe our ancestors as arriving in Canaan, as moving around Canaan, as living in Canaan - in fact, as being Canaanites. But the word carries such baggage that I am uncomfortable with it, and so I say absurdly illogical things like, “HaShem appeared to Avraham and told him to travel west, into Israel.”

In truth, I do the same thing in using, or not using, the historic name Palestine. Yes, I know, there’s never been an Arab state called Palestine, there’s never been a Palestinian government, et cetera - but much of the land known today as Israel was identified as Palestine two thousand years ago. When we talk about the “Jerusalem Talmud,” we really mean “Palestinian Talmud” - it was not written in Jerusalem, at all, and it was written in a land whose governors called it Palestine. Many of our Tannaim were Palestinian. But, outside of academic circles, I feel funny using those terms - so that when we read the mishnaic descriptions of the boundaries of Eretz Yisrael, I translate the land's name anachronistically as “Israel” instead of calling it by the correct secular name of that day, “Palestine.”

And lest one think this substitution of “Israel” for “Palestine/Canaan” is solely the province of Zionists who wish to manufacture historic credentials for a modern state, let’s remember that anti-Zionists as well as anti-government Zionists do the same in reverse, invoking “Eretz Yisroel” today rather than use the word “Israel” when referring to the medinah.

Bottom line: We play games of nomenclature in order to bring our speech in line with our political and religious views. I think we do it both in order to clarify to our listeners what we believe, and in order to make ourselves more comfortable with the words emerging from our mouths.

To return to the winery, though, “Canaan” might not be the most offensive name out there for an Israeli vineyard; there is a Noah winery as well. The Noah name offers a redeeming feature, though: They could have a great ad campaign, in the wake of the collapse of the world’s financial markets. “Want to forget the world’s just been destroyed, get falling-down drunk and curse your grandchildren? Then have we got the wine for you!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

I voted!

There are a dozen or more things I should be doing tonight, including-
Preparing Tuesday morning’s “Practical Ethics” shiur;
Preparing Tuesday night’s in-depth Gemara shiur;
Answering a batch of emails;
Preparing for my trip to Israel next week;
And so on.

But I'm dealing with a bad cold, it rained here all day (sorry to anyone who expected to see the third game of the World Series earlier tonight, but we got soaked today), and I haven’t taken any post-Simchas Torah break, so it's hard getting in gear.

On the up-side: I voted tonight. I expect to be in Israel on Election Day, so I filled out an Absentee Ballot.

I enjoy voting, as a way to express citizenship. I don't recognize several candidates on the local ballot, and I have no clue what an Auditor General does, but I felt, for the most part, like an informed American doing his civic duty. Rav Moshe Feinstein’s famous 1984 endorsement of voting stands out in my mind:

On reaching the shores of the United States, Jews found a safe haven. The rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights have allowed us the freedom to practice our religion without interference and to live in this republic in safety.

A fundamental principle of Judaism is hakaras hatov -- recognizing benefits afforded us and giving expression to our appreciation. Therefore, it is incumbent upon each Jewish citizen to participate in the democratic system which safeguards the freedoms we enjoy. The most fundamental responsibility incumbent on each individual is to register and to vote.

Therefore, I urge all members of the Jewish community to fulfill their obligations by registering as soon as possible, and by voting. By this, we can express our appreciation and contribute to the continued security of our community.

Voting is usually pretty easy for me, because our shul is a polling place; I just walk upstairs from my office when the turnout gets light, and it takes only a minute. This year it’ll cost me a Forever Stamp, but that’s okay. Like I said, civic duty.

Best part: I’ll finally be able to tell all of those callers, “I voted already.” Maybe that’ll get them to stop calling.

Or not.

I’ll admit I was confused about one thing, though: I didn’t see Sarah Palin’s name (or Tina Fey’s name, for that matter) anywhere on the ballot.

So I wrote her in for Auditor General.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Rabbinic Silly Season is upon us

The Silly Season is busting out all over.

On the Republican side we have that mailing I received the other day about Same Sex Marriage, Child Sacrifice, Islamic Terrorism and Barack Obama.

Today, on the other hand, I saw a lawn sporting a doctored campaign sign promoting McCain-Stalin. This clever (not!) bit of sloganeering was a perfect illustration of the principle: Many of us are instinctively liberal, but we are so annoyed by Democrats that we are forced to vote against them.

I wonder if the sign’s owner could even tell me what country Stalin ruled, let alone how many millions of people he killed.

It’s Silly Season in the Jerusalem Post, too, with this report that “Ahmedinejad’s health is deteriorating.” This example of Yellower-than-Yellow Journalism cites the robust evidence of Ahmedinejad missing a couple of meetings. There isn't even a hint of undercover, Mossad-based reports. I guess they figure that general journalistic credibility is shot anyway, so why not say stupid things in order to grab headlines, on the 1-in-1000000 chance their words might turn out to accidentally intersect with the truth?

And it’s Silly Season in the rabbinate: The post-Succot time of year when, toastedly burnt out from going full-steam for two months, and with no break in sight, we see sense in weird ideas and normally-unthinkable plans, just because we’ve lost our reality anchor.

At this time of year the current system of running a shul and community seems tired and balky and inefficient. Who wants to buckle into that old way of doing things? Better to try something new and shiny and different, even if it is also wildly illogical. Even after eleven years in the rabbinate, I can feel my sensibility-gyroscope spinning askew after Succos.

So at this time of year it makes sense to go to the shul board and talk about ditching the membership and dues systems, and going to a “pay what you like” system.

So at this time of year it makes sense to merge with three other shuls to form a large, a la carte, 24-hour Synaplex.

So at this time of year it makes sense to overhaul the Shabbos morning davening, converting it to a beginner’s service and eliminating the derashah (speech) in favor of a discussion.

So at this time of year it makes sense to entertain the idea of going entirely Green, getting rid of all disposables, using e-paper for our mailings, installing solar panels on our roof and wind turbines in our parking lot, recycling kitchen water…

I’ve barely started listing all of the ideas that have passed through my head in the past week.

While I was getting my post-Yom Tov haircut today, a guy about my age came into the barber shop, dressing like I used to dress way back when. Jeans, denim jacket, backward cap on his head. No beard (but a nifty goatee). I thought for a second that I was looking in some odd mirror… and he/I looked good that way.

I thought: I wouldn’t dress that way for minyan, but what if, outside of minyan, I would go around like that, maybe for a Dress-Down Wednesday or something? Sure, it would raise some eyebrows, but it might help some people connect… and it would make me feel more relaxed, right?

Rabbinic Silly Season, indeed. It’s sort of like an intense burst of mid-life crisis, I suppose. It’ll last another week or so, then I’ll be back to normal.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Same-Sex Unions and Child Sacrifice and Simchas Torah

If sanity has anything to do with being in step with the greater world, then I think it’s time to have myself committed because I'm totally out of step.

Exhibit A: My mail

Looking through my Yom Tov mail I found an envelope emblazoned with the following, bold-print logo:

Same-Sex Unions and Child Sacrifice:
Obama, McCain, Jihad & the Judeo-Christian View

I read that through a few times, to make sure I understood it. I don’t.
Then I read the text below:

Also Inside (and Free!)…
Obsession, the movie on DVD
Video Sermon on DVD

I kid you not.

All of this courtesy of the following return address:

The Judeo-Christian Vew
P.O. Box 734
Vista, California 92085-0734

I feel bad for any Judeo-Christians out there. Bad enough they’re entirely confused about their oxymoronic religious identity, now they have to put up with child sacrifice!

I also hope my mailman (sorry, postal carrier) doesn’t think I’m one of those Judeo-Christians.

Exhibit B: Simchas Torah
Yom Tov, thank Gd, was pretty good.

Our YU Torah Tours group was wonderful, very enthusiastic and outgoing and energetic and everything we could have wanted.

The Shemini Atzeres derashah was kind of dead, not because the material was bad but because I was under the weather with a cold, and because the shul was freezing - some well-meaning energy saver had turned off the heat before Yom Tov, thinking it would be hot from all of the dancing…

Phone rang off the hook at home and at shul all through Yom Tov, scaring me no end, but in the end there were no emergencies.

And the event that proved again that I am out of touch with the world around me: A prankster (whom I usually adore) tossed candies at the Shacharis chazan on Simchas Torah, for Mashiv haRuach Umorid haGeshem.

