Friday, February 27, 2009

How to increase our joy, in verse (Derashah Terumah 5769)

I have established a tradition of delivering an Adar derashah in verse; this is now the third year of this chazakah (although it is not a neder).

We are careful in all of our mitzvot
Punctilious in tfillah and shabbat,
We check for bugs in our vegetables,
We daven and learn Torah a lot.

But there is one, fairly simple mitzvah
For which I would like to raise the bar,
It’s the oft-ignored but so-important practice,
Of making ourselves happy in Adar.

Mishenichnas Adar Marbim b’Simchah,
or so have advised our sages,
Increase your joy in the month of Adar, they have said,
and this has been their advice through the ages.

But how are we supposed to be happy?
I think it would be quite a great coup,
If we could define Simchah k’Hilchitah -
But those sages didn’t tell us what to do!

“Be happier!” says the gemara,
without any real elaboration,
Its only advice is to schedule this time
for any necessary secular litigation.

Are we to have great feasts or play practical jokes?
Are we to recite Lou Costello’s “Who’s on First?”
Is there a minimum shiur for the size of our parties?
Is there a chumra to hear speeches in verse?

We might find answers if we would consider why,
The month of Adar is marked for a great high.
The roots of this joy run deep within our past,
And its reasons should provide some answers fast.

Rashi says that in Adar we increase joy
Because on Purim and Pesach, it’s Geulah we enjoy.
So we celebrate HaShem’s great salvation,
The way Gd has acted to save the Jewish nation.

On Purim we come to recognize
that HaShem has been by our side all along,
That even before Haman launched his wicked plan,
HaShem had arranged a way to keep us strong.

And in Mitzrayim, even as we suffered
under tyranny of Egyptian control,
HaShem had long-arranged Moshe Rabbeinu
to save our ancestors from their deep hole.

Seeing HaShem’s Hand fits Adar in other ways,
For Adar is a season of new growing,
When plants in Israel begin to reach their prime,
and the grassy lawn begins to need mowing.

The beautiful fruit on the trees,
those flowers we smell on the breeze,
Only now do we see it all well,
HaShem’s plan from when the leaves fell.

So in order for me to celebrate
and to fill my month of Adar with great glee,
In my routine practices I should highlight
what HaShem has done all along just for me.

I need not create something new,
No need for any novelty.
I need only joy at Gd’s deeds,
Gratitude for this Divine liberty.

But the Sfat Emet made another case
for why Adar has long been singled out,
He claimed that this is now a special month
As a time when we have been devout.

Every year, in the time of the Mikdash,
donations were collected in Adar,
To fund the year’s korbanot,
we sent shkalim from near and from far.

It’s when we provided for the mikdash,
when we gave HaShem of our own,
It’s when we renewed life all around us,
By connecting our world with Gd’s throne.

In the time of the Mikdash, if you brought a korban
You would make a personal celebration,
So in this month when we brought our national gift
we should make merry as one big congregation.

In fact, this theme is in Purim and Pesach,
The roots of our joy, in Rashi’s view,
For those two geulot had a human role,
Taking part in the Jewish rescue.

Purim relied on HaShem’s master plan,
but it was Esther who brought it to fruition,
And for Pesach it was Moshe and others,
Who used their strength, their guts and ambition.

If Sfat Emet is right, and Adar’s special status
comes through great deeds performed by human hands,
Then it seems to me that we should perform new deeds
creating Adar glee to spread in our lands.

Parties would be most appropriate,
building fun things and providing children with toys.
But of course, all must still center on Torah,
and the korbanot that led to our current joys.

Two different views of why we are Marbim b’Simchah,
two different views of why and how we all celebrate,
Both tie in to this week’s Bnei Akiva Shabbaton
Both are in that model whom they seek to emulate.

Rabbi Akiva saw the hand of HaShem;
he laughed with hope despite great devastation.
But he insisted we must act for ourselves;
supporting Bar Kochba with great determination.

These two views may be seen in our own age,
when we have returned to Israel, the land of our own.
We recognize how HaShem has moved our history,
bringing us, at last, to our ancient home.

At the same time we know for ourselves,
that our actions must make Israel succeed,
Aliyah, visiting and support,
the future yet relies on our deed.

So in this month of Adar let us celebrate,
recognizing HaShem’s Hand, and our role, too,
Let us be joyous as we go about our lives,
and let us also create joys that are new.

Soon may we merit the Beit haMikdash,
whether built by our hands or lowered from above,
And may we all return posthaste to Israel, our land,
reunited with HaShem b’ahavah, with love.

1. The source for משנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה is Taanit 29a. The Rif (9b in his pages) cites it as halachah. However, note that the Chatam Sofer (1: Orach Chaim 160) seems to suggest that this is not actually normative halachah.

2. Both Rashi and Sfas Emes are on that gemara in Taanis. R' Akiva's laughter is at the end of Maseches Makkos.

I posted last year's derashah, The Poetry of Purim Meshulash, here.

4. I've thought about doing this for all of Adar's derashot this year, but... nah.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

We have some Jews on this plane...

[The new Kosher Cooking Carnival is here!]

I routinely stand out as a Jew, but it can still be uncomfortable.

Earlier this week I spent a few days in Canada. Because I was there for a work-related project, I checked “work” on the visa form.

"Work" was really the only honest answer, but the result was a trip to Immigration, ostensibly to discuss the purpose of my visit. I’m not sure why this came under Immigration, and what they hoped to achieve, but you really don't have any choice other than to comply in that situation, so I did.

The interview lasted only about ten minutes, but it felt like forever, and a bizarre forever at that.
• The officer asked me if I was there to work as a consultant, and told me about how they feel about consultants in Canada. When he heard I was a rabbi, though, he lightened up.
• He seemed to be having a good time as he searched my Interpol records, or whatever it was he had in front of him. He mentioned to me all sorts of information about other Torczyners (yes, there are some) living in Canada, including address, names of children, etc. I’m sure that’s illegal in the US under HIPAA.
• He asked me about rabbinical training, and told me I seemed pretty young to be a rabbi. (I would have kissed him at that point, had I been able to reach him.)
• Then he informed me that he was Irish Catholic, and he was going to tell me “the only rabbi joke” he knew.

The joke wasn’t bad, actually; here it is in briefer form: An aging rabbi has a son, and he wants to know what the son will be like when he grows up. He tests his son by setting up a table with a Bible, a pile of money, and a bottle of wine; if he takes the former he’ll be a rabbi, the second he’ll be a businessman, the third he’ll be a drunkard. The kid walks over and first picks up the Bible, and the rabbi is excited that he will be a scholar. Then the kid pockets the Bible and picks up the pile of money. The rabbi says, “Okay, he’ll be a religious businessman.” Then the kid picks up the bottle and starts guzzling it – and his father wails, “Oh, no – he’s going to be an Irish parish priest!"

The whole interaction, standing out as a Jew and being at an airport and having personnel pick up on my rabbi-ness, reminded me of an incident I had forgotten about for many years.

Some 13 or 14 years ago, a friend and I were headed on a Friday morning flight from New York to St. Louis for Shabbos. We stopped to change planes in O’Hare, got on the new plane, taxied out on the runway – and then sat on the tarmac for a long time. I don’t remember how long it was, only that Shabbos was getting closer.

Finally, we decided that we had better get off the plane and find somewhere to stay in Chicago; my friend knew some people there. We summoned enough guts to ask a stewardess for help, but she explained that we were already on the runway. We insisted. She went to the pilot.

Soon enough, an announcement comes over the loudspeaker, “Ladies and Gentleman, we have some JOOOZ on this plane.” And the pilot explains that we need to get out of line for takeoff and go allllllllllll the way back to the airport to drop off them Jooz for their Sabbath.

I don’t consider that anti-Semitism, but it was an uncomfortable walk down the plane, me in my black hat etc, as the rest of the passengers watched us disembark.

Kind of like the people behind me at Immigration listening in on the rabbi joke.

But it's all part of the game, right?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

“Not Me” is alive and well in Gabbailand

This is something of a rant on behalf of Gabbaim around the world.

I was an addict of newspaper comics for many years, even though I knew the jokes never changed. There was always someone – Hagar, Ziggy, Dagwood - who ordered a large sundae with everything and then asked them to withhold a cherry because he was “on a diet.” There were teenagers who refused to clean up their room. There were kids who were rude, or precociously cute. New laughs were rare, but I read them anyway.

One of the comics I liked least was Bil Keane's Family Circus, but it must have made an impression on me, because I remembered his “Not Me” ghost the other day, in shul.

You know “Not Me” if you’ve ever had kids.
“Who broke the vase?” “Not me.”
“Who’s taking the first bath?” “Not me.”

“Not me” is like Eliyahu haNavi, condemned to attend every shul, especially when the Gabbai makes his rounds, trying to find a chazan. It seems that people are very careful about the Shulchan Aruch’s advice (Orach Chaim 53:16) that one must refuse a little when asked to serve as chazan – but they ignore his qualification ולא יותר מדאי, that one should not refuse too much.

We should really have a כסא של אליהו, an Eliyahu's Chair, for Not Me, right next to the chazan's amud. (And maybe a duplicate for board meetings, but that's another topic.)

