Sunday, November 30, 2008

Reward and Punishment and Pirkei Avot

I teach a weekly class on Jewish Ethics, and for the past few months we've been looking at the ethical ideals taught in Pirkei Avot, tracing them to their roots in Tanach and then discussing their applications.

This week we're starting to look at how we use Divine reward and punishment as an incentive for our own ethical behavior, or that of our children. In preparing it, I was surprised to realize just how much of Pirkei Avot is devoted to discussing reward and punishment.

Here are the passages which deal directly with Reward and Punishment, whether via Divine intervention or natural consequence (numbering from the Bar Ilan CD version):

Reassurance of general reward
2:2 - Gd will reward you as if you had done everything
2:14 - Gd is credible to reward you
2:15 - Gd is pressing you to act, and there is great reward coming
2:16 - If you will achieve a lot, you will receive great reward, and Gd is credible to reward you
3:5 - If you will accept the yoke of torah, other yokes will be removed from you
3:15 - Your reward is based on your deeds
3:16 - The parable of Gd as proprietor of a business
4:9 - One who fulfills Torah from a position of poverty will fulfill it from a position of wealth
4:10 - Gd has great reward to give you if you work hard at Torah
4:11 - One who performs a mitzvah creates an agent for himself
4:14 - We do not understand why the righteous suffer
4:16 - Prepare in this world for the next (the Hallway parable)
4:17 - Contrasts the satisfaction of the next world with the satisfaction of this world
5:1 - Reward for the righteous who build this world
5:2 - Avraham received great reward for repairing the deeds of the previous generations
5:19 - The students of Avraham benefit in this world and the next
5:23 - Reward is commensurate with investment

Reassurance of general punishment
1:6 - Do not abandon the belief in ultimate punishment
4:9 - One who fails to fulfill Torah from a position of wealth will fail to fulfill it from a position of poverty
4:11 - One who transgresses creates an agent against himself
4:14 - We do not understand why the wicked prosper
4:22 - There is no escape from punishment in the grave
5:1 - Punishment for wicked people who destroy this world
5:19 - The students of Bilam suffer in this world and the next

Statements that specific good deeds will be rewarded
2:7 - When you acquire Torah you acquire life in the next world
3:2 - Gd even rewards a person who sits and studies alone
3:13 - Tithes are a way to protect one's wealth
4:6 - One who honors Torah will be honored by others
5:14 - Reward for study, and for travelling to study
5:20 - One who is modest will earn Gan Eden

Statements that specific bad deeds will be punished
2:6 - You drowned others, and so you will be drowned
3:8 - One who willfully forgets his learning is liable for his life
3:11 - One who "reveals aspects of Torah" against halachah has no share in the next world
4:4 - Punishment for private desecration of Gd's Name
5:8-9 - Specific punishments for specific sins
5:18 - There is no forgiveness for one who causes others to sin
5:20 - One who is brazen will end up in Gehennom

We should use reward as an incentive for mitzvot
2:1 - Work at all mitzvot, because you don’t know the reward of mitzvot
2:1 - Calculate the reward and loss involved in each mitzvah
2:4 - Nullify your will for Gd's, so that Gd will nullify His will for yours

We should use punishment-aversion as an incentive for Torah-observance
2:1 - Remember that Gd records your deeds, and you won’t sin
2:1 - Calculate the reward and loss involved in each transgression
3:1 - You won’t sin if you remember that you will have to give an accounting before Gd

Do not pursue reward here for mitzvot
1:3 - Do not be as servants who serve their master on the condition that they will receive reward, but rather be as servants who serve their master without the condition that they will receive reward
1:13 - One who uses the crown of Torah for his own gain will pass on
2:12 - All of your deeds should be for the sake of heaven
4:5 - One who benefits from Torah is liable for his life

1. I did not include passages on certain tendencies or transgressions "removing a person from this world," because I am not sure that this refers to punishment or suffering. I know you could similarly quibble with some of the passages I did include here, but I trust the trends are clear.

2. I did not include the sixth chapter, because, as is known, it isn't.

Why does Pirkei Avot, an ethical work, expend so much energy on our expectation of reward?

To be continued, perhaps, with my answers to that question... [Part II is now up here.]

Newsworthy tzniut?

[Haveil Havalim is here!]

This morning, while driving home from minyan, I heard a report on the radio (WKYW-Philadelphia) about a couple, both abstinence educators, who were married this weekend. The reporter observed, in tones of astonishment, that the couple had never mated, never kissed, never watched a movie lying down together, never even been alone in a house together.

Yes, apparently in a world of Mumbai terror attacks, a depressed economy, a presidency in transition, Thanksgiving celebrations, and trampled Wal-Mart workers, these topics - kiruv basar/yichud (non-marital physical contact/seclusion) - are still worthy of a headline.

I went on-line and found this report at the AP website:

CHICAGO (AP) — Won't kiss on the first date? How about waiting until marriage?

Chicagoans Melody LaLuz and Claudaniel Fabien shared their first kiss Saturday at the altar. The two teach abstinence at the city's public schools and practiced what they preached to their teenage students.

The Chicago Tribune reports that the couple had never kissed and that they had never been alone together in a house.

A friend of LaLuz says wedding guests cheered and stomped during the two-minute smooch between the 28-year-old bride and the 30-year-old groom.

LaLuz and Fabien say they have no worries about how they will spend their honeymoon in the Bahamas.

Technically, of course, this is not tzniut; Tzniut is privacy. A two-minute public smooch, not to mention the explicit declarations about their evening and honeymoon plans that made it into other reports of the happy occasion, do not qualify as private. [And don't get me started on the crude adages that made it into the radio report - "Try before you buy" on one side, and "You can't drive the car off the lot until you pay for it" on the other.]

Nonetheless, this happy couple did buck the cultural trend and observe some elements of the practices mandated by Judaism. For that I can salute them.

As to the reporter, well, perhaps he could use some time out of mainstream American and European culture to observe the way other societies do things.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Rivkah, Mumbai, and Us: Why me? (Derashah Toldot 5769)

Even in India;
Even in the middle of what is fundamentally a war between Muslim and Hindu;
Even when the terrorists, Deccan Mujahideen or Indian Mujahideen, make demands not about Palestine and imprisoned Hamas terrorists but about Kashmir and about Muslim prisoners in Indian jails;
the death toll still includes Jews, in a Jewish center, targeted months in advance because they are Jews.

Rivka’s anguished cry, from the beginning of this week’s parshah, is echoed in our mouths, generations later: אם כן, למה זה אנכי? If this is the way it is to be, Gd, then why me?

Rivkah, plucked from her home in Aram, is childless with her husband Yitzchak for twenty years. She pleads with Gd for a child; ויעתר is the verb the Torah uses for her prayer, a term which literally means, “she turned with a pitchfork.” She twisted and turned in her angst. And then Gd responded and she conceived - but she felt great pain in the pregnancy.

The pain drove Rivkah not to a medical healer, but to Gd, because she took her infertility and then her difficult pregnancy as a definitive sign from Gd: You are not worthy. She cried out, אם כן למה זה אנכי, "Then why did You pick me?! I’m not like Avraham and Sarah, who came to you themselves. I’m not like Yitzchak, who was born into this. Maybe I’m not worthy, because I’m not great. Maybe it’s because of my parents, my brother Lavan, who are not worthy. But You Picked Me, Gd - so why are You putting me through this?"

And this has been the cry of Jews since time immemorial. Under the lash and boot of Egyptians and Assyrians and Babylonians, crushed by Greek and Persian and Roman and Byzantine, murdered by Christian and Muslim and atheist, the Jew has cried out, למה זה אנכי, Why me? בכל דוד עומדים עלינו לכלותנו, in every generation they rise up against us, to kill us. Why me?

And there is an answer as well, a Divine response which lacks the sheer force of Rivkah’s protest, but which nonetheless speaks to her and to us with a Divine logic borne out by the evidence of our history, generation by generation.

Gd tells Rivkah, שני גויים בבטנך, there are two nations in your womb. Two nations are going to emerge and separate, and one is going to be greater than the other, and the elder will serve the younger. This is going to be a problem, to say the least - how will the right one survive? How will the right one receive the blessings he is supposed to be receive?

