Sunday, September 30, 2012

Interesting Shaatnez case - Banana Republic

Just a quick note: I had an interesting Shaatnez episode this week.

Several months ago I bought a black Banana Republic wool suit, and had it checked for shaatnez in Toronto. The suit was fine.

Last month I ordered a Banana Republic wool suit, same cut and size, just navy, and had it shipped to the same place. [I don't buy suits often, just to let you know. When I find something that works, I get a couple of them, and then I'm good for the next few years...] I had this one checked in the US, and it had shaatnez threads in the collar's lining.

This caused me to wonder about the black suit's shaatnez test. There are differences in training, and potentially in testing methods; ordinarily I would not check a suit with two checkers any more than I would bug-check a salad with two checkers, but given that the second one had turned up 'infested', I thought it worth a second check.

I brought the black suit to the US tester who had found shaatnez in the blue suit. The suit turned out to be fine.

The only material difference between the two suits was that the black suit was made in Canada, and the navy suit was made in China. [Worth noting: There is an established Shaatnez Alert regarding Banana Republic suits from Turkey.]

Key lesson I learned here: Even if one suit from a manufacturer is shaatnez-free, another suit of the same style, from the same manufacturer, may have shaatnez. On the other hand, even if one suit from a manufacturer has shaatnez, another suit, from the same manufacturer, may not. Interesting.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Syrian Ban on Conversion

I received an email a couple of months ago arguing for a ban on conversion, in order to counter conversions which are performed for the sake of marriage. That reminded me of a New York Times piece published a few years ago on the Syrian Jewish community in Brooklyn, highlighting their ban on conversion. The article pretty much gets the story right: In 1935, out of fear of intermarriage and assimilation, the Syrians banned marriage to converts.

That wasn’t the first time a Jewish community took strict measures to reduce the likelihood of intermarriage. This concern has produced many rabbinic laws, such as bishul akum - the prohibition against eating certain foods if they are cooked by non-Jews. (Interestingly, the Church actually did the same thing in reverse; they even forbade Christians from receiving medical care from a Jewish doctor.)

Further, any Jewish authority is within his rights to refuse to cooperate with a conversion. Since Judaism teaches that a human being can be great, earn a portion in Heaven, etc, without being Jewish, one is not committing harm by refusing to participate in a conversion.

That said, I have a two-part problem with the Syrian ban.

[Note: I'm not addressing the ban's undertone of emphasizing "pure-bloodedness," a charge Jewschool lodged here in response to the NYT article. I'm not sure I agree; that same charge could be used to indict anyone who opposes intermarriage, too.]

Part 1: Despite the wording of the ban (“this law covers conversion, which we consider to be fictitious and valueless”), the Syrian authorities cannot invalidate conversions performed by legitimate authorities outside of their community. The only thing they can do is rule that Joe Convert cannot marry a Syrian woman. And once they do that, they have overstepped fundamental biblical prohibitions against harming or oppressing a convert.

Therein lies Part 1 of the problem. It’s a matter of harming the convert. The Torah says explicitly, וגר לא תונה, You shall not oppress a convert.

However: One might defend the ban by arguing that this is a case of Preserving the Community vs. Protecting the Convert. The needs of the many vs. the needs of the few. And so one might well argue for the many vs. the few; isn’t Jewish history filled with such decisions?

But there’s a second problem:

Part 2: The people you are protecting are the ones who want to intermarry inappropriately.

In order to keep your children from marrying out, you prevent converts from marrying in, and so you harm converts - who have properly joined the Jewish people - in order to benefit those who wish to sin. To borrow from Parshat Lech Lecha, it’s a case of harming the righteous while you rein in the wicked.

To which Avraham cries Heavenward, חלילה לך, This would be a desecration for You!

Granted, I have relied on the assumption that refusing marriage to a Syrian counts as oppression and harm, an assumption which may not be accurate, since there are other Jews for them to marry. But to me, telling someone who has embraced the Torah, “You may not marry our children,” counts as hurtful - even if those children are not the only Jews in the world.