The following is a dramatization, but not really fiction. Gabbaim know what I mean:

Time: Shabbos morning, sometime during Psukei d'Zimra, the first phase of the Shacharis service.
Location: Anyshul, USA

Gabbai (hopeful): “Musaf?”
Potential Chazan #1 (face still in his siddur, not saying any actual words of davening but studiously avoiding the gabbai's eyes): “No, thanks.”

Gabbai looks at watch, knows he still has a few minutes before the shul reaches Borchu. Sighs resignedly. Wishes he could wrap up assigning davening early on, so that he could daven with kavvanah himself. Moves on.

Gabbai (hopeful): “Musaf?”
Potential Chazan #2 (not looking very sorry): “Sorry. Sore throat.” (coughs for emphasis)

Gabbai looks at watch again, noting time rather than listening for the chazan; they are always at the same point in the davening at the same minute, anyway. Moves on.

Gabbai (hopeful): “Musaf?”
Potential Chazan #3: “If you have nobody else.”
Gabbai (very hopeful): “I have nobody else!”
Potential Chazan #3: “What about [Potential Chazan #1]?”
Gabbai (starting to look downcast): “Tried him.”
PC#3: “And #2?”
Gabbai: “He says he has a sore throat.”
PC#3: “Sore throat? He's been talking to Shmuel non-stop since 9:00 this morning!”
Gabbai: “Maybe that's why he has a sore throat?”
PC#3: “Give him a push, I bet he'll do it.”

Gabbai wanders off, answers “Borchu,” returns to seat since he is under rabbinic edict not to distribute what are laughingly called “honors” between Borchu and Kedushah. Turns around every time the shul door opens, to see whether another potential chazan might have entered.

Shacharit Chazan (ending Kedushah): “HaKel haKadosh – eh?”
Gabbai has just thrust a siddur into his field of vision, the page turned to Yekum Purkan. Gabbai looks questioningly – beseechingly, even – at the chazan.
Shacharit Chazan waves him off with a look of disgust that clearly asks, “No one else will step up? Come on!”

Gabbai shuffles over to rabbi, who pre-emptively waves his hand at the three small children beside him. “I'm taking care of these already,” his wave says.

Gabbai returns to PC #1, tries the Puss eyes he learned in Shrek, to no avail.

Gabbai returns to PC #2, who is likewise insensitive.

Finally, PC#3 has mercy on the gabbai and deigns to lead musaf. Gabbai sits back down, another week's responsibilities faithfully executed. One day, he knows, he will have the opportunity to daven with proper concentration – specifically, when someone has a yahrtzeit that day and insists on being chazan for everything.

Then the problem will be the complaints from people who don’t want that one to serve as chazan…

Monday, February 23, 2009

Minyan Curbs Creativity

Stipulation: Judaism endorses and nurtures the creative spirit.

Certainly, Rav Soloveitchik and others pointed out that the biblical instruction to walk in Gd's ways includes a mandate to be creative, just as Gd is creative. Whether producing and nurturing children, or bringing food from the earth, we are creating. The Talmud considers אומנות, craftsmanship, a fine way to earn one's living.

My problem, though, is with davening – specifically, the practical issue of attending minyan, as well as the challenge of conforming to halachic זמנים (time constraints), which require the morning shacharit to center around sunrise, and which make the most practical minchah/maariv a sunset minyan. The result of these factors is that I never watch the sun climb into the sky or descend below the horizon.

Technically, one may recite the morning Shacharit for a few hours after sunrise – but (a) this is not ideal, and (b) in terms of practicality, it is hard to assemble a minyan that late into the working morning.

Sunset? Technically, one may/should daven minchah in the early afternoon, and it is ideal to daven maariv after the stars emerge – but, again, minyan practicality makes that difficult in a community with 8,000 Jews.

The result is that I rarely witness a sunrise or a sunset. On an early Friday night I can catch sunset while walking home from shul. On the mornings when sunrise is earliest, if I rise at 5:00 I can catch sunrise before Shacharit. But these occasions are rare.

I was reminded of this beauty I am missing a couple of weeks ago, when I drove into New York for a morning meeting. Heading east on I-78 to catch minyan in New Jersey, I was floored to watch the sun rise directly in front of me. The horizon glowed with ever-lightening shades of black, purple, violet, blue, before bands of citrusy reds and oranges and yellows made their entrance. Finally, the sun itself, an incredible shining ball, backlit distant skyscrapers and illuminated shreds of cloud before taking its dominating position in the sky.

I won't pretend that I wasn't annoyed by driving into the glare, not to mention contending with the slow-down of thousands of other drivers facing the same visibility challenge... but it was worth seeing that incredible, מה רבו מעשיך! grandeur. The experience lit up the rest of my day, sparking new ideas and energy.

Of course, people who are exposed to sunrise/sunset regularly are desensitized to this celestial theater, and I would be likewise benumbed if I witnessed this daily. But seeing it occasionally, people monthly, would be something special.

Some might suggest that we could blend this majestic view with inspired prayer. Of course, there are shuls with lots of windows (and some authorities even recommend a specific number and orientation of windows for a shul), but, in truth, I could not focus on feeling the siddur's words and appreciating the beauty of nature simultaneously. I wouldn't exactly end up praying to the sun, but I would likely not end up praying to Gd, either.

So if I ever live in a place where they have an early minchah / late maariv option, I'll have to work my schedule to allow for that. Then I'll sit with a sefer at sunset, and admire this incredible world we have been given.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Happy Birthday! A Jewish view on loss

[Haveil Havalim is here!]

Yes, it’s my birthday. That means I am now – shudder – 37.

Why is 37 a number to cause shuddering?

You can watch the "Holy Grail" video here (the big line is actually at the 37-second mark. Coincidence?), or read the dialogue (which is not really funny without the video):

King Arthur: Old woman!
Dennis: Man.
King Arthur: Man, sorry. What knight lives in that castle over there?
Dennis: I'm 37.
King Arthur: What?
Dennis: I'm 37. I'm not old!
King Arthur: Well I can't just call you man.
Dennis: Well you could say Dennis.
King Arthur: I didn't know you were called Dennis.
Dennis: Well, you didn't bother to find out, did you?

You go, Dennis!

So I celebrated my birthday by teaching a class this morning on a Jewish View of Loss – rather appropriate, as I watch my youth fade in the rear-view mirror.

My thesis for the class was simple:
1) Tanach and Talmud argue that everything we possess, all of our circumstances and the various elements of our lives, are given to us by Gd, whether through explicit Divine directive or through the backdoor of Divinely-ordained mazal.

2) Any transition involves the loss of an old set of circumstances.

3) It is axiomatic - and see Niddah 16b for an example of this - that Gd’s goal in arranging these sets of circumstances is to present me with a set of opportunities. So with every transition, I need to examine my new circumstances and decide how best to function in this new world.

I see three steps for achieving that successful transition:
First) I need to ascertain that there has been a loss. Other than in the case of death, many circumstances of loss - deterioration of a relationship, for example - are less clear in their finality.

Second) I need to endure a period of grief for what I have lost; as Pirkei Avos reminds us, we don't appease angry people in their moment of greatest rage and we don't comfort a mourner before a funeral. There must be an opportunity to mourn for the lost circumstance.

Third) Then, I am capable of accepting this change, and studying and meeting the new challenge.

Yosef and Esther are my main models for this – each suffers multi-level losses, but each comes to a stage of acceptance and then meets the new challenges.

Yosef loses his mother, the love of his brothers, his father, his homeland, his freedom, his place in Potifar's house, and his dignity - and, every step of the way, succeeds in his new situation.

Esther loses her parents, her Jewish environment, her safety and the safety of her nation - and yet, she succeeds repeatedly.

Both Esther and Yosef accept the loss of their old circumstances and figure out how to succeed in their new lives.

And beyond Esther and Yosef, Tanach gives us many models for negatively and positively dealing with transition/loss:

Paroh loses control of his situation, but struggles to reverse it.
Shlomo (in קהלת) recognizes his own loss of control of success and the future, and humbly accepts his lack of control.

King Shaul loses his power, but struggles to preserve it.
King David loses his power, and develops new strategies for survival.

Relationship with Gd
Kayin loses his relationship with Gd, but seeks to force Gd to accept his offering.
Iyyov (Job) loses his relationship with Gd, and (Chapter 42) apologies and starts from scratch.

Economic security
Elimelech loses economic security, but seeks to preserve that wealth by moving to Moav.
Yosef loses economic security, and seeks to help others (the butler and baker) in prison.

For me, the passing of an age milestone, a simple number, brings home the finality of aging. I need to resign myself to the passing of 36, and ask myself how my circumstances have changed, and how to move ahead productively.

BUT: Not yet!
Technically, I have until my "real" birthday - 7 Adar - to accustom myself to this loss. So 36 it is, for a little while longer...

Thursday, February 19, 2009

A-Rod and Elazar ben Durdaya (Derashah Mishpatim 5769)

Star athlete Alex Rodriguez would like to be judged for his single moment of contrition, rather than his career of steroid use. He is trying to take advantage of an instant of Teshuvah (repentance), following the model of Elazar ben Durdaya.

