Thursday, December 31, 2009

Mazal tov! Mazal tov!

[This week's Toronto Torah is here!]

Last night we celebrated my brother-in-law’s engagement. (To a Toronto girl, no less! I have now passed the first test of Toronto citizenship: I have mishpachah here on both sides of my family.)

And another simchah: This evening we’ll celebrate my bechor’s first siyyum, Gd-willing; we’ve finished learning Mishnayot Masechet Berachot together.

These s’machot have put me in mind to contemplate Vicarious Joy – the happiness we feel when someone else is happy.

I see two kinds of vicarious emotion:
1. I feel the same joy/sadness/revulsion/anger you feel, because I can imagine how I would feel if that happened to me;
2. I feel the same joy/sadness/revulsion/anger you feel, because you feel it.

The first, I think, is the easier one to feel; it’s natural to imagine ourselves experiencing what others experience, even if we have no direct connection to them. I heard a radio report this morning about Michelle Lang, a 34-year old reporter for the Calgary Herald, engaged to be married this summer and killed yesterday in Afghanistan, and my gut reaction was to imagine myself in that situation.

The latter is more challenging, I believe, because it requires of us that we adopt others’ emotional state. Logically, it means that I would be happy just becausehe was happy, or sad just because he was sad, even if I didn’t know why he was happy or sad, even if his emotional reaction to a situation is foreign to me.

The Torah (Shemot 4:14, as explained in Shabbat 139a) describes Aharon meeting his brother Moshe and feeling great happiness for him, after Gd selects him to lead the Jews out of Egypt. It says, “וראך ושמח בלבו,” “He will see you and be glad in his heart.” And the gemara says Aharon is rewarded with the honor of wearing the Kohen Gadol’s special breastplate upon his heart.

Rashi takes this gemara as saying that Aharon felt joy that Moshe had been selected, and he views the gemara’s praise of Aharon as praise that he was happy rather than jealous. But the Torah’s sentence itself – “He will see you and be glad in his heart” – suggests that Aharon’s joy comes before he actually knows anything about Moshe’s appointment. This read is cemented by Shemot 4:27-28, in which it is explicit that Aharon does not know: Gd tells Aharon to go meet Moshe, he meets Moshe, and then Moshe tells him about the appointment.

This suggests that Aharon’s joy is simply triggered by seeing that Moshe is happy. He sees that Moshe is glad, and therefore he is glad, even without knowing why. It’s pure. [I know there is one weakness in this: Moshe resisted being selected! אף על פי כן. His resistance was not sadness; it was humility.]

This also puts me in mind of another point: Our natural expectation that others will be happy when we are happy, and sad when we are sad. We expect it, I think, and we are disappointed when it is not forthcoming, and it makes us doubt our relationships. Interesting, but seder starts in a minute, so I’ll have to return to this thought.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Jewish Snowball Fights

I'm giving a shiur this Friday morning, January 1, on "Snowball Fights in Jewish Law and Thought."

The shiur will begin with a segment on why it's good to be hit by snowballs [rolling in snow as a penance], followed by a discussion of why it may not be good to hit someone with a snowball [practical jokes].

We'll wrap it up by talking about this as a situation in which rigid halachah [tort law] recognizes the flexibility of human nature [the joy of a snowball fight].

Here is the source sheet; I expect to upload the shiur audio to our website, too. [Update: The shiur is here.]

Receiving is Great
1. R’ Yehudah haChasid, Sefer Chasidim 167
If a man who lived with a married woman comes to ask how to repent… For those people for whom repentance is effective… he should repent with a method that matches lashes or kareit.
This is his repentance: If it is during the winter, when ice develop in the river, then if he wishes he may break the ice and sit in the water up to his mouth or nostrils, just as he spoke with her regarding the sin until they completed it.
And so he should do continually, whenever there is ice… And if his body continues to be heated for sin, he should chill himself…

2. R’ Aharon ben Yaakov haKohen, Kol Bo 66
He should endure all of the punishments which are compared to death. He should sit in ice and snow daily…

3. Mishnah, Mikvaot 7:1
The following materials add to a mikvah, and do not disqualify it: Snow, hail, frost, ice, salt and liquefied clay.
R’ Akiva said: R’ Yishmael once argued against me, saying that snow does not count for a mikvah, but the people of Medva testified in his name that he once told them to bring snow and create a mikvah that way, from scratch.

4. Yeshayah 1:18
If your sins will be like red wool, they will become white like snow.

Giving is Problematic
5. Schramm, When fun snowballs into anger, Washington Post 12-23-09
You may be familiar with The Great Snowball Incident of 2009. The Post put the story on its front page, and it appeared on CNN, Fox and other major media outlets. This mostly friendly gathering at the corner of 14th and U streets NW began harmlessly enough. But things got ugly when the combatants pelted the personal vehicle of a D.C. police detective.
The officer got out of his car, displayed his firearm and started threatening arrests. Someone, not knowing the man was a police officer, called 911. The uniformed officers who responded recognized the detective and took his side in trying to control the crowd, which by then had started chanting: "You don't bring a gun to a snowball fight." Meanwhile, the snowballs kept flying.
Standing toward the back of the crowd, with the survival instincts of an armadillo, I decided the time had come to depart. But right at that moment, the detective apparently got hit by another snowball, and he decided I was the one who threw it (I wasn't). Videos of what followed are widely available on the Internet. That guy in the drab, olive coat and fuzzy wool cap being dragged through the crowd by the detective, shouting, "I didn't throw that snowball"? Yeah, that's me. At my finest.

6. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Chovel UMazik 5:1
One may not wound himself or any other person. This is not only a prohibition against “wounding;” anyone who hits…in a manner of Victory [alternate edition: Humiliation] violates a prohibition.

7. Talmud, Bava Metzia 61b
Why did the Torah write “Lo Tignovu” [as the laws prohibiting theft could be deduced from related prohibitions]? It is as we’ve learned, “You shall not steal in order to irritate, you shall not steal in order to pay the kefel fine.”

8. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Geneivah 1:2
Biblically, one may not steal any amount. One may not steal in the manner of playing, or with intent to return it, or with intent to pay. All of these are prohibited, lest one accustom himself to such conduct.

Simchah Pranks
9. Mishnah, Succah 4:7
Immediately, the children would remove their lulavim and eat their etrogim.

10. Rashi to Succah 45a מיד, ואוכלין
The adults would remove the lulavim of the children from their hands on the seventh, and eat the etrogim of the children. There was no theft and no issue of peaceful conduct, for they did this in simchah.

11. Midrash, Vayyikra Rabbah 37:2
Once, on Hoshana Rabbah, his wife gave him ten coins and told him to purchase something for his children. When he went to the market he encountered tzedakah collectors, who said, “Here comes a person of mitzvot!” They asked him, “Please give your portion in a mitzvah, for we are purchasing the wedding needs of an orphan girl.” He gave those ten coins to them, and was then embarrassed to go home.
The man went to shul, where he saw the etrogim that the children ruined on Hoshana Rabbah, regarding which we learned, “Immediately, the children would remove their lulavim and eat their etrogim.” He took the etrogim from them and filled a sack and went to sea until he arrived at the land of a certain king... [He went on to heal that king of a stomach ailment with these etrogim, and he was rewarded with great wealth.]