You, Rivkah, were picked with a definite plan in mind. You learned how to deal with cunning when you grew up with Lavan, you displayed your great heart when you helped Eliezer at the well, and you demonstrated your strength when you overrode your family and agreed to come to Canaan with Eliezer. You, Rivkah, have the ability to deal with these two children, you have the heart to embrace an Esav, the strength to promote Yaakov over him, and the cunning to make it happen.

Why you? Because you are uniquely suited to the task.

This is the answer for the Jew across the generations, as well. It is you because you have the stubborn courage to refuse to die or assimilate. More, it is you because you have the wits and guts to flourish despite every attempt to subdue you.

The “lachrymose theory of Jewish history,” as Salo Baron labelled it, fails to do justice to the story of our generations. Yes, there were Romans who destroyed the Beis haMikdash, but there were also Yavneh and Tzippori as well as exiled communities which survived and thrived. Yes, there were Crusades, but there were also Jewish communities in France and Germany and points east and south which survived and thrived. Yes, there were Inquisition and Expulsion, but there were also Jewish communities in Tzfat and Turkey and Holland and Brazil which survived and thrived. And yes, there was a Holocaust, but there were also Jewish communities in Israel and America which survived and thrived.

For every moment when we have cried out, למה זה אנכי, Why me, the answer has been, Because you can.

This is not a comforting answer; it does not explain why anyone must suffer, it does not explain the inhumanity of humanity, it does not explain why Gd watches without bringing a halt to the bloodshed - but Rivkah is not someone who seeks comfort. Rivkah helped Eliezer at the well not for the sake of riches or reward, but because she knew it to be the right thing to do. Rivkah left her family homeland without a comforting Divine promise. Rivkah calculatingly deprived her elder son of his blessing, knowing all along the pain it would bring him. Rivkah is not concerned with comfort; she only wants to know that there is a plan, that there is a למה, a reason why. It is this reason Why, that HaShem provides for Rivkah, and for us.

At the end of our Haftorah, Malachi speaks of two others who were “chosen” for special missions - Aharon and Pinchas. Both of them had reason to ask למה זה אנכי, Why Me. Aharon lost two sons. Pinchas suffered attacks and alienation for his lineage and for his actions in killing Zimri. But each of them had a unique mission, Aharon to be Moshe’s prophet and to be the prototypical Kohen, and Pinchas to lead, across generations, with fire and strength - and HaShem said of them, “Because they fulfilled My mission, בריתי היתה אתו, החיים והשלום,” “My covenant is with them - for life and for peace.”

May the victims in Mumbai, and all of us as well, come to know that covenant of life and peace as well.

1. This was the best I could do to address the topic today; I hope it will help someone deal with it. Thanks to Rabbi Yonah Gross of Phoenix for catalyzing the idea.

2. It is popular to translate Rivkah's question as, "Why do I have to suffer?" but that reads in the word "to suffer," which is not in the sentence. For more on this go here. Clearly, this version of the question better fits the Divine reply.

3. Ibn Ezra (Malachi 2:6) says that Malachi 2:5-2:7 refer to Aharon and Pinchas.

4. I love Salo Baron's view of the "lachrymose theory of Jewish history." I can't stand Jewish education which focuses on how much we have suffered; far better to talk about how much we have built, despite our enemies!

Can't get my mind off Nariman/Chabad House in Mumbai - and Google Trends

I can't get going today.

I couldn't get anything done last night, either; I stayed up way too late trying to develop a derashah for Shabbos, and came up empty-handed. I keep going back to Mumbai.

Part of it is the fault of Twitter. I never really used it before, but now, by searching Twitter for Chabad - or, more successfully, for Nariman - I was able to get second-by-second reports, from India, on what was going on. Forget CNN and all the others; this was, literally, second-by-second.

So I got nothing done - nothing of substance, and nothing bloggy either. I had a few blog posts in mind during the last few days, but I didn't end up writing any of them; the funny ones felt inappropriate for my mood, and the serious ones felt less-than-relevant.

(It's too bad; I was drafting a good one on "Top Ten Reasons why Thanksgiving is not a Jewish Holiday." Items like, "No limitations on what you eat, and when," and "Stores give away holiday fixings for free, instead of raising the price astronomically." Maybe next year.)

All of which means that now it's mid-morning on Friday and I still don't have a derashah. I've been mulling a bunch of ideas:
*Yaakov's anxiety and HaShem's admonition to Yaakov to have no fear;
*Esav degrading the birthright by walking away and us degrading our birthright when we live outside of Israel;
*The parallels between the story of Esav and Yaakov and the food at the start of the parshah, and the story of the Jews wanting food from Esav's descendants, Edom, when they enter Israel;
*The three meals of the parshah - the lentils, the peace meal with Avimelech, and the meal for Yitzchak;
*The way Yitzchak is described, in close proximity and with the same terminology, as loving Esav and loving food.
Lots of interesting ideas - but no derashah.

And I just looked at Google Trends, to see how people are looking at what's going on in Mumbai - only to discover that Mumbai doesn't crack this morning's Top 10 searches. Here's the list, if you can believe it:

1. o.h.m.s.
3. gina carano pics
4. synchronicity foundation
5. black friday online deals
6. rush propst
7. apple store
8. barry manilow
10. staples coupons


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The six inches in front of your face

The other day, I happened across Al Pacino's "Game of Inches" monologue from Any Given Sunday. I was floored, it's so good; what mussar! I'm a sucker for blood-and-guts inspirational monologues.

Here's the transcript, which really doesn't do Pacino's voice, emphasis and heart justice. (You can find a video here; note that it includes profanity.)

I don’t know what to say really.

Three minutes till the biggest battle of our professional lives; all comes down to today. Either we heal as a team or we’re gonna crumble. Inch by inch, play by play, till we’re finished. We’re in hell right now gentlemen. Believe me. And, we can stay here and get the s* kicked out of us, or we can fight our way back, into the light. We can climb out of hell. One inch at a time.

Now, I can’t do it for you. I’m too old. I look around and I see these young faces and I think. I mean, I made every wrong choice a middle-aged man can make. I p*ed away all my money, believe it or not. I chased off anyone who has ever loved me. And, lately, I can’t even stand the face I see in the mirror.

You know, when you get old in life, things get taken away from you. That’s part of life. But, you only learn that when you start losing stuff. You find out life’s this game of inches. So is football. Because in either game, life or football, the margin for error is so small. I mean, one half step too early or too late and you don’t quite make it. One half-second too slow or too fast and you don’t quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us. They’re in every break of the game; every minute, every second.

On this team, we fight for that inch. On this team we tear ourselves and everyone else around us to pieces for that inch. We claw with our fingernails for that inch. Because we know when we add up all those inches, that’s what gonna make the f*ing difference between winning - and losing. Between living - and dying.

I’ll tell you this: In any fight, it’s the guy who’s willing to die who’s gonna win that inch. And I know if I’m gonna have any life anymore, it’s because I’m still willing to fight and die for that inch. Because that’s what living is. The six inches in front of your face.

Now I can’t make you do it. You have to look at the guy next to you. Look into his eyes. Now I think you're gonna see a guy who will go that inch with you. You're gonna see a guy who will sacrifice himself for this team because he knows when it comes down to it; you're gonna do the same for him.

That’s a team gentlemen. And, either we heal, now as a team, or we will die as individuals. That’s football, guys. That’s all it is.

Now, what are you gonna do ?

One funny thing, though - when Pacino says "I know if I’m gonna have any life anymore, it’s because I’m still willing to fight and die for that inch. Because that’s what living is," I hear Stallone/Rocky telling his son in Rocky Balboa, "But it ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get it and keep moving forward. How much you can take, and keep moving forward. That's how winning is done!"

My imagination? Coincidence? Or imitation, the sincerest form of flattery?

Monday, November 24, 2008

Four items from today

Just four quick items that I found interesting today...

1) I taught a Navi (Prophets) class at noon; we were looking at the first chapter in Yehoshua.

I love this chapter; it’s loaded with emotion and psychology, as well as the greater Jewish mission and legacy.
Count up the number of times Moshe is named vs. the number of times Yehoshua is named, and how.
Note the iteration and reiteration of חזק ואמץ, Be strong and courageous.
Study the descriptions of Moshe as servant of Gd, and Yehoshua as servant of Moshe.
And much, much more.

But the end of the chapter gives me a great kick - the tribes of Reuven, Gad and (semi-)Menashe pledge loyalty to Yehoshua, saying, “As long as Gd is with you as He was with Moshe, we will follow you in the same way we follow Moshe.”

