Thursday, April 30, 2009

Extreme Marketing for Home and Synagogue

I’ve been reading a book called Your Marketing Sucks, by Mark Stevens, and rather enjoying it.

Stevens offers common sense insights in a practical way, presents real-world examples, and name-drops in ways that keep the read fun and interesting. Much of it is pretty obvious, his "Extreme Marketing" isn't that extreme, and there's a lot of hype and filler which gets wearisome, but I still like the book overall.

Among his points, Stevens contends that many businesses ignore easy customers (“low-hanging fruit”). There’s a lot to be said for this.

First, I don’t always agree with it; low-hanging fruit can still be too expensive to be worthwhile.

For example: He would like to see CVS have its pharmacy people offer to get store products for you, when you drop off a prescription. I have often wished they would do this, as a matter of convenience, and he points out that it could translate into extra sales. As he puts it, 5 million pharmacy trips, with $10 each in extra sales, would result in $50 million in profits.

Sounds reasonable… but I don’t think it is. First, CVS knows that if you use their pharmacy, you are quite possibly going to make these purchases yourself, anyway. Second, CVS pharmacies, like most chain-store pharmacies, tend to be minimally staffed; they don’t have time to hunt through the store for your Head and Shoulders marine-scent for semi-sensitive hair and dry skin, in a family-sized bottle. Third, they certainly don’t have money to hire extra staffers for each store.

So it’s not worth the investment of money, and the loss of time from actually serving the pharmacy, in order to offer customers items that many of them would have purchased themselves, anyway. (And particularly in a pharmacy-type store, where many purchases are personal and customers are less likely to want to itemize them face-to-face!) This idea fails on the implementation level.

But I wish we could use “Extreme Marketing” to sell our home to low-hanging fruit, by personalizing for individual viewings... but that seems to be against protocol.

They tell you to leave your home as neutral as possible, so that the visitors will be able to imagine themselves in the home. This makes some sense, but why not have the seller’s agent coordinate with the buyer’s agent, use market research, and let the sellers put out items that may highlight the house in a positive way for the buyers?

Example: If the prospective buyers have young children, we could leave out our air hockey table in the middle of the playroom, to show how the room could be used well. If the prospective buyers like plants, we could leave our plants in different locations, showing the good sunlight they can receive. And so on. But, no – personal stuff is supposed to go away. Pretend you never lived there.

And then there’s the Synagogue. I wish Synagogues would engage in Extreme Marketing, and particularly in the area of Low Hanging Fruit. Unfortunately, rabbis tend to be consumed with serving existing clientele, and so they often miss easy possibilities.

Here’s a current example: I want to know what’s happening in my new Jewish community, since I expect to move there this summer. So I emailed more than a dozen active synagogues and temples, from across denominational lines. I told them I plan to move to Toronto this summer, and I asked if they could add me to their synagogue email lists to keep me informed of what’s going on.

Almost all of the secretaries/office managers/executive directors replied within 48 hours, which is positive. Most of them do have synagogue email lists, which is good.

But the key, to me, is whether synagogue clergy follow up. “Jane gave me your name, she told me you’re moving to the area; where are you moving in? When? Can I help with hospitality/networking/kashering your kitchen/mezuzot/etc?” I won’t tell you just how many offered any such response; it’s embarrassing and lashon hara. But let’s just say I wasn’t fending anyone off. Presumably, the office staff do not have a protocol for passing this information on to the clergy or the lay leadership.

This just seems wrong to me. Aside from chesed, hachnasat orchim, et al - look at it as a chance to market the synagogue!

Yes, there are almost 200,000 Jews in the city, and yes, there are already lots of members to serve, but come on. Someone who emails your office, says he is moving in and asks for information is the lowest of low-hanging fruit. Go for it, folks.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Senator Arlen Specter, former Congressman Pat Toomey and Israel, from my experiences

First, let’s drop all of the faux-surprise about Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter jumping to the Democratic Party.

Anyone who’s been paying attention saw this coming miles away; as the Senator himself said yesterday, his ideology just doesn’t fit with that of today’s strongest Republican voices.

Add to that a serious 2010 Republican primary challenge from former Congressman Pat Toomey, and Pennsylvania’s rule that a candidate who loses a primary cannot run indepedently in the same election, and the writing was on the wall in letters large enough for Belshazzar to read it unassisted.