12. Mishnah, Gittin 5:8
Taking that which a minor has found is prohibited as theft, because of the need for peaceful conduct.

Applications of this leniency
13. R’ Yisrael Isserlein, Terumat haDeshen, Psakim 210
Certainly, in this case [of apparently intentional harm, during hakafot] we would need greater evidence that there was intent to harm, for without intent to harm he would be exempt – even though the harm was a result of his actions – since it occurred during the time of joy in pursuit of a mitzvah…

14. Rama, Choshen Mishpat 378:9
Young man who ride out to greet a groom and bride and harm each other’s property in a manner of joy and laughter, or who do so in other joyous circumstances, are exempt from liability because that is the practice.

15. R’ Yechiel Michel Epstein, Aruch haShulchan Choshen Mishpat 378:21
Where they normally play at times of joy, having people run and ride horses as they would in earlier times, as when they had young men ride on horses to greet a groom, and they would run and damage each other's property in a manner of joy and laughter, and so in other matters of joy like Simchat Torah and Purim, if this is the practice then they are exempt.
Still, if the court decides that they should make a fence and hold a vandal liable, they are so empowered, for many corruptions emerge from this conduct.

16. Rama, Orach Chaim 696:8
People who grab from each other in a manner of joy do not violate “Do not steal.” This is the practice, but only so long as one does not do anything violating municipal edicts.

17. R’ Yechiel Michel Epstein, Aruch haShulchan Orach Chaim 696:12
One who harmed must pay, for today, due to our great sins, all joy is dimmed and we are not on this level.

How does this leniency work?
18. Talmud, Bava Kama 93a
If someone says, “Hit me” or “Wound me” on condition that the assailant will be exempt from liability, he is exempt.

19. Shoel uMeishiv IV 3:108, cited in Sdei Chemed ד:קסג ובעיקר
When Rashi says that forgiveness does not work regarding onah, because it is a matter of physical pain, that is specifically where the husband requests the condition and she is appeased and she forgives it. The same is true whenever someone requests of a person that he forgive something, and he is appeased. Then we say that he did not forgive with a full heart, but only relented to his friend’s appeal.
However, if the forgiver was the one who initiated it, then even in a matter of physical pain it is obvious that he forgave with a full heart. Who asked him to forgive, if he is not speaking out of the desire of his heart?

20. R’ Yisrael Isserlein, Terumat haDeshen, Psakim 210
However, I see, and my heart tells me, that that this matter requires a great fence. If, Gd-forbid, one would ambush another in this place, the mitzvah of circumnavigating the bimah would be lost out of fear of harm from one’s enemy. Further, the sin of one who would harm another at this time would be greater than in another place and at another time, for he mocks the holiness of the synagogue and he performs this mitzvah with a transgression. Further, he does it while the Torah is upon the bimah…

21. Rama, Choshen Mishpat 378:9
Still, if it would appear to the court that they should create a fence against this, they are so empowered.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Why use a siddur

First, a disclaimer: I don’t always use a siddur [prayerbook]. I normally daven at shuls which are nusach sfard, and I am an Ashkenazi boy. Nusach Sfard siddurim are a distraction, and I often leave my own pocket siddur in the wrong pockets.

Nonetheless, I believe that one should use a siddur, and particularly for the amidah. Aside from the halachic reasons favoring siddur-based prayer (see, for example, the Rama in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 99:3 and 100:1, and Mishneh Berurah 53:87), there are many other reasons why one should use a siddur. Among them:

A siddur guarantees that you don’t miss words or get lost in the middle of the Shir Shel Yom for Wednesday;

A siddur held before your chest can protect you from stray bullets, and earn you a wonderful story you can tell for decades to come, assuming your siddur has enough pages to do the job;

A siddur can assure that you won’t be interrupted during davening by a well-meaning friend who thinks you want to know the latest football score. Staring into a siddur clarifies for the world that, yes, you are davening;

A siddur of sufficient weight anchors you, keeping you from wandering too far across the shul and away from your makom.

A siddur – assuming you look into its pages and do not only hold it closed upon your heart, its shieldworthiness notwithstanding – can focus your eyes so that they don’t wander around the room and make contact with mine twice during your amidah, giving the false impression that you are daydreaming rather than davening.

And a siddur is an accessory, even a fashion statement, a way for you to affiliate with those who are like-minded. Artscroll, Koren, RCA, Birnbaum, Tikkun Meir, Shiloh, etc, all of these send important messages about your identity. Note that this is especially important in your shidduch years.

The classic, timeless, siddur: It’s the way to go.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Why the Tropper Scandal Scares Me

I have not the slightest inclination to listen to the infamous audios floating around on the Internet, for a few reasons.

One, because we are trained (Pirkei Avot 4:18) not to look at others בשעת קלקלתן, at the time of their corruption. We have nothing to gain, and much sensitivity to lose, by such voyeurism.

Another reason is that I saw this coming years ago. I didn't predict his specific downfall, but I attended an EJF conference in Boston several years ago, where it was obvious that the people in charge were taking advantage of the benevolence of their major donor, Tom Kaplan.

Mr. Kaplan spoke at a dinner during the event and outlined his vision of an organization which would help intermarried couples return to Judaism. From what I could see, this was not the agenda of the people running the conference, and it was not what was being implemented on the ground. The man with the dream was being used by the people charged with carrying it out.

I turned to the person next to me – turned out to be the Executive Director – and I commented, “He reminds me of Peter Pan.” After that comment I didn’t get invited back, which was neither a surprise nor a disappointment; it was clear that agenda had already trumped ethos.

But the major reason I don’t want to hear those conversations is the thought of how many others could end up doing what he did.

The profile for leaders who fall into this trap is straightforward:
People whose great ambition overwhelms their personalities;
People who abandon tzniut as they put themselves into the spotlight;
People who think they are the smartest ones in the room.

Taken with their ambitions, they overstep lines in pursuit of their goals, until the act of breaking rules becomes meaningless;
Abandoning tzniut, they stand front-and-center, eating up the accolades and thinking themselves unbounded heroes whose foibles are nothing to their successes;
Believing themselves the smartest in the room, they ignore the concerns of others and they imagine that any danger they don’t perceive must not be real.

And so they feed their egos, and so they break rules, and so they fall, thinking all the while that they are in pursuit of the greatest good.

There are lots of ambitious, talented, charismatic leaders in the Jewish world. They are many leaders who are quite capable of ignoring red lines on issues that are dear to them. I am very concerned, worrying who will be next.

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here.]

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Taking Tree

Sorry - On the advice of wise people, I have pulled this post.

Too bad; it was a good one.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Blackberry Blackout

(or, Bugged by Blackberries - a בדיקת תולעים pun)

Yesterday I finally sealed the deal on something I had been contemplating for quite some time.

I never wanted a Blackberry. When I first took the Toronto position and was offered a cell phone as part of the deal, I was advised by friends to make sure it was a Blackberry – and I told them I didn’t want it. The office said they would get me a Blackberry, and I said No.

I wanted to avoid the Blackberry because I am leery of becoming reliant upon handheld e-devices. I cut my teeth on floppy disks, those promising repositories of information which all-too-easily lost their data, and on easily-virused software. Ever since, I have refused to rely on cell phone address books and the like; even my daily-email lists were in text files until a couple of years ago.