Talk about an undesirable pledge of support - what does Yehoshua think when he hears those words? Does he have visions of Meraglim, Korach, Eldad and Meidad?!

2) I taught a class in Sefer Chasidim (Rabbi Yehudah haChasid), and we came across a remarkable exchange. I love the stories in Sefer Chasidim; I don’t always understand them, but he has such a love for irony and humor.

In this particular story, one student prays, “May it be Gd’s will that my wife conceive, if the baby will live. If the baby will not live, may it be Gd’s will that she not conceive.” Then another student prays, simply, “May it be Gd’s will that my wife conceive.”

The former student turns to the latter and points out that the Shunamite woman whose son appears to have died says she would have preferred never to have been pregnant in the first place!

To which the latter replies, “Right now, I pray for conception. Once there is a child, I will pray for survival.”

3) Tonight I was learning Daat Tevunot (R’ Moshe Chaim Luzzatto; Ramchal) with a chavrusa, and we encountered his description of Mazal. I must preface that I generally find Ramchal to be very heavy, and I sense that I am not grasping even one-tenth of what he is trying to convey.

According to this philosopher, Gd sometimes runs the world with reward and punishment, but at other times Gd shifts gears and acts based on whatever will bring about the ultimate improvement of the universe, even if that does not fit the general pattern of reward and punishment. This is what is called “Mazal.”

Through this Ramchal has found a way to explain the gemara’s use of “Mazal” (as in, “Children, lifespan and livelihood are not dependent upon merit, but upon Mazal” - Moed Katan 28a) as something which is not chance, but rather is very much within Divine control.

But Ramchal is clearly very uncomfortable with this, and he then takes a step back, saying that even when Gd acts out of Mazal, He still fits it into a system of reward and punishment, conveying good to those who have some good coming to them anyway, and vice versa.

4) And last, I was preparing a History shiur on the Censorship of Jewish Books, and came across something I last saw a few years back, which gave me a good laugh then and now.

When, during the 1830’s edition of the Russo-Turkish War, the Russian church wanted to censor our books, they took out every use of the word גוי (goy) and replaced it with the word Turk.

Among other ludicrous readings, this yielded the following text for a paragraph in Tachanun:
May the guardian of the holy Turk guard the remnant of the holy nation,
And may the Holy Turk, who recite three Kedushot, not be destroyed.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


Too sneezy. Too itchy. Too irregular. Too splotchy. Too pale. Too hot. Too cold. Too many diapers. Too few diapers. Too many tears. Too few tears.

Too tired. Too all-over-the-place. Too focussed. Too rambunctious. Too good at sitting. Too anxious. Too relaxed. Too sleepy. Too awake.

Too slow to pull up. Too quick to get out of her crib. Too attached to crawling. Too attached to his blanket. Too clumsy.

Too hungry. Too full. Too picky. Too gluttonous. Too sparse an eater. Too ravenous.

Too into reading. Too uninterested in reading. Too musical. Too math-focussed. Too artistic. Too inquisitive. Too unquestioning. Too intellectual. Too physical. Too missing-the-forest-for-the-trees. Too big-picture.

Too loud. Too quiet. Too silly. Too serious. Too impetuous. Too respectful. Too adventurous. Too timid. Too quick to lash out. Too quick to cry.

Too slow-moving. Too frenetic. Too absent-minded. Too stubborn. Too laid-back. Too demanding. Too immediate. Too harsh. Too shrill. Too quiet to get attention.

Too into her siblings. Too uninterested in his siblings. Too sensitive. Too insensitive. Too emotionally disconnected. Too self-conscious. Too socially unaware. Too vulnerable. Too peer-driven. Too afraid of confrontation. Too blunt. Too direct. Too shy. Too uninhibited. Too apt to befriend the wrong kid. Too apt to befriend no kids.

Too Moshe. Too Aharon. Too Sarah. Too Rachel. Too Dovid. Too Batsheva. Too Naval. Too Avigayil. [These are biblical role models who present very different personalities.]

Too like-that-picture-on-the-Huggies-box. Too like-that-guy-in-the-anti-drug-commercial.

Too tall for his age. Too light for her height. Too physically uncoordinated. Too gangly. Too energetic.

Too lacking table manners. Too neurotic about table manners. Too conscious of body image. Too unaware of appearances. Too likely to say just the wrong thing. Too eager to say just the right thing.

Too generous. Too hoarding. Too lackadaisical with her belongings. Too afraid to throw anything out. Too scavenging. Too picky.

Too unpredictable. Too likely to decide to lop off some of her hair. Too tame. Too in need of outlets. Too in need of stimulation. Too bored. Too wild.

One of our children has lately become somewhat… creatively unpredictable, but I’ve been having a hard time taking it seriously. I find this child’s recent behavior funny, energetic, uninhibited, and well in line with what children her age normally do. I’m tired of the Toos imposed upon us by ourselves, by the expectations, real or imagined, of friends and family and teachers and doctors and school nurses. I don’t want to attach a Too to funny, to energetic, to uninhibited.

It’s bad enough that we have too many Toos regarding ourselves; I hope to spare my children, for as long as I can, this Tooitis.

[Haveil Havalim is here; go read it!]

Friday, November 21, 2008

Yisrael asks a question; how about you? (Derashah Chayyei Sarah 5769)

A king summoned his noblemen, demanding tribute. The aristocrats met in secret and decided that they would refuse at first, to test the king’s resolve.

When they arrived and the king made his demands, they started to refuse, as planned. Unfortunately, they had underestimated the king’s belligerence; he ordered his guards to execute them on the spot. Two of them were killed before the rest threw themselves at his feet and pledged to pay.

The remaining nobles explained that the executed ones had also meant to pay, and their refusal had just been a bargaining tactic. The king regretted the loss of his funds - which goes to show you, “Don't hatchet your counts before they chicken.”

Avraham, too, is in a bargaining situation as our parshah begins, when he attempts to purchase a burial plot for Sarah - but rather than bargain down, Avraham insists on bargaining up.

The Chiti tribe, dwellers of the area, tell Avraham to take the land for free - and Avraham says, “No, free is no good - I’ll pay full price.”

Efron, owner of the plot, refuses Avraham’s offer. “Free, it has to be free, I won’t take a dime.”
Avraham thinks it over and declines, “No, I can’t do that. I’ll pay full price.”

And so Efron says, “Well, you drive a hard bargain - 400 silver coins, then.” And Avraham gladly pays it.

According to one midrash, Avraham refuses to take free land because he is a man of the world: He knows his neighbors and he understands the way the game is played.

Avraham knows very well what will happen the next day, after he has buried Sarah: Someone is going to complain that the land doesn’t belong to Avraham, that he’s stolen it from them. Then, with Sarah already interred, Avraham will have to pay whatever they demand! So Avraham pre-emptively pays today’s full price.

Contrast Avraham’s savvy with the willful naivete implicit in his son Yitzchak's actions. In next week’s parshah, Avimelech, the Philistine king, guarantees the safety of Yitzchak and his wife, Rivkah. He declares, “If anyone so much as touches this man and his wife, they will be put to death.”

Unlike his father, Yitzchak has never spent the time learning about his neighbors, and so he trusts them and he invests in a major ranching operation. His trust turns out to be misplaced; the Philistines fill in his wells, and tell him to move along.

Yitzchak moves down the road and again sets up shop and digs more wells - only to have the local shepherds co-opt his new wells for themselves, too.

Avraham and Yitzchak take fundamentally different positions regarding their neighbors - Avraham learns their ways, understands them and plays their game, but Yitzchak refrains from playing that game; he doesn’t want to know.

These two paths point to two different ways a Jew can interact with the world around him: Avraham promotes interaction, and Yitzchak remains to himself.

This is not a choice between a right way and a wrong way - Avraham and Yitzchak present two different Jewish orientations, one which views Jewish life as something to be shared through interaction with the greater world and the other which sees its entire existence and validation within the four amot of Torah itself. The one, Avraham, devotes his energies to attracting people to Judaism, whether in Charan or in Chevron. The other, Yitzchak, refuses to get involved.

These two approaches persist in Jewish history. Although at times, in certain societies, one view has gained primacy over the other, each has always had its adherents and each has taken a turn as the dominant Jewish approach.