I have a really hard time with that. Shemoneh Esreih, per the gemara, shouldn’t be interrupted even if a king comes up to you and demands your attention. Interrupt it for a gag? And such a cheap, cliché gag?!

So of course I had to be the heavy, clamp down and glare dourly and let it be known (by expression rather than announcement) that such behavior would not be tolerated, lest people take this as license to go even further.

And then half a dozen other people had to come up to the prankster and tell him that they thought it was funny, that they’ve seen a lot more elsewhere, that it’s good he’s livening things up. A few had to tell me that I don’t have to be a stick in the mud.

I hate being the bad guy.

Now it’s time to take on the rest of the year.

Monday, October 20, 2008

15-minute increments

[Haveil Havalim is out here!]

Yom Tov is winding down; it’s impossible to believe that Rosh HaShanah was a full three weeks ago.

(Note: The Tzidkas haTzaddik, #171, has a fascinating parallel between the Three Weeks of Bein haMetzarim and the Three Weeks from Rosh HaShanah through Shemini Atzeret, including a link between Tisha b’Av and Shemini Atzeret. Very worth reading. Probably a derashah some year.)

When my Rebbetzin and I were in our first year in the rabbinate, and Yamim Noraim/Succot preparation was crazy beyond anything I had ever imagined, I told my wife, “Don’t worry; it gets easier after Yom Tov.”

I was new at this; what did I know?

Now, I know. I can see it coming; my to-do list for Thursday is a mile long. I really have improved my scheduling over the past eleven years, but there’s no getting around the fact that after Yom Tov, all those things that were delayed “until after Yom Tov” come barreling around the corner. Committees and boards, individuals and families, anything and everything must now be faced, so the days from October 23 through mid-December will be filled with appointments and meetings and work.

Much needs to be done – classes, derashos, programming, counseling, scheduling, administrative stuff, website management, shul library, hospitals, prisons, community work, psak, shivah, family time, community politics and more – and all of it on the same day. So you run from one thing to the next to the next, and there’s barely time to breathe, let alone eat, in between. I live on Boost Plus. had an article a couple of weeks ago on the relaxation needs of the President of the United States. The article began with the line, “In long days scheduled in 15-minute increments, presidents are asked to make decisions affecting millions -- sometimes life-or-death decisions.” Certainly, the life-or-death decisions are part of the problem, but the 15-minute increments are a big part of it as well.

The article is correct: The less downtime you have, the more apt you are – I am – to make mistakes, and to fail to think creatively. That’s the way the human brain operates. (The article cites “creativity researchers.” That sounds like a fun career; maybe after I retire I’ll go ino “creativity research.”)

So a rabbi must schedule creativity time, relaxation-time, sitting-and-thinking time. (I worked in some time the other day to watch clips of John McCain and Barack Obama at the Al Smith Dinner, and Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live; those were great. I need more of that.)

Scheduling time like that sounds dumb, but that’s reality; the time must be scheduled or it won’t happen, it’ll be eaten up by other things. It's not only rabbis - many people, I think, need to schedule it. Nature abhors vacuums in both space and time.

Every year, when things get crazy right before Rosh haShanah, I turn to my wife and reprise my foolish optimism of 1997: “It gets easier after Yom Tov, right? I’m much better at scheduling now, I think I’ve finally got it down.”

And, knowing better than to answer, she just smiles.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

A Simchat Torah Curriculum (Derashah Shemini Atzeret 5769)

A very old man with a beat-up portfolio knocked on the door of a world-renowned art professor. “Please,” he begged, “Please spare a few minutes to humor an old man and give me some honest feedback on my drawings.”

The master studied the man’s sketches and said gently, “I’m afraid these drawings are not very good. However, since your artwork brings you pleasure, I would encourage you to continue.”

The old man sadly thanked the expert for taking his time; then, as he was about to leave, he asked, “Would you be so kind as to look at some other drawings I have here, from a young boy?”

The old man produced more sketches, and the master immediately knew that he was looking at the work of a genius, perhaps a future master. He looked up at the old man and said, “These drawings show a rare genius I have never before seen in a child. Is he your grandson?”

The old man hung his head. After a minute he looked up at the professor and said, “Sir… you’re looking at that talented artist. Those drawings were mine when I was a young child, but I never had a chance to hone my craft in an academy, I had no one to teach me - and so I did nothing with it. Had I only been given the chance to learn!”

I have personally witnessed the Jewish equivalent of this scene, many times. Women in their seventies who tell me that when they were growing up, their parents didn’t think it important to send them to cheder with the boys. Men of the same age who did go to cheder, but were taught by mentors whose English was poor and whose pedagogic skills were non-existent. Men and women whose Jewish education consisted primarily of knowing how to sit in shul for a few hours at a shot, not understanding the words of the siddur and not seeing any connection between those words and their daily lives.

These are our talented young artists, sixty and seventy years later - they could have been talmidei chachamim, students of Torah and great scholars, with a real Jewish education from the start. With Hebrew language. With davening, knowing what the davening means. With chumash, with Jewish law, with Jewish history, with mishnah and gemara and mussar.

Tonight, Simchat Torah, we will celebrate and dance and sing, celebrating completing another year of studying the Torah. I hope we will ask ourselves: What elements of Torah should all of those frustrated artists, those would-be talmidei chachamim, have learned? In Torah, we never say it’s too late - so how can they catch up, what’s the curriculum?

The answer is logical enough: Our ancestors took four steps when they stood at Sinai, the same four steps a non-Jew takes today when converting to Judaism, and so those four steps, which go far beyond text study to a holistic educational experience, are the necessary elements of our own education as we grow into our Judaism, whether as children or as adults.

Those four steps are circumcision for males, immersion in a mikvah, acceptance of mitzvot and bringing a korban, and each step comes with its own deeper lesson.

The first part of this holistic educational experience is ברית מילה, circumcision. According to Sefer haChinuch and others, circumcision represents our responsibility of tikkun, of mending our broken world in the service of HaShem. One might assume that the world was created as HaShem wanted it, but circumcision, in which we are told that HaShem created the baby one way and we are responsible to make him whole, in another way, teaches us that we can improve the world around us.

Similarly, then, every Jew must learn this lesson of repair for the world - of חסד, generosity toward others, of צדקה, giving of our own wealth for others, of קירוב רחוקים, reaching out to those who are distant from religion or community and drawing them closer.

The second stage is immersion in a mikvah, representing purification from tumah, and, on a deeper level, purification from sin, distance from committing spiritual wrongs.

Purification is not only some mystical process; it’s a practical reality, extending beyond the mikvah and into our daily lives. Purification is our determination to cleanse ourselves of traits which encourage error. We learn perishut, separating ourselves from activities that might lead to wrongdoing. We develop anavah, humility, as well as tzniut, privacy. We are careful with rabbinic laws which act as a boundary for the Torah, preventing accidental violation of its laws.

In the third step, we at Sinai and the ger today formally accept the mitzvot and commit to practice them.

This stage includes learning Torah on a practical level with an eye toward understanding and implementing its mitzvot, and fully accepting the binding nature of those mitzvot.

And finally, at Sinai and in the time of the Beit haMikdash, the ger brings a korban, an offering to Gd. This korban represents building a relationship with HaShem, willingly giving of ourselves in order to draw closer.

In our Jewish life we give our connection to HaShem the highest priority, and turn everything we have toward that goal. This includes mitzvot of prayer, like תפילה and קריאת שמע, and mitzvot of dedicating our property to Gd, as we do in Israel with the terumah and maaser tithes, and the laws of shemitah.

A Jew who has progressed through these four stages emerges a truly educated Jew:
• Committed to repairing the world through the mitzvot of kindness toward others,
• Committed to traits which will protect him from going astray,
• Committed to learning the mitzvot and practicing them, and
• Committed to a relationship with Gd that includes both prayer and practice.

This is what so many of our parents wanted for us. Those words I recite as part of the formal beginning of our Yizkor are, I hope, more than a trite tribute, describing “dear parents whose desire it was to train us in a good and upright way, to teach us Your statutes and commandments, and to instruct us to do justice and lovingkindness.” This has been the mission of Jewish parents ever since Har Sinai, ever since the Torah instructed us to pass its teachings along to our children. Through Yizkor we express our gratitude to those who taught us, and the fact that we are here today is proof that they did well.