Elazar ben Durdaya, who lived in the time of the Mishnah over 1800 years ago, immersed himself, thoroughly, in one of Judaism’s most serious sins: He visited every זונה he could find, anywhere, and paid any exorbitant price that was asked.

Once, a זונה commented to Elazar that someone like him could never repent for his crimes. Her words, and the strong way she expressed them, penetrated to his calloused soul and moved him. He immediately fled into the wilderness and dramatically beseeched Nature itself – the mountains, the heavens, the earth, the sun, the moon and the stars – to pray on his behalf. Then, in a moment of sublime contrition, Elazar wept with all of his heart, and exhaled his final breath in a state of repentance.

A voice emerged from the heavens and declared, “Rabbi Elazar ben Durdaya has earned a place in the afterlife!” Rabbi Yehudah haNasi, the great sage and leader also known as Rebbe, canonizer of the Mishnah, exclaimed in tears, “יש קונה עולמו בשעה אחת, One can acquire his place in the afterlife in just one moment – and the Heavens will even call him Rabbi!”

Rebbe declared that one may acquire his place in Heaven in just a moment – and it is this idea of a defining moment of repentance and redress and redemption, that motivates an Alex Rodriguez to try to rehabilitate his career with a late-in-the-game apology.

But R’ Shlomo Eideles, in his “Maharsha” commentary to the gemara, explained that this was not Rebbe’s message; his point was not that we can correct our life’s errors in an instant. Rebbe was not crying tears of joy at the possibility of instantaneous rehabilitation. Rather, Rebbe was crying tears of frustration and anger – because our lives are filled with such defining moments, instants which lack apparent drama but nonetheless offer opportunities for greatness, and we routinely pass them by! This Elazar ben Durdaya, this Alex Rodriguez, could have capitalized on a lifetime of opportunities, could have built up a life of good deeds and an afterlife of great rewards, but they waited out the clock and wasted all of that time!

Look at Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi himself; he did not become Rebbe by capitalizing on some momentary opportunity! Rebbe slaved away at his studies, devoted hours and days and weeks and months and years of defining moments to compiling the mishnah, lobbied the Roman Antoninus on behalf of his fellow Jews, and led the Jews of Tzippori and Israel. Rabbi Elazar ben Durdaya could have done that, too – but only if he had woken up much earlier, taking advantage of not a single Defining Moment but many.

Our parshah, too, accentuates our lifetime’s series of defining opportunities.

Right after we stand at Har Sinai in Parshat Yitro, right after we receive the Torah and hear the grand and intimidating voice of Gd boom out, “I am the Lord your Gd who took you out of Egypt,” right after we witness a mountain shrouded in flame, shaking with thunder and illuminated by lightning, right after we receive instructions for constructing sacred altars on which we will serve our lofty Gd – we receive a laundry list of economic minutiae, civil law on the most mundane level governing remuneration for violence and property damage, economic relationships and property ownership.

And then, just as suddenly, the Torah reverts to the story of an awestruck nation cowering before its unfathomable Creator and King.

This juxtaposition of Divine encounter with picayune detail impresses upon us that life is not a series of insignificant ripples and eddies emanating outward from singular Sinai moments of birth and crisis and watershed and death. Life is a series of less-dramatic Sinai opportunities, and any given day, any given relationship, any given opportunity, however understated, harbors the bubbling potential of a Defining moment.

This is why some Jews do not stand when we read the עשרת הדברות, those Ten Commandments, in shul: To demonstrate that the entire Torah, whether discussing shatnez or Shabbos, kashrus or קריעת ים סוף, addressing every day of our lives, carries equal portent, equal holiness, equal power.

A sacred life should not revolve around a single moment.
• Avraham faced 10 tests, not just 1.
• Yosef faced a daily test from the advances of his employer’s wife, and not just one day’s challenge.
• Rabbi Eliezer taught his students to repent every day as though it was their last, and not wait for some special moment.

And we dare not wait for Elul, for Rosh haShanah, for Yom Kippur, to apologize to others, to come to minyan, to give tzedakah.
And we dare not allow relationships to deterioriate until some seminal, dramatic, Sinaiesque moment, but we repair them now, today.
And we dare not procrastinate in introducing the holy into our lives and our homes, with berachot and tefillah and mezuzah and kashrut.

Certainly, there are moments of greater inspiration, stand-out occasions which move us to great heights, but there are two dangers in bypassing daily chances while waiting for such singular moments:
• First, when that Sinai comes, we may miss it or we may be unable to take advantage.
• Second, people who wait for some inspiring moment end up waiting a long time – and then, when the moment comes and then passes, the inspiration disappears and they commence waiting for the next wave of fervor.

There’s no need to wait: Our lives are constructed of day after day of more subtle Defining Moments, and the people who recognize this potential are the ones who transcend the momentary greatness of R’ Elazar ben Durdaya, and achieve the enduring prominence of Rebbe.

At the start of our parshah, we read about the fate of a Jew who steals and is unable to pay for his theft; he is sold as an עבד, a slave, for six years. At the end of those years, regardless of how much he stole, he is given his freedom.

But the Torah’s version of slavery isn’t too bad – the עבד receives the best bed in the house and the best food in the house, cannot be given painfully difficult or demeaning work, and cannot be made to work night and day. So the עבד might reach the end of his slavery and declare, “All things considered - I’d like to stay as an עבד.”

The Torah permits him to remain – but then his ear is pierced. חז"ל (the sages) explained that because he heard Gd say לא תגנוב, Do not steal, at Har Sinai, and yet he stole, we pierce his ear.
But if this disobedience is why we pierce his ear, then why do it now, six years after the theft? And why do we only pierce the ear of the עבד who chooses to remain as an עבד?

Rav Shimon Schwab explained that while the original theft was illegal, it might be excusable; perhaps it was a momentary error, or a crime committed under the pressure of circumstance. Now, though, six years later, this עבד has an opportunity to re-define himself as an honest person, to leave behind his theft. He can move on, and take advantage of this chance to begin anew. If the עבד instead allows his big moment from six years earlier to define him, if he fails to understand that every day is a new chance to chart a path, then we pierce his ear and say, “Learn from your mistakes – start over!”

May we learn from Rebbe rather than Alex Rodriguez, R’ Elazar ben Durdaya and the עבד, and seize each day’s opportunity to begin anew.

1. This derashah is dedicated in honor of a volunteer whose 75th birthday is this Shabbos. He truly lives a life of taking advantage of each day's defining moments.

2. Elazar ben Durdaya's story is on Avodah Zarah 17a. The Maharsha says that Rebbe was referring to the heavens themselves giving Elazar the title of Rebbe.

3. The Maharsha's explanation for Rebbe's tears is on Avodah Zarah 10a, in Chiddushei Aggadot.

An Eruv-Checking Technological Innovation at the Allentown Eruv

[For reference, to explain Eruv in over-simplified but functional terms: An Eruv is a series of walls, punctuated with doorways, which surround a geographic area as part of converting it into a unified "enclosure" in halachic eyes.

This is important because Jewish law prohibits transporting property through an unenclosed area, or from an enclosed area into an unenclosed area or vice-versa, on Shabbat.

Each of those doorways is composed of two vertical posts, called lechis, which meet a horizontal korah that runs over the tops of the lechis.

Often, a lechi is a post placed against a telephone pole or power company pole, and it runs up to meet a korah wire that runs across the top.

Sometimes a korah wire runs into a telephone/power pole itself, and in such cases, depending on certain technical details, the pole may serve as the lechi. That is called a tachuv.]

I am proud to present the culmination of a project I've been developing with our local Eruv checkers, to develop a new tool for Eruv-Checking.

Here in Allentown, we have what I consider a very good Eruv Checking system. Almost all of our lechis run all the way up to the korah, with one notable exception that stops a few feet short. We check it every week, and we handle developing problems as they come up.

Nonetheless, in my eight years of checking the Allentown Eruv I have found a few on-going problems:

1) Training new checkers properly, with good materials and sufficient time to review each pole and ensure that they understand how it fits into the Eruv;

2) Ensuring that all checkers are looking at the same poles (where the pole does not have a lechi or company number, and is therefore harder to identify);

3) Allowing checkers to compare what they are seeing today with the way the pole has historically appeared, in order to detect deterioriation.

In order to help address those three problems, we have created a Google Map marked with each pole, with:
a) a brief description of the type of connection at each pole;

b) a brief description of any historical problems with each pole;

c) photographs of the pole, with close-up pictures of the Tachuv-pole connection or Lechi-wire connection at each pole.

The map has already proven helpful; we discovered that one pole no longer needed its lechi but was actually tachuv.

It should also prove useful on two additional levels:
1) Allowing more of the community to become intimately eruv-aware, so that they will be able to let us know if they see any problems, and

2) Enabling eruv checkers to modify this shared database, entering any issues they have encountered with specific poles.

You can find the Allentown Eruv map on-line either by:
*Going to and entering "Allentown Eruv", or

*Just clicking here.

Please take a look and let me know what you think!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

What sort of questions should you ask a rabbi?

A while back (in response to my post on Choosing a Rabbi) I was asked: “for what types of questions do you think a person needs to turn to a rabbi.