So for an Israel supporter, where are Senator Specter and former Congressman Toomey, in terms of Israel and the Middle East?

When I first moved to Allentown (2001), Pat Toomey was our local Congressman. I met him a few times, when he came to speak at Jewish community events as well as in at least one meeting in his office arranged by the ZOA.

When Toomey ran against Specter in the 2004 Senatorial primary, I was lobbied by a national Jewish organization to support Specter. Part of their argument was that Toomey would not support Israel, but in this I believe they were incorrect.

Congressman Toomey was always staunchly pro-Israel, understanding the need for Israel’s security as well as the perfidy of the Arafat government. He did place one priority above all, and that was his focus on fiscal responsibility; I recall that at one point he voted against a Foreign Aid budget bill, which included aid for Israel, because the budget had not been slashed overall as he wished. But, still, he was a supporter of Israel, and I believe he likely remains the same.

On the other hand, Senator Specter is solidly pro-Israel as well.

I have met Senator Specter a couple of times, when he has spoken locally. There is no question in my mind that he supports Israel; AIPAC certainly thinks so, having invited him to speak at their national events more than once. He does get accused, from time to time, of being weak in his support – several months ago he was accused of unthinkingly providing Syria’s Assad a photo op while on a message-carrying mission - but I don’t give those accusations too much credence; his track record is simply too solid for that.

I do worry about the way this party-change will empower Israel’s opponents in the Senate. There are many legislators who would prefer to win the favor of the world rather than stand up for America’s values, and most of those legislators inhabit the Democratic Party. But as someone who has heard both of these men, who has tracked their careers and who has met them up close, I believe that both will solidly support the State of Israel.

I pray that I am right.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Hallel for Yom ha’Atzmaut without a berachah (Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook)

Yeshivat Hesder Ramat Gan published “Go’el Yisrael גואל ישראל,” several years ago. The book collects considerable quality material on Yom ha’Atzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim, from Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook, his son Rav Tzvi Yehudah Kook, their students, and other giant of Religious Zionism. It also offers a complete seder tefillah for Yom haAtzmaut and Yom Yerushalayim.

On page 300-301, Rav Tzvi Yehuda Kook is quoted regarding the Chief Rabbinate’s recommendation of saying Hallel without a berachah on Yom ha’Atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day:

On the Erev Shabbat preceding Yom ha’Atzmaut, a certain important man came to me and asked why our rabbis do not permit us to recite a berachah upon Hallel for Yom ha’Atzmaut. I replied to him that the ruling of the Chief Rabbinate is balanced and correct.

The enactments of the Chief Rabbinate apply to the entire community. Since, to our pain and shame, a great portion of our community does not believe in the great act of Gd which is revealed to us in the establishment of the government of Israel, and since, due to its lack of faith, it lacks joy, it is not possible to obligate them to recite Hallel with a berachah. It is like someone who sees a friend and is glad to see him, who is obligated to recite a berachah; if he is joyous, he recites a beracah. If he is not joyous, he does not recite a berachah.

Rav Maimon, whose entire being was dedicated to building Gd’s nation and portion, was filled with the joy of faith, and so he established in his synagogue to recite Hallel with a berachah. The same is true in other, similar places – the IDF and religious kibbutzim. However, the Chief, all-inclusive Rabbinate cannot enact a berachah as an all-inclusive ruling for the entire community, when the community is not ready for it.

In our central Yeshiva we had followed the ruling of the Rabbinate, for we are not a kloiz of a specific sect. We are associated with the general Jewish population centered in Yerushalayim, and since that population includes, for now, to our pain and our embarrassment, obstacles to complete faith and joy, and therefore to the obligation to recite a berachah, it is appropriate that we also act according to the ruling of the Rabbinate for the general population.

I find this explanation fascinating for many reasons, including the following:

• I’m not sure which group he means, when he speaks of those who don’t believe in the great act of Gd – does he mean those who do not believe in Divine intervention? Or those who do not believe that the State is an act of Gd?

• I wonder how many people who do not believe in Divine intervention, or who do not believe that the State is an act of Gd, daven in Mercaz haRav – and on Yom ha’Atzmaut in particular?