Nonetheless, the upgrade from a regular phone was minimal and the office wanted to be generous and so, lo and behold, I had a Blackberry. I can’t tell you if it’s a Curve or a Tour or whatever; that’s like asking me whether my car is an EX, DX or LX. Who knows? It has four wheels (the car, not the Blackberry).

I thought I was resisting the Blackberry culture when I refused to descend into unreadable shorthand – Pls and CYL and so on, glyphs of the modern age.

I thought I was resisting the Blackberry culture when I declined to take advantage of Memopad and Calendar. (I did go for Brickbreaker in odd moments of waiting for appointments, but that’s about it.)

But slowly, slowly, the vibrating buzz became part of my consciousness, a summons with as great an urgency as a child’s cry. I started to exchange one-line emails which were truly inefficient, and often unnecessary, just because I could. I was tempted to email at red lights, as a way to use my time more actively.

Finally, I began to worry about the claim this device had on my time and my blood pressure, but I was lazy about doing anything - until the other day, when the evil device buzzed toward the end of Shacharis and I spent the next few minutes wondering who had emailed me. Time to get a grip.

So I’ve set a new policy for myself: A set email time in the mornings, a set email time at lunch, a set email time during the dinner break and another before bed. People who email me get a polite auto-reply alerting them that I am looking at ways to make my emailing more efficient (rather than say overtly, “I am restricting my time for communicating with you”…), and no longer can they expect an immediate response.

I feel good about this; I should have done this years ago.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

National Fatherhood Initiative's finding on raising teens

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here!]

A friend pointed me to the National Fatherhood Initiative’s “Mama Says” Survey, which studied mothers’ beliefs about fathers. Among the findings:

* 93% of moms believe there is a father absence crisis.
* Closeness to children and work-family balance were the biggest predictors of mom's happiness with dad (after living arrangement).
* Moms said that "work responsibilities" were the biggest obstacle to dad's success in fathering.
* Strong religious values are beneficial to helping dads be better fathers.
* Moms think communities of faith are the top place for dads to get fathering help.

One particular finding caught my eye: Dads of young children got better marks than teens.

I can see that (assuming they meant Dads of young children got better marks than dads of teens...).

For me, one of the main challenges of fatherhood is recognizing that resistance from the kids isn’t always about me. I am so naturally competitive that I tend to take resistance personally, even though the conflict may be about a real problem, or about tension over a test that day, or about the fact that the sun rose that morning. The result is that I frequently need to take a mental step back and make sure I am responding to the right stimulus, in order to parent properly.

For example: If my daughter refuses to put on a coat before going outside in the Toronto winter, I could respond competitively, using warnings and the like to ‘win’ by getting her to put on her coat. But I’m far better off asking myself why she is refusing, and dealing with the problem at its root.

I know it’s dangerous to stereotype by gender, but I’ll do it now anyway: I think men are generally more competitive than women, and certainly than mothers. And I think men are more likely to allow themselves to compete with their children.

And to take the next step, I think this probably becomes more challenging when dealing with teenage children, specifically. Younger children usually live in their own world and tend to be stubborn rather than competitive. I’ve noticed with my older children, though, that as they are nearing adolescence they are becoming more competitive with their parents, in ways both evident and subtle. Managing that competition, especially as the kids become more legitimate as competition, is becoming more of a challenge for me.

In other words: Competitive fathers have an easier time with younger children, who are less capable of competition and less interested in competition. That changes as the kids get older, and fathers either learn to deal with it or they and their children have a very rough time.

And here’s a possibly-somewhat-relevant thought, building on something I saw the other day on-line, I forget where: Among the founders of the Jewish people, our ancestors all spent serious time away from their parents when embarking upon their major biblical careers. Avraham and Sarah leave altogether. Yitzchak spends some serious time out of the house after the Akeidah (binding), before his father decides to seek a wife for him. Rivkah leaves her family, as do Rachel and Leah. Yaakov spends more than twenty years away from home. And then, of course, we have Yosef.


Friday, December 18, 2009

Working late on a derashah

[This week's Toronto Torah is here!]

I'll be giving a derashah this Shabbos, and I'm up late working on it. Just came across an old derashah of mine, and a line and concept I really like:

In truth, both the pauper’s Maror and the prince’s Korban Pesach belong at the Seder, and we even eat them together; as the Torah instructs, צלי אש ומצות על מרורים יאכלוהו, the Jew must eat the Korban Pesach and the Maror together. The cry of long-suffering experience and the pledge of indefatigable hope are equal collaborators to Jewish identity.

But when it came time to leave Egypt, the Korban Pesach’s remains were burnt and left behind, and the last shreds of bitter herbs were likewise abandoned. The only item that remained was the entity that owned portions of both - the Matzah.

Matzah is לחם עוני, the bread of suffering, poor man’s bread, a spare combination of flour and water that sates but offers no pleasure. Matzah, like Maror, reflects our dark past and the bleak outlook it generates.

But Matzah is also bread of redemption, barely-baked dough borne on our shoulders in haste as we broke out of the world’s largest prison, associated with the thrill of our sudden liberation and with it our expropriation of Egypt’s golden wealth.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Making of a Rabbi

I have had no time to string together coherent thoughts over the past several days. Thank Gd, I’ve been very busy running Chanukah programs as well as setting up progarms for the rest of winter, but my writing has suffered.

So, instead, I’ll post a list I’ve been contemplating for many months. It’s a list of rabbis who made a profound impact on me, shaping my own way in the rabbinate.

The list first emerged in response to a certain line of questions I’ve often been asked: “Which rabbis shaped your thinking?” “Which rabbis are your role models?” “To whom do you address your own questions?” This was my attempt to answer those questions.

I’m not including rabbis whose seforim I’ve used; this list is limited to rabbis I knew personally.

I’m also not including my friends who are rabbis, although they have taught me a great deal; this list is limited to rabbis I’ve seen in more of a teacher/mentor role.

And, of course, I’ve learned from many who are not rabbis, as well as my own students, but that’s for other lists…

Some of the rabbis on this list taught me to learn, others taught me to teach, others taught me (or tried to teach me) menschlichkeit, others taught me communal involvement and still others taught me counseling.

Some of them taught overtly, others by example.

Some of them taught me just one lesson of pivotal importance, others were my rebbeim for many years.

Rabbi Yosef Blau
Rabbi Benjamin Blech
Rabbi J. David Bleich
Rabbi Michael Broyde
Rabbi Yitzchok Cohen
Rabbi Hillel Davis
Rabbi Armin Hyman Friedman
Rabbi Moshe Fruchthandler, zt”l
Rabbi Shmuel Goldin
Rabbi Chaim Yaakov Goldvicht, zt”l
Rabbi Zvi Koff zt"l
Rabbi Daniel Korobkin
Rabbi Maurice Lamm
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein
Rabbi Pesach Oratz, zt”l
Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblatt
Rabbi Yonasan Sacks
Rabbi Herschel Schachter
Rabbi Boruch Simon
Rabbi Aharon Soloveitchik, zt"l
Rabbi Moshe Tendler
Rabbi Mayer Twersky
Rabbi Noach Weinberg, zt”l
Rabbi Avi Weiss
Rabbi Yosef Weiss
Rabbi Mordechai Willig

One more thought: I publish this list here not only because I find it interesting, but also because I think creating a list of mentors is a good idea; perhaps this will motivate others to create their own.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The message of Huram, Hiram, Hirom and Chanukah

As requested by Brad, here is my article from this year's Chanukah To Go, published by Yeshiva University's Center for the Jewish Future. I don't know why the file on the YU website is corrupted (maybe it's because of Footnote 4), but here is the article, in full:

In presenting the seventh chapter of Melachim I as our haftorah for the second Shabbat Chanukah1, the sages introduce us to a story of three men with near-identical names, as well as a moral lesson of broad sweep and penetrating depth.