I replied: "What time is it," "Will it rain today," "What is my favorite color," that sort of thing.

My questioner pressed: i don't understand. why would i ask a rabbi those questions?

To which I answered:
"What time is it" - To know when to daven.
"Will it rain today" - To know whether to put on a raincoat.
"What is my favorite color" - To figure out which suit I should get.
All right, fine. It's just my sense of humor. In truth, the answer is that this is a very vague issue, without a clear resolution. I might post on this in the next week or so.

It’s been three months rather than a week, but here are two thoughts on the topic. They're really just common sense, but you asked...

1) Ask the right person
It is popular to ridicule chasidim who consult with their Rebbe about a business venture, or about a medical treatment. People allege that a Rebbe will overstep his knowledge and experience, advising followers with his “Daas Torah” on areas about which he knows nothing.

Many of the ridiculers are simply insecure about their own reliance upon - or non-reliance upon - advice from the Torah. In general, people who ridicule betray a problem of their own. (cf כל הפוסל במומו פוסל - Those who insult others, do so regarding a blemish they see in themselves.)

In truth, though, I do agree that this sort of overreach is a potential problem – but it’s easy to solve: Just choose a humble mentor who knows his own limits. As the gemara (Chagigah 15b) advises, choose a mentor who appears to you like a מלאך, an angel - and angels (with a couple of notable midrashic exceptions) have no ego.

Humility is very easy to identify – pick someone who regularly uses the magic words, “I don’t know,” “I’m not sure,” and the like.

2) Know what sort of answer you expect.

If the mentor knows his own limits, then what remains is for the questioner to manage his own expectations. Ask a rabbi any question you like, but know what you want in terms of an answer.

An answer may be פסק (halachic ruling): מותר, אסור, Do this, Don’t do that.
Example: I can ask about basketball on shabbos, or mixed swimming, or organ donation, and expect a clear halachic analysis.

An answer may be חוות דעתו (expression of his opinion): Based on my knowledge of Torah and my life experience, consider X path.
Example: I can ask about schools for my children, and my mentor can give me the benefit of his experience.

An answer may be Food for thought: Here are a few aspects to contemplate.
Example: I can ask a mentor about a potential move - expecting my mentor to point out issues of potential concern.

And an answer may be Guidance: Assistance in figuring out the right questions to ask, as well as the right answer.
Example: I can ask my rebbe about dating, and my rebbe can help direct my thinking.

So know what type of response you seek. Also, make sure to convey that information as part of the question. This is important so that your rabbi will not feel pressed to extend his advice beyond his reliable pool of knowledge.

Once you have both of those elements - the humble mentor and a clear understanding of what type of answer you expect - ask any question you like. Business, medicine, where to live, halachah, hashkafah, anything is safe.

And, by the way: It’s 10:00 AM, says it will rain here today, and your favorite color is pine green. Or puce; I'm humbly uncertain.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Orthodox Women should learn to lein

[Note: "leining" refers to singing the Torah’s text according to the "trop" (the traditional cantillation).]

I must admit that I am biased in this matter; my mother was the one who would listen to me practice leining on many Friday nights, and correct both my pronunciation and my trop. Nonetheless, I am dismayed by the modern practice of teaching boys to lein, and not teaching girls likewise.

A commenter here does mention one Bais Yaakov that teaches girls to lein, but that’s it – and this is a mistake. Women should learn to lein.

I attribute this omission in Orthodox women’s education to three factors:
1) The relegation of “leining” to Bar Mitzvah training;
2) A general lack of appreciation for the way that leining affects the meaning of a pasuk, and the way it helps children learn;
3) The lack of time afforded to chumash education in schools, in general.

To address the former two factors (because the last needs its own essay!): Leining is supposed to be fundamental to the way anyone reads chumash, and it is supposed to be taught when we first train our children to read chumash.

This is hardly my own thought; it’s an explicit gemara:

A mishnah in Nedarim (35b in the Vilna Shas) discusses whether a man may teach another man’s children if an outstanding oath currently prohibits him from “benefiting” that person. The mishnah says, ומלמד הוא את בניו ואת בנותיו מקרא, that this man may teach the other one’s “sons and daughters” chumash.

In the course of that discussion (36b), the gemara discusses teaching those children פיסוק טעמים, the use of music to read words and phrases, and the gemara makes it clear that both boys and girls classically studied this, as part of learning how to read chumash.

This teaches us two points:
1) Leining was taught as part of basic reading (and for more on this see a brief essay by Dr. Daniel Lasker here), and
2) Girls classically learned it, too.

Which brings me to an old article I happened across today, at the amusingly titled What’s Bothering Artscroll? blog. The article notes that the Artscroll Women’s Siddur does not include the trop notes for Shema, and wonders why the notes were omitted.

In truth, I did not know until very recently that there was an Artscroll Women’s Siddur. My wife, the grand Rebbetzin, wonders whether there should not also be an Artscroll Men’s Siddur. I think this would be an excellent idea. Perhaps it might contain an expanded Halachah section on how to deal with conflicts between the Super Bowl and night seder, how to send regards to your chavrusa’s wife without violating Shulchan Aruch Even haEzer, how often a tallit katan must be washed, and the like.

But to return to the matter at hand: If there must be a separate, women’s edition, why omit the trop? Women are supposed to know it, too!

I do not consider myself an innovator, but the restoration of leining education for women would be no innovation – it would be a return to the path laid down by the chachamim for educating our children.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Backyard Poultry

[This week's Haveil Havalim - quite a well-organized edition - is here!]

For those who are looking for more substantive material, please skip to some of my other posts. This one is decidedly of the tabloid variety.

A wonderful relative of mine, who is no doubt concerned that -
(a) We lack for reading material in the Torczyner שירותים, or
(b) Due to the economic crisis and the Agriprocessors scandal we will soon need to raise and schecht our own meat
has blessed our family with a gift subscription to Backyard Poultry.

For those rare souls to whom Backyard Poultry is not as well-known as, say, Women and Golf or Ireland’s Own, the magazine’s masthead explains that it is “Dedicated to more and better small-flock poultry.”

I am an outdoorsy sort; I like to garden, and I would love to have pets that would earn their keep. So I eagerly awaited our first issue – which came yesterday, on Shabbos.

Right after Shabbos ended I sat down to peruse this unanticipated gift, and could not help being taken aback immiedately by the cover story, a feature on Naked Neck Chickens. I thought to myself, “Poultry prurience? He’s sending me photos of chickens in the, um, raw?” (In truth, the pictures were very tastefully done, I must say.)

I must admit that at this point I was sympathetic to the idea of trashing BP in favor of more substantive reading, but I pressed on. Being a member of a tribe with its own share of idiosyncrasies, I knew I should not judge “Backyard Poultry” by its cover.

So I flipped through the pages, passing ads for egg incubators and Hatching Made Easy and articles on Mites in Winter Poultry Houses and Silver-grey Dorkings, thinking this might actually be educational for me, and might even give me new insights into the sugyos (talmudic discussions) related to Bava Basra discussions of שובכות and Chullin discussions of טריפות - Torah uMadda at its best! -until I found this text in a green box on page 23:

We would like to hear from anyone who can identify (1) situations in which chickens or other poultry have communicated or attempted to communicate with humans and (2) situations indicating that chickens or other poultry think or plan into the future.

If you have experiences in either of these situations, please share them with us. Provide as much detail as possible, as well as an e-mail or phone number so we can inquire further in the most efficient manner possible. Photos or other illustrations are also welcome. Your photos will be scanned and returned.

Send your experiences to:, please say “Fowl Comunication” in the subject line, or by standard mail to BYP Fowl Language, 145 Industrial Dr., Medford, WI 54451.

We hope to be able to share future articles on these experiences.

At this point I realized I must put down Backyard Poultry and get back to work. I thank my generous relative for broadening my horizons – and given that the magazine is in its fourth year, there must be a market for horizons this broad - but I was never really one for the chicks, anyway.

Besides, there’s a gemara shiur I need to prepare – and we already finished Maseches Beitzah last month.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Judaism by Proxy (Derashah: Yitro 5769)

Once upon a time, there was a shepherd named Moshe, who was visited by Gd. Gd asked him to lead the Jewish people; Moshe refused. Gd was persistent, though, and eventually, in the face of Divine Rage, Moshe resigned himself to his mission.

Ten מכות (plagues), a split sea and bread from heaven followed, along with a good deal of trouble and self-doubt. But, somehow, Moshe ended up not only leading the nation, but doing all of the leading personally. The נשיאים (tribal leaders), and even Moshe’s personal prophet, Aharon, were shut out of Moshe’s monopoly – so that when Moshe’s father-in-law Yitro visited, he found Moshe holding court from morning to night, handling every individual problem directly. Moshe had no delegates, no subsidiaries.

How did this happen? How did the reluctant pawn of Gd, the most humble human being to walk the earth, come to arrogate sole authority over the Jewish people for himself?

Part of it may have been Moshe’s attitude toward the nation; on several occasions Moshe betrayed a personal sense that the Jewish people were not ready for prime time, and could not be trusted. But as I read Moshe’s original assignment and then Yisro’s speech to Moshe in this parshah, I see more at work here. As I understand it, Moshe believed that he was not allowed to delegate his responsibilities to others – and with good reason.