Just my two cents.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Holy, but still King

[This could be a derashah for Rosh haShanah or Yom Kippur for a Rabbi who was still seeking something…]

In the period of Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur we devote a great deal of liturgical space to the idea of coronating Gd, declaring Gd to be King. In the third blessing of the amidah we even add a special mention of Gd as King, hamelech hakadosh.

Last week, a relevant aspect of the amidah caught my eye: All year, we identify Gd as King in the first two blessings of the amidah. With the insertion of "haMelech (the King)" in the third blessing at this time of year, we complete the set.

But each King is different.

In the first blessing we speak of the Divine relationship with our patriarchs, Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. (Yes, I know that some Jews insert the matriarchs, but I stick with Exodus 3:15, in which Gd self-identifies as "the Gd of Avraham, the Gd of Yitzchak, and the Gd of Yaakov," and then says, "This is My Name eternally, and this is the way you shall mention Me from generation to generation. This is the "name" for Gd as Redeemer.) We speak of Gd as identifying with each of these human beings, and we describe Gd as a King who is "helper, redeemer and shield" for them. This is an intimate King.

In the second blessing we speak of Gd as all-powerful; the blessing itself is called gevurot, a blessing about Divine might. Gd brings life, wind, rain, aid, health, death and life. And we identify Gd as a King who "causes death, causes life, and causes redemption to sprout." This King is all-powerful, and therefore distant, but this King is also involved with our existence.

Those two Kings are the ones we know all year. Then, in the period from Rosh haShanah to Yom Kippur we add a third King – "hamelech hakadosh", the Holy King. Borrowing from Chanah's description of Gd as "holy" in Shemuel I 2:2, we identify Gd as remote, removed from this universe, and yet still, on some level, associated with us as our King.

I find it odd that we would add a remote King at this time of year; we normally view Gd as "closer" at this time of year, as seen in Rosh haShanah 18a, commenting on Yeshayah 55:6. Perhaps, though, this is when we need that reminder. All year long we need to emphasize Divine closeness, lest we forget His presence. At this time of year we have so many reminders of His closeness, and so we need to accentuate His distance.

Or perhaps we are making a proud, even defiant statement: Abarbanel (to Shemuel I 2:2) understood that Chanah's statement of a "holy Gd" was a rebuke to those who claim that Gd is distant and uninterested in human affairs. "Gd is at hand!" Chanah insisted, on the authority of her personal miracle.

Yes, Gd is holy and removed, but Gd is still the King who brings death and life, still the King who was close with His intimates. Do not speak to me of a King who is dispassionate and uninterested; I acknowledge the distance, but as Chanah continues, לו נתכנו עלילות, all is known to Him, measured by Him, and valuable to Him.

Yes, I think this could become a derashah. More to say here, but this will have to do for now.

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Rabbi Shrugs

You know the old joke: "Why do Jews have short necks?" Followed by a deep shrug of the shoulders, the head sinking between them.

Rabbis respond to questions with a shrug quite often – I certainly did in my pulpit years - but the rabbinic shrug conveys different messages, depending upon the context. Here are a few examples of possible meanings, but I'm sure there are more.

A. "That would be a really long discussion, and I don't have the sources/time right now, so I'll leave it with 'I don't know'"

This isn't meant to be rude, it's just a recognition of reality. Hopefully, the Rabbi will come back later with sources, since disappointing a congregant who wants to learn would be criminal. [Case in point – my exchange with bratschegirl here, which was the trigger for this post.]

B. "That has no resolution"

Sometimes the questioner has a very good point, but we still don't accept his point of view.