• I believe that his insistence on keeping the yeshiva – the bastion of his father’s Torah! – as an institution open to all, and serving all, and avoiding divisive practices even on matters we hold most dear, should be a model for all of us. This is true leadership.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Yom haZikaron: Remembering and Honoring our Techelet

(I always get melodramatic around Yom haZikaron, so please excuse my purple prose as I anticipate tonight's annual Memorial observance.)

“Techelet resembles the sea. The sea resembles the sky. The sky resembles the Divine throne.” (Sotah 17a)

“And you shall see the strings and remember all of the mitzvot of HaShem your Gd, and fulfill them.” (Bamidbar 15:39)

Since the twelfth century, the biblical techelet dye has been lost; in some parts of the Jewish world its last appearance was centuries earlier. Numerous attempts to reclaim this bluish color - key ingredient of the tzitzit, the tallit, the uniform of the kohanim - have been launched; some have claimed success.

But, for me, none have managed to reclaim the message of that marine color: A fish, a snail, some lowly sea creature may yet resemble the Divine throne. Flesh and blood, mortal, material life, can reflect the light of the Divine Throne itself.

Perhaps some look at the murex identified by the Techelet Institute, or the indigo dye identified by the Radziner chassidim before them, and are indeed inflamed with the knowledge that we, too, can reach such great heights. Perhaps they become more aware of the mitzvot surrounding us, and fulfill them.

But I am not so sensitive, or I have not seen the right color; this dyed wool does not move me in the same way.

I have my own techelet, though. My techelet are the chayyalim of the IDF, who fight for our nation, who stand guard against attacks and defend the lives of our families.

I do not glorify war, or violence, or martyrdom. I do not suggest that every soldier, or any soldier, is a perfect model of Judaism and its ideals. I certainly do not endorse every decision made for the frontline soldier by Knesset politicians.

But the chayyal who stands guard on the border, the soldier who inspects bags at a shopping center, the officer who leads a platoon, or parachutes, or drives a tank, these flesh and blood human beings convey the message of techelet.

This techelet, too, was lost for a long period in Jewish history. Due to circumstance rather than lack of will, the past millenium saw relatively few examples of Jews who defended the lives of their brethren with their own.

This techelet inspires with the message that we can mirror Gd, providing great chesed as does the Creator, protecting life as does the Creator.

This techelet calls to mind the mitzvot, reminding us that a human being can accomplish so much, can achieve greatness.

With this techelet, we again see that flesh and blood, mortal, material life, can resemble the Divine throne itself.

May we always remember the techelet who have fallen, and honor the techelet living among us.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Haveil Havalim #214 - The Radiant Ziv edition

Here I am, back in the saddle for my third turn hosting Haveil Havalim, the Jewish and Israeli Blog Carnival. [Earlier attempts here and here.]

I finally feel like I am getting the hang of this hosting thing, at least to the extent that I no longer feel a need to apologize for hosting. One day I may even get to be good at it.

There were many more submissions this time than there were in the past; I think I linked about 80 posts here, but I haven't bothered to count. I take this as a sign of HH Health, as well as a sign that this week was a very busy blogging week!

Founded by Soccer Dad way back in the mists of the early blogosphera, Haveil Havalim is a carnival of Jewish blogs -- a weekly collection of Jewish & Israeli blog highlights, tidbits and points of interest collected from blogs all around the world. It's hosted by different bloggers each week and coordinated by the inestimable Jack.

This week's edition is named in honor of the lunar month of Iyyar, which began this weekend. Iyyar is also identified in Tanach (all references to Jewish sources appear at the end of this post) as זיו Ziv, meaning radiance, and our Jewish/Israeli blogosphere is nothing if not radioactive radiant!

Here's my favorite post of the week, one with a special radiant association: Since reading Charlotte's Web as a child, I've always associated the word "radiant" with spiders. So go here for a truly radiant Muqata Spider, courtesy of Jameel! (Spiderman made me associate "radioactive" with spiders as well, but that's another story.)