In the days of the mishnah, under Roman tyranny, the Jews of Eretz Yisrael generally adopted a Yitzchak orientation, prohibiting studying secular philosophy and wearing secular garb, interacting with Roman society only as necessary for political survival. This is the generation in which Rabbi Akiva banned the study of ספרי מינים, the work of heretics - even as other sages went to debate philosophy with Romans at places like בי אבידן.

In 12th century Egypt the Rambam pushed the other way, promoting the ideas of Aristotle within the Torah’s philosophy, and encouraging study of the sciences for people who had already consumed the canon of Torah. But, on the other hand, there were those who pushed back and even wished to ban the Rambam’s works for their non-Jewish content.

Fast-forward to the 18th century and the Vilna Gaon in Lithuania takes the Yitzchak view, criticizing the Rambam’s absorption in Aristotelian thought. Rav Boruch Ber took the same tack a century later, explicitly prohibiting attending college. But the Avraham view persisted in the work of Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch in Germany and Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik in America, as they argued for an understanding of the broader world and a knowledgeable engagement with that broader landscape.

Last week, we hosted a speaker who spoke engagingly, from an academic’s perspective, about the historic evolution of the books we know as Siddur, Sefer Torah and Gemara.

Certainly, a secular academic approach varies, at times, from the approach of a religious scholar; we each bring our own prejudices to the table. But from the perspective of the Avraham vs. Yitzchak debate, a religious Jew has two choices regarding such discussions: We may choose the method of Avraham, engage it and debate it and wrestle with it. Or we may choose the method of Yitzchak, and leave the academics to their own realm. Each approach has a legitimate Jewish pedigree.

I opted to bring in this speaker and have that conversation because, by and large, American Jewry, and certainly Allentonian Jewry, has already opted for an Avraham approach just as strongly as Rabbi Akiva’s Jewry opted for a Yitzchak approach. We read newspapers, we surf the Net, we debate American politics and watch football and basketball and baseball and hockey. This is an approach of openness to the world around us - and if we are going to follow that path, then we had best do so honestly, with a full awareness of what that world has to say about our Torah.

This week, Kiddush is sponsored, in part, in honor of Yisrael Wiener’s new book, “Yisrael Asks a Question.”

I had a chance to look at Yisrael’s book in shul two weeks ago, and then I read samples from it on-line at It’s a great read, presenting questions like, “Mommy, do Native Americans have museums about us?” and “Mommy, did we see that movie in America or in New York?”

There’s a lot we could say about this book, and I’d encourage everyone to take the opportunity to look at it, out in the lobby, after davening. But in the context of our discussion this morning: The Avraham approach mandates that we inquire, that we ask Questions.

Questions are the way we engage the world, the way we express doubt or discomfort or interest. If we choose to live the model of Avraham, if we believe that we are to engage the world, to be involved with the world, then we each need to write a book of our own - “Mordechai asks a question,” “Amram asks a question,” “Mike asks a question.” To hear the ideas of an academic, of the broader world, not necessarily to accept them but to take Avraham’s approach of questioning them and understanding them, and so grow into a greater, deeper, stronger engagement with the world around us.

Thank you, Yisrael, for your book. Yisrael has asked a question; now, it is our turn.

1. I haven't posted derashot in a while because at this time of year I teach classes after kiddush on Shabbat instead of before minchah, and I have been using the class as the derashah as well.

2. Yisrael Wiener is a second grader at the Jewish Day School of the Lehigh Valley.

3. Sorry for the pun at the start, but I wanted a joke about bargaining. It comes from this site; you can blame them.

4. That midrash on Avraham's purchase is the classic one about our ancestors purchasing three sites in Israel specifially to avoid dispute (lot of good that did us...) - it's found in Bereishit Rabbah 79:7.

5. It seems to me that my explanation of Avraham's refusal to take the land for free also works to explain ואל תאמר אני העשרתי את אברהם, Avraham's refusal to take the spoils of war.

6. This derashah does tie into the approach of our ancestors to civic involvement, as well; see my derashah here. We could also extend the discussion to Yaakov, who takes on the traits of those around him when masking himself as Esav and Lavan, and to Yosef, who learns the ways of the others but triumphs as a נער עברי, specifically.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Completing the Daf Yomi cycle - what it means to me

Tomorrow, I expect to complete my first “cycle” of teaching the Daf Yomi here in Allentown. I started teaching the second chapter of Kiddushin in the early summer of 2001, shortly after arriving here, and we are slated to begin that chapter again tomorrow.

I would not have expected it, but this is a very exciting moment for me.

It’s not the issue of completing another round of shas; I know quite well that there is no such thing, at least for a human intellect like mine, as completing shas. Besides, I have had substitutes for 100-150 of the daf along the way, so this can’t really count as a completion.

Part of it, I suppose, is that learning by teaching is so much deeper than learning personally. Certainly, I understand the gemara much better now, for having had to explain it.

And part of it is the simple fact that I showed up every day for so long, consecutively, to do this.

But what really moves me is the group, the Daffies, my guys. (And women, of course; we have a couple of women who attend daily as well. But they’re all “my guys” to me.) Learning Torah with anyone creates a unique link, learning Gemara moreso, and learning daily much more. (Frankly, this makes me somewhat uncomfortable with the co-ed aspect of it, but that’s a topic for another post.)

And through that link, I can see growth.

I always have mixed feelings about encouraging people to attend classes. In my student days, I learned much more through chavruta (partner) study than through shiurim (classes); I emerged from personal study with rich understanding, but I usually emerged from shiurim with a set of notes. So it’s hard for me to encourage people to come to classes; I tend to push private study more.

But Daf Yomi is different. Here, through the day after day after day, I actually see the change in people. I’m not talking about a change in religiosity, or a change in knowledge; I’m talking about a change in their approach to gemara, a maturity and sophistication so that when people say gemara or talmud, my Daffies comprehend what those words mean. It’s not about the words or the pages or the volumes, it’s about the system as a whole. My crew may not get every shiur, we may not understand every page, but we emerge with a greater respect for the analytic methods, for the commitment, for the expertise, of the sages who compiled the gemara.

And that’s what moves me, on the eve of completing the cycle and beginning again. It’s the knowledge that I am playing a role in helping Jews come to a real appreciation for this essential part of our heritage, this mass of knowledge and thought and hope and analysis which is lengthier than the land and broader than the sea.

Their appreciation for our heritage, their grasp of the spectrum of Jewish intellectual tradition, their comprehension of what it means to be heir to Judaism’s great repository of wisdom – this is their reward for participating in the Daf, and it is my reward as well.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Eric Holder for Attorney General: Good and Bad for the Jews?

Per CNN, Eric Holder is President-Elect Barack Obama’s choice for Attorney General.

My gut instinct is that this is, as they say, “bad for the Jews.” Not because of Holder, personally, but because his confirmation hearings are bound to include the infamous pardon of Marc Rich.

The Rich pardon is a perfect example of the tarring ethnicities undergo when one of their own is involved in wrongdoing. I can’t imagine that any responsible party in the Jewish community would have endorsed this pardon - a trader who cheated the financial system, then wrapped himself in the Israeli flag by getting himself an Israeli passport (along with a Spanish passport) in trying to avoid extradition. But when Bill Clinton pardoned him, it was viewed as an example of Jewish malfeasance and influence.

Holder, at the time, was the deputy attorney general, and through a series of events described well here by the Washington Post, he allowed Jack Quinn to push the pardon through. So we are pretty much guaranteed that anti-Obama Congressmen will bring up this pardon as a way to harrass Holder’s appointment. And we will have to endure Marc Rich/Jewish/Israel-oriented headlines.

But, on the other hand, Holder might have a positive impact in another case - the AIPAC trial. The accused AIPAC officials relayed - to the press, to other AIPAC officials and to an Israeli diplomat - information US government officials gave them (in a sting operation), regarding anti-Israel operations in Iraq. The AIPAC guys argue that they had thought they were permitted to speak of the information they had been given.

As noted a couple of days ago in The Forward, Holder is known to be strongly in favor of First Amendment liberties, including free speech. This may help the AIPAC defendants.

So I am split on what to expect with a Holder nomination, but, ultimately, all of this points to a more central point: Realistically, Jews must accept that our kin are so involved in so many ways in so many different parts of American society, that any nominee is going to raise similar issues. Whether it’s Pollard or Rich or AIPAC or Abramoff or Agriprocessors or any other Jew or Jewish institution involved with the wrong side of the law, the bottom line is that we are going to have to get used to headlines like those we’ll be seeing during Holder’s confirmation hearings.