For example:
Questioner: Praising Pinchas encourages zealotry!
Rabbi: This is a very good point – but we still praise Pinchas.
Questioner: Why?
Rabbi: Because zealotry is an important value in certain situations.
Questioner: But most real-life cases involve the wrong situations!
Rabbi: [shrug]

C. "I have a personal view, but that does not require a psak."

As the Rambam said regarding purely philosophical eschatological issues, we have no need to issue halachic rulings in certain areas. So why do it? [But see "A" above – the rabbi certainly should offer to discuss the various views.]

D. "There is another way to look at this, but there is no way that you would accept the second side if I would present it, and it would only result in you being angry with me, so I'd rather leave it be."

I can't count how many times I have gotten into trouble by explaining a point of view with which I didn't agree, just for the sake of being honest about both sides in a given issue. No matter how extensive the disclaimer, people tend to assume that you sympathize, at least on some level, with the view being presented. On issues like Talmud study for women (I endorse it where it is done seriously and for students who do want to learn it - just for the record), for example, it can be safer to shrug than to explain the opposing point of view.

I'm sure there are other meanings for the Rabbinic Shrug, but that's all I have time for right now. It's a classic Type A case -

"Rabbi, aren't there other meanings for the Rabbinic Shrug?"

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A most moving video for the Ten Days of Repentance

We split our repentance process between two tiers, one our religious relationship with G-d and the other our personal relationship with our people. The following video speaks to both tiers:

1. It calls to me as a son to think about what my parents did for me;

2. It calls to me as a father to be that kind of parent for my children;

3. It calls to me as a human being to think about what Gd does for me.

Here it is; maybe you can watch this without tearing up, but I can't... (if you are very short on time, skip the first minute)

Saturday, September 15, 2012

In every generation (Derashah for 2nd day of Rosh HaShanah)

[I am somewhat out of practice in writing derashos, and as a result this one came out wordier than I would have liked, but I still found it meaningful for me, and I hope it will be for those who hear it on Rosh HaShanah this year.]

Avraham held the blade aloft, prepared to slaughter a son, a dream, a nation. The inspiring exodus, the revelation at Sinai, the mishkan hosting Gd in a home of human construction, the union of Jew and Land and Torah, the civilization of King David, the prophets and exile and redemption, the Messianic era, the very purpose of the heavens and earth - all of Creation hung in the balance while the old man steadied his hand…

…And a voice broke the silence: "Avraham! Avraham! Don't do it!"

A midrash asks: "Why does it say Avraham twice? Why not just say it once?" To which I would have simply replied, "This is too important a moment to trust to Avraham's 137-year old ears; call him twice." But the midrash sees further layers of meaning; R' Chiyya says Gd repeated Avraham's name to demonstrate urgency, or perhaps love. Another thought, recorded in a Tosefta, says it was to show that Avraham was loyal both before and after this Divine call.

But the most moving answer I have seen comes from Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov. Noticing that the same double-call happens in Tanach to Yaakov, Moshe and Shemuel, Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov presented a frightening, but inspiring guarantee.

Writing two thousand years ago with foresight encompassing the 21st century Jew, Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov declared, " אמר לו ולדורות, אין דור שאין בו כאברהם ואין דור שאין בו כיעקב ואין דור שאין בו כמשה ואין דור שאין בו כשמואל." Gd called these men twice because, "Gd spoke to them and, in the second mention of their names, to subsequent generations. There is no generation which lacks an Avraham, there is no generation which lacks a Yaakov, there is no generation which lacks a Moshe, and there is no generation which lacks a Shemuel."

Do not misunderstand Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov's words – he is not simply pledging that every generation will have righteous leaders or great prophets. Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov promised far more; let's look at the circumstances in which these four men were called.

Avraham's case is the one we just read – He is a patriarch who declares openly to Gd, "All of Your gifts mean nothing to me, without a son." He is married to Sarah, who wanders with him in pursuit of their dream, who puts her marriage on the line to provide a son, and who is finally rewarded for her patient righteousness at the age of 90. Avraham and Sarah have invested their lives in this child, their only child, their beloved child, Yitzchak – and now they are to give him up, the only gift that ever mattered now sacrificed to Gd.