Now, on to the many radiant aspects of the month of Iyyar, as represented in this week's edition:

Section I: Gd is the source of radiance, and Divine glory is talmudically described as זיו השכינה (ziv hashechinah), so our Judaism section is a pretty good place to start:

Some random items: The Parsha Blog does a Wellhausen-worthy analysis of a be-ethical-and-be-rewarded story making the rounds, The Velveteen Rabbi offers poetry and prose on childbirth, Hirhurim has an interesting piece on the Jewish view of avoiding danger and The Real Shliach is waiting for mashiach in a re-post of old material here

On the Fringe contrasts different Jewish religious views and practices, while Hillel Goldberg at Cross-Currents talks about the respective futures of different approaches, and SerandEz looks at Jonathan Mark’s piece on Very Open Orthodoxy and Maharat Hurwitz .

But enough about denominations, let’s talk lashon hara. Or about lashon hara, anyway. I really like what Chinuch Adventures had to say about combatting lashon hara nastiness . I did battle with those who pit Jew vs. Jew with their slander, in The Idiot Brigade Rides Again, my brother over at Kosher Beers discussed a parshah thought by Rabbi Frand on slander, and Barzilai posted a thought on arrogance and slander and tzaraas.

Letters of Thought is troubled by nomenclature in Lubavitch children's reading material. Maybe he should try reading the Breslov books that Frum Satire doesn’t want?

Section II: And then we move from the religious to the Personal, since midrash describes personal charm as זיו איקונין של אדם (ziv ikunin shel adam).

An ideal start to this category is ShtetlFab’s musing on why some people just hit it off, and others don’t. Sportsbiz offers the story of a Jew and his dogs in the Iditarod, and Ki yachol nuchal blogs Pesach and Yom haShoah thoughts.

I have long admired Jack, and I wish him Mazal Tov for his interview with DovBear.

Shira bat Sarah is at her synagogue’s post-Katrina dedication, and RenReb has a range of thoughts on her mind, as usual. (But didn't she see Ice Age? I'm pretty sure the dodos went extinct in that one.)

Beneath the Wings deals with two very different guests – the Repairman and Flat Stanley – as well as a desperately dreaming daughter. Trip’n Up doesn’t need guests, she’s got triplets!

Rivka at Wings Like a Dove posted an update on her mother’s condition.

This story at Writes Like She Talks, about a politician who wasn’t careful with his email, isn’t particularly Jewish - but it has a Jewish lesson in it. Orthonomics wants us to rein in deficit spending, and I’m with her. In a piece that is by turns headachey and humorous, The Crown Heights Underground offers the One-Sentence-Piece-Joint-Writing-Exercise.

For a little more humor, here’s an odd work memo via A Time of the Signs, and for a piece radiating with Joy, read “Fantastic things that make me happy” at The Curious Jew.

Section III: Moving along to some more somber radiance: Early in the week we had Yom haShoah, a day commemorating the murder of so many of our ancestors. The gemara calls our patriarchs זיותני עולם (zivtanei olam), the radiant ones of the world, and I'll borrow the term for the martyrs killed in the Shoah.

There were many commemorations, on many blogs; here are a few:

Everyone Needs Therapy remembered Irena Sendler, Elms in the Yard remembered the victims on Yom haShoah, as did Tikkun Olam here and here. Jack did it here, and Israelity did it too. Gila at My Shrapnel did it in the context of Defiance, and contemplating a modern Holocaust in Israel.

Jack tries to explain it all to his son.

Esser Agaroth and For Zion’s Sake talk about fitting memorials for the victims of the Holocaust, and preventing current/future Holocausts from happening, while has a blog post about a new Holocaust museum in Skokie.

Section IV: Then we have another type of ziv, with what the gemara calls זיוא דאילני (ziva d'ilanei), the radiance of the trees, and this week was Earth Day!

Home-shuling is talking about the Jewish elements of Earth Day, and here’s a recycling post at In the Pink, suitable for Earth Day as well.

Section V: Which brings us to Israel, the radiant beauty and joy of the world, not to mention the country whose Independence Day, Yom haAtzmaut, is celebrated in the month of Ziv.

Occidental Israeli describes beautiful Israeli Ziv days here.

We have some history of Israel with State of Exile arguing we should never have revolted against the Roman Empire, Shiloh Musings talking about the murder of Lechi activist Alexander Rubovitz, Lion of Zion memorializing Haganah soldiers, Treppenwitz reviewing the history of the Gush while hitching and Isramom blogging Anda, a play about the Eichmann trial and the politics of the early State of Israel.