We are fortunate to have, here in our community, the Jewish Day School, an institution committed to ensuring that the next generation of Jewish children will receive the education and training that the seventy- and eighty-year-old frustrated talmidei chachamim in my office did not. We have great teachers, including _______________________________________.

If we truly embrace, and celebrate with, the Torah on Simchat Torah, if we truly wish for our children to have the chance to develop their religious genius, if we mean it when we say those things about our parents at Yizkor, then we will commit ourselves to supporting JDS - by sending our children when they are of school age, and by supporting the school financially even when we don’t have children at the school.

This derashah was not prompted from the school; absolutely no one affiliated with the school even knew I was going to speak about this. I chose this topic for today because Simchat Torah must be more than a day to alternate between dancing and looking at our watches with bored stares. Simchat Torah is a day for us to make sure we are doing the learning we need to do, ourselves, and a day to make sure we are helping others learn.

If we are going to create Jews, we had better be ready to educate them. We promised it to the next generation at Har Sinai long ago, and we have sustained that promise for some thirty-five hundred years. Even in the Great Depression, and worse times before that, Jews sustained that promise. Today, even in our own tough economic times, it is a promise we will continue to fulfill.

The running joke in Jewish communities is that we believe all of our children are above-average - but they are. Our children are all gifted. Some have academic talent - math, music, art, creative writing. Others have social talent - empathy, influence, leadership. But all of them have a gift in their neshamot, their souls - the ability to grow as Jews and mentchen, to become Gd-like people - all we have to do is add the Torah.

Just one note here - I wanted to go on at length about the importance of day school education vs. the Hebrew School substitute, but (with the great counsel of my Rebbetzin) I cut out that section. There are people, including some in my shul, who would love to send their children to full-day Jewish school, but they cannot because of their children's special needs. I will not make them feel worse than they already do.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Enjoy life with the woman you love (Derashah, Shabbat Chol haMoed Succot 5769)

"I find more bitter than death the woman… One man among a thousand have I found, but a woman among all those I have not found. (Kohelet 7:26-28)"

What is Shlomo haMelech expressing here, in these blatantly misogynistic terms? What is this doing in a book which also contains the happier advice to a man, “ראה חיים עם האשה אשר אהבת Enjoy life with the wife you love?” What is this doing in a book attributed to a man whose mother taught him the Eishet Chayil, a ballad to the mighty Jewish woman? What is this doing in Tanach at all?!

Realize that in an entire Tanach filled with complex and conflicted human beings, Shlomo haMelech may well be the most complex and conflicted.
• Shlomo is the great son and heir of Dovid haMelech and Batsheva, builder of the Beis haMikdash and the wisest of all men.
• But Shlomo also flouts the Torah’s laws governing kings, marries princesses for political purposes and oversleeps the first day of korbanot in that new Beis haMikdash he had built.
According to the gemara, the sages even taught that Shlomo was excluded from Gan Eden in the next world, until a voice from Heaven rebuked them!

There is a pattern to Shlomo haMelech’s troubles, and the gemara lays it out for us:

The Torah mandates that a king may not take too many wives, lest their needs distract him. The gemara says that Shlomo defied this rule, confidently arguing אני ארבה ולא אסור, I will have many wives and I will not be led astray. In the end, Tanach says, נשיו הטו את לבבו, Shlomo was led astray.

The Torah mandates that a king not accumulate horses, lest he go back to Egypt to find more. Again, the gemara says that Shlomo confidently defied this rule, arguing, אני ארבה ולא אשיב, I will have many horses and I will not go back to Egypt. But in the end, as Tanach reports, Shlomo returns to Egypt for horses.

The gemara reports that Shlomo sought to extend his reign to the mystical realms of King Ashmedai, and when Shlomo presumptuously imprisoned King Ashmedai, he ended up losing his throne for a time.

Shlomo haMelech was a victim of his own success - he was the smartest man in the world, he had all the wealth one could ever imagine, he was an incredibly powerful king, and he knew it. Knowing all that about yourself works well as far as boosting your confidence, but it doesn’t help in a marriage.

From the beginning of the Torah, we are taught that marriage is about seeking partnership with another person who will complement your talents, your ideas, your energies.

HaShem says, לא טוב היות האדם לבדו, It is not good for Man to be alone. R’ Ovadia Seforno explains, “Man is inadequate when he is alone.”

So HaShem decides, אעשה לו עזר כנגדו, I will make Adam and Chavah as two parallel people. They will be opposite each other, in the way that the two platforms on a balanced scale are opposite each other - they will complement each other.

But in order for that ideal relationship to work, the husband and wife must accept that they are parallel, equal if not equivalent, that on the other side of the scale is a man or woman who will both support and challenge you, who will call you on your errors as often as he will agree with your assertions.

If you’re already the smartest, already the wealthiest, already the most powerful, it’s hard to accept someone else as your equal and complement.

Batsheva, Shlomo’s mother, knew that this would be her son’s challenge, and so she advised him to seek a woman of strength, a woman who was self-sufficient, a woman who would speak Torah and who would be garbed in strength and dignity. Her advice is recorded in that poem we know as Eishes Chayil, the 31st chapter in Mishlei. But Shlomo never found a woman he saw in that light; he married a thousand women, but he never felt he had found an equal.

In the passage I quoted at the outset, in which Shlomo records the futility of his marriages, Shlomo is critiquing himself, not the women he married. When Shlomo says, “Even one woman in a thousand I did not find,” we hear pain in his voice as he renders this verdict on the lonely life he had lived. Shlomo was never able to follow the advice he gave us, ראה חיים עם האשה אשר אהבת, to enjoy life with a beloved spouse.

Obviously, Shlomo haMelech’s verdict offers a practical lesson for our marriages, but it is also a practical lesson for our relationships in general. If we feel that other people have let us down, or that we haven’t found people who are worthy of our respect, then perhaps it’s time for us to look not at others but at ourselves:
• Are we humbly aware of our own defects, our own flaws, and the ways in which other people could provide that which we lack?
• Or do we feel, consciously or subconsciously, that we’re as close to perfect as we need to be, that we know and understand things pretty much on our own?

Arnold Palmer tells the following story about the 1961 Masters tournament: “I had a one-stroke lead and had just hit a very satisfying tee shot. I felt I was in pretty good shape. As I approached my ball, I saw an old friend standing at the edge of the gallery. He motioned me over, stuck out his hand and said, ‘Congratulations.’ I took his hand and shook it, but… On my next two shots, I hit the ball into a sand trap, then put it over the edge of the green. I missed a putt and lost the Masters.”
Palmer added, “You don't forget a mistake like that; you just learn from it and become determined that you will never do that again.”

The same holds true for relationships - having now eavesdropped on Shlomo haMelech’s self-analysis, having come to understand the importance of humility for a successful relationship, let’s make sure that we make our putt, and so merit to fulfill Shlomo’s happier advice, ראה חיים עם האשה אשר אהבת, to enjoy life with the people we love.

1. I feel some discomfort with this derashah; I am uneasy assigning fault to the heroes of Tanach, even those the gemara describes as it does Shlomo, and even the not-really-a-fault confident self-awareness I ascribe to Shlomo here. But, at the same time, I feel this is an important lesson for people, and the biblical and talmudic record of Shlomo's career provides the ideal illustration. I sincerely hope this does not make me a מגלה פנים בתורה שלא כהלכה.

2. The gemara on Shlomo's almost-exclusion from olam haba is Sanhedrin 104b; the gemara on his rejection of the laws of monarchs is Sanhedrin 21b. The run-in with Ashmedai is Gittin 68a-b.

3. Arnold Palmer's story comes from The Nineteenth Hole, by Carol Mann; I found it, and along with it an interesting site for derashah anecdotes, quite by accident at

Thursday, October 16, 2008

"... and his wife"

I received a mailing from a prominent mainstream Orthodox institution the other day, and was jarred by the Mazal Tov listings. “Mazal tov to Rabbi Ploni X and his wife on the birth of…” went several lines of the text.

The funny thing is that I am, in my beliefs if not my practice, a sex-segregationist. Knowing the effect that an adulterous relationship has on a community, on a shul, on friends and families, and especially on children, I want to stay as far as possible - and then some! - from anything that might possibly somehow in some infinitesimally small way lead to that kind of situation.

*The fact that I teach mixed classes is a concession to reality, not my preference; I would much prefer to teach men and women separately.

*I use women’s first names when I address them, but that, again, is a concession to reality. I would use “Mrs. Smith” if it didn’t have such a jarringly stilted sound in my world.