Gd calls out to Avraham at his moment of sacrifice and tells him he need not sacrifice – and in doubling Avraham's name, He calls out to us, to our dream-sacrificing Avrahams, as well.

Yaakov spent most of his life on the run, in exile. First he was pursued by his murderous brother Esav, then he spent 20 years performing hard labour in the house of Lavan. He returned to Israel only to lose his beloved wife Rachel, have his daughter Dinah taken captive, lose his son Yosef, have his son Shimon imprisoned – even at home, he was not permitted to settle down. Finally, Yosef was restored, but at a price: Yaakov would need to enter exile yet again, to descend to Egypt.

At this moment Gd calls to Yaakov, "Yaakov! Yaakov! אל תירא מרדה מצרימה, don't be afraid to go into exile; it will not be a true exile. I will be with you!" And in doubling Yaakov's name, HaShem calls to us, to our exiled Yaakovs, as well.

And then Moshe, the Egyptian prince who turns fugitive after saving the life of a Jew. A price on his head, he flees to Midian, where he builds a small family with his wife Tzipporah, until Gd tells him, "Go back to Egypt, back to the land of a despotic Pharaoh, of slavedrivers and beatings and quotas. Leave your safety and security. I know you don't want to do it, but I am charging you to return to Egypt and rescue your nation."

Gd calls to Moshe at this moment of danger and rescue, "Moshe! Moshe! I am standing beside you!" And by doubling Moshe's name, Gd cries out to every Jew who has ever launched himself into danger on behalf of others, declaring, "You are not truly in danger; I am standing beside you!"

And finally Shemuel, young Shemuel, brought to the mishkan at the youngest possible age to apprentice to Eli, the Kohen Gadol, the religious giant of the generation. Shemuel is raised by Eli, who is his surrogate parent and mentor. Eventually Eli appoints him to serve in his household. But Eli's sons have sinned horribly, abusing their power, and Gd calls to Shemuel, of all people, to convey a message of harsh rebuke: "Go give your employer, your mentor, your surrogate father, a message that will make his ears ring. For his children's sins, for his own failure to instruct them properly, I am going to destroy his household entirely; they will be cursed forever, and they will never be forgiven." The entire priesthood is to be overturned, and the deaths will number in the thousands. Go, Shemuel, and give that message of rebuke and revolution to the man who is every authority figure in your life rolled into one.

G-d opens that mission by calling to Shemuel, "Shemuel! Shemuel! I am with you, I am the true author of the revolution and Eli will accept it; do not fear!" And by doubling his name, Gd calls to the Shemuels in every generation, saying, "Do not fear to speak the unpopular truth and revolt against authority; I am with you."

Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov saw in these doubled calls a message deeper and more far-reaching than the individual conversations of G-d with these patriarchs.

There are two Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov's, and I'm not sure which is the author of this midrash, but it hardly makes a difference – because both knew well the missions of the aforementioned men.
• The first Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov lived through the Roman conquest of Jerusalem, saw the starvation and disease of siege, followed by Jewish blood running in the streets.
• The second Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov was a student of Rabbi Akiva, and he survived the fall of the Betar fortress to Hadrian's brutal forces.

The author of our midrash knew the bitter truth of Jewish history: Avraham and his sacrifice, Yaakov and his exile, Moshe and his dangerous rescue, Shemuel and his revolution, are not one-of-a-kind.
• Every generation will see Jews charged with a mission of revolt against authority, whether the deposing of Rabban Gamliel in mishnaic times or the condemnation of poor leadership in the modern age.
• Every generation will see Jews face danger to save other Jews, whether by rescuing captives of the Romans or Jews living in danger in Ethiopia or Moscow or around the Middle East.
• Every generation will see Jewish families descend into exile, whether the refugees of 1st century Jerusalem or the refugees of 20th century Germany.
• And yes, Avraham, every generation will see Jewish mothers who send their sons into danger, whether in 2nd century fortresses or today's IDF.

Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov's read of the akeidah is horrific – it is a promise that the sacrifices are not over, that every generation will know this pain.

But, Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov also reassures us with a pledge: That in every generation, HaShem will be by our side, as He stood with Avraham, Yaakov, Moshe and Shemuel. We may not always see the protection as Avraham and Moshe and Shemuel did; Yaakov did not see the end of the story in his lifetime. But HaShem will be there by our side, HaShem sees all and He stands with us.

Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov's message is more than a prophetic vision, though – it is also an imperative. If Gd will stand with these righteous people, then we are obligated to stand with them as well.

When we daven on Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur, even as we think about each member of our family, our friends, people who are sick and needy, we should also see those modern Avrahams and Yaakovs, Moshes and Shemuels in our minds:
• When we hear the shofar, as we will momentarily, we should daven for the mothers who continue Avraham's work, sending their children off to fight for the land and people of Israel.
• When we hear the shofar, we should daven for the Jews still at Moshe's work of rescuing other Jews, whether working for a government or for outreach agencies around the world.
• When we hear the shofar, we should think of Jews in Yaakov's exile, including ourselves in Toronto.
• When we hear the shofar, we should think of people who are carrying on the mission of Shemuel of rejecting the status quo and rebuking irresponsible leadership. [I recognize that this requires some fleshing out, but this is a derashah and not the venue for exploring the question.]

These are the people called by HaShem in that midrash, and on Rosh haShanah, having just read the story of "Avraham! Avraham!" we daven for them, declaring "We are with you," and appealing to HaShem to be with them.

Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov's message is about more than davening, though; Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov's message is also about responsibility and leadership. The person who sacrifices, who is in danger, who is in exile, who is charged with revolution, isn't always a "them" – It can also be us.

When we hear the shofar, we ought to ask ourselves what it is saying, what is it demanding. Is it only reminding us to stand with the Avrahams and Yaakovs? Or is it also summoning us to become Moshes and Shemuels? The midrash said it: Sacrificing and dangerous rescue, exile and revolt are not historical phenomena, they are modern and current and real.

When summoned by Gd, all of the biblical figures Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov cited offered the same response: הנני, "Here I am, ready to serve." Avraham said it. Yaakov said it. Moshe said it. Shemuel said it. When it is our time, when we are called, when we hear the sound of the shofar momentarily, let us make sure we say it as well. Hineini.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Empowerment or Abandonment?

[This is my article from this week's Toronto Torah.]

Nearly two thousand years ago, Rabbi Yehoshua battled Rabbi Eliezer regarding a question of halachah. Rabbi Yehoshua defended the view of the assembled authorities, but Rabbi Eliezer stubbornly summoned a celestial voice, which declared, "Why do you quarrel with Rabbi Eliezer? The law always follows his view!" But Rabbi Yehoshua dismissed the heavenly interloper, citing our parshah (Devarim 30:12), "Torah is no longer in the heavens." In the end, Rabbi Yehoshua emerged victorious. (Bava Metzia 59b)

Our parshah indeed asserts that Torah is no longer in the heavens; after G-d taught Moshe all He wished to convey, no novel messages could be communicated to humanity. All innovation and application must now come from the beit midrash, authored by human minds. In general, we tend to view this evolution positively; we no longer need to ascend to the heavens in order to ascertain the Divine will. Har Sinai is in our hands!

From another perspective, though, the assignment of Torah to humanity alone is a horrifying abandonment which threatens the very veracity of our transmission of Torah. On an earlier occasion when HaShem attempted to distance Himself from us, Moshe dramatically denied permission, declaring, "If You are not going with us, do not move us from here!" (Shemot 33:15) Why, then, was Moshe not troubled now? And why was the heavenly source of authentic wisdom closed in our parshah, long before the destruction of the Beit haMikdash and the severing of our close relationship with the Divine?