Our story begins not in our Haftorah, but in Divrei haYamim II 2:10-13:

And Huram, King of Tyre, wrote to Solomon: “Because Gd loves His nation, He made you king upon them.”
And Huram said: “Blessed be HaShem, Gd of Israel, who created the heavens and the earth and gave King David a wise son who possessed intellect and understanding, who would build a house for Gd and a house for his reign. I have now sent you a knowledgeable, understanding man, my master craftsman2 Huram. He is the son of a woman from Dan and his father is a man of Tyre; he knows how to work in gold, silver, brass, iron, stone, wood, purple wool, blue wool, linen and crimson, and to engrave any engraving and to design any design which would be given to him, along with your wise men and the wise men of David your father.”

So far, then, King Huram3 of Tyre has sent King Shlomo a brilliant craftsman who shares the name Huram. As the Malbim notes, this occurred at the start of the construction of the Beit haMikdash.

Melachim I mentions another, similarly-named craftsman (Melachim I 7:13-14):

And King Solomon sent and took Hiram from Tyre. He was the son of a widow from the tribe of Naftali, and his father was a man of Tyre, a brassworker. He was filled with knowledge and understanding and intelligence, to perform all of the tasks involving brass. He came to King Solomon and performed all of his tasks.

This Hiram is also from Tyre, but there are marked differences between this craftsman and the previous craftsman sent by King Huram:
• The former craftsman worked in a range of materials; this one works only in brass;
• The former craftsman was sent at the start of the construction, while this one arrives at the end;.
• The former craftsman is described as the son of a woman from Dan; the latter craftsman’s mother is from Naftali.

This second craftsman is also mentioned in the opening sentence of the Ashkenazi haftorah for the second Shabbat Chanukah, Melachim I 7:40, albeit with the altered name of Hirom:4

And Hirom formed the sinks, shovels and basins, and Hiram completed all the tasks he had performed for King Solomon in the house of Gd.

Why were two craftsmen, Huram and Hiram/Hirom, involved in building the Beit haMikdash? Malbim5 explains that they were actually father and son:

It appears to me that when Divrei haYamim says that King Hiram sent a written message to King Solomon, “Now I have sent you,” that referred to the father of this Hiram, and his name was also Hiram.6 He was sent from the King of Tyre at the start of construction… And he died after seven years, and Solomon sent for his son. Regarding this it says, “And Solomon sent and took Hiram from Tyre,” for the first came at the order of the King of Tyre and the second came because Solomon had sent for him. He was the son of a widow from the tribe of Naftali, and she was a widow because her husband, Hiram, had died.

In sum, then, King Huram/Hiram sent a craftsman named Huram, who was succeeded by his son Hiram/Hirom, to help build the Beit haMikdash.

This story is about more than an odd interplay of names, though; both Melachim and Divrei haYamim take pains to present us with the lineage of both craftsmen - the son of a woman from Dan and a father from Tyre, and the son of a woman from Naftali and a father from Tyre. Why is this information germane?

Rabbi Yochanan offered one answer: (Erchin 16b)

How do we know that one should not diverge from his craft, and from the craft of his fathers? As it is written, “And King Solomon sent and took Hiram from Tyre. He was the son of a widow from the tribe of Naftali, and his father was a man of Tyre, a brassworker.” We are taught, “His mother was from the family of Dan,” and it is written, “Ahaliav, son of Achisamach from the tribe of Dan.”

In other words: This craftsman is a matrilineal descendant of Ahaliav, who was also a craftsman. The prophet stresses this lineage in order to teach us to continue the lines of our family businesses.

Another midrashic approach, though, offers deeper moral guidance:7

Great and small are equal before Gd. Betzalel was from Yehudah and Ahaliav was from Dan, and he was paired with him.
R’ Chanina said: Great and small are equal… The Mishkan was created by these two tribes. So was the Beit haMikdash – Solomon from Yehudah, with Chiram, “the son of a widow from the tribe of Naftali.”

Betzalel and Ahaliav, the team responsible for construction of the original Mishkan, were the products of opposite families. Betzalel descended from the royal clan of Yehudah, who was a son of Leah. Ahaliav emerged from the tribe that travelled last, Dan, who was a son of Bilhah, Rachel’s maidservant. The two men could not have hailed from more varied backgrounds, but together they built the first building on earth where Gd would be manifest and the Jewish people could gather in worship.

Shlomo and the two Hirams, as the midrash notes, carried the same theme into the first Beit haMikdash. Shlomo, the king from Yehudah, paired first with a descendant of Bilhah’s son Naftali and then a descendant of Bilhah’s other son Dan to assemble the first permanent home of HaShem. Indeed, Hiram of Dan and Betzalel of Yehudah are both described as being Divinely invested with חכמה and תבונה, knowledge and wisdom; these traits can exist in anyone, regardless of family history.

Abarbanel (Melachim I 7:14) makes this point even stronger in his explanation of Hiram’s lineage. Regarding both Hiram the elder and Hiram the younger, the prophet notes that their fathers were “men of Tyre.” Noting that Tyre might simply refer to a geographic origin, Abarbanel then adds that Hiram might actually have been a product of an intermarriage:

It is possible to say that he was Tyrean from birth, as the text suggests, and his wife was Jewish, and she married him for some reason – because she had been taken captive, or for some other reason.

This possibility underscores the message of the midrash above, that a Jew is Jew, regardless of his background, and that any of us can grow to greatness.

It is natural for human beings to assume that spiritual character is an inherited trait and that certain lines are more gifted than others, but the description of Hiram’s lineage teaches us that our natural inclination is incorrect. No Jew should ever say, “I am predisposed to spiritual weakness,” or, “My ancestors handicapped me.” Certainly, all of us are gifted with certain basic talents – but anyone who is willing to invest the effort is given the opportunity to develop those talents to the fullest.

Rav Mordechai Elon adds that this message may have special relevance for Chanukah:8

Our Chanukah Torah reading recounts the gifts brought by each nasi (tribal prince) at the end of the Mishkan’s dedication. Despite the fact that each gift’s elements were identical, the Torah repeats every detail of each gift as if it were unique, emphasizing the importance of each individual. Then, at the end, the Torah sums up the gifts collectively and demonstrates that we are all as one before HaShem.

Rav Elon points out that the first nasi to bring a gift is Nachshon ben Aminadav, leader of Yehudah, and the last nasi to bring a gift is Achira ben Einan, leader of Naftali. With this we are taught, yet again, that the entire nation exists on the same plane. Each leader’s gift for the mishkan is significant, but each also functions as an equal part of the greater unity.

This message is also critical as we look toward the building of a third Beit haMikdash, for we are taught that our national unity is a prerequisite for the arrival of Mashiach.9 Further, this theme unites the two haftarot of Chanukah.