Such is Jewish life in the USA. The only antidote of which I am aware is to make sure we have plenty of positive Jewish examples, so that whenever someone brings up a Marc Rich, we can respond with a kiddush HaShem (sanctification of Gd's Name), “That’s not a representative. Look, instead, at…,” citing numerous examples of ישראל אשר בך אתפאר, Jews of whom Gd can be proud, and we can be proud.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Making decisions

I rarely, if ever, publish a very brief post, but I just saw this line and it hit me the right way:

The speaker:
Stanley Fischer, Governor of the Bank of Israel, at the end of a Jerusalem Post interview on "How is Israel coping with the global financial crisis?"

The statement:
One of the great things I have learned about life is that you don't have to make decisions before you have to make them.

I am forever committing myself to paths of action before I need to do so. Big issues, small issues, program planning, political issues, it's a conscious effort to get myself to slow down, to wait and see.

Fischer's statement isn't so much something new, as it is a great way to put it. Thank you, Stanley; that one goes on my desktop.

Friday, November 14, 2008

It's what I do that defines me

[Haveil Havalim is here!]

From time to time I am called by a local hospital or hospice to meet with unaffiliated Jewish patients and their families, to help them through a tough time. It's never easy to enter into that sort of sort-of-counseling, sort-of-officiating relationship with people you've never met, but I generally come away feeling that I have accomplished something good.

But it doesn't always work out that way. I received such a call a few weeks ago for a local hospice, I visited, and came away cold. The patient was terminally unconscious, and in terms of the family I had no sense at the end that they wanted follow-up, or that they had felt anything at all from our interaction. They had said at the start, "We just want a rabbi to come recite a prayer," and, indeed, it seems that this was all they wanted.

I felt like I could have done more, made some connection, developed some tie with them. I felt like I had failed them (and of course myself), by not becoming more than just a functionary. Yes, I had tried, but effort isn't what counts; results are what count.

From the earliest ages, when we swing a bat and miss, when we scrawl our first letters and compare them to the teacher's perfect A and B, when we bring home our first report card with less than an A, we are taught this merciful refrain: "It's the effort that counts." "It's the thought that counts." "What matters is that you try."

This is fine pedagogic medicine if delivered in measured doses, and it certainly mirrors a Torah philosophy. The gemara delivers this lesson many times, in many different ways:
"HaShem considers positive intentions as though they had been converted to deeds."
"It's not up to you to complete the task, but you are not free to do nothing."
"Whether one does a lot or a little, it is all the same so long as he directs his heart Heavenward."

Nonetheless, for me, and, I think, for most human beings, this mantra is unsoothing, unsatisfying - and wrong. It's not the thought that counts, it's not the effort that counts, it's the result that counts.

Try telling an engineer whose bridge collapsed because of an unforeseeable flaw in the materials, "You did everything you could."
Try telling a rabbi whose words of Torah and humanity failed to inspire or comfort the relatives of a terminally ill person, "You did your best, and that's what matters."
Try telling a physician who just lost a patient, "It's the effort that counts."

And this is certainly true for those children who hear the mantra most often:
Try telling a 10-year-old boy who struck out with the bases loaded, "But you tried."
Try telling a teenage girl who is mocked for her weight, "You're doing the best you can."

It seems to me that the concept of valuing effort is not wrong, but it's inadequate for the human psyche. We don't take solace in trying, we take satisfaction from succeeding.

My rebbetzin (of course) has a good answer for my dissatisfaction: The effort counts, even without total achievement, because there generally is some achievement. Whether it's muscle development in athletics or learning 90% of the material for a test or making one friend instead of ten or prolonging a patient's life for one week instead of finding a cure, that achievement still matters.

Even if I really made no impact on that family I visited, I know I made an impact on myself. I took another step in the lifelong process of habituating myself to chesed, by getting out of my house in the middle of the night to go help someone. I took another step in that process by doing it for a stranger, and by overcoming the anxiety of meeting someone new, in this terrible context, for the sake of helping another human being. I did achieve, I did succeed, even if it wasn't in my ultimate goal.

Still, that's clearly a bedieved, an after-the-fact consolation prize. Ultimately, I don't just want to succeed at something, I want to succeed at my goal.

Or as Bruce said to Rachel: "It's not who I am underneath; it's what I do that defines me."

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Evolution and the Moving Eye of the Flatfish

I am not a fan of the evolution/Creation debate. Aside from the frustrating fact that it never evolves beyond the same arguments, vitriol and narrow stereotyping, I am fundamentally embarrassed by some of the views espoused by the Creation side - and no argument is more embarrassing to me than the challenge, “That could not have evolved!”

This approach is as old as Darwin, and, indeed, he was stymied by a few cases from its class, such as, “The eye is so complex, it could not have evolved in successively functional steps.” It demands either a logical explanation for an evolutionary step, or, in the absence of such an explanation, it demands physical evidence that such an evolutionary step occurred.

But I don’t like or trust this approach.

One reason I don’t like this argument is that it rarely considers new evidence or arguments, relying instead on outdated literature. Every few years scientists discover another missing link, or develop another explanation for an unlikely evolutionary process, but the creationists never update their data to include, or refute, these findings. In response, evolutionists reject the creationist view as outdated – which, in this respect, it is.

A second reason I don’t like this argument is that it sets up an unfair logical playing field, demanding Reason from the evolutionist side but not from the creationist side. The evolutionist does not have a good theory and does not have all of the evidence to support his theory, and so the creationists are going to call him on his lack of evidence. But when the evolutionist calls the creationists on their own lack of evidence – ie where is Noah’s Ark? – then he is told to accept it on faith. If we can accept Creation on faith, the scientist must be able to accept a theory even in the absence of a complete constellation of evidence.

But the third and strongest reason I don’t like this approach is this: Evidence which is missing now may well be discovered later. Theories which are gapped today might be made whole with the passage of time. People who pin their hopes on today’s inadequate science are due for a surprise tomorrow.

Witness this ScienceDaily report from July (I meant to blog it ages ago, but never had the chance):
Flatfish Fossils Fill In Evolutionary Missing Link
Opponents of evolution have insisted that adult flatfishes, which have both eyes on one side of the head, could not have evolved gradually. A slightly asymmetrical skull offers no advantage. No such fish -- fossil or living -- had ever been discovered, until now.
All adult flatfishes--including the gastronomically familiar flounder, plaice, sole, turbot, and halibut--have asymmetrical skulls, with both eyes located on one side of the head. Because these fish lay on their sides at the ocean bottom, this arrangement enhances their vision, with both eyes constantly in play, peering up into the water…
But in the 10 July 2008 issue of Nature, Matt Friedman, graduate student in the Committee on Evolutionary Biology at the University of Chicago and a member of the Department of Geology at the Field Museum, draws attention to several examples of such transitional forms that he uncovered in museum collections of underwater fossilized creatures from the Eocene epoch--about 50 million years ago...
Friedman examined multiple adult fossil remains of two primitive flatfishes, Amphistium and a new genus that he named Heteronectes.
"Amphistium has been known for quite some time," he said. "The first specimen was described more than 200 years ago, but its placement in the fish evolutionary tree has been uncertain ever since. Close examination of these fossils yield clues that they are indeed early flatfishes."
The most primitive flatfishes known, both Amphistium and Heteronectes have many characteristics that are no longer found in modern flatfish. But the one that caught Friedman's attention was the partial displacement of one eye, evident even in the first Amphistium fossil discovered over two centuries ago.
"Most remarkably," he said, "orbital migration, the movement of one eye from one side of the skull to the other during the larval stage, was present but incomplete in both of these primitive flatfishes." For both sets of fossils, the eye had begun the journey but had not crossed the midline from one side of the fish to the other.
"What we found was an intermediate stage between living flatfishes and the arrangement found in other fishes," he said. These two fossil fishes "indicate that the evolution of the profound cranial asymmetry of extant flatfishes was gradual in nature."

I certainly believe that Gd created the universe, and I am no wiser than anyone else regarding the mechanism Gd used. But this I do know: Arguments predicated on " I found a gap in your theory" and "Where is your proof?" are doomed by the march of theoretical development and investigation.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Want help cheating on your taxes, Rabbi?