*As much as I don’t like sitting apart from my wife at a wedding, I understand the need for that separation.

So I understand where the “and his wife” listing originates: Erect another barrier to inappropriate liasons, by reminding us that we ought not mix. I get it, believe me I get it.

But I still don’t like this “and his wife” construction:

It’s too close to nullifying the wife’s significance, by robbing her of her name – and in an announcement about her birthing a child, for Gd’s sake!

It’s too unbalanced; it sounds like saying, “The husband is the one who counts; the wife is his add-on.” I'd rather see it say "Rabbi and Mrs. X" without any first names.

It's also too much of a reach; this reminder of sex-segregation seems to me like a rather distant גזירה לגזירה לגזירה.

I sometimes wonder, and only semi-facetiously, if this might one day lead to a Mi sheBeirach in which we say “אברהם יענקל בן אמו Avraham Yankel ben Imo” rather than say the mother’s name! (Note: In the Chasam Sofer’s own practice, not only did they use the mother’s name when praying for the ill, but they also used it in the Kel Malei for the dead, and they inscribed it – rather than the father’s name – on the headstone. See בצל החכמה ג:צא.)

There is much more I could say, but I’m squeezing this in between derashah-prep and minchah, and you shouldn’t go from קלות ראש (frivolity) right into davening. Suffice it to say, for the time being, that I am Mordechai and my wife is Caren, and all mazal tovs (ken yirbu) should be directed to both of us by name.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Is the Torah pleasant? Is the truth pleasant?

The other day, I posted the following in my "Daily Torah Thought" blog:

"The Torah says [that one of the Four Species waved on Succot is] 'A braided branch,' meaning that the leaves should cover the wood. What is that? That is the Hadas [myrtle]...

"But perhaps it is the Harduf? Abayye answered: No - It is written, 'The Torah's ways are pleasant,' and the spiny Harduf is not pleasant.

"Rava disqualified the Harduf for a different reason - It is written, 'You should love truth and peace.' The poisonous Harduf is the opposite of this verse."

(Talmud, Succah 32b as explained by Rashi)

Which led to the following reply from a reader:
When do we apply "The Torah's ways are pleasant"? Not all of the mitzvos are pleasant.

People find it hard to eat the required amounts of matzah and drink the required amounts of wine at the same meal, but we do so anyway.

I think most people would prefer not to give up their lives if the other choice is idol worship. ...

Why is poison the opposite of truth? Death is a part of the world. That is the truth.

There is much I would love to say on this. Perhaps during Chol haMoed. For now, have a great Yom Tov!

Friday, October 10, 2008

Which Rock is your Gd? (Derashah: Haazinu 5769)

What an unbelievable day it's been. Long, long story... but the derashah is done.
This is actually a derashah for a Bar Mitzvah this Shabbos, but I'll omit the Bar Mitzvah-specific details here.

Chaim, walking in the woods, suddenly encountered a bear. He froze - and then he watched in amazement as the bear put on a yarmulke and began to daven.
Chaim thought to himself, “I’m saved, I’ve found the only Jewish bear in the world!” He began to bentch gomel, thanking Gd… and he finished the berachah just in time to hear the bear finish his own last words: “המוציא לחם מן הארץ.”

Our parshah and haftorah also present “last words” - the closing songs of Moshe Rabbeinu and Dovid haMelech.

Moshe and Dovid, although separated by some 500 years, lived very similar lives:
• They started out as shepherds, where they showed great מסירות נפש, great self-sacrifice, on behalf of their flocks.
• They were both very humble. When HaShem tried to appoint Moshe to lead the Jewish people, Moshe refused; when Shemuel came to annoint a son of Yishai, Dovid assumed it must be one of his brothers.
• Moshe and Dovid both led the Jews for forty tumultuous years.
• Both Moshe and Dovid were stopped just short of their goals, Moshe prevented from entering Israel, Dovid prevented from building the Beis haMikdash.
• And both present their final messages to the Jewish people in emotional, evocative verse.

But when it comes to those final words, Moshe and Dovid take strikingly different paths in describing the Gd who had led them all of their lives - Moshe gives Gd the title of צור, and Dovid adds the title of סלע.

Moshe sees Gd as a צור.

A צור is a rock; hence the description מעוז צור ישועתי, that Gd is the Rock of my salvation, and hundreds of similar usages in Tanach and in our davening.

A rock is inscrutable; as the pasuk says, מי יאמר אליו מה תעשה, who can tell Gd what to do? Like the eagle Moshe envisions hovering over its young, Gd is physically near, but inherently distant and unreachable.

Moshe refers to Gd as צור several times in our parshah, repeatedly in association with the Divine Names of קל and אלוקים - Names which connote power and justice, not warmth and mercy. The same is true elsewhere in Tanach.

Dovid also depicts Gd as a צור, but he adds a title which Moshe never uses: סלע.

Technically, סלע also means “rock,” but in a different way. As Malbim explains, the סלע is המקום שעליו תעמוד המצודה על שן סלע גבוה - סלע is the high boulder on which our fortress stands. Yes, Gd is a stern protector, but Gd also lifts me up, HaShem elevates me.

It is not accidental that where the name צור is associated with אלקים, Justice, the name סלע is associated repeatedly in Tanach with the four-letter Name of HaShem, the יקוק which represents Mercy.

Dovid names HaShem as a merciful, supportive Gd.

It is striking (so to speak) that Moshe was twice told to draw water from a stone, but the stone went by different names on the two occasions. In the first instance the stone was described as a צור; in the second instance the stone was described as a סלע.

The first time, Moshe was told to hit the stone - this was a צור, a hard stone. The second time, though, Gd told him to talk to a סלע - because a סלע helps and assists. And when Moshe hit the סלע, treating it as a צור rather than speaking to it, he lost his chance to lead the Jewish people.

Why, though, does Moshe describe Gd in his last words as a harsh protector, where Dovid sees Gd as closer, more helpful?

Moshe does not lack for appreciation of Gd - indeed, even as Gd is about to take his life, Moshe performs צידוק הדין, acknowledging that Gd is just and fair!

And why does Dovid see Gd as a loving nurturer? Dovid the warrior, Dovid the fugitive, Dovid the besieged father, certainly knew his share of danger and trouble and strife, the times when Gd did not appear to be near!

Perhaps the difference is that Dovid had one relationship with Gd which Moshe never had: Dovid personally experienced Divine mechilah, Divine forgiveness. Moshe was never forgiven.

Moshe earned forgiveness for the Jews, as a nation, many times over - but never for himself.
• When Moshe refused the job of leading the Jews initially, Gd reacted harshly and revoked his כהונה.
• When Moshe grew angry at the nation, Gd removed some of his Torah knowledge.
• And when Moshe struck the סלע, Gd removed his leadership position.

Contrast that with Dovid; after Dovid’s incident with Batsheva, HaShem told him explicitly that he was forgiven. True, Dovid suffered punishment as well, but he was told, “ה' העביר חטאתך, HaShem has removed your sin.” Moshe never received such a message; for reasons that are not at all clear but that may relate to the unique relationship he had with Gd, Moshe was never forgiven.

Divine forgiveness is a transformative element in our relationship with Gd.

In Moshe’s experience Gd is a protective צור, punishing Egypt, splitting the sea, raining down bread from the heavens and levelling mountains to ease our travel, for whom we are obligated in את ה' אלקיך תירא and ואהבת את ה' אלקיך - we are obligated to have awe for Gd, and to love Gd.

But this is an incomplete presentation of the relationship promised by Judaism, by a Gd who also declares, “I love you back,” אהבתי אתכם אמר ה'.

Judaism promises:
• a universe in which Man, capital M, is cosmically important and cosmically potent,
• a universe in which our souls are חלק אלוק ממעל, carved from the Divine throne itself,
• a universe in which we are not merely an insignificant protectorate of a benevolent Gd but בנים אתם לה' אלקיכם, we are children of this Living Gd,
• a universe in which Gd is not only מלכנו, our King, but also אבינו, our Father.

This is beautifully illustrated by the reality of Divine forgiveness. A monarch does not forgive an insignificant or distant protectorate. Either their sins are beneath his notice, or their sins are a violation of his law and deserve punishment.
• Forgiveness is reserved for relationships, for people about whom you care, for whom you love.
• Forgiveness enables us to grow and not be bogged down in our past, it even turns our sins into merits, buoying us onward and upward.
• Forgiveness lights up the face of the Kohen Gadol when he emerges from the Beis haMikdash on Yom Kippur.