On the face of it, the two haftarot of Chanukah seem to be read out of order; the haftarah for the first Shabbat of Chanukah is Zecharyah’s foretelling of the second Beit haMikdash, and the haftarah for the second Shabbat of Chanukah describes Shlomo’s construction of the first Beit haMikdash. Why do we read these messages in reverse chronological order?

Tosafot Yom Tov10 cites the Ran to suggest that Zecharyah’s vision actually relates to a future time of Mashiach, and so it is more beloved to us than a description of the first Beit haMikdash.11

Certainly, Zecharyah’s message is more explicitly linked to a future time of mashiach, but, as noted above, Hiram’s message is also important for our eschatological future. On the day when we will truly stand together, when we look not at tribe and lineage but at the knowledge and understanding and talent of the individual, then we will merit a final חנוכת הבית for the בנין עדי עד, the eternal Beit haMikdash.


1. Megilah 31a assigns the haftarot of Chanukah.

2. Rashi, among others, renders this as “my father’s craftsman.”

3. Note that the king of Tyre’s name is sometimes presented as חירם, Hiram. See, for example, Melachim I 5:15.

4. The Artscroll Stone Chumash (pg. 1212) errs in this regard, commenting on the haftarah, “Much of the Haftarah describes the Temple vessels that were made by King Hiram of Tyre, a friend and collaborator of King Solomon.”

5. Malbim to Melachim I 7:14

6. Malbim ignores the Hiram/Hirom/Huram variations throughout.

7. Sh’mot Rabbah 40:4


9. See, for example, Yechezkel 37 (the haftarah for Parshat Vayyigash)

10. Tosafot Yom Tov to Megilah 3:4

11. The Kolbo (#20) answers that precedence is determined by relevance for Chanukah; Zecharyah’s vision relates to the second Beit haMikdash, during which Chanukah took place.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Chanukah: Aristocracy and Meritocracy (Derashah: Chanukah 5770)

[Note: This is a quasi-derashah, quasi-shiur, as I am guest-speaking at a Shabbaton this Shabbos.]

It’s safe to assume that 98% of the people here have heard the old joke about Yankel, who comes to the rabbi and begs to be made a kohen. Beside himself as the rabbi refuses to make him a kohen, Yankel pledges successively larger sums of money, he offers to perform greater and greater deeds of righteousness, to come to minyan, to learn torah, to help others, until, finally, the rabbi asks, “Why do you want to be a kohen so badly?” And Yankel replies, “My father was a kohen, my grandfather was a kohen…”

We laugh at the absurdity of Yankel’s request; doesn’t everyone know that kehunah is inherited?! Is he truly unaware that membership in this oldest of Jewish aristocracies is determined not by good deeds but by accident of birth?

But we shouldn’t laugh at Yankel – because Yankel knows a great deal about Judaism’s egalitarian instincts:

• Yankel knows that all human beings are created equal – that Ben Azzai taught that the most important pasuk in the Torah is זה ספר תולדות אדם ביום ברא אלקים אדם בדמות אלקים עשה אותו, that all human beings are placed on earth with an identical claim to affinity with their Maker.

• Yankel knows the mishnah that says Gd assigned all of us the same pedigree from Adam and Chavah in order to highlight the ridiculous character of a human who would dare allege, “אבא גדול מאביך, My ancestor is greater than yours.”

• Yankel knows the lessons of Sefer Bereishit and Sefer Shmot, that Avraham and Sarah of Aram, that Rivkah and Rachel of the house of Lavan, that Yosef the imprisoned felon, that an entire generation of slaves, can lay claim to the status of בני בכרי ישראל, firstborn children of Gd, and can establish the nation that the Shechinah would recognize as her own.

So why do we laugh at Yankel? We should agree with him!

Why do we accept the aristocracy of kehunah, as well as its twin nobility of מלכות, the monarchy?

Why is our government an inherited authority?

Why do we tolerate the idea that the honor of serving in the Beit haMikdash should go to an individual of no special merit beyond a genetic helix stamped Scion-of-Aaron, or that the right to sit upon King David’s throne should go to an individual who is simply descended from Ruth?

It’s because monarchy and kehunah are not really about honoring descendants, assigning privilege to people who don’t deserve it. A Jew who is born to a king, or to a kohen might never sit on the throne or serve in the Beit haMikdash. He has potential, as a Divine favor to his forebear, a reward for that ancestor’s labor.

Ramban said as much regarding the monarchy.

Ramban discussed the way that the Chashmonaim took over the Jewish monarchy after the events of Chanukah, and he claimed that they ultimately fell in battle as punishment for usurping the throne that belonged to King David’s heirs. And Ramban argued, citing the Yerushalmi, that the monarchy was assigned to that tribe not because those heirs were wonderful, but in honor of the deeds of their patriarch, Yehudah:

• Monarchy belonged to Yehudah’s line, according to a Tosefta, because Yehudah demonstrated selfless leadership in admitting his own guilt with Tamar publicly, because he saved Yosef’s life from his murderous brothers, and because he stared down the Viceroy of Egypt to save Binyamin.

• Monarchy belonged to Yehudah’s line, because Nachshon ben Aminadav, the prince of Yehudah’s tribe, trusted Gd and marched into Yam Suf before it split.

• And Monarchy belonged to Yehudah’s line because Ruth acted to save her former mother-in-law, Naami.

In other words: Monarchy was appropriate for King David and his children not because of King David, but because of the great deeds of the founders of his line.

The same principle applies to Yankel’s coveted kehunah; the right of kehunah belongs to Yankel because of the merit of his distant ancestors:

• Yankel’s great-great-grandmother, Yocheved, heroically saved Jewish baby boys in Egypt;

• Yankel’s great-great-grandparents, after Cheit ha’Eigel, rallied to Moshe’s cry of מי לה' אלי, Whoever is for Gd, come with me!

• Yankel’s great-great-grandfather, Aharon, led the Jewish people with selfless love.

In their merit, Gd gives their heirs a shot at serving in the Beit haMikdash.

But that’s all it is – a shot at being king, a shot at being a kohen, a shot at government of the Jewish people. One who is born into those lines can lose his position.

• An ignorant kohen is forced to take a back seat to a Torah scholar, even if the Torah scholar’s lineage is illegitimate;

• Families of kohanim lost their status because of their poor conduct;

• Offspring of Yehudah lost their thrones when they sinned.

• Jewish history is littered with the stories of regal families, heirs of the royal line, who fell from their perches.

We laugh at Yankel because he failed to understand that his great-grandfather’s merit remains for him. But Yankel understood our meritocratic ideal, that the offspring must still earn their status; authority must still be earned.

And Yankel was right about one more point related to the way we govern ourselves. When Yankel pledged tzedakah and Torah and chesed, he made the point that anyone, regardless of background, can start a new line or merit, can earn positions of greatness for himself and his heirs.

This message was expressed clearly every time the Jews dedicated or re-dedicated a house to Gd:

• When the Jews wished to construct a mishkan in which to gather and commune with their Creator, Gd assigned the task to Betzalel, from the royal tribe of Yehudah, and Ahaliav, from the tribe of Dan. Dan, descendant of Rachel’s maid Bilhah, was the tribe that moved last when the Jews traveled through the wilderness. He was the מאסף, the Desert Zamboni, sweeping up anything lost by the rest of the nation. The leader and the laggard were paired to construct the mishkan – and any Jew who wished, כל נדיב לב, could contribute goods or services to that Mishkan.