In truth, the declaration that Torah has left the heavens is both empowerment and abandonment. It is empowerment of the Sages, whose supersession of the prophets is acknowledged in the talmudic observation (Bava Batra 12a), "The scholar is greater than the prophet." Further, a sage may occasionally be privileged to Divine aid; as the Talmud (Bava Batra 12a-b) indicates, scholars may find themselves inspired by a Divine muse. So it is that a scholar who has reached his wits' end may suddenly find his capacity mysteriously augmented. (For more on this, see Ramban and Chatam Sofer to Bava Batra 12a, and Maharitz Chajes to Berachot 3a.)

At the same time, we are unmistakably abandoned, for the vistas open to a thoughtful sage are more limited than those to which a prophet can aspire. The Zohar (Mishpatim pg. 116b) observes that scholars are capable of philosophizing regarding the most abstruse matters, speculating upon even the Shechinah, while the prophet reaches a stage at which he falls upon his face and can see no more. Yet this is not a sign that the scholar is truly greater than the sage; the prophet must withdraw his gaze because he is exposed to fantastic wonders which the scholar will never come close to apprehending.

The reason for this partial abandonment may be seen in a note authored by Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin regarding his mentor, the Vilna Gaon, "The heavens wished to give him, without any work or exhaustion, celestial secrets via angelic messengers… He did not raise his eyes to this. It was close to him, and he distanced it. I heard from his mouth that angelic messengers often rose early to his door, desiring to convey to him secrets of Torah without any work, and he did not turn his ear to them at all." (Introduction to Safra d'Tzniuta)

The Vilna Gaon understood that we are not meant to be recipients of free gifts; that which comes to us without labour is, in the terminology of the Zohar, nahama d'kisufa, bread of shame. As Adam and Chavah were instructed to work in the Garden of Eden despite its Divine bounty, so we are meant to draw our insights from the strain of our minds, not from prophetic communication. [Perhaps this is why we tend to feel greater satisfaction with the fruits of our labour than with the gifts we receive from others, as noted in Bava Metzia 38a.]

Our ancestors, standing on the edge of the Jordan River, were nudged from the nest like a young bird pushed forth by her mother. Certainly, there was an element of abandonment, but this was also a grant of independence critical to achieving our purpose.

Expanding this idea further, we may say the same for the gift of Free Will which is mentioned several sentences subsequent in our parshah (Devarim 30:19). Certainly, our religious lives would be more productive were G-d to take charge, but we are meant to work for our greatness. And as with scholarship, the one who works for his personal purification is promised Divine aid. (Yoma 38a)

In both our studies and our general religious lives, may we merit to struggle and to be rewarded with Divine assistance, and to earn a ketivah vachatimah tovah.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Vilna Gaon, the Maggid, and the Work Ethic of a Talmid Chacham

[Interesting: Shana Tova Parking Tickets at Life in Israel]

[Note: "Maggid" in the title of this post refers to an angel who comes to teach a person Torah. It does not refer to an itinerant preacher.]

A friend led me to the passage below today, and I knew instantly that I needed to translate this for others to read. There is much to learn here; it comes from Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin's introduction to the Vilna Gaon's Safra d'Tzniuta, available at here. I have appended the Hebrew at the bottom, but there is more to see in the original.

He [the Gaon of Vilna] did not gain satisfaction other than from the work he did in wisdom and intellect and ability and after much strain, when Heaven had mercy upon him and wellsprings of wisdom were revealed to him, secrets of secrets and hidden things inside hidden things, this was for him a gift of Gd. Other than this, he did not want them, even though the heavens wished to give him, without any work or exhaustion, celestial secrets via angelic messengers, masters of secrets and officers of Torah. He did not raise his eyes to this. It was close to him, and he distanced it. I heard from his sacred mouth that angelic messengers often rose early to his door, desiring to convey to him secrets of Torah without any work, and he did not turn his ear to them at all.