This is one reason why a crimson thread hangs in the Beis haMikdash on Yom Kippur, and it turns white when HaShem forgives us. It is important for us to see the forgiveness from Gd, to have that visualization, so that we will understand Dovid haMelech’s סלע, that Gd loves us and forgives us.

(Bar Mitzvah part here)

We are now coming to Succos, which we call זמן שמחתינו, the time of our joy. Unlike for other Yomim Tovim, the Torah says “You shall be happy” three times regarding Succos. A midrash explains that Succos earns these special mentions of joy because, among other things, we celebrate having been forgiven on Yom Kippur. This is the joy which Dovid expressed in the Haftorah, this is the joy of a relationship with Gd, this is the joy which we feel when we recognize that HaShem is more than our protective צור - HaShem is also our loving סלע.

1. Credit for the opening joke goes to Jack, here.

1. The Malbim's explanation of סלע is on the other version of our Haftorah, in Tehillim 18:3.

2. The midrash about Succos is in Psikta d'Rav Kahana.

3. Remarkably, the string in the Beit haMikdash was tied to a stone at one point - and the stone is identified (Rosh HaShanah 31b) as a סלע.

4. One point I don't really address: Why wasn't Moshe given the same chance for forgiveness? Even if we can explain away the incident with the stone as consequence rather than punishment, as some mefarshim do, we must still explain the other circumstances. (See my notes in comment #4 to this post; I might have the beginning of an idea there.)

5. While giving this derashah on Shabbos, it occurred to me that it sounds very Christian. Interesting.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Yom Kippur 2008/5769 - Yom Kippur Greeting Cards

I find the idea of Rosh HaShanah cards a little odd; Rosh HaShanah is a nervewracking time, by the lights of Jewish tradition. Classically, some even fasted on Rosh HaShanah, although that is no longer in halachic vogue. It's the Day of Judgment, books of living and the dead, angels trembling... So why are we sending happy cards full of smiling faces to each other?

לו איישר חילי, I would abolish them.

(Except for this cute card I received: "How's your New Year going?" "Shofar, so good!" I really enjoyed that one, Ralph.)

On the other hand, Yom Kippur cards make a lot of sense. This is, per the gemara at the end of Taanis, one of the greatest days on the Jewish calendar. We should walk through the day with a big smile (except when whacking ourselves on the heart for our sins; then, a grimace may be permitted).

We are all unified, we pray together, what could be better (aside from a big burger with fries)?

I could even see a sort of fill-in-the-blank Yom Kippur card, customizable to request or grant forgiveness for anything you choose:

Dear ____________________,

We have been thinking about the past year, and we regret some of the things we said and did. Specifically, we want to ask your forgiveness for:

(Here would be a big space for those who have a lot to list. Those who prefer not to list anything could draw a picture, or insert a family photograph.)

In contemplating the past year, we also recall some of the ___________ (intense adjective) things you did. Rest assured that we forgive you for those as well, even including:

(Again, feel to write as much or as little as you like.)

This coming year, we hope, will be a better one. Whether you are voting for the right candidate or the other one, whether you are making aliyah or joining American Friends of Peace Now, whether you are a fan of my team or any other, whether you are inviting me to your daughter’s Bat Mitzvah or not, whether you ___________________ or whether you ___________________, we pray that Gd will give all of us a happy and healthy new year.

Smile - it's Yom Kippur!



Perhaps Aish or NJOP will come up with one next year.

Until then: Have an easy and meaningful fast, צום קל ומועיל, and גמר חתימה טובה,

Daf: Gittin 73-78 – Divorce psychology

Avoiding preparing a derashah for Shabbos Haazinu, I will instead catch up a little more in these notes on Daf Yomi. There isn’t much here for the non-Daf reader, except perhaps for the note on Gittin 74a on the Talmud’s view of the psychology of divorce. If you are looking for more colorful material, may I suggest my post below on the Unity Kollel concept – and why I think we can already do this, in Israel.

Gittin 73b
The gemara gives examples of scenes one might witness, in which we would or wouldn’t be concerned that there was inappropriate sexual conduct. One of the cases is that we saw her “sleeping by the legs of his bed.” One of my Daffies noted the similarity to Ruth 3:14, where we also say nothing inappropriate happened.

Note that Abbaye here opposes changing editions in order to solve a problem. Elsewhere Abbaye is the one who offers an answer by changing an edition, and someone else (generally Rava) calls him on it.

Gittin 74a
Talmudic Psychology of Divorce: Rashi indicates here (אבל גט), based on the gemara, that in a normal case of divorce the husband does not wish to divorce his wife, but is compelled to do so. On the other hand, Rashi on Gitin 74b (דלצעורה איכוון) indicates that divorce arises from enmity.

Gittin 74b
This gemara’s account of Hillel’s enactment shows that the law of בתי ערי חומה (in which houses in Israeli walled cities may be reclaimed by their sellers, unilaterally, within a year of sale, by refunding the purchase price) was followed in the second Beit haMikdash. This is one of the proofs brought by Tosafot (בזמן) on Gittin 36a to show that all of the Yovel-related laws were practiced during the second Beit haMikdash. Ramban there, though, says it was practiced as a rabbinic law, not a biblical law. One practical ramification of this disagreement is in the question of how Prozbul works.

Gittin 75b
The gemara says Rav Huna quoted Rav, which is fine, but in the margin that is amended to Rav Huna quoting Rebbe. If so, I believe it should say משום רבי, not אמר רבי, since Rav Huna would not have met Rebbe.

The gemara presents an apparent conflict between our mishnah and a braita. Our mishnah says that if a woman’s get is conditional upon nursing a child, she must nurse the child for two years (the talmudic norm, per a gemara in Ketuvot). A braita, though, says she must only do it for a day in order to fulfill her condition.
Rava says there is no conflict – the braita is where no time was specified, the mishnah is where he specified two years. But I am confused: If such is the case, why would we need our mishnah? פשיטא, it would be obvious that two years would be the requirement!

Gittin 76a
One view in the gemara says that since the Torah goes out of its way to show both positive and negative language being used in many instances of contract conditions (such as regarding Reuven/Gad with Moshe, and the Sotah’s condition), that proves that this excessive language is not really needed for normal contracts. Had the Torah only stated it in one case, I would have said that the Torah meant for me to expand automatically to all other cases.
I am bothered by this proof – after all, some of the cited cases are simply citations of actual language, such as Avraham’s contract with Eliezer. Should the Torah have altered his language?

Gittin 77b
About ten lines up from the bottom, I think the word should be קיימה rather than קיימא – it is describing a woman standing in a yard.

Gittin 78a
Tosafot אינו is interesting.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Our blank spaces in the Torah (Derashah Yom Kippur 5769)

I like the strong images in this derashah - the blank parchment, the missing al cheit, the פסקא באמצע פסוק - but, overall, I consider this year's Kol Nidrei derashah, posted below, a better derashah. Part of it is that I prefer the passion of the Kol Nidrei derashah. See more in notes 2 & 3 at the end.

Just short of entering Israel, months away from escaping the desert, the Jews were attacked by a plague of serpents, a punishment for their harsh speech against Gd. Many died - until Moshe, as instructed by Gd, formed a copper statue of a serpent and placed it atop a pole. The nation looked heavenward and remembered to pray to Gd, and the plague stopped. Afterward, Moshe kept the copper serpent in order to remind the nation of the price of rebellion.

Fast-forward some six hundred years. The Jews were now living in that promised land. The Jews of the north strayed into Canaanite idolatry, but the Jews of the south, led by righteous kings, primarily followed the Torah. Then a small idolatrous sect sprang up around that copper serpent. The cult persisted until King Chizkiyah boldly destroyed that historic heirloom, the work of Moshe Rabbeinu’s own hands.

The sages of the Talmud were shocked: How could Chizkiyah have decided to destroy an historic treasure, the handiwork of Moshe, an artifact from the Torah itself? If the serpent was actually an idol, wouldn’t his predecessors, the righteous kings Yehoshafat and Asa, have destroyed it themselves?

To which the sages answered, מקום הניחו לו אבותיו להתגדר בו, Chizkiyah’s ancestors did wish to destroy the statue, but they held back in order to leave him a place to make his own mark, to apply the Torah’s principles to the world of his day. Chizkiyah was challenged, by his ancestors, to convert the Torah’s words into action, on his own.