• When the Jews set out to build the first Beit haMikdash, Shlomo haMelech hired a man named Hirom – not Hiram King of Tzur, but Hirom whose mother was from the tribe of Dan, and whose father was from the city of Tyre up north. According to Abarbanel, Hirom’s father may not have been a Jew at all. Shlomo, from the tribe of Yehudah, and Hirom, from the tribe of Dan, and eventually Hirom’s son, who shared his name, built the Beit haMikdash.

• We find the same message of inclusion in the second Beit haMikdash, which was erected by a ragtag group of Jews who left Bavel more for lack of Babylonian opportunity than from any special Jewish piety. Despite their lowly beginnings, their poverty and their ignorance, this generation served as leaders and built the second Beit haMikdash.

• And then we move on to Chanukah and find the Chashmonaim, family of the Kohen Gadol, joining with any Jew who will answer their call of “מי לה' אלי, Whoever is for Gd, come with me!” to rebel against the Greeks. We find a woman named Chanah, daughter of Matityahu Kohen Gadol, rallying the Jews to revolt – and then we find another woman named Yehudit, with no particular lineage, executing the general Holofernes.

• This same principle has empowered Jewish leadership through the generations, no matter what culture or continent we have inhabited. Despite the absence of a Divine decree a la לא יסור שבט מיהודה, הכרת הטוב drove us to reward our leaders with opportunities for their descendants. From Tannaim and Amoraim in Israel and Bavel, to Gaonim and Rashei Galuta in Bavel and North Africa, to Negidim and Chachamim and Parnasim and Roshei Yeshiva in Europe, to the leaders of the first Jewish communities in the Western Hemisphere, leaders of great merit have created lines, have been honored as their children were offered the opportunity to be ממלא מקום אבותיהם, to fill the seats of their parents – and when those children proved worthy, they established great dynasties, the well-known names of Jewish leadership: Klonymuses and Abarbanels, Rothschilds and Touros.

The mishkan, the first Beit haMikdash, the second Beit haMikdash, the rededication of Chanukah – all of them teach us that anyone can achieve greatness, that even as we honor descendants of great people, a non-kohen, a non-melech, any Yankel, can create a meritorious line of his own and bring honor to his own offspring.

This balance of honoring great people through their descendants, while demanding merit from those kin themselves, is of practical relevance for our theme this Shabbos. In governing our institutions, whether on the large scale of a country or the smaller scale of a community shul, we balance between those two imperatives.

The Jewish State of Israel is obligated to honor the contributions of its founders, be they the ancient, pious חלוקה communities, or the ideological BILU movement of the 1880s and 1890s, or the refugees of the Pale of Settlement at the end of the 19th century, or the kibbutznik chalutzim of the first half of the 20th century. These men and women, religious and secular, earned a place of honor for their in the new land by dint of their sweat and the lives they risked and gave for its creation. As Rav Kook recognized and actively promoted, as Rav Yissachar Techtel argued in his אם הבנים שמחה, Jewish government which seeks to honor the principles of Torah must recognize that these people are the melachim and kohanim of our time, and determine policy in a way that honors, rather than disenfranchises, their progeny.

But, simultaneously, those descendants must earn their titles. Being an Israeli by accident of birth is like being a Kohen by accident of birth; it entitles you to a seat at the table, but the future of that seat depends upon your own virtue.

And the same is true regarding our communities. A few months ago I was privileged to attend Rabbi Strauchler’s Installation here at Shaarei Shomayim, and I heard a great deal about the founders of this shul. I watched video interviews with them and their relatives, and I listened to tributes for families who have maintained this proud institution over the decades. These are the melachim and kohanim of Shaarei Shomayim, an aristocracy which earned a place of pride for its future generations. The einiklach of those heroes occupy that place of pride, but their challenge is to achieve greatness of their own, to earn their titles of today.

And the same applies regarding ourselves. I am part of a special line, descendants of Avraham and Sarah and of those who joined them over the millenia. I am part of a brit, a covenant – and I am in danger of taking it for granted. I want to be like Yankel – I want to come to Gd and say, “Gd, make me a Jew! I’ll do anything – chesed, torah, davening – just make me a Jew!” And when Gd says, “Why? Why do you want to be a Jew?” My answer will include the words, “Because my parents were Jews, and my grandparents were Jews…”

This morning’s haftarah described the role of aristocracies with the image of a Menorah whose oil is provided by two anointed sources, the monarchy and the kehunah. Next Shabbat, the second Shabbat of Chanukah, we will read about the role of Chirom, the man whose mother came from Dan and whose father may not have been Jewish.

The union of the two, the ancient aristocracy on one side and the rank-and-file creating its new aristocracy on the other, will continue the chain of the Mishkan, the first Beit haMikdash, the second Beit haMikdash and Chanukah, to construct the third Beit haMikdash, a בנין עדי עד, a construction everlasting.

1. Ben Azzai's quote is in Yerushalmi Nedarim 9:4, the line about Adam's pedigree is in Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5.

2. Ramban is on Bereishis 49:10, and his source is Yerushalmi Horiyyot 3:2

3. Yehudah's monarchy is identified as his and Nachshon's honor in Tosefta Berachot 4:18; Ruth's credit appears in the midrash to Ruth.

4. See for an interesting story regarding the Chafetz Chaim and the honor of being a Kohen.

5. The mishnah in Horiyyot 3:8 talks about prizing the ממזר תלמיד חכם over the כהן גדול עם הארץ.Yoma 38a and Succah 56a talk about the dishonored families of Kohanim.

6. Regarding the construction of the mishkan, the rank and file contributed so much that the נשיאים, the leaders of the tribes, were pushed to the end, to donate follow-up gifts to what we could term The Building Fund – but each leader is mentioned personally in the Torah, despite their identical gifts, in order to show that each individual was significant.

7. The midrash of Chanah is found in Otzar Midrashim of Eisenstein.

8. The historic honor for the families of leaders is enshrined in halachah; many responsa deal with the problem of passing leadership positions to unworthy descendants, and of those who tried to wrest leadership positions from worthies.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Secular Studies on Shabbat

[This week's Toronto Torah is here!]

Last night I delivered the finale of my "TechnoShabbat" series, in which we reviewed various new technologies and their potential for use on Shabbat. We looked at self-heating meals, bionic eyes, surveillance cameras, motion sensors and elevators. In the course of the series, we found many ways in which one might be able to participate in "normal life" without performing a melachah.

For the finale class, we looked at another angle: The issue of שבתון, the requirement that we make Shabbat a day of rest from our normal activities, beyond avoiding melachah.

I'm not reproducing the shiur here (although video should be on KosherTube soon, and you can find the audio here [and good news - we have converted all of our Toronto Torah audio files to mp3!]), but we did touch on a fascinating related topic worthy of more exploration: Studying secular subjects on Shabbat.

Here are the sources I brought at the class itself, on the "secular studies" sub-topic. They certainly beg for more discussion:

Talmud Yerushalmi, Shabbat 15:3
לא ניתנו שבתות וימים טובים אלא לאכילה ולשתייה על ידי שהפה זה מסריח התירו לו לעסוק בהן בדברי תורה רבי ברכיה בשם רבי חייא בר בא לא ניתנו שבתות וימים טובים אלא לעסוק בהן בדברי תורה
Rabbi Chaggai cited from Rabbi Shemuel bar Nachman: Shabbat and Yom Tov are only for eating and drinking, but because the mouth would be disgusting [with lashon hara or from overeating] they permitted Torah study.
Rabbi Berechiah cited Rabbi Chiyya bar Ba: Shabbat and Yom Tov are only for involvement in Torah study.