In our civil interactions, Judaism recognizes an entity called a שליח (shaliach), a proxy. A שליח is an agent we appoint for a mission, to act on our behalf.

Moshe was appointed as a שליח, in the most literal sense of the word. Gd was under contract to the Jewish people, dating back 430 years to the time of Avraham and Sarah, to liberate them from Egypt and bring them to Israel – and Gd farmed out the task to Moshe, to act on His behalf.

Gd even used the terminology of שליחות four times in just six pesukim when He first attempted to send Moshe, saying ואשלחך אל פרעה, כי אנכי שלחתיך, אהיה שלחני אליכם and אלקי אברהם אלקי יצחק ואלקי יעקב שלחני אליכם. And, of course, Moshe refused by saying שלח נא ביד תשלח, Send someone else as Your formal שליח.

That Moshe is a formal שליח of Gd is a theme that played out across his career, such as when Gd asked Moshe to instruct the Jews to bring wealth out of Egypt, because that would fulfill Gd’s contract to rescue the Jews from Egypt with great wealth. It may even be why Moshe eventually lost his job – he deviated from his שליחות by hitting the rock to produce water.

Because Moshe is a formal שליח, he understands that he cannot assign his job to someone else. As the gemara explains, מילי לא ממסרן לשליח, A proxy cannot transmit his mission to a third party. When I give someone a job to do, the working assumption is that I want more than just for the mission to be completed; I want that person to attempt the mission.

And Gd wants Moshe, the Divinely assigned שליח, to be the one to attempt this mission. Moshe cannot assign his job to another person, he cannot ask Aharon, whose job is to be a prophet, or the נשיאים, whose job is to represent their tribes, to take over a leadership position by serving as a judge. The job belongs to Moshe, and Moshe alone.

And beyond the technical point – Moshe feels the personal responsibility of a שליח, he is a man on a mission, and he cannot see relinquishing this responsibility. This is his job, and, succeed or fail, he will see it through.

Yitro understands this – which is why he stresses that Moshe will still keep his role of teaching the Jews and guiding their spiritual growth, and why he qualifies with וצוך אלקים, that this new plan will be acceptable only with Divine approval. The original משלח, the One who assigned Moshe his Sisyphean task, is the only One who may re-apportion the labor – and then Moshe will not be dropping responsibility but rather following Divine instructions.

This idea of שליחות and taking personal responsibility is not only an abstract lesson regarding Moshe’s historic mission; rather, it is crucial to the way we understand and embrace our role as Jews. Gd assigns a task to Moshe because He wants Moshe, specifically, to do it; Gd assigns Torah, mitzvot, a communal role, my mission in life, to me, because Gd wants me, as a Jew, specifically, to do it.

To borrow from Rabbi Tarfon: לא עליך המלאכה לגמור ולא אתה בן חורין להבטל ממנה, Your responsibility is not necessarily to succeed – but you cannot desist, we cannot re-assign the job, appoint surrogates and expect that they will take care of the job as we would have, or even better. My job as a Jew is to do it, myself. There is no such thing as Judaism by proxy.

Failure is not a reason to re-assign a task – we must continue to try, as Moshe did

Some might argue that failure would be grounds for farming out a task, that our inability to meet Divine expectations is reason enough to leave the task to others – but Moshe’s actions at the start of our parshah deny this argument. Moshe insisted on judging cases himself, even though it was patently obvious, as Yitro noted, that he must fail.

Moshe would have failed at his task, but it was still Moshe’s task – and the same is true for my Judaism. Gd wants me to do it, to try, to sweat, to meet or exceed or fail expectations, but it is my task, for me, and it is not for me to hand it off to another until Gd decides it is time to appoint another. Gd wants me to try – and Gd wants all of us to try.

1. This does not end with the usual "closer" type of summary and kicker, because we are honoring some dedicated volunteers this Shabbat, and I am seguing from this derashah into comments about our honoreers.

2. The gemara's comment that one cannot pass of שליחות to another is Gittin 66b. See also Avnei Miluim 38:2.

3. Regarding Moshe's suspicion of the nation's abilities: Think of והן לא יאמינו לי, and of Moshe offering the Torah to the zekeinim instead of the am, and of עוד מעט וסקלוני, and of שמעו נא המורים. Not that they had not given Moshe cause to doubt, of course!

4. One may appoint a שליח to perform a mitzvah on his behalf, of course. However, that is a שליחות which is built into the mitzvah, licensed by the Torah itself.

5. I don't have time to look it up at the moment, but I'm fairly certain there is material relevant to this theme in Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks' wonderful book, To Heal a Fractured World.

6. Because this was a derashah rather than a class, I did not address one major question this raises: How do I know my mission? How do I know that Gd wants me to do what I am doing now - perhaps my mission is something else entirely?
Moshe knows, because Gd told him - but how do we?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Rabbi and the (Digital) Television Converter

For those who do not live in the US, or just have not been paying attention: The government of the United States of America has decided that a top item on our national agenda should be the conversion of television signals from analog to digital.

That’s right: We may not be able to bail out the banks, provide national healthcare or bring peace to the Middle East, but we can give you better television.

Sounds like bread and circuses to me, but anyway…

Since the old-fashioned Torczyner television depends on broadcast signals rather than cable, we need to install a converter box to change the digital signal into analog heiroglyphics our TV will comprehend. If we refuse, we will lose all reception in the next few months - PBS has already switched to digital, so that's gone.

Fortunately – I kid you not, you non-Americans! – the US Government has provided us with a $40 coupon so that we could afford the converter. (Re-read comments above about banks and healthcare, please.)

But it’s not going to be quite that easy for us to get better television, oh, no. We have to install it. Should be easy, right? Plug green wire into green socket type stuff? No challenge for the guy who adds RAM to his desktop, installs outdoor lighting, and opens up the VCR to fix it?

Not so much; the following was the initial line of instructions in the one-page installation guide for our Sansonic FT-300A ATSC Digital-to-Analog Converter:

Make sure you have a good antenna you have 50/50 chance your old analog antenna will not work well even if its an expensive outdoor antenna the signal has changed to digital, all older antennas are analog the only way to find out is connect it.

I kid you not. I did not remove any apostrophes or add any punctuation. Even the GOOD LUCK, in caps, is theirs. So this is going to be a challenge.

In truth, I have mixed feelings about the conversion, anyway. I didn’t want a television in the first place.

My reluctance is not due to the usual concern for keeping the outside world out of the living room – First, the TV isn’t in the living room, it’s consigned to a hutch of ignominy befitting its lowly status in our home. Second, if I were in the business of barring the blathering ether, I would have to take a stronger stance regarding the Internet.

It’s not a concern that I will be drawn into wasting time on it, either. Taxi and The Muppet Showsee this great article on the origin of each Muppet, by the way – were the last great television shows, save perhaps The Simpsons. (I think I could probably get into RenReb's beloved 24, but I don't want the addiction.) Besides, I don’t have the time to waste sitting in front of a box.

No, my issue is for my kids and their standards for leisure activity.

Right now, we get only two channels – PBS and a very fuzzy NBC – because we live in a valley and have no connection to a roof antenna. There’s no real temptation for the kids, outside of videos. But this digital converter will bring more options, if I understand the PR material correctly.

My kids’ standards for entertainment are immature, and they have lots of free time at their disposal. I want television to be something they do for entertainment on an occasional basis. I want them to see TV the way most people view going to the movies.

I don’t want them to think of television as a normal part of their lives, a normal way to spend their time, like reading, eating, learning Torah, using Lego and playing sports. It’s too easy for children to accept the television’s unchallenging form of relaxation, and became disenchanted with reading or learning or playing challenging games.

In the end, though, I will give in and – if I should receive the GOOD LUCK wished for me by the instructions – install the converter. It’s just going to be one more test of our parenting skills.

GOOD LUCK, indeed.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Ha'aretz reports: Miracles in Israeli Elections Carry Livni to Victory

(With apologies here and here and especially to Rochel Imenu here.)

Ha'aretz (not!) is reporting that as Israeli elections came to a close, numerous stories circulated in Tel Aviv about Divine intervention guiding voters safely through the elections.

From tales of men who were on their way to vote for right-wing parties and were held back as their Tzitzit became entangled in chairs, to the Central Election Committee’s decision to prohibit Gd from blessing Israeli voters who cast votes for Torah parties, the realm of the supernatural was unusually involved in Tuesday’s ballot.

Avigdor Lieberman was seen wandering the streets in an exhilarated fog, mumbling, “נס מן השמים, It’s a miracle from Heaven,” thanking Gd for the narrow gap between Kadima and Likud that would enable him to play kingmaker in upcoming coalition talks. Lieberman denied outright the allegations that he had sold his soul to Satan, though.

Perhaps the most striking story was repeated by dozens of Tel Aviv voters. Speaking in tones of awe, and telling remarkably consistent stories, they reported seeing a woman in black on various street corners and outside polling stations, warning them away from traffic jams and voting sites with long lines, directing them elsewhere to cast their ballots. “Get out of here! It’s dangerous!” she was reported to have shouted at them in Arabic.