A second story:
Moshe came down from Har Sinai with a set of Luchos/Tablets, and found the Jews celebrating with a Golden Calf. He smashed those Luchos, then prayed to Gd to forgive the Jews. Gd acquiesced, and told Moshe we would have another chance, on the very first Yom Kippur, to receive the Luchos. But Gd told Moshe, oddly, פסל לך, chisel these new tablets for yourself.

The sages explained that HaShem told Moshe, “Chisel out these precious stones, form the tablets, for yourself; you get to keep the valuable leftover material, to enrich yourself.”

I can’t take that midrash only literally, though; what use did Moshe have for gems? He had food, he had clothing, he had a place to live, there were no luxuries to buy! Gd knew that Moshe would never make it out of the desert, so there would be no future need, either!

So I would explain that talmudic passage homiletically: Gd enriched Moshe in that He gave Moshe the valuable space around the Torah’s letters.

The letters were HaShem’s message to the Jews; the stone around them, carved away, was the space left for Moshe to become Moshe Rabbeinu, to give his own counsel and lessons and guidance to the nation, to teach the nation how to apply HaShem’s words in their world, how to create a Jewish society.

מקום הניח לו למשה להתגדר בו, HaShem enriched Moshe with this opportunity in which to achieve greatness.

That opportunity for greatness, for applying the Torah to our lives, is not limited to Moshe - it is an opportunity for all of us, as codified in the laws of writing a Sefer Torah:

• Each letter in a Torah must be מוקף גויל, surrounded by parchment. No letter may run to the edge of the klaf, and no two letters may be joined.
• No word may run into the next, either; every word must be evenly spaced.
• Every פרשה, every paragraph, too, must be separated from the next by a prescribed space.

Those spaces - between letters, words and paragraphs - are our מקום להתגדר בו, the place in which we achieve greatness.

King Chizkiyah was meant to achieve greatness by eliminating an ancient idol.
Moshe was meant to achieve greatness by teaching the Jews how to apply the Torah.
Neither of those apply to us. So what greatness are we meant to achieve, what are supposed to be the contents of our spaces?

Based on the writings of Rambam and Ramban, those spaces are where we define and apply our social relationships.

Rambam wrote that the Torah’s mitzvah of “Love your neighbor as yourself” was meant to imply all of the ways we would find to implement that overall ethic. Gd gave us the starting point; we develop ways to implement this Divine instruction.

Ramban wrote, “אי אפשר להזכיר בתורה כל הנהגות האדם עם שכניו ורעיו, וכל משאו ומתנו ותקוני היישוב והמדינות כלם - It would be impossible to include in the Torah all of human social behavior and interactions, and the rules necessary for society and nations to function.” Therefore, the Torah mentioned some starting rules, such as “You shall not peddle gossip,” “You shall not take revenge or bear a grudge,” “You shall not stand by the blood of your brother,” “You shall not curse the deaf,” “Rise before the aged,” and then it gave us a general rule: ועשית הישר והטוב, Do what is just and good.

Love your neighbor, Practice the good and the just - that’s what is in those spaces. That’s what is in our spaces.

In our spaces, we recognize that our money is a means of aiding others, and use it to help the needy.
In our spaces, we recognize that we share our environment and resources with others, and we preserve and share them.
In our spaces, we recognize that all Jews are part of one family and one covenant, and we act on our special responsibility to each other.

This is our opportunity for greatness. As Yeshayah said in the haftorah moments ago, “Open the chains of wickedness, untie the yoke, let the oppressed go free… break your bread for the hungry, bring the desperate poor into your home, clothe the unclothed and do not turn away from your flesh.”

(See Note 1 below.)

But we all miss opportunities to fill those spaces. What’s worse, these opportunities, once missed, tend to disappear forever. As the Chafetz Chaim noted, we can repent for violating laws, but how will we repent for missing opportunities? Even if we regret our inaction, the opportunity is still lost, the person or persons who needed our help still didn’t receive it!

I call this “the missing Al Cheit.” The list of “al cheit” sins in our machzor includes apologies for all sorts of actions, but there is no apology for, “על חטא שחטאנו לפניך באי-פעולה, The sin we have committed before You, Gd, through inaction.” This “Al Cheit” is not there, because it would be useless; saying “I’m sorry” doesn’t change the fact that we failed to act; we cannot atone until we heal the abused worker, restore the wasted environment, give to the ignored pauper.

The 10th day of Tishrei, Yom Kippur, can’t do anything, can’t forgive anything, on its own, in these areas. Instead, we need to wake up the next day, tomorrow, the 11th of Tishrei, and use our power to transcend our past mistakes and live up to the charge of filling in those blank spaces in the Torah with our own ethical practices:
• To start speaking more positively about other people;
• To stop wasting the resources we all share;
• To use our money for others, rather than hoard it for ourselves.

Our ancestors had spaces of their own in the Torah; they, too, were given these opportunities for greatness. At Yizkor, especially on Yom Kippur when all of the living and deceased are judged and forgiven for their sins, we remember with love those parents, grandparents and other relatives who made good in their own chances to act. But those lives and their chances were cut off at some point.

In a few cases in the Torah, we find a פסקא באמצע פסוק, an abrupt break, a blank space, right in the middle of a sentence. This is what happens when a person dies - it is an abrupt break in mid-sentence, and all projects, acts of kindness, social interactions, all of them come to a full stop.

That abrupt break is a tragedy, a loss - but, after the grief, it becomes an opportunity. That is מקום הניחו לנו אבותינו, the place our ancestors left for us to work, to grow, to accomplish. Like Chizkiyah, like Moshe, like every generation of Jews and human beings, we have been given the ability and space to accomplish great things. Let’s not end up saying an impotent על חטא for inaction - rather, let’s follow Yeshayah’s charge, let’s follow the counsel of Rambam and Ramban, let’s pick up where our ancestors and relatives left off, and so earn a גמר חתימה טובה.

1. I also used this derashah to talk about Agriprocessors/Rubashkin (where I wrote "See Note 1 below"), but I have not included it here because the derashah is better without it. I only did it in shul to address specific questions which have come up locally.

2. One of the reasons I'm not 100% thrilled with this derashah is the homiletic regarding Moshe and the leftover material from the luchos. To me, pshat in the leftover material is, indeed, that it was to enrich Moshe. What I did here is within normal homiletic bounds, but I don't really like doing it.

3. Another reason I'm not 100% comfortable: I like my derashos to be less abstract, more concrete in their recommendations.

4. Some sources: The gemara on Chizkiyah is Chullin 6b-7a. Gd's gift to Moshe is in Yerushalmi Shekalim 5:2. The Rambam's note is in Mishneh Torah Hilchos Avel 14:1, and Ramban's note is on Devarim 6:18 - ועשית הישר והטוב. The Chafetz Chaim's quote came from a biography of his, I don't recall which one anymore. It might have been in כל כתבי.

Teach me to look, Teach me to feel (Kol Nidrei 5769)

Once there was a pauper who went door to door, begging for money with which to support himself, his wife, and his two children. In his youth he had worked lugging firewood and well-water, but age now kept him from those tasks, and so, every day, he rose early in the morning and began his rounds, walking from home to home, from town to town, absorbing abuse, eating little if anything, until he returned home at the end of the day with a few coins.

One night, as the pauper slept, he dreamed that he was now king. But where we might have expected this to be a happy dream for that poor man, it was actually a nightmare. “My Gd!” he wailed in the dream. “As it is now, I go door to door, town to town, just to get some small amount of food for my family! How will I ever beg for enough money to be able to support my soldiers, to maintain a palace, to run a government?!”

Rav Klonymus Kalman Shapiro told this story in order to make a point regarding the way our minds work.

Rav Shapiro, the Piaseczner Rebbe, was one of the leaders of Polish Jewry before the Holocaust. He led a yeshiva, where he argued for modernizing educational methods to meet the needs of his generation’s youth. He said that each child must be taught “a vision of his own potential greatness,” and be “an active participant in his own development.”