Rambam, Peirush haMishnayot Shabbat 23:2 (but note Mishneh Torah Hilchot Shabbat 23:19)
שמא יקרא אגרות בשבת, וזה אסור, שכל זולת ספרי הנבואה ופירושיהם אסור לקרותו לא בשבת ולא ביום טוב, ואפילו היה בו דברי חכמה ומדע.
The concern is lest one read letters on Shabbat. This would be prohibited, for all but the books of the prophets and their commentaries may not be read on Shabbat or Yom Tov, even if those texts involve matters of knowledge and understanding.

Beit Yosef to Tur, Orach Chaim 307
מדברי הרשב"א נראה שמותר ללמוד בספרי החכמות בשבת שכתב בתשובה (ח"א סימן תשעב, וח"ד סי' קב) שמותר להביט באצטרול"ב בשבת שאינו אלא כאחד מספרי החכמה...וכן כתב האגור (סי' תקח) שהרשב"א (ח"ז סי' רפח) והרמב"ן התירו לקרוא בשבת בספרי רפואות מפני שחכמה היא ולא דמי לשטרי הדיוטות:
Apparently, from the Rashba, one may study books of knowledge on Shabbat; he wrote in a responsum that one may look at an astrolabe on Sahbbat, for it is no different from books of wisdom… And so wrote the Agur, that the Rashba and the Ramban permitted study of works of medicine, because it is wisdom and it is not similar to mundane documents.

Aruch haShulchan, Orach Chaim 307:11
באמת אין כאן מחלוקת ושני הדיעות אמת דודאי מעיקר הדין א"א לאסור האמנם ממדת חסידות שכל אדם ראוי לנהוג כן כדי לכבד יום הקדוש הזה מצוה נכונה שלבד דברי תורה לא ישמע על פיו ביום השבת
In truth, there is no disagreement here; both opinions are correct. It is not possible to prohibit these studies, within the essential law. As a special trait of piety, though, which every person should practice in order to honor the day, it is a proper mitzvah (?) for a person to have words of Torah, alone, heard from his mouth on Shabbat.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Restaurant Reviews in Halachah

A negative report on Jameel’s blog about his experience in a London restaurant led to an interesting debate in the comments about the halachic acceptability of restaurant reviews, and product reviews in general.

In brief: Are we permitted to damage someone’s livelihood by posting a negative review?

I thought about that this morning, as well, when someone attending a shiur of mine mentioned thathe does not attend a different shiur, because he doesn’t get as much out of it. Again: Is that a permitted comment, or is it lashon hara?

Daat has a brief article summing up some of the relevant arguments regarding public product critiques, and they cite the Chafetz Chaim (Perek 10). Since their article is in Hebrew, I am posting the Chafetz Chaim citation with a free translation:

רבי ישראל מאיר הכהן מראדין, חפץ חיים, י':
אם אחד ראה אדם שעשה עוול לחברו: כגון שגזלו, או עשקו, או הזיקו (בין אם הנגזל והניזק יודעים מזה או לא), או שביישו או שציערו והונה אותו בדברים. ונודע לו בבירור שלא השיב את הגזלה, ולא שילם לו את נזקו, ולא ביקש פניו למחול לו על עוונו, אפילו ראה דבר זה לבדו, יכול לספר הדברים לבני אדם כדי לעזור לאשר אשם לו, ולגנות המעשים הרעים בפני הבריות. אך ייזהר שלא יחסרו שבעה הפרטים הבאים:

א. שיראה הדבר בעצמו, ולא שידע על ידי שמיעה מאחרים. ואם שמע מאחרים - אם נתברר לו אח"כ שהדבר אמת.

ב. שייזהר מאוד שלא יחליט תיכף שהאיש גזל ועשק או הזיק, רק יתבונן היטב בעניין, אם על פי דין הוא בכלל גזל או היזק.

ג. שיוכיח את החוטא מתחילה בלשון רכה, אולי יכול להועיל לו וייטיב על ידי זה את דרכיו. אם לא ישמע לו, רק אז יודיע לרבים את אשמת האיש.

ד. שלא יגדיל העוולה יותר ממה שהיא.

ה. שיכוון לתועלת, ולא ליהנות חלילה מהפגם שהוא נותן בחברו. ולא יפרסם הדבר בגלל שנאה שיש לו עליו מכבר.

ו. אם יכול לסבב את התועלת הזאת בדרך אחרת, ולא יצטרך לספר את עניין הלשון הרע, אזי בכל מקרה אסור לספר.

ז. שלא יגרום על ידי הסיפור נזק גדול יותר מהדין שהיה יוצא, אילו הועמד האיש על דבר זה בבית דין

If one sees a person harm his fellow, such as by stealing, cheating or harming him (with or without the victim’s knowledge) or embarrassing him, or paining him or oppressing him verbally, and the observer knows, clearly, that the offender has not returned the theft, paid for the harm, and requested forgiveness, then even if he witnessed the event alone, he may tell other people in order to aid the victim and to denigrate these wicked deeds before the public.

However, one must be careful to satisfy all seven of the following items:

1. He must witness it himself, and not know about it by hearsay. One who heard from others, must have subsequently clarified that it was true;

2. One must be very careful not to decide immediately that the party stole, cheated or harmed. He should contemplate the matter well, as to whether this qualifies legally as theft or harm;

3. One must rebuke the sinner gently at first, to benefit him and cause him to improve his ways. If the person does not listen, then he should inform the public of his guilt;

4. He may not elevate the crime beyond its actual level;

5. He must intend to cause benefit, and not, Gd-forbid, to benefit himself from the flaw he spreads about his fellow. He may not publicize it due to pre-existing enmity;

6. If he can cause the benefit through some other means, without needing to speak harmfully, then all publicity is prohibited;

7. He may not cause more harm, via this telling, than would have been warranted by law for his crime had it been tried in court.

Interesting; definitely something to contemplate as you post feedback on Ebay and Amazon...

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Mr. Messer's Ashrei

I’ll never forget Marshall Messer’s AP English class in MTA; a little over 20 years ago, he introduced me to the idea of reading fiction and poetry with a darshan’s ear, sensitive to cues of symbolism and pace and tone and theme.

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man was the first book I read that way; we did The Odyssey and The Great Gatsby that year also, I think, and in all of those works I suddenly perceived layer upon layer that I had never noticed before. I read a lot before then, but in that class I first learned to listen for the author’s subtle (or unsubtle) hints, and I’ve never read a book without that sensitivity, since.

I mention this because several weeks back Jack asked what brings you joy, and I told him that, among other things, Ashrei brings me joy.

That answer surprised me, but it was true; Ashrei is so elegant in its structure, and so easily read for that elegance, that I find it one of the best ways for me to connect with davening. (Much easier than, say, the v’Hu Rachum tachanun of Mondays and Thursdays.)

Ashrei is Psalm 145, with Psalms 84:5 and 144:15 tacked on first, and 115:18 appended at the end. You can find the Hebrew text on-line here; the links earlier in this sentence are for English.