One of the angelic messengers pressed him greatly, but he did not look upon the angel's great appearance. He answered and told him, "I do not want my grasp of Gd's torah to come via any intermediary at all; my eyes are raised only to Him. That which He wishes to reveal to me and give me as my portion in His Torah for the work I have done with all of my energy, He will give me wisdom, from His mouth comes intellect and comprehension, when He gives me a comprehending heart…

And he said that although our master Rabbi Yosef Karo had an angelic messenger, that was two centuries ago, when the generations were proper, and he lived upon the holy land. It is not thus now, when there are many who break the barriers, and especially outside of the land it is impossible to be at the height of holiness, without any inappropriate element mixed in. Especially those revelations which come without Torah, his spirit was impatient with them and they were not significant to him at all.

לא הראה את נפשו טוב רק בעמלו אשר עמל בחכמה ובדעת ובכשרון ואחר רב יגיעותיו וכאשר חסו עליו מן השמים ונתגלו לו מעיינות החכמה רד"ר וסתרין דסתרין זו היה אצלו מתת אלקים וזולת זה נפשו לא רצה בם אף כי רצו למסור לו מן השמים בלא שום עמל ויגיעת בשר רזין וסתרין עליוני עליונין ע״י מגידים מארי דרזין ושרי התורה לא נשא עיניו לזה עמו היתה וריחקה כי שמעתי מפיו הק' שפעמים רבות השכימו לפתחו כמה מגידים מן השמים בשאלתם ובקשתם שרוצים למסור לו רזין דאורייתא בלא שום עמל ולא הטה אזנו אליהם כלל

וא' מן המגידים הפציר בו מאד עכ"ז לא הביט אל מראהו הגדול וענה ואמר לו איני רוצה שתהיה השגתי בתורתו ית״ש ע"י שום אמצעי כלל וכלל רק עיני נשואות לו ית״ש מה שרוצה לגלות לי וליתן חלקי בתורתו ית"ש בעמלי אשר עמלתי בכל כחי הוא ית"ש יתן לי חכמה מפיו דעת ותבונה שיתן לי לב מבין
ואמר אף כי מרן הב"י היה לו מגיד היה זה לפני ב' מאות שנה שהיו הדורות כתקנן והיה שרוי על אדמת הקדש לא כן עתה שרבו המתפרצים ובפרט בחו"ל א"א כלל שיהיה כלו קדש קדשים בלי שום עירוב כלל. ובפרט הגילויים אשר בלא תורה נפשו בחלה בהם ולא היו נחשבים אצלו כלל וכלל.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Your money or your aliyah

I received this question recently:

Dear The Rebbetzin's Husband,

In the shul I attend, a man who receives an aliyah (is called up to the Torah) is handed a card listing various sums of money. Via a paper clip attached to the card, he is expected to inform the gabbai of the sum he is donating to the shul, in response to his aliyah. Lest one think this is on the honour system, the shul's bookkeeping office will send a note that week, reminding him of his pledge.

Here is my question: What do you do when the gabbai calls you for an aliyah unbidden? Try to decline, and the gabbai insists – and now you are required to make a donation, for an honour you never sought.

What do you do?

Held Up in Shul

Dear Held Up,

I recognize the problem, certainly.

I believe strongly in shuls raising funds beyond dues; it's a necessity. In line with this, I understand and accept the practice of soliciting donations for aliyos; shuls need money to pay salaries, keep the lights on, and support programs. The reality of Jewish communal life is that people donate to chesed organizations and schools far more readily than they do to a shul, and so shuls need to fundraise in awkward ways.

On the other hand, it seems to me that gabbaim should recognize the problem here, and hand out cards only when the oleh (person ascending to the Torah) actually requests the aliyah, such as for a yahrtzeit.

I would recommend an off-line conversation with the gabbai, and if necessary the Rabbi and president, at a time other than the aliyah itself, to discuss the policy. I do find shul officials to be open to this sort of discussion, in general.