Then came the war, though. Rav Shapiro lost his only son, his daughter-in-law and his sister-in-law, in the Nazi bombing of Warsaw. After the Nazi invasion he was interned in the Warsaw Ghetto, until the Ghetto was liquidated; while in the Ghetto he wrote an intense work, אש קודש, his most famous book, acknowledging and addressing the suffering and the religious doubts of Jews around him in the ghetto. When the Ghetto was liquidated he was transferred to the Trawniki work camp, until he was shot to death, along with the rest of the Jews there, on November 3, 1943.

While in the Ghetto, this giant of spirituality, who understood so much of life, was approached by young men who wished to refine their spiritual awareness, their sensitivity to holiness in their lives. In response, he wrote a book called בני מחשבה טובה, “The Conscious Community.” A translation is even available on-line.

In this book, Rav Shapiro described our own insensitivity to Gd, and to that which is godly in our lives and in our actions. He presented the story of that foolish pauper to make the point that we don’t see Gd, we don’t notice a bedrock layer of our existence, because our minds are focussed elsewhere.

That pauper in Rav Shapiro’s story lives in a world in which people earn money by begging - and he cannot envision any other way he might function. He is only aware of his box, his experiences, and is unable to transcend that life.

We are similarly limited; in our box we focus on what we can see, hear and touch, in which actions are everything and thoughts matter only insofar as they lead to action - so that many of us cannot see Gd in a waterfall or a sunset, cannot envision the value and impact of a mood or a moment of inspiration, cannot sense the spirituality involved in eating, in talking, or even in davening.

But Rav Shapiro offered a simple psychological prescription to treat our limitedness, to broaden our box. Rav Shapiro wrote, “In order to serve God, a Jew needs …to expand his thought, and to be able to feel passionately.” In other words: We need to open our minds, and we need to open our hearts.

Rav Shapiro charged his followers and readers to take advantage of strong emotions we feel at various moments. Whether the joy of a business deal that went well or the pain of a stock price that plummeted, whether the laughter of seeing a small child playing or the sorrow of attending a funeral, in these many moments we feel the beginnings of passion. So Rav Shapiro argued that rather than do the socially acceptable thing and bury the passion and move on, we need to build that emotion, so that our minds become trained and sensitized to feeling more powerfully, more acutely. Once we introduce these strong feelings into our box, we will be able to summon that passion whenever we wish.

At that stage, we will enter into prayer and envision the things that matter most to us - our most vivid fears and concerns and loves and worries. We will be open to feeling, really feeling, the illnesses and economic needs and loves and relationships and remorse and repentance that are on our minds and in our hearts. Then we will look at the words of our prayers and realize that we are standing before Gd, Gd who hears all weeping, that it’s okay for us to pray, to sing, to cry, to feel.

Tonight, with as much emotion as our box permits us to muster, we will recite our private Amidah, and the Ashamnu/Bagadnu and Al Cheit paragraphs in which we enumerate our wrongdoings. We will be invited to cast aside foolish justifications and rationalizations, and reflect honestly - and passionately! - on the lives we have lived.

We will continue with the statement, “עד שלא נוצרתי איני כדאי, ועכשיו שנוצרתי כאילו לא נוצרתי, Before I was created I was unworthy, and now that I have been created, it is as though I had not been created.” We will have the opportunity to demand of ourselves: “Is the world a better place for our presence? How much have I accomplished, in the great mission that is my life? Do I even know what that mission is?”

We will recite apologetic Selichos, in which we will describe ourselves as clay in the hands of the potter, and begin the humble acknowledgement that, no, we did not create ourselves, that we are not the ultimate rulers of our lives.

In those Selichos we will cast Gd not in the role of judge, but in the role of plaintiff, of wounded party, recognizing that we have a relationship, that Gd cares what we do, watches us, and longs for our repentance.

We will quote psukim from the Torah which identify Gd as merciful, invoking in particular the 13 attributes of Divine mercy, the ways in which Gd is prepared to welcome us back.

And we will cap that with Avinu Malkeinu, a prayer which begins with the frank admission, “אבינו מלכנו חטאנו לפניך, Our Father and King, we have sinned before You.”

These prayers contain so much which could resonate within us and call forth our emotions -
• so much which speaks to our own rarely-acknowledged misgivings about our behavior;
• so much which addresses our relationship with a Gd we can neither see nor touch, but who shapes our lives;
• so much which underlies our spiritual lives and the goals we have for ourselves and our families.
• Individual passages like “אנו סגולתך ואתה אלקינו, We are Your treasure and You are our Gd.”
• Thematic poems like “כי הנה כחומר ביד היוצר,” placing our trust in that Gd who shapes our lives.
• Biblical passages which pledge that our records, though red with sin, may yet be whitened of wrongdoing.

All of these have the power to evoke strong emotion - if only we will allow and encourage it.

In April 2007, the Washington Post staged a psychological experiment in a Washington DC subway station. They hired world-class violinist Joshua Bell, dressed him in jeans, a T-shirt and a baseball cap, and had him play in the station, like any other subway musician. Bell ordinarily plays to sold-out concert halls; just a week after his foray into subway symphonics, he played a sold-out concert at Boston Symphony Hall, where the cheapest tickets would have set you back $100. He played not a cheap fiddle, but a three million dollar Stradivarius violin. The goal of the Washington Post’s experiment was to see whether anyone would stop, would take notice of Bell’s beautiful artistry, would allow themselves to be emotionally drawn by music acknowledged as among the world’s best.

Well, if the Washington Post’s findings are any indication, we’re in trouble. Joshua Bell played for 43 minutes. 1070 commuters passed his way; you can see the video of it on YouTube. Out of those 1070 commuters, 27 gave money, totally thirty-two dollars and change. Only 7 stopped what they were doing for more than a minute, to listen. Almost no one stopped, almost no one allowed themselves to feel something.

However, tonight, here, we have some advantages that they did not have in the experiment.
Tonight we read the Joshua Bell of our liturgy not in a DC subway station but in a beautiful shul, not distracted by work or school or food but focussed on fasting and repentance, not buffeted by rushing commuters but surrounded and reinforced by others who are doing just what we are.

Tonight we can allow ourselves - and push ourselves - to be moved.

As Rav Shapiro wrote:
Know how to look. Know how to look at everything that is occurring within you and outside of you…
We have many feelings that flow shallowly and weakly. If we broaden such feelings and bring them into full being, they will turn into a great river whose waters, with those of its tributaries, will never run dry. But if we do not expand these feelings, they will disappear without ever having seen the light of the sun…
Therefore, we advise you: Teach yourself to look.

Tonight, let’s not imitate the foolish pauper and the Washington DC commuters; rather, let’s follow the counsel of Rav Klonymous Kalman Shapiro, and teach ourselves to look, to listen, to sing, to feel, to daven for real, and so earn a Gmar Chasimah Tovah.

1. My goal at Kol Nidrei is to help myself daven. If others benefit, so much the better. I don't even use it to discuss teshuvah in any direct way; I really focus on prayer.

2. The Joshua Bell experiment, and its potential tie-in to the work of R' Shapiro, was brought to my attention in a "drasha nugget" shared by Rabbi Marc Spivak with other rabbis, through the CJF's Yarchei Kallah resources.

3. The on-line translation of בני מחשבה טובה is available here. The Joshua Bell experiment is available here.

4. Of course, one may build up strong emotion and use it entirely inappropriately, not to react to Gd but to react to any other stimulus! This advice would fit equally well in a cult environment. That troubles me, but not so much that I wouldn't recommend the method for Jewish sensitivity and growth as well.

5. Added note, courtesy of a reader, Devorah: Seems that the Bell experiment was not the first time it was done; violinist Jacques Gordon did it in Chicago in 1930. For more see here.

Monday, October 6, 2008

The Unity Kollel - Let's do it in Israel

I'm going to ramble here a bit, as I continue to not write my Yom Kippur derashah. The fact that right after Yom Kippur we have a Bar Mitzvah here, followed by Succos, followed by Shabbos Chol haMoed, followed by Shemini Atzeres/Simchas Torah, is, oddly enough, not helping me concentrate on work...

My friend Alan Krinsky posted an essay on his Achrayus blog this past July proposing, among other things, a Unity Kollel, which he described as “centers of Jewish education and outreach consciously designed to include members from different Hashkafos.”

Alan continued to say, “Imagine if we created a kollel, and learning and teaching together we could find, just for example, a YU graduate, a Ner Yisrael grad, someone from a Chasidic group, and an individual from an explicitly Religious Zionist institution? Imagine the dynamic learning that would go on in such a kollel, and the effect such a group would have in outreach to the community!”