You want to talk government? Religion and State in Israel depicts the on-going saga of the Chief Rabbinate’s difficulties administering marriage and divorce, while Esser Agaroth beefs about the secular government, and Jewlicious presents thoughts on West Bank withdrawal.
Oh, and Shiloh Musings discusses secret military plans.

Israelity has some very appetizing Shuk photos, as well as a piece on Beyonce’s new Israeli choreographer, Kobi Rosenfeld.

And to wrap the category: Israel is the joy, beauty and radiance of the world, but The Israel Situation asks why it is also the topic of the world’s daily conversation.

Section VI: The holiday of Pesach Sheni (aka Passover Redux) is celebrated in this month of Ziv, so here are some Pesach reviews.

Me-ander is trying to recover from Pesach, and there are some Pesach and post-Pesach recipes at the Kosher Cooking Carnival at A Mother in Israel. And Letters of Thought schmoozes about his Pesach in Uman, complete with pictures.

Section VII: Lest we forget to count the Omer, note that Lag baOmer is another holiday in this great month of Ziv, with radiant bonfires!

Our Shiputzim has a tree cut down… and it may become someone’s Lag baOmer bonfire.

Section VIII: And then there's Yerushalayim, which the Talmud says will have a beautiful Ziv radiating from its walls in the time of mashiach, and which celebrates Yom Yerushalayim in the month of Ziv!

Here’s an interesting Jerusalem photography riddle for Jerusalemites, at Leora’s.

Take advantage of the fine weather and learn some history at The Railroad Track Park in Jerusalem, described by Elms in the Yard. Or just complain about pharmacy prices with What War Zone.

Section IX: And then, last and definitely least, the world of Anti-Israel, Anti-Judaism, Anti-Life... the world of the misspelled Zivah.
Zivah spelled זיוה is radiance; Zivah spelled זיבה is an impure bodily discharge, and that's what we have in this category with the United Nations, Iran, Durban II and Arab Terror. Lots of זיבה here, and not too much radiance.

News Beyond News has Back to the Dark Ages with Durban II, and Jewschool has a particularly hideous moment on video.

Israel Situation talks Hezbollah, Hamas, Sunnis, Shiites, Egypt and Israel, and, speaking of Jews and Arab lands, see the article and pictures offered by Sephardic Secret here.

Shiloh Musings argues that Israel is not a product of world sympathy, and that truly learning from the Holocaust would result in a stronger reaction to Durban II.

Occidental Israeli notes a contrast between UN policy toward Somali pirates and the UN’s expectations for Israel’s response to terrorism. He's also looking at the future of Israel, critiquing a recent talk by Michael Oren, and Yisrael Medad looks to the future as well here and here.

Torat Yisrael talks about Arab fear of Haredi Midgets; maybe, as Judeopundit asserts, they've been hitting the Scotch a little too often.

Esser Agaroth talks about a dog’s heroic response to terrorism here. Maybe we need some of these canines to replace inept UN forces around the world… or at least to write newspaper headlines, as I noted in Israel, Gaza and White Phosphorus.

And, in closing, Schvach offers a musical message for Iran and the man Jon Stewart calls “the world’s tiniest autocrat." Do you know if he keeps the first or second days of the omer? He seems to have a perpetually pathetic sefirah beard...

And that's all we have for this radiant week, folks; enjoy, and submit your links for next week's edition here!

Iyyar is called "Ziv" in Kings I 6:1; see also Rosh HaShanah 11a.
Ziv ikunin shows up, among other places, in Bereishit Rabbah 64:6.
Zivtanei Olam brings us back to Rosh HaShanah 11a, as does ziva d'ilanei.
Bava Batra 75a says the walls of Yerushalayim will be given radiance, courtesy of the Leviathan!

Friday, April 24, 2009

The Metzora's Freebird (Derashah Metzora 5769)

The American Heritage Dictionary (Fourth Edition) defines “comeuppance” as “A punishment or retribution that one deserves; one's just deserts.”

I think the appropriate comeuppance for the participants in Durban II, the UN’s sequel to its 2001 “World Conference on Racism,” would be the tzaraat described in our parshah. Since tzaraat is supposed to punish slander, and since a great part of the Durban II agenda is to slander Israel, it would be great to see the conference participants, especially those who applauded the Iranian president’s anti-Israel diatribe, come down with a nice tzaraat rash across their foreheads.