Abramoff, Agriprocessors, Boesky...

I join in the dismay and outrage and embarrassed על חטא- klopping every time a Jew is indicted for improper business practices and immoral activity. Yesterday I heard about another case, and again went through the recriminations.

That said, I must add two caveats from personal experience:

1) The rationalizations for financial impropriety are often very tempting, and

2) Rabbis are sometimes involved in it, without even knowing they are doing anything illicit.

One particular case, from my own experience, comes to mind:

A while back I officiated at a funeral for an unaffiliated family. They made all of their arrangements with a local funeral home, and the funeral director was to pay me for my services.

(Disclaimer: As a general rule I don’t charge for funerals, or other services; people want to do things right, they need a rabbi, so how could I make that difficult for them? Bar Mitzvah training, weddings, funerals, I decline payment. But if people offer payment anyway, then I accept it.)

So the funeral director came to write me a check. He pointed out that this check, in tandem with other checks he might write to me for other funerals during the year, could trigger a 1099 form, so that I would have to pay taxes. Being a nice guy, he asked if he could write the check to my Benevolent Fund, so that I could take the money through the Fund, and avoid having to pay taxes on it.

I’m no tax lawyer, but I believe there is a term for this sort of activity: It’s called money-laundering, sending money from A to B via a third party to avoid paying taxes on it. As I understand the law, it’s just as illegal as claiming a charitable deduction for paying yeshiva tuition.

The offer was tempting:

1) I shouldn’t really have a 1099, since I am not really a contractor of the funeral home. I’m the family’s contractor. The funeral home is only cutting the check because the family gave them the money as a third party. The problem is that the payment is on the funeral director's books, which triggers the 1099.

2) It’s not clear how to classify an honorarium given for funeral services, in the first place.

3) I already pay a ridiculous amount in taxes, because clergy have to pay self-employment tax.

4) I give a lot to help others, financially and otherwise (see a good Orthonomics post on this point, here).

5) And, as, the funeral director took pains to tell me: Everybody does it.

As I said above, the justifications and rationalizations for unethical activity are tempting... but I declined.

My point is not to say, "Torczyner is wonderful." I'm not wonderful; I'm just someone who was raised to be honest.

Rather, my points are these:
1) If we expect our community to act ethically, we - and especially rabbis - had better be ready to act ethically, ourselves; and
2) This applies even to the justifiable cases. In reality, all of them are "justifiable" cases, or at least look like it at the time.

False deductions, funnelling money through a Benevolent Fund, accepting payment in cash, hiring a nanny off the books, these are just as illegal as the crimes committed by Agriprocessors in the scandal du jour.

קשוט עצמך ואחר כך קשוט אחרים, the gemara says, with a sharp play on words: קישוטים are ornaments, but קושטא is truth. Ornament yourself before you ornament others, and make sure you are telling the truth before you insist that others do the same.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Veterans Day vs. Memorial Day

The US Department of Veterans Affairs website has this to say about the difference between Veterans Day and Memorial Day:
Many people confuse Memorial Day and Veterans Day. Memorial Day is a day for remembering and honoring military personnel who died in the service of their country, particularly those who died in battle or as a result of wounds sustained in battle. While those who died are also remembered on Veterans Day, Veterans Day is the day set aside to thank and honor ALL those who served honorably in the military - in wartime or peacetime. In fact, Veterans Day is largely intended to thank LIVING veterans for their service, to acknowledge that their contributions to our national security are appreciated, and to underscore the fact that all those who served - not only those who died - have sacrificed and done their duty.

I would add another way in which Veterans Day is not Memorial Day: Living Veterans continue to serve our country even after they retire from duty, bringing their attitude and experience of dedicated service into their communities, into their jobs, into their families. America becomes a stronger nation when a veteran serves in elected office, when a veteran runs a corporation, when a veteran raises children, with a model of dedicated service.

So in a sense, to me, Memorial Day is the American equivalent of Pesach, a day to remember America's nation-shaping history, while Veterans Day is the American equivalent of Shavuot, a day to mark that which shapes our nation every day.

More: Veterans serve not only actively, but also passively, providing a visual reminder of what it means to risk your own for the sake of others.

Seeing a Veteran license plate or bumper sticker on the road reminds me of what they have given me, and makes me more thoughtful. Seeing a veteran wearing a military cap or fatigues makes me contemplate what it has taken, and what it continues to take, to keep this country free. (Lest anyone make the Bushian error of thinking that democracy is man’s natural state, look at the number of wars fought - as well as avoided - in the 20th century alone for the survival of this system of government. Our veterans have played a major role in guaranteeing these freedoms for each generation.)

This is an international phenomenon. Off and on over the years, our shul has honored American veterans on the Shabbos before Veterans Day, and each time our Russian contingent has been sure to remind us of the Russian version of Veterans Day. Countries may have unique ideals, but we share an emphasis on sovereignty, and gratitude toward those who have guaranteed that sovereignty.

I don’t have any red poppies to wear, but in the spirit of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein’s gratitude toward the USA, I salute the men and women – living and deceased - who guaranteed, and who continue to guarantee, the continued sovereignty of the USA.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Must boys be boys?

[Haveil Havalim is here!]

I have no illusions about my childhood; I did my share of the taunting and fistfights and vandalism that go with growing up as a boy. Some tell me I was “well-behaved,” but I still remember, with no small degree of nostalgia, the types of escapades which make people say, “Boys will be boys.”

I see this “Boys will be boys” phenomenon in kids all the time, in shul:
*We had a Regional Shabbaton for Eastern Seaboard NCSY in our shul this past Shabbos, and it came as no surprise that among the dozens of kids, despite good supervision, some managed to find their way into trouble.
*A couple of years ago we had a Bnei Akiva Simchaton at shul, and experienced similar things.
*Every few weeks, a pre-teen finds some way to damage something in shul on Shabbos.

The sages were aware of this adolescent and pre-adolescent propensity for destruction and disinclination for rebuke. As Daf Yomi participants recently learned (Kiddushin 30a), parents can successfully rebuke their kids only between the ages of 16 and 22, or, per another reading, 18 and 24. Why not earlier? As Rashi explains it, kids who are younger than that do not have the דעת, the intellectual maturity, to absorb and apply rebuke.

So I understand and accept what’s normal for boys – but I would still like to find a way around it, in raising our beloved sons. If there were only some way to get them to pay attention, to think before they break fragile items, to be considerate and not trip people, to avoid putting things down drains just to see what will happen… not just sometimes, but most of the time.

I know this is an impossible dream. And I’m not foolish to imagine that anyone else’s boys are perfect. And I’m happy that my kids have so much energy, because that same energy will serve them well, Gd-willing, when they finally reach an age at which they can harness it.

But surely there must be a way to tame them… a little bit?

Currently, I try to:
*provide outlets for their energy, and
*model good behavior for them – to let them see self-control, to walk through my own challenges with them and demonstrate how I handle them, and
*show them respect, so that they will respect themselves and so that they will want to live up to that respect.

None of these are bad approaches, but I would love to hear from others. What do you do, besides damage control? Must boys be boys?

[Daughters are a topic for another time; I have absolutely no clue what to do with them…]

Friday, November 7, 2008

Liveblogging the JFLV Mission to Israel, Day 4

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
The Hanging Tree - a Mission thought


On Thursday morning, five of us went to the Kotel to daven vatikin - attending a minyan which synchronizes its prayer such that Shema is recited just before sunrise, and the Amidah with sunrise.

I first did this on a Federation mission six or seven years ago, when a rabbi from Minneapolis organized a bus to the kotel for such a minyan. It was an experience I hope to retain always. The weather was not great, so all of the minyanim were in the indoor alcove, crammed together among breakfast-noshers and tzedakah collectors, chaos and cacophony reigning as the multitude of minyanim prayed simultaneously but at different paces, Jews of all kinds together - and all of the sounds and noises converged slowly as we neared sunrise, so that Shema was recited aloud in near-unison, and then Tzur Yisrael was overwhelmingly loud - and then there was utter silence as sunrise hit and we began the amidah. I can't begin to describe in words just how stirring that silence was.

After that, I did it again a few times, but not in the past 3-4 years. This time the experience was rather different, and not as powerful. Part of it is that we had fine weather, so we were outdoors and more spread out and echo-less. Part of it is that a minyan right behind me was out of sync, taking their time, so that they broke the silence of the amidah with their own Shema. Still, thank Gd, it was good.