Best wishes for a כתיבה וחתימה טובה,
The Rebbetzin's Husband

PS You are not the only one – In one shul I visited I was once asked, last-minute, to fill in for a haftorah, and then handed a donation card for the honour of receiving maftir!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A new site to learn Jewish songs

Years ago, I looked for a website with the words and tunes for parts of davening, to provide guidance for parents who wanted to keep up with their children's day school curriculum. I found a Hebrew School which had parts of this available; I would post the link, but I have not been able to find it again since.

The other day, though, I received an email about a new site, which offers a service for davening as well as songs for Shabbos, and more. The site is Shir haLev. While there is much I would do differently on the site, and they definitely should post the words along with the tunes, this is a good start. I'd recommend checking it out.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Shofar Practice

[I wrote this five years ago, in a different venue, when I was still a synagogue rabbi. It's one of my favorite posts, so I decided to bring it over here. I edited mildly, to preserve anonymity of anyone mentioned in the original post.]

Rosh HaShanah is coming; I know, because Shofar Practice started today.

Shofar Practice - it's like MLB Spring Training without the steroids, NFL Mini-Camp without the salary holdouts, NBA pre-season without the high school kids who all think they're the next Jordan. When Shofar Practice starts, there is no drama; it's just you, and the horn.

("Just let it happen, be the horn. Be the horn, Rabbi. You're not being the horn, Rabbi."

"Well, it's kind of difficult with you talking like that."

And I must include the song here, as well.)

Batten down the hatches, Rosh HaShanah's here. It's been here, coming closer, for weeks now, but as of today it's really here.

I know it's here, because I had to pull out the shofar and practice for Elul this afternoon. You can pretend there are five weeks left in the Shiva d'Nechemta, but I know better. Rosh HaShanah is knocking at the door, and it isn't going to care whether I answer or not. It's going to huff and puff on the old shofar and blow my house in.

When I was eight or nine years old, I used to live in dread of Summer Camp; I vividly remember nights when I went to sleep hoping I would die before the summer, so I wouldn’t have to go to camp. My dread of Rosh HaShanah doesn’t move me quite that far - but perhaps only because I have my own children to think about now, and I would hate to do that to them.

How can a tokeia (shofar blower) concentrate on his own teshuvah while he blows the shofar? Obviously, they’re all much better at this than I am. I spend those moments worrying about the mechanics, about generating a clear sound, about not embarrassing myself. Which is why I blow only for Elul, not for Rosh haShanah.

Rosh HaShanah: The day when I have to find a way to motivate hundreds of people to take their judgment seriously.

Rosh HaShanah: The day when the fate of my community of so many physically needy, financially needy, emotionally needy, religiously needy, will be determined.

Rosh HaShanah: The day when I have to be judged, myself.

A lot of the trick is just in getting the Shofar seated properly. If it’s in wrong, all the blowing in the world won’t help. If it’s in right, the gentlest puff generates a smooth, powerful sound. There’s a nimshal (allegorical lesson) in there somewhere.

Soon I'll get the phone calls asking, "I'm five months pregnant, do I fast?" "I'm nursing, do I fast?" "What about my asthma medication?" "Heart medication?" "Insulin?" "Prozac?" I'm glad they ask, and I'm grateful to those who actually ask before the morning of Erev Yom Kippur, but each question puts my nerves a little further on edge, makes me a little more tense.

I put the Shofar to my lips and blow the first blast, and it's tentative because my lips vibrate and they kind of jump back, startled, from the weird feeling of these vibrations. I get nervous, against my better judgment; will I be able to blow well, or will I have trouble?

I spoke to our Lulav and Esrog vendor last week, to lock in prices. We’ve set the shul schedule through Yom Kippur; tomorrow, I’ll work on Succos.

I want to blow Shofar with the tallis over my head, befitting the solemnity of the moment, but my nerves get in the way.

Rosh HaShanah is coming. I am so not ready.

The other day, someone remarked to me that Elul is coming early this year. I think he must have been joking; Elul comes early every year.