Unfortunately, tzaraat doesn’t happen anymore; since the dying days of the first Beit haMikdash more than twenty-five hundred years ago, no one has experienced the rashes and discolorations that warn people away from a person who speaks harmfully about others.

However, the metzora can still teach us an important lesson about our response to the Durban II conference.

The mystical Zohar asserts, “Every word that a person produces from his mouth ascends upward and pierces heavens and enters a space higher still!”

So imagine the debasement of such power when a person uses it to malign others, to mock others, to undermine others. This is the crime of the metzora, and a Jew who commits such a crime is evicted and ostracised from the community until he repents.

As part of his purification, after repenting, a metzora brings two birds to the Beit haMikdash. One of them is schechted, and the other one is released, to fly away.

The gemara explains that the metzora must end his impurity and conclude his repentance with birds, specificallly; we bring chattering birds to atone for abusing our power of speech. But the fact that the metzora releases one of the birds is odd, and unique among korbanot.

Rav Moshe Isserles offered the beginning of an explanation, outlining symbolism for each bird:
• The schechted bird represents the yetzer hara, one’s inclination for evil.
• The freed bird represents the yetzer hatov, one’s inclination for good.
• The birds are identical in all ways, showing that these inclinations are equally part of human existence, but we schecht the bird that represents evil, and we release the bird that represents good.

Rabbi Dov Weinberger of New York goes further, though, explaining that the yetzer hatov, represented by the freed bird, must play its own role here because the yetzer hatov was a crucial part of the sin. Lashon hara involves more than just slander; it relies, also, on the absence of good speech, on our failure to say positive, helpful, encouraging things at the right time. Were we to use speech more positively, there would be no room for lashon hara:

• Were we to encourage others, praising them for their successes and consoling them for their losses, we would construct relationships which would not allow for lashon hara.
• Were we to use speech to organize people for mitzvot, we could create positive community, strengthening bonds that would defy destructive slander.
• Were we to use speech to correct wrongdoing, helpfully enabling others to right their wrongs, then there would be nothing for people to criticize.

So the very existence of lashon hara testifies to a deficiency in our yetzer hatov, a corrosive lack of positive speech. And when the metzora releases this bird to fly away safely, he declares his understanding that schechting the yetzer hara, ending lashon hara, is insufficient; he must also unleash his yetzer hatov, speaking positively.

Which brings us back to international slander against the State of Israel. This past week brought a perfect media example of such evil speech:

During the Gaza War, anti-Israel media claimed that Israel was using white phosphorus against civilian populations, savagely burning people and breaking the international laws which limit its use to open, non-urban areas. Despite the fact that the Red Cross could find no evidence of wrongdoing, newspapers and blogs and UN personnel insisted that Israel was guilty. Indeed, at Durban itself, this past week, the claim was again lodged against Israel.

But also this past week, the IDF concluded investigations into five separate allegations of misconduct, and found, among other things, that white phosphorus was never used illegally. To quote the report, “The probe… revealed that white phosphorus weapons were used strictly in open fields and not in urban centers.”

And yet, the Times of London titled its coverage of the report, “White phosphorus in Gaza: from flat denial to final admission,” and a leading critical blog titled its article, “Israel admits mistakes, use of white phosphorus in Gaza offensive.” And so on.

This sort of slander has dominated Durban II, as well. Ahmedinajad was only part of the show; all of those nations who applauded him, and the supporters who called Elie Weisel a Zionazi, are symptomatic of the much stronger trend against Israel among these United Nations.

Certainly, we can use lashon hatov to combat the lashon hara of Durban, highlighting all that is wonderful about Israel, including the morality of its army and the way in which the army investigates, publicizes and corrects its errors. This would leave no room for the lies of those who would tear down our country.

Certainly, in a week when we celebrate the 61st anniversary of the founding of this great country, we would do well to find a few moments to write a letter to the editor of a newspaper, or send out an email to friends, or take advantage of conversation opportunities to play up all that Israel has achieved in its history.