It’s a fascinating concept, albeit a non-starter. It’s a non-starter because the core members of some of those groups actually believe that the core members of some of the other groups are fundamentally and irredeemably wrong, on a level such that it would be a halachic violation to support, or in any way endorse, each other’s existence and appeal.

I'm not a pessimist; it's just that, L’havdil, this endeavor would be like asking Roman Catholic priests to study in equal partnership with Episcopalian priests; the idea would be anathema to them.

Of course, each group has members who are more tolerant and less certain of their own monopoly on truth, but those individuals don’t truly represent the group. The hardcore ideology of each group is exclusive of the others – and, again, on an halachic level.

Now, since Yom Kippur is coming up, someone may well protest that at Kol Nidrei we say, “אנו מתירין להתפלל עם העבריינים,” explicitly saying we will pray with the sinners? Surely, then, we could learn with them!

But this argument would be incorrect, on two levels:
First, that line is not really meant to welcome sinners. Rather, it’s meant to welcome in people who had been excommunicated by the community, and it’s contingent upon their having “seen the light” and repented.
Second, that’s a Yom Kippur tefillah in which the ausvorfen (oisvorfen? my yiddish is terrible) are explicitly labelled as sinners; that’s not the same thing as creating a joint beis medrash in which all will participate equally. If anything, use of the “sinners” label actually proves my point.

To return to the Unity Kollel, though: I’m not sure it’s necessary.

If our goal is, as Alan writes, Unity and an end to baseless hatred, perhaps we could try, instead, for a Unity supermarket. Or a Unity office building. Or a Unity city. A New Square planned with different groups living together in the same metropolitan area. Some space in which the different groups interact and, hopefully, learn to like each other.

Oh, wait. I think that exists. It’s Yerushalayim, right?

So perhaps the answer is for all of us to make aliyah, and work on developing our Unity City (or Unity Cities) there…

PS According to legend, the beit midrash of Yeshivat Kerem b’Yavneh was, originally, to be a “Unity Kollel” beit midrash. As I heard it when I was in yeshiva there, the beit midrash and campus were designed with various corners to encourage each of the European yeshivos to come set up shop in the beit midrash there, in its own niche. Can anyone confirm that legend?

Daf: Gittin 65-70 – Demonology, Rabbi Akiva, Talmudic medicine, More Demonology

Another installment of notes on Daf Yomi, falling farther and farther (further and further?) behind… If this isn’t your thing, check back later; I expect to post my thoughts on an interesting Unity Kollel concept.

Gittin 65b
The mishnah said that if a woman who is married to a kohen tells someone, “Receive my get in Location X,” she may eat terumah, as a fully married woman, until her agent arrives in Location X. In discussing the case, the gemara asks what would happen if the agent received the get in some other location, and ends up discussing a case in which she tells her agent, “Receive the get wherever you can, but it won’t be a get until you arrive in Location X.” This is problematic, though – for we require a specific act of transfer to validate the get, and the transfer into her possession doesn’t take place in Location X!
Tosafot גיטא suggests the somewhat convoluted explanation that she told her agent to tell the husband to appoint him as a delivery agent for the husband until he arrives in Location X, and then in Location X he will become the wife’s receiving agent. Alternatively, he acts as a receiving agent for an extended act of receiving, through the duration of that trip to Location X.

Gittin 66a

How are we to understand the demonology in the gemara's question here (“Should I be concerned that the voice in the pit saying ‘Divorce my wife for me’ is that of a demon?”), affecting this most practical area of law? Theoretically one could understand it as a matter of hallucination, and the gemara’s concern is that the passerby hallucinates seeing an outline in a pit and imagines hearing voices. However, this is hard to fit into the general framework of talmudic demonology.

Gittin 66b

Presumably, in the middle of the page, it should be משום רבי and not אמר רבי – Shemuel did not study under Rebbe, but could have cited things he learned in Rebbe’s name.

Gittin 67a
The gemara comments that Rabbi Akiva was like an אוצר בלום, a storehouse in which all items are stored in proper compartments (see Rashi on אוצר בלום). Rashi notes the division of R’ Akiva’s learning into the different bodies of midrash: Sifri, Sifra, etc.
It is worth noting that Rabbi Akiva’s students (the latter set, after the plague) ended up being the ones to record these bodies of midrash. There are a few different versions of the list of R’ Akiva’s students, but all versions include at least some of the names listed in Sanhedrin 86 as editors of those bodies of midrash: Rabbi Meir (teacher of Rebbe who edited the mishnah, and author of unattributed mishnayot), Rabbi Shimon (editor of Sifri), Rabbi Yehudah (editor of Sifra), Rabbi Nechemyah (editor of Tosefta) and Rabbi Yosi (editor of Seder Olam).

Gittin 67b

The gemara now begins a long record of medicines and therapies. Note Rav Hai Gaon’s teshuvah to students who wanted to implement these medicines; he strongly forbade it, saying that the sages were recording the medicine of their day, and it should not be used. I could discuss this much more, but some other time.

Some of the medicines and therapies we see here look very odd to us, but recall the gemara in Shabbat, regarding amulets: They only trusted treatments which they had seen work three times in a row, without an intervening failure. They were using classic empirical methods.

Gittin 68a
Here we get into some serious demonology. Note that Rav Hai Gaon - in a teshuvah – attributes talmudic demonology, which is more prevalent in the Babylonian Talmud than in the Talmud Yerushalmi, to influence of other cultures. He explains its relative sparseness in Yerushalmi as a result of being farther from Persian society.

Tosafot וכתיב notes that we have a speaker in the day of Shlomo haMelech quoting a pasuk which won’t appear for centuries, until the time of Hosheia! But he explains that the concept of the pasuk was knownlong before the prophecy in which it was recorded.

Gittin 70b
Tosafot וניחוש at the bottom of the page clearly indicates that our assumption, in handling agunah cases, must be on the side that will result in freeing an agunah. Note that he takes Rashi's definition of "agunah," that the husband is known and present but is not living with her in the manner of husband and wife (over Rashba's explanation that an agunah is a woman who is unsure whether or not she is married).

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Judging by the calls I’m getting, I think this is an Obama Nation

[Haveil Havalim is out here.]

While I should be writing my Yom Kippur day derashah…

All right, I just hung up after my third call from an Obama campaign staffer - third in the past five days, that is. That, and I had a visit to my door yesterday, from a polite woman who immediately apologized when I explained it was my Sabbath. And I’ve been invited to an Obama Jewish Community Leadership Committee of the Lehigh Valley meeting for tomorrow night, with a fellow named Daniel Shapiro, billed as Senior Policy Advisor for Senator Barack Obama. (Can't make it - I'm too busy not writing my derashot, as you can see...)

No McCainers have called yet, though; rather surprising for a swing state like Pennsylvania, and the third-largest region therein. And, yes, I’m one of those supervoters the campaigns target. Where are they?!

Obama’s grassroots support here is strong, while McCain’s is invisible.

Of course, this little piece of anecdotal evidence doesn’t mean anything in the greater scheme of electoral politics, but it does cement my personal sense that this election is over; if they're not contesting Pennsylvania, what are they going to contest? Arizona??

The other piece of evidence is the way that McCain/Palin have resorted to Bill Ayers and similar personal attacks. If that’s the best you have, then the Republican campaign chest is as bankrupt as AIG and Lehman Brothers. This campaign could and should be won on issues and policies, whether Iraq and Afghanistan and North Korea and Iran or Wall Street and Healthcare and Energy Policy and the Environment, not on Bill Ayers.

So even if America is, by nature, a country of people who favor small government, limited taxation and government spending, and less regulation in every area, - and I believe it is - I still think we’re going to see a serious vote in favor of Obama/Biden, because of eight years of GWB and because of the Republican camp’s failure to present serious policies to clean up the current domestic and foreign mess.

I think we’re looking at a landslide, a spread on the order of 55%-45% or more nationwide. The pollsters with their six-to-eight-point spreads are actually erring conservatively.

I don’t know whether to be happy or sad about this. I am glad Sarah Palin won’t be Vice President; she’s fun to watch, but I’m not particularly into electing people for the sake of entertainment, even if it is “just” the Vice Presidency. Four years of Dan Quayle in the national news was enough, thank you, and even returning SNL to the ranks of the funny is just not enough to justify it.

I’m Mordechai Torczyner, and I am not endorsing any candidate.