Many reported that the woman advised them to vote for Tzipi Livni, and even slipped them 100-shekel bills as they emerged from voting.

The woman was mysterious, dressed in black pants and a black shirt. Some voters were brave enough to address her directly, and ask for her name. She smiled and replied only, איזבל אמכם (your mother Jezebel), and disappeared.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Remembrance of Injustices Past - Good or Bad?

The other day someone was kind of enough to remind me of how I had wronged him years ago – a decade ago, in fact.

I apologized long ago.
I did my best to right the wrong.
I committed myself, verbally and through actions, to never repeat the error.
But, evidently, that wasn’t enough; teshuvah may cause Gd to erase sins, but we human beings never forget being wronged.

Lest I come across as self-righteous, I’ll cop to being the same way – I don't think I brood over sins against me, but I don’t think I ever really forget being wronged, either.

I needed all of thirty seconds just now to come up with a short list of injustices committed against me in childhood:

• A parental accusation that I had stolen a friend’s inherited ornamental tallis clips, when I came home with them one Shabbos afternoon. I was eight years old, scared stiff, but I knew he had told me to take them.

• A Spelling Bee moderator who mispronounced a word, causing me to misspell it. She said ‘legislature’ but she meant ‘legislator’. I was in 4th grade at the time, too timid to call her on it but angry enough to remember it vividly almost thirty years later. I could tell you her name, what she was wearing, everything.

• A high school Social Studies teacher who accused me of copying my paper on “The Good Earth” because it was so good. I had simply followed her model for essay-writing (a very good model, by the way), but I ended up dragging in my English composition instructor as a witness to my abilities, and the ribbon from my Canon Typestar 7 as proof of my trial-and-error process, before she dropped her complaint against me.

And the list goes on.

Maybe it’s a Jewish thing. As Jews, we institutionalize both forgiveness and remembrance of injustices past.

Sure, we insist that people should forgive each other, but we never forget all of the injustices carried out by others – indeed, many of them become holidays and/or fast days, depending on how they turned out.

And we never forget the wrongs that we have committed, either.

As individuals, we are taught that even if we apologize to the injured parties and even if we pray for forgiveness on the Yamim Noraim (Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur), we are still obligated to repeat that request from Gd for forgiveness for years thereafter.

And as a nation, much of the time we dedicate to mourning injustices committed against us is actually spent in remembering the sins we committed to deserve those injustices. (Think קינות of Tisha b'Av.)

That guilt over what we have done has certainly affected me, too; I can come up with a much longer list of injustices I’ve committed against others, but that ain’t going on this blog.

By logic’s lights, this seems unhealthy, harboring heaps of injustice in our minds.

Dragging around guilt over our own wrongdoings makes it easy to excuse our failures – “this is who I am, it’s who I’ve always been.” (אל תהי רשע בפני עצמך!)

And toting around anger over what they’ve done to you, well, that’s just a recipe for disaster on so many levels.

So why does Judaism place such a consistent emphasis on it? Does the value (contrition, presumably) really outweigh the potential cost (stress, anger, low self-esteem)?


Monday, February 9, 2009

Rabbi's Benevolent Fund: '08-'09 Shareholders Annual Report

For the past four years, I have disseminated an annual report for my Benevolent Fund at the end of each fiscal year, via a synagogue mailing. This year, especially given the OU/Agudah/Young Israel Parnossah Initiative to build up community funds, I have decided to post the report on this blog as well, in case it might assist others who run such funds to prepare similar reports. (For more on my beliefs on the role and operation of a Rabbi's Benevolent Fund, click here.)

What is the Rabbi’s Benevolent Fund?
For thousands of years, Jews have maintained communal funds meant to serve local people and wayfarers in times of need. The needs of the community have been served, and these funds have preserved the anonymity of both donor and recipient; only the collectors and distributors have known who was helping and who was being helped.

Today, in America, we continue that tradition with the Rabbi’s Benevolent Fund. Donations to the Rabbi’s Benevolent Fund do not go to Congregation Sons of Israel and its direct needs, although a small portion of Benevolent Fund money is used to support Sons programs (see below under Program Services).

Does a Tzedakah Fund need to issue a Shareholders Report?
As part of our mitzvah of tzedakah, we are obligated to make sure our tzedakah is used appropriately. The Rama wrote in the Code of Jewish Law (Yoreh Deah 257:2) that one is not allowed to give to a Tzedakah Fund that is not administered responsibly, and he said, “One should present a public accounting.” Therefore, every tzedakah organization must provide its donors with the equivalent of a corporate earnings report, detailing how the tzedakah is spent. Of course, the anonymity of the recipients must be preserved, but general information should be disseminated. That is the purpose of this report.

Administration of the Fund
Our Fiscal Year runs from February 1 through January 31, to approximate the reading of Parshat Terumah on the calendar; Parshat Terumah records the first Jewish Tzedakah campaign, raising money for the Mishkan the Jews carried with them in the desert.

The anonymity of Fund beneficiaries creates a special problem: The Gemara comments that a Tzedakah fund should never be administered by just one person. If you are ever solicited for a fund which has only one person in charge, know that the Gemara tells you not to give!

To solve that problem, a person who is not related to anyone at Sons of Israel has access to the checkbook and is able to verify that I am using the money appropriately.

Over the past fiscal year, the Fund collected $26,770. This is down about $7,000 from last year. I attribute the drop primarily to the economic downturn, and to the urgency this year for contributions to tzedakah causes in Israel.

This money came from donations in honor of special occasions, money put in the Tzedakah box in Shul, donations in honor of services I was able to render to families, and money solicited for specific needs.

There were no overhead costs, administrative salary or fundraising costs this year.

Program Services
Program Service Expenditures: Over the past fiscal year the fund distributed $24,992, or most of our in-take – and down from last year’s distribution of $32,554.

$10,884, or about 43.5% of the total distribution, went to Special Collections run by the Benevolent Fund and collections by people who came to us for specific institutions and families. This is the highest total in several years, largely due to growth in our fundraising efforts for IDF troops and Gush Katif.

Another $9,435.75, or about 37.8% of the total distribution, was disseminated locally in loans and gifts for basic needs, including food, utility bills, and tuition. For comments on Local Aid, see the next section.

Another $3,907.25, or about 15.6%, helped local organizations like Jewish Family Service and the Lehigh Valley Kashrut Commission to meet community needs. For comments on Aid to Community Institutions, see the next section.

$565, or 2.3%, was distributed to almost one hundred organizations that sent the shul envelopes, requesting assistance. These institutions are generally schools or social service organizations. Many more such organizations are rejected, either because I am unable to verify their validity or for other reasons. This is the lowest total since I have been keeping records; I am cutting down on these contributions, in order to support local needs.

Finally, $200, or .8%, sponsored Sons of Israel programs. This is in line with past years’ support of the shul. We provided the normal $100 for a Chafetz Chaim Heritage Foundation video, $72 to a yeshiva in Baltimore for the calendar that we use to set the times for synagogue services, and $28 for the Yad l’Achim calendar the shul receives.

Comments on Program Services
Aid to local families was dramatically down, from $20,946.43 last year to $9,435.75 this year. However, this is largely because the previous year’s total included $14,000 in loans, and there were no such loans this year – so that direct, non-loan aid was actually up more than 25%. These gifts to local families constituted almost 38% of our spending. Tuition aid ($7785.75) was the greatest portion of this aid to local families.

Like last year, almost $4,000 went to help local Jewish community institutions. This is almost double the spending in this category for the preceding two years. Unfortunately, I expect to need to maintain this level in the coming years.

Looking Ahead
The needs of our local community are growing, both in terms of private needs for non-loan aid and in terms of the needs of communal institutions which come to the Benevolent Fund for aid. Our donors have been generous, but we will be pressed to increase our giving in order to maintain our ability to serve the community’s needs.

We managed to balance earnings and distributions this year. The Fund keeps a moderate cushion of two to five thousand dollars to allow for sudden needs, and we will have to be careful in coming years to maintain that cushion.

Thank You!
On behalf of all those who were assisted this past year, and who will be assisted in the future, thank you for being so generous toward the Benevolent Fund.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Super Sunday and Tu B’Shevat (Tu BiShvat) 5769/2009: Celebrating going from $0 to $1

[Haveil Havalim #204 is here!]

Today is Super Sunday here in the Lehigh Valley; today, volunteers gather to call prospective donors for our Federation’s annual Campaign for Jewish Needs. Every year, the feelings I associate with the day are the same: Trepidation, followed by Exhilaration.

Trepidation, because I always call a lot of $0 cases, people who have never given to the campaign. That includes people who actively dislike giving in general, or who actively dislike the Federation, as well as people who just could not be bothered. People who hear, "This is Mordechai Torczyner, and I'm calling as a volunteer for the Jewish Federation of the-" and hang up.

I wish I could say I take these cases for some noble reason, like wanting to inspire tzedakah in the hardest of hearts, but the truth is less dramatic: There’s nowhere to go but Up. In the worst case scenario, it’s still the same level as last year.