The first poetic element I notice when looking at Ashrei is its three-part structure:
* I will praise Gd (145:1-3);
* Future generations will praise Gd, for all time (145:4-9);
* All will praise Gd (145:10-20).
This is followed by a summary line at the end: My mouth will praise Gd, and all flesh will praise Gd, for all time.

Further, each of those three sections is composed of two parts: Anticipation of praise (145:1-2, 145:5-7, 145:10-12) and then the praise itself.

And on a deeper level, beyond the elegant design: The text lives its scriptural life much as I live my own existence, recognizing and accepting the philosophical paradox of singing to the world’s Creator in the middle of a world of pain and suffering.

The song acknowledges that there are נופלים, people who fall.
The song acknowledges that there are כפופים, people who are bent double with pain and suffering.
The song acknowledges that there are רשעים, agents of evil, in this world.

And yet – the song repeatedly emphasizes a key word, כל, all, declaring that all praise Gd. This is strongest in the third segment, in which every line of the world’s praise to Gd includes the word כל, that Gd is king over all, supports all, sates all, etc. Only one line (רצון) lacks this word – but the word appears twice in the preceding verse.

The song even has the hubris to declare that Gd fills the desire of every living thing, triggering all manner of apologetics from a range of commentators, but I think that they miss the point: The point is not that Gd provides for all, but rather that I, in my moment of deepest emotion, feel with בטחון that Gd provides for all. Despite my doubts and fears and questions, I look around at what is, and I am satisfied.

There’s much more here, of course (click the Ashrei label below for a note on its alphabetical acrostic), but that’s a taste of what I see here. Thank you, Mr. Messer.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Surprise! I really do miss the derashah

[This week’s Haveil Havalim is here!]

[First: Let the record show that Allentown, PA had snow before we did in Toronto. Granted, it’s been below 0 (Celsius) off and on for a few weeks already, and granted we’re expecting snow any day, but to all of my former lantzmen who have made snow jokes for the past several months, I say thee Thbbth.]

Way back when, I wrote about what I would, and would not, miss about the shul rabbinate. Some nine months later, and some four months removed from the rabbinate, I’m surprised by how much of that post was accurate.

In particular, I am surprised to realize how much I miss the weekly derashah.

True, I always said I would miss it, but I never really believed that. I thought that
-the tension of so many weeks of straining for a coherent idea at deadline,
-the sweat of re-editing to convey ideas clearly and compellingly,
-the nervousness of getting up to speak,
-the downer of the weeks when there was no substantive feedback,
-as well as my overall sense that the derashah’s role is way overblown,
would make me altogether glad that I was no longer delivering those weekly messages.

But it’s not so; I do miss developing a (hopefully) deep thought, checking it for flaws, crafting it into a talk that will hit on all cylinders from beginning to end. I miss standing up there and sharing a thought I believe is substantive and meaningful and relevant for our lives, our relationships with HaShem and with each other. And I miss the discussions afterward. The craftsmanship part is still tough, and I do remember the weeks when I thought I had said something thought-provoking but drew no response. Nonetheless, I still miss it.

The derashah really is unlike any other opportunity. Writing a thought in our weekly Toronto Torah doesn’t replace the feeling of sharing it with people live. Delivering parshah classes doesn’t do it, either. The derashah truly is unique.

Why do I write this now? Because next week we are having a Shabbaton at Shaarei Shomayim, and I will be delivering the derashah, and I actually find myself excited at the opportunity. That feeling may change if I’m not ready by Thursday night, of course… but until then, I’m going to have a fun week of anticipation.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

What should be on the Rabbi's agenda?

[This is a quasi-rant. I apologize in advance. For other material, see this week's Toronto Torah.]

Ever since my first rabbinic interview, people have wanted to know my agenda.

On proba visits, I was asked a range of interview questions on this topic, including:
• Will you speak about Current Events?
• Will you promote Aliyah?
• What do you see as the major challenges facing Modern Orthodoxy today?
• What do you see as the major challenges facing the Jewish community today?
And so on…

These are significant items, but I believe – and I believed this when I was a shul rabbi as well – that none of these items belong near the top of a rabbi’s agenda. Rather, the rabbi's agenda should be about helping us become better Jews, better people, on a day-to-day basis.

This includes speaking out regularly about:
• Our awareness of Gd;
• Our sensitivity to each other’s needs;
• Our sincerity;
• The depth of our thoughts and our lives.

I want a shul rabbi to speak regularly about emotions, and less-regularly about elections.
I want a shul rabbi to teach more classes about davening and about honesty, and fewer classes about the ethical issues in separating Siamese Twins.
I want a shul rabbi to spend more time on his shul’s youth, and less time on newspaper columns.

I wouldn’t claim that I was perfect in any of these areas in my rabbinic years.

Further, I know that we also need the speeches about the elections, the classes on conjoined twins and the public stands on issues of the day. But these areas are, in many ways, low-hanging fruit bringing easy if superficial returns. If this is the rabbi’s agenda, he may well be popular as a public figure, but I believe he will have failed as a spiritual leader.

And I would add one more note: I believe that the same should be the agenda for all of us “private citizen” Jews.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Is Judaism a Cult? Part II

In Part I (here), I suggested that Judaism may have cult-like elements, in that questions on certain topics are deemed to be beyond consideration. I also noted a key difference from a cult, in that the boundaries in Judaism are set not by “This is dangerous to the religion,” but by logical views about what Judaism is meant to address, and what it is not.

The post led to several insightful comments, including this from Fruma:
I think there's another difference with the limits of questioning: Jewish children (and adults) are encouraged to ask questions as they learn. Perhaps it's the way the questions are handled that makes a difference

And this from R’ Joshua Maroof:
Throughout my experience of Jewish education, questioning - even of fundamentals - was encouraged, provided that it was motivated by a sincere desire to understand.
But I would mention that there is a real difference between asking "what is above and what is below", which is moving beyond the limits of the human intellect, and asking whether or not we have reason to believe the Torah is true, which is a legitimate question to raise (even if you may choose to simply accept the truth of Torah as an axiom based on tradition).

These comments, and others I received, have led me to a better understanding of my own question, Is Judaism a Cult?:

My comparison to a cult is not really about whether we may ask questions on certain issues, or not. Rather, it’s about the way we manage/answer those questions.

Certainly, Judaism does encourage questions, even on the thorniest issues. It is legitimate to ask, “If Gd is benevolent and protective, how could Gd allow/enable the Holocaust?” and, “Why are babies born into suffering?”

But we answer those questions in a restrictive manner. They are not true questions; they are subjects for discussion, but the answer must fall within a pre-determined zone.

When it comes to, “How can Gd be omniscient and omnipotent, and yet allow Free Will,” or the abovementioned problems of theodicy, we are confined to either shrugging and accepting R' Maroof's axiomatic principles, or offering the half-answers of a mind that cannot grasp the infinite.

Therefore: For me to answer, “I don’t know,” “Teiku,” “If I understood Gd, I would be Gd,” is considered not only legitimate but admirable. But for me to answer, “This religious system is inconsistent, I reject it,” is off-limits. Judaism does not accept its own rejection as a legitimate answer.

An open philosophy accepts the possibility of its own rejection. A cult rules that rejection is out of bounds. And it seems to me that Judaism, by placing rejection out of bounds, does resemble a cult in that way.