The morning's program was a tour of Ir David (City of David), Chizkiyah's tunnel, the Davidson Center and the southern wall of Har haBayit (the Temple Mount), but before all of that we heard from Rabbi Michael Melchior, MK and Cabinet Minister. He spoke about trying to bring religious and secular Israelis together in tolerance, and he was generally eloquent.

I was very much in agreement with his remarks until someone asked him about the "ultra-Orthodox" who "don't share his vision." Then he went off in a diatribe against those nasty ultra-Orthodox Jews who wield their power and threaten not to recognize his conversions, and how he had personally outfoxed them on a bill to help agunot. I was disgusted by his portrayal of his adversaries as greedy, power-hungry people who would trample women for the sake of their own hold on power. Maybe it was just because he had been battling them on this bill, or maybe I'm naive and his portrayal is correct, but I just don't believe in vilifying the opposition.

In the afternoon we visited Yad vaShem's newer section. I was surprised to find that a cousin of mine was our guide! She was fantastic, and the tour was most moving. I actually had not wanted to go; I know what this sort of thing does to me. But I had to go, as community rabbi, so I did.

Then, after we returned to our hotel, I grabbed an eish tanur shawarma at my favorite Yerushalayim restaurant, Maoz, and headed for the airport. The rest of the tour group is still there, remaining into this week (and some beyond), with chesed projects and more touring.

There was much more on this trip, but hopefully this digest will provide a sense of what it was like. Perhaps it will influence others to go, whether on Federation mission trips or on their own.

The bottom line:
*Federation trips are packed with activities.
*The speakers and programs represent a spectrum of left and right and a chance to hear some great presentations.
*The activities mix chesed projects, touring and free time.
*This is an opportunity for spiritual growth as well as activism and community.
*I didn't talk about this much, but the food is great!

טובה הארץ מאד מאד ("The land is very, very good" - Bamidbar 14:7), but the trip was way too short. Oh, well... next time.

The Jew and the Hanging Tree

On Monday, the first day of our UJC/Federation trip to Israel, we were given free time to walk around the Tel Aviv/Yafo area. My roommate led a group of us in a walk along the water. As part of his knowledgeable tour of the area, he took us to see “the hanging tree.”
As you can see in the picture at the start of this post (credit: found it here), a large container of soil hangs, suspended, in the middle of a courtyard, and a large tree grows out of that container. Walking down an alley and suddenly encountering this large, floating refugee from a JNF forest, is a surreal experience.

I also saw the tree on a previous trip, but – like any good work of art – it hit me differently, and more powerfully, the second time. I have spent a lot of time thinking about it over the past few days, and about why it so moved me now.
The tree seemed lonely to me, hauntingly isolated not only from other trees, but also from the nourishing and secure soil which is its right, by dint of its very identity. A tree out of soil, a fish out of water... a Jew out of his homeland.
Rootbound in its cramped container, suspended between heaven and earth, lacking the security and comfort and nourishment of soil, that tree nonetheless continues its existence daily, gives shade, provides a resting place for a passing dove. This is the life it knows.

But what if its life were different? What if there were other hanging trees in the courtyard, sharing suspended soil with our lonely tree? What if she knew the company of others of her kind, likewise bereft of space for their roots, secure footing for their trunks?
And so the hanging tree became, for me, in the course of visits to Beit haTefutsot and Beit Guvrin, the Palmach and Yad VaShem, in the course of listening to Aluf Benn and Rabbi Melchior, in the course of praying by a roadside in Yoav and by the Wall at sunrise, a central theme of my experience on this trip.

I am very much a hanging tree, doing my best to thrive even though my roots are cut off from the land which should be theirs. So are all of us in the Diaspora, hanging trees whether we know it or not, whether we feel it or not. And, yes, even in Israel the Jew is a hanging tree, suspended in that courtyard, at home geographically but still seeking meaning, seeking needs both physical and spiritual, seeking the company of others. Rabbi Soloveitchik wrote of “The LonelyMan of Faith,” seeking Gd in the universe – but we also seek each other.

We are all hanging trees – but when we join together as our group did in this trip, to feed the hungry, to offer succor to people living under threat of rockets, to honor the memory of those who have passed and to encourage those who are building the future, then our hanging trees become a hanging forest, planted in common soil.

May we plant many more trees, hanging and otherwise, in the future.

Liveblogging the JFLV Mission to Israel, Day 2-3

Click here for Part I, here for Part II.

TUESDAY, continued

We resume our story with a trip to Beit haTefutsot, aka The Diaspora Museum.
I love the idea of this museum: To memorialize Jewish existence in communities outside Israel, since all of us will eventually move to Israel and those communities will disappear. My only problem is that while the communities are, indeed, losing their relevance, it's not really happening because we are making aliyah. The communities are, by and large, disappearing into the landscape.
Unfortunately, the exhibits clearly have not been updated in a while. In particular, their once-vaunted genealogy/community database is now far outstripped by Internet resources, and should either be converted into an Internet search tool or seriously mega-updated.

Then we went to the Palmach Museum, which I thought was absolutely wonderful. With its personal story and its way of incorporating the visitor into the exhibit, this creative presentation draws you into the Palmach experience of defending Jewish lives in Israel in the 1940's, before and during the formation of the State.
Here I began to think about the glaring need to draw religious and secular Israeli society together. Does the haredi in Geulah know the story of the Palmach fighter – not in a vague historical sense, but in a personal and emotional sense? Does the grandson of the Palmach fighter know the story of a Bnei Braker – again, not in a distant sense but in a direct and emotional way? What if every resident of Meah Shearim would be paired with a kibbutznik for a week, for them to really sit and talk, but also to live life together, to see the passions and emotions of the other?
Yes, I know, I'm naïve regarding the effect this would have, but I still dream.

For Shacharit this morning we tried another shul, a small Sephardic shtiebel close to the hotel (21 Gruzenberg).
I am already a closet Sephardi; Sephardic davening and minhag pull at me, not just because they are different from my lifelong norm but because of the authenticity of their roots and the sincerity of so many of their adherents. My Cordovero blood rebels against my Torczyner Ashkenazus. This morning was no exception; I drew a lot from the experience.

Also: Today, (or really with Maariv last night), Israelis began saying v'ten tal umatar, davening for rain. Per the Mishneh Berurah's counsel, I didn't recite it, but that was really uncomfortable. How could you be in Israel at this time of year and not daven for rain?!

Our travel day began with a trip to Sderot and two nearby kibbutzim, Ruhama and Sa'ad, the latter a religious kibbutz. The disclaimer UJC insisted on giving us beforehand, regarding potential harm, reminded me of my first year in Kerem b'Yavneh. It was the year of the Gulf War, when many chutznik parents asked (or insisted) that their children come before the war. In KBY, very few of us left. My family came to Israel to be with me. To alter the Disengagement mantra, יהודי לא בורח מיהודי, a Jew does not flee from another Jew.
Turns out that forty kassams were launched at the region that morning, and they hit Ashkelon while we were in the Sderot area, but we were fine, thank Gd.
Credit is due to UJC for not skirting the problem of the Disengagement. Twice today, in Sderot and then in a program I'll describe in a few minutes, we came face-to-face with its failure.
We met with kids, saw the bomb shelters and schools, and had discussions with school personnel. My favorite part: When the principal was surprised to hear there are still Orthodox communities in America. He won my heart with that line; forget Zichron Yaakov, Kibbutz Sa'ad is for me.

In the afternoon we traveled to a few different programs in the Yoav region, our community's UJC Partnership 2000 partner area. I was approached by a man whose brother is a developer in moshavim; he wanted to know if I and a few others from the Lehigh Valley might be interested in starting a moshav for ourselves.

We also saw a play put on by families evicted in the Disengagement, and had a chance for Q&A with one of the evacuees. We talked about what the evicted families were doing now, and how people deal with the depression. I asked about political preference in the current Israeli elections, but didn't get a clear answer. As I said earlier: I'm glad the mission dealt with the Disengagement issue head-on, and didn't try to skirt it.