But there's Exhilaration, too, because I have an okay success rate, thanks to a Divinely inspired shtick I developed a few years ago:

If I can actually get past the first sentence, I introduce them to the uses of the Federation’s campaign – the 50% or so that goes to Israeli needs, the money for our school, for Jewish Family Services, for our synagogue education programs, for our JCC, for our Hillels, etc.

If they explain that things are rough for them economically, I shift gears and try to connect them with services that might help them. But if they just come back with a No, I ask them if they might agree to give one dollar. Just one dollar. Who can say No to one dollar?

Of course, it will cost the Federation more than a dollar to solicit payment of that pledge, but:
(a) people who agree to $1 on the phone may give more when writing the check, and
(b) it’s much harder to get a $0 to go to $1 than to get a $1 to go to $10. Just look at the difference in percentage-increase! So now, the hard work is done.

This aspect of Super Sunday reminds me of Tu b’Shevat, which is coming up tonight and tomorrow.

Tu b’Shevat celebrates Terumah, Maaser, Maaser Rishon and Maaser Ani, those tithes of Israeli produce we give to support the Beit haMikdash, to beautify Yerushalayim and to help the needy. We pick this day because it’s the day when the tithing cycle begins anew for the year; the previous year’s produce is complete and has its own taxes to separate, and now we start accumulating for the new year and its tithing.

So we celebrate with a quasi-Yom Tov on Tu b’Shevat – but on Tu b’Shevat itself the new fruit is still in its most nascent stage, and no edible fruit has emerged yet. And yet, we celebrate the fact that we have gone from nothing, barren tree branches, to the beginnings of a crop.

Of course, we will also celebrate when the fruit matures – we bring Bikkurim (first fruits) with a big parade, and then at the end of a full three-year tithing cycle we have Viduy Maaser (declaration of proper tithing, in the Beit haMikdash).

But Tu b’Shevat is the day when we go from $0 to $1, and, apparently, that’s reason to celebrate as well.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Rabbi Noach Weinberg, ztz"l

Today, the Jewish people lost one of our most devoted teachers, a man who truly loved all, and sought to help all: Rabbi Noach Weinberg, zt"l.

My parents were involved with Rabbi Weinberg's "Aish haTorah" yeshiva as long ago as the late '70s-early '80s. I have a photograph somewhere of me sitting on my parents' couch, next to Rabbi Weinberg, a Steinsaltz gemara open in front of us. I was maybe 9 or 10 years old, clad in a "Yerushalayim" t-shirt and shorts, sitting next to a great rosh yeshiva who took the time to talk to me.

Seven or eight years later, I attended a day-long "Discovery" seminar for yeshiva students at Aish haTorah, and then a Shabbat at the yeshiva two summers after that.

In later years I became a skeptic of some of the Aish haTorah program, and once had the chance to question Rav Noach about aspects of the Torah Codes. Although I couldn't accept his answers - I remain a skeptic - it was clear to me that he genuinely believed in the program, and in applying it to wake Jews to their magnificent heritage.

Over the years I had the opportunity to hear Rav Noach speak several times, both live and otherwise. He was always electric, with his hearty smile, his wonderful accent, his love of people... he was one of those people who make an impact on you because of their sincere warmth, even before you get to their message.

To me, Rabbi Weinberg was a Moshe and Aharon rolled into one - he brought Torah to the nation from Har Sinai, and he taught it with a יקוב הדין את ההר pursuit of righteousness, but he was also a lover of shalom and a lover of people, מעורב בדעת עם הבריות. I know many Jews who were brought to Torah by that exquisite combination of traits.

Rav Noach lived a life of קידוש השם, sanctifying Gd's Name, as it is described in the gemara in Yoma (86a): Displaying Torah, and displaying a love for others, and so bringing credit to Gd's Name.

I am certain there will be detractors, as well; there are always detractors, if you do anything worth noticing. But none of them will be able to legitimately deny his love for others, his love for Torah, and his all-consuming commitment to Klal Yisrael.

We were blessed to have Rabbi Weinberg among us as long as we did. He was a present to us from the דיין אמת (the Judge of Truth) who has now removed him from among us. May He send us more Rabbi Weinbergs, soon.

יהי זכרו ברוך, May his memory be for a blessing.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Toward a Modern Orthodox Ideology

A dozen years ago, a rabbi who was among the founders of Edah explained to me that Edah was meant to develop an ideology for Modern Orthodoxy. As he put it, the vision of Modern Orthodoxy cannot be, “I’m Modern Orthodox because I go to shul and I go to movies.”

A dozen years later, I am told that Edah, for better or for worse, no longer exists. In the meantime, Modern Orthodoxy, for many of its adherents as well as opponents, still lacks a formal ideology. And I agree with that rabbi – this movement needs an ideology.

Movies or Israel, Kashrut or Secular Education or Women’s Issues, no matter the topic, the choices which guide our lives must derive from a sound philosophy. Without such a driving engine, our religious practice, and even belief, are a function of our needs/wants rather than religious tradition and teachings, and that’s no way to run a movement.

But I think such an ideology is within reach, if we first define the term Modern Orthodox itself.

As I understand it (and some people might not even consider me Modern Orthodox in the first place, so take this with a grain of salt) "Modern Orthodoxy" describes an Orthodoxy which absorbs what we believe to be valuable in the Modern ideological world, if and only if those valuable ideas jive with our Orthodox tradition.

Or to borrow from R’ Shimshon Raphael Hirsch’s introduction to Horeb: Orthodoxy is שמעתתא and Modernity is אגדתא. Modernity provides insight into Orthodoxy, but only when it does not conflict with that Orthodoxy.

Given that definition, I would suggest that an ideology of Modern Orthodoxy should be composed of the basic primacy of Orthodoxy, as well as the ideas we have embraced from Modernity.

To illustrate, here are three modern isms which Modern Orthodoxy has embraced, having found their basis within Orthodoxy as well:

Universalism, in my usage, implies an embrace of the world as a whole, in the recognition that all human beings are created in the special image assigned to them by Gd (Tzelem Elokim).
This modern idea, rooted in Enlightenment-era philosophy, leads to the conclusion that all human beings constitute a family of some sort, and it also promotes the idea that all human beings may have some lesson to teach me.
This idea is manifest in Modern Orthodox ideas of:
religious tolerance;
equal opportunity for religious education and religious engagement;
engagement with society;
study of both Jewish and secular wisdom.


Self-Determination, here, refers to the right and responsibility of any individual or collective to determine their future path.
This modern idea, which has its roots in centuries-old political theory, teaches that if we wish to have a better lot we ought to take charge of creating that better lot for ourselves. Lack of control is the result of my own failure to create my own destiny.
This concept plays out in Modern Orthodox ideas of:
Political action.

Rationalism, as defined by Vernon Bourke, is an approach in which “the criterion of the truth is not sensory but intellectual and deductive.
This idea is less modern than the previous two, but it has gained significant ground in the public mind in recent centuries. It demands of us that we detemine truth based upon observable reality.
This concept generates Modern Orthodox ideas of:
Serious study of Jewish tradition, from text;
Adherence to text over tradition;
Secular study;
Skepticism toward mysticism.

Note, though:
While all three of these ideas have clear antecedents in both תורה שבכתב and תורה שבעל פה (the Written and Spoken Torah), nonetheless, they are not consistent with every aspect of Torah.
Universalism runs afoul of the particularism which drives laws governing ribbit, avdut and more. It also conflicts with mystical ideas, embraced by Kuzari as well as Chassidut, of the special character of the Jewish neshamah.
Self-Determination conflicts with some applications of bitachon (trust in Gd) and the expectation that we will rely on Gd to assign us our destiny.
Rationalism, unchecked by loyalty to tradition and revelation, risks violating the basic principle that Modernity must conform with Orthodoxy.

So that's a start. Universalism, Self-Determination and Rationalism, within the context of a robust Orthodoxy, are but a few pieces of a Modern Orthodox ideology; can you identify more?

Monday, February 2, 2009

Birkat haChamah / Blessing the Sun 2009 Erev Pesach, Part III

Part I was here.
Part II was here.

Today I hope to wrap our discussion with a few more questions related to when, exactly, we "bless the sun" with Birkat haChamah this year, and a few other pertinent items.

1) Must this be performed in the morning? (aka "Can't you wait until after I have prepared the maror and charoset?!")
Magen Avraham (229:5) and others say it must be done in the morning, in the first quarter of the daylight hours. There are two classes of reasons for this:

a) In general, זריזין מקדימין, we enthusiastically pursue mitzvot at our earliest opportunity;

b) There are reasons specific to this mitzvah:
(1) This is based on one calculation of when, exactly, the Sun returns to its מולד - its original point of creation

(2) Rambam and Shulchan Aruch specify that it should be done in the morning. (One who sees the Sun on the day of Tekufat Nisan of the start of the 28-year machzor, when the Tekufah is in the beginning of the fourth evening, when he sees it on the morning of the fourth day he recites “Blessed is the Creator of Bereishit.”)

(3) Berachot 7a identifies the first quarter of the day as a time when others worship the Sun, and so our blessing combats that fallacy.