One post left to go - Day 4, Thursday.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Liveblogging the JFLV Mission to Israel, Day 1-2

(see Part I here)


On Monday evening I walked with a few friends north along the beach promenade into Yafo (Jaffa). We peeked into a couple of interesting stores and took a gander at a suspended tree, heard chazaras hashatz for minchah from a small shul, and returned to the hotel. We saw the end of sunset over the water; it was beautiful. I never get to see sunset, since minchah/maariv is always at the same time; it was a beautiful sight. (I had davened minchah earlier, and I davened maariv later.)

Seeing the Mediterranean is a special thrill for me. I grew up and attended elementary school right by the Atlantic, and I really miss the ocean in Allentown, but beyond that it's the Mediterranean – so crucial to Torah, so essential to our history. And I was able to make the berachah, Asher asah es haYam haGadol. It was very moving.

While we're on the nature topic – the flowers here are also striking. My favorite is bougainvillea, for both beauty and nostalgia. Yeshivat Kerem b'Yavneh, where I studied for two years after high school, has huge, beautiful bougainvillea. And our guide, Rachela, taught me something: What we usually think of as the bougainvillea flower is actually a leaf!

Dinner was at Le Relais Jaffa, and was excellent. I think there must be a rule about every mission having a meal in a tent; I'm pretty sure each mission I've attended has eaten at least one meal that way.

TUESDAY is a great resource; courtesy of that site and, a couple of us went to shacharis at a Belz beis medrash (study hall) a little over a mile (1.8 km) from the hotel. People talk about the secular character of Tel Aviv, but we walked along R' Yitzchak Elchanan and R' Shmuel Mohliver, past R' Tzvi Hirsch Kalischer, and along R' Shafar and R' Mazeh.

The graffiti was disturbing, particularly the fact that so much of it was in English. Our guide says it doesn't bother her, which I find interesting.

I love Birchas Kohanim, always feeling great kavvanah (focus), and this morning was no exception; it was wonderful.

We did debunk one myth: I had always heard that the Belzer chassidim daven shmoneh esreih (the amidah) quickly to avoid losing kavvanah, but this was not true of the chassidim with whom we davened. It wasn't very long, but it sure wasn't rapid-fire.

We then went to Beit ZOA to hear Aluf Benn. I was disappointed that I didn't get a chance to look around, since my Cousin Jacques (about whom I posted last week) was president and my grandfather Moses Torczyner was very involved – but Aluf Benn was fantastic.

It is cliche but true that many UJC speakers tend toward the dovish, and it is certainly true that Benn, as editor of HaAretz, is to the left, but his presentation was balanced, and, more to the point, fantastic – a shrewd analysis of the American and Israeli elections and likely results and impacts for the Middle East. It was extremely lucid and appealing for neophytes as well as knowledgeable people, and he balanced it with views both left and right without discernible bias. I had a chance to ask him a couple of questions re: Gilad Shalit (Benn does not see him being freed soon, because of the extreme demands Hamas is making for his release), and re: any long-term fallout from the Acco riots (Benn doesn't see that happening).

We then went to Kikar Rabin. Today is the 13th anniversary of his assassination by Yigal Amir, adding to the relevance of the visit. I was no fan of Rabin before November 1995, but I vividly recall that night, when I was driving back from my leining job in Massapequa, and I turned on the radio and heard about the assassination. I remember crying in shock, and fearing the split I was certain this would create among Jews in Israel and everywhere.

In ensuing days the shock grew as I found out that it was Yigal Amir, whom I knew in Kerem b'Yavneh, and next to whom I sat for a time in Rav Silver's shiur. He was just a normal, quiet guy in yeshiva. He participated in the Purim shpiel the year after my Shanah Bet year, acting as a marathoner who took a short cut across a field and sank in the mud. He was a normal guy, and the yeshiva was certainly no hotbed of political activity; like anything that would take away from learning, politics were never on the agenda. But he read stuff or heard stuff, and decided to take matters into his own hands.

Thirteen years later, in my view, history shows that Rabin's Oslo accords were indeed wrong, that Israel has no sincere partner for peace, that concessions like those of Oslo only embolden our enemies. Witness the results of Disengagement. But to murder Rabin...

This afternoon was Bet heTefutzot, which I love for the concept of it, and the Palmach Museum, which was incredible. More on this later... we're doing Daf again soon.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Liveblogging the JFLV Mission to Israel, Day 1

A lot of my readers have never been on a UJC/Federation mission to Israel, and (based on email I have received) there are a lot of misconceptions out there about what happens on these trips, so I'll be blogging the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley's mission to Israel. There are 96 of us going - quite a strong number, thank Gd, given that the Valley boasts all of 8000 Jews.

Day 1 of our trip was an exhausting whirlwind, bringing back memories of mission trips past (I single out Jerry Roth, my former mission roommate, of blessed memory) and creating new ones as well.

We succeeded in having two Daf Yomi sessions on Sunday, one at the gate and the other in the air. The gemara was not easy; it jumped from topics of slavery to korbanot to tumah to tort law. Nonetheless, we held on tight and enjoyed the ride. It's amazing that the Amoraim (sages of the gemara) had all of these sources at their fingertips, without resorting to a CD-ROM.

No sleep on the plane, regrettably. I did manage to catch two movies I enjoyed, though: I, Robot and 21. Unfortunately I also tried Daredevil; I would have been better off playing Tac Tac Toe. What a bad film that was.

My seatmate was a good sport, putting up with sitting next to a rabbi; there are lots of people on the mission who are more fun than I am (yes, it's true), but she didn't abandon me for the glamour and fun.

I chose to daven shacharis at my seat (sans tallis/tefillin), rather than look for a minyan. I just don't think that harassing the flight crew is worth holding a kavvanah-less, buffeted-about minyan next to the bathrooms. I found a chance to put on tallis and tefillin and say shema in the airport while waiting for the luggage, so all was good. At least here everyone in the airport knows what you're doing, and you don't draw stares for this odd use of leather...

I've been asked repeatedly why I am returning to America before Shabbos, while the mission continues until mid-week next week; the answer is that I am not going to leave Caren with our four potential hooligans for an entire Shabbos. Then the follow-up question comes: Why go on the trip at all, just to be in Israel for four days?
There are several reasons:
1)I'm homesick for Israel.
2)I've reserved and canceled trips twice since my last mission (Dec 2003), and I'm tired of canceling.
3)These mission trips area always wonderful, showing me sights I have not seen before; I return to the States truly recharged.
4) I feel like I may be able to add something to others' experience.
5)I can't stomach counseling others to go, if I won't go myself. Someone did comment to me that it's wrong for clergy to have to pay for these trips, but to me, if you aren't willing to reach into your wallet yourself, you can't really ask others to do it.

And now it's Monday, but I still consider it Day 1, since we have not reached a hotel yet, and I haven't showered, changed or slept yet.

From the airport we went straight to Neot Kedumim, a project restoring a large chunk of parkland with plants from the Torah. Our guide was great, hitting many high points in a very short period of time. One striking sight: A cedar planted just feet (okay, meters) away from a date palm. This is botanically unusual, since palms thrive in hot climates and cedars are native to colder climates – but they put the two together to fulfill the biblical passage regarding righteous people, that they should flower like the date palm and flourish like a cedar in Lebanon.
I've been sending Neot Kedumim small checks for years in response to their mailings; it was good to finally see it in person.

On our way to the next stop we passed by Zichron Yaakov, a place I've long wanted to live. Manyu years ago, before children, I had a pipe dream of buying land in Zichron as a first step toward aliyah.

Our next stop was to pick eggplant for MiShulchan l'Shulchan, From Table to Table. Among their other activities, they get volunteers to harvest fields which are not worth the farmers' while. We picked the eggplants for an hour or so, getting muddy and burry but – speaking for myself – feeling good about the endeavor. (I did hesitate because one may not mass-pick vegetables that grow during shemitah, even after shemitah – but without sefarim around, I concluded that because the owner had rendered them hefker, and we were picking them for aniyyim, and because for all I know the eggplant had grown after shemitah, and because this was for tzedakah, I could comfortably rely on heter mechirah.)

I think I'll cut this one off here; I'm typing on the way from Table to Table to Tel Aviv, and I hope to post it before minchah. Time to start up another Daf session, anyway.

This is my third JFLV mission. Each of my previous two has had a flavor of its own; the first felt like a first-time adventure even though I had lived in Israel for two years, and the second was more like a reunion, with many previous missionites (I can't say missionaries) returning. I wonder what this one will feel like, when it's complete.