Teshuvah meiAhavah cites the Nodeh BeYehudah permitting the practice even just before midday, but Rav Ovadia Yosef and others suggest one should not invoke Gd’s Name in the blessing if it is after the first quarter of the day.

2) So should we do it before Shacharit?
On one hand, we perform the most frequent mitzvot first, so Shacharit should be first. However, one does not bypass a mitzvah opportunity – and so we should recite the blessing as soon as we have the opportunity to see the sun.

Maharil indicates one does it when first seeing the sun in the morning. However, Rav Ovadia Yosef reports a Jerusalem custom of davening early at sunrise, and then performing this mitzvah at the end of davening, before Aleinu.

In truth, this will not be a real problem for us in Allentown. In Allentown, PA sunrise will be 6:35 AM that day, so one will not see the sun before 6:30 AM Shacharit.

3) In Allentown, there will be a gathering for Birkat haChamah at 9:30 AM. But would it be more appropriate to say Birkat haChamah privately and earlier, rather than wait for the group?
Rosh HaShanah 32b seems to indicate that performing a mitzvah early trumps performing it with a larger group. (Why is Hallel in Shacharit? Because the energetic perform mitzvot as early as possible. Then shofar should also be in Shacharit, because the energetic perform mitzvot as early as possible? Rabbi Yochanan explained: This was during a time of decrees against Judaism.)

However, Terumat haDeshen pointed out, from Yevamot 39, that where we are not concerned about losing a mitzvah opportunity, we do delay in order to perform the mitzvah better. (We rely on this argument in waiting to perform Kiddush Levanah on Motzaei Shabbat. However, Yabia Omer 2:Yoreh Deah 18:7 argues that the cases are not comparable – in Kiddush Levanah your own, personal act is improved by being on Motzaei Shabbat.)

4) What happens if it’s cloudy?

Panim Meirot 38 rules that one still does it; the talmudic term “One who sees” only indicates the normal way this occurs, but the Sun is shining whether we see it or not.

Yehudah Yaaleh (1 Orach Chaim 7) disagrees, because the Rambam specified “One who sees” twice in his statement. Further, in on the other possible explanation of Birkat haChamah, which we cited last time (that one recites this blessing if he has not seen the sun in three days), the blessing is clearly dependent upon personal sight.

In practice, the authorities recommend not doing it if the clouds form a thick screen. See Yehudah Yaaleh 1:Orach Chaim 7, Yechaveh Daas 4:8:7, Yabia Omer 8:Orach Chaim 8:4, Divrei Yatziv Orach Chaim 96.

5) What about someone with impaired vision?
Rav Ovadia Yosef (Yechaveh Daat 4:8:9-11) rules that one may do it with glasses (as well as from indoors if there is no other choice), like Kiddush Levanah. One who is blind, though, should answer Amen to another’s blessing.

6) Women and Birkat haChamah
Finally, here on some interesting references on whether/how women perform this mitzvah: Minchat Yitzchak 8:34, Yechaveh Daat 4:18:6, Divrei Yatziv Orach Chaim 96:3, Yabia Omer 8:Orach Chaim 8:4, Yabia Omer 8:Orach Chaim 36:2, Yabia Omer 8:Orach Chaim 43:10.

Birkat haChamah/Blessing the Sun 2009, Erev Pesach, Part II

Last April, I published “Birkat haChamah Part I” here, covering a basic explanation of this practice (Jews bless the sun?), material relevant to the origin of this practice (Is this Jewish?!), and the question of how we calculate the date for this practice (Erev Pesach?!).

At the time I said I would publish Birkat haChamah Part II with a practical guide to Birkat haChamah. I have taken a while to find the time, but here goes with a basic Birkat haChamah FAQ on a few key points. (Part III is here):

1) Must I do this? It’s Erev Pesach, after all!
Look, if you feel like missing a once-in-28-years opportunity, go ahead. Me, I’d like to do it now and not wait until I’m 65 next time round.

However, it is indeed possible that this is an “optional” practice, for two reasons:
a) As we noted last time, Rashba (Responsum 1:245) suggests that the blessings we recite upon seeing various unusual natural events are optional. (But note that Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank in Har Tzvi suggests this might be limited to Shehechiyanu blessings, and so it would not apply to Birkat haChamah.)

b) Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank (Har Tzvi Orach Chaim 119) suggests that even if the blessing is obligatory when you see the sun, you could still choose not to look at the sun at all, but simply to remain indoors preparing for Pesach.

2) Do we recite Shechiyanu as part of this ritual?
There is some debate on this point.

Those who say Yes (Bach Orach Chaim 225, Chatam Sofer Orach Chaim 52) argue that if the moment makes you happy, you can recite Shehechiyanu. Chatam Sofer believes it is even obligatory.

Others disagree, for several reasons:
a) The son of the Bach says this would be a case of reciting a berachah upon reciting another berachah.

b) Ktav Sofer Orach Chaim 34 says it would be redundant; the basic berachah already expresses our joy.

c) Ktav Sofer also suggests we should not recite Shehechiyanu, because we should be sad that the sun’s light has not yet increased to a supernatural level with the arrival of Mashiach.

d) Fascinatingly, Maharam Schick (Orach Chaim 90) says one does not recite Shechiyanu on a cognitive experience, because our sechel is immortal and therefore a berachah of “thank you for keeping us alive to reach this point” is irrelevant. Since we don’t see any difference between the sun on April 7, 8 or 9, our experience is cognitive rather than physical, and so there is no Shehechiyanu.

The Minchat Yitzchak (8:15) suggests taking a new fruit to solve the Shehechiyanu problem, and notes that the Raavad had one person recite Shehechiyanu for all, to minimize the problem. Rav Ovadia Yosef (Yechaveh Daat 4:8:4) offers the same recommendation.

3) Is there anything else to say, besides the berachah of Oseh Maaseh Bereishit and the possible inclusion of Shehechiyanu?
Chatam Sofer (Orach Chaim 56) lists extra Tehillim. Rav Ovadia (Yechaveh Daat 4:8:3) lists Tehillim added in Yerushalayim, based on Sanhedrin 101a (“One who recites a pasuk at its proper time brings good to the world, as it is written (Mishlei 15), “How great is a word at its time!”). He has Tehillim 19 (השמים מספרים כבוד קל), the first half of Tehillim 148 (הללו את ה' מן השמים) and Tehillim 136 (הלל הגדול).

The Divrei Yatziv (Orach Chaim 96) objects to borrowing Tehillim from Kiddush Levanah, because those are recited at Kiddush Levanah for moon-specific reasons.

Some say the poem of Kel Adon, because it includes praise of the celestial bodies which HaShem created, and which carry out HaShem’s will.

Some recite this entire ritual before Aleinu at the end of Shacharit, and that adds the benefit of saying Aleinu at the end – demonstrating (as we do with Kiddush Levanah) that we serve Gd and not the celestial bodies.

(See Part III here.)

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The View says: Observant Jews are strange. Really?!

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here!]

I first heard about Loving Leah this past Thursday when someone asked me about the film at an adult education class I taught; she wanted to know if Jews still practice Yibbum. [The answer: Not in Ashkenazi communities; we follow Abba Shaul’s talmudic ruling and perform chalitzah instead.]

Then, courtesy of the Haveil Havalim edition linked above, I was introduced to the real meat of the controversy: Portrayal of observant, particularly Hasidic Jews, in movies. It seems that some are offended by comments from talk-show hosts and actress Susie Essman on a show called The View. The offending lines include, “Hasidic women are not good dressers,” “You see what these women look like,” and more. Video available here.

I agree with the critics – those comments are insensitive.

I further stipulate that were the word “Hasidic” removed from the sartorial criticism above, and replaced with “Black” or “Muslim” there would be a massive uproar, possibly including the torching of embassies, or at least a studio or two. The Council on American-Islamic Relations would have a field day with it; has anyone heard anything from the ADL on this one?

But קבל את האמת ממי שאמרו, I believe in we have to accept the truth from whence it comes: Within the context of American society, Torah-observant Jews are strange.

*We believe that our ancient text is accompanied by a comprehensive, yet hair-splitting, oral tradition which advises us in detail on everything from social morality to personal hygiene.

*We dress, eat, work, worship and groom ourselves in a manner which sets us apart, intentionally, from society.

*We believe in the imminent arrival of a personal Mashiach who is going to lead billions in the path of righteousness, as wel understand it.

*We see nothing wrong with the idea of animal sacrifice, including the placement of that animal’s blood on an altar as part of religious ritual.

*We believe that our customs have the force of law.

*We wrestle with the credulity of honored sources on issues like demonology and astrology.

Remember the Country Yossi song? “I do the strangest things a man could ever do, ‘cause I’m a Jew, I do that too.”

Yes, we are an עם לבדד ישכון, as Bilam said in his tongue-in-cheek blessing; we are a nation that dwells apart, apparently as desired and enforced by Gd via the Torah.

We aren’t the only social misfits out there; look at the Amish, who have learned to accept their strangeness and even turn a profit on it. But we are most uncomfortable with our unassimilation. We want the sense of purpose that comes with being different, without the stigma that comes with having that difference highlighted, rejected and denigrated.

And I’m not sure that’s a realistic expectation.