As part of his repentance, the metzora also brings two sheep as sin offerings – a chatat, and an asham. Rav Ovadia Sforno, writing in 15th century Italy, explained that two offerings are required because two sins are involved: The metzora sins once by speaking slanderously, and he sins a second time by using slanderous speech to aggrandize himself.

All of us are guilty, at one point or another, of lashon hara, of corrupting and debasing that tremendous power described in the Zohar, to elevate ourselves. Our teshuvah should match that of the metzora, schechting the yetzer hara and unleashing the yetzer hatov, using positive speech to build up ourselves, and those around us as well.

1. Vayyikra Rabbah and Gemara Erchin (15 or so as I recall) are some of the sources linking Tzaraat to slander.

2. The Zohar quote is from Metzora, pg. 55a. Rav Moshe Isserles's comment is in Torat haOlah Vol. 3, chapter 68. The gemara on using birds because they chatter is in Zevachim 88b. The Rambam notes that the birds are identical, but I think that is actually talmudic, I just can't remember where at the moment.

3. One also sends away the sair la'azazel (scapegoat) on Yom Kippur, but many authorities do not consider that a korban at all, but a separate ritual.

4. The quote from R' Dov Weinberger was given to me by Rabbi Naftali Lavenda, and appears in a dvar torah by Rabbi Frand at

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Israel, Gaza and White Phosphorus: Telling the Truth

... and, as always, the truth depends on who is writing the headline.

During the Gaza War, anti-Israel mainstream media and blogs insisted that Israel was using white phosphorus against civilian populations. I and others denied the charge, demanding to see evidence. Indeed, as Jack noted at the time, the Red Cross said Israel's use of white phosphorus was neither unusual nor illegal.

Now Israel has concluded five separate investigations into allegations of IDF misconduct, and has concluded that white phosphorus was never used illegally:
White phosphorus was used in a type of shell fired by mortar squads, as well as by the navy, which fired a 76 mm cannon that every few rounds also fires a white-phosphorus shell to help track targets.
In addition, the IDF fired some 3,000 155 mm artillery shells - which looked like exploding octopuses in the air - that are not white-phosphorus weapons and are used exclusively to create smoke to screens troop movements.
The probe, conducted by artillery officer Col. Shai Alkalai, revealed that white phosphorus weapons were used strictly in open fields and not in urban centers.
The weapon was also not used against terrorists, but for marking and ranging when the forces targeted Kassam rocket cells operating in open areas.
The IDF said it knew of only one case when white phosphorus was used for its burning capacity. That incident also took place in an open field, to burn away shrubbery and uncover tunnel openings.
The army said that the use of the weapon in that incident was also in line with international regulations.
While the IDF was not required to, on January 7, the General Staff decided to stop using white phosphorus.
Alkali discovered three instances where forces continued to use the weapon despite the order - but this was because these units had not yet received the new directive. Once they did, use of the weapon was halted.

So how is this covered by mainstream media and blogs?
Times of London: “White phosphorus in Gaza: from flat denial to final admission
Monsters and Critics – “Israel admits mistakes, use of white phosphorus in Gaza offensive
And CNN buried the news deep in an article entitled “Iran accuses Israeli leaders of war crimes

Apparently, they missed the Ethics sessions in Journalism school.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

For Sale

I’m not sure why the “For Sale” sign bothers me so much.

It went up in front of my house yesterday, and, more than anything else we’ve done so far in the moving process, it really got me. And I don’t know why.

I used to love House For Sale signs, because my first real sensitivity to them came when we move to Allentown and were looking for a place to live. Every new sign signaled a new opportunity.

Then, having moved here, I came to dislike them, since they now indicated a family was looking to leave.

And now I have one of my own, Re-Max Red (is that a Crayola color?), on the grassy curb.

It’s not that I am in love with our house itself. I actually always wanted to live in a hovel, a barely-furnished apartment with bookcases and a card table, to be one of those people who doesn’t really pay attention to physical surroundings, and although I’ve made the concession to shared family life of having a nicer home, nicer furnishings, etc, I’ve never really grown attached to it.

Well, yes, I love the beautiful two-story library.
And the big backyard is great.
And the space in front for my plants and flowers, too.
And the spacious living room and dining room.
And the kitchen skylights.
And the large bedrooms, and hardwood floors.
And I know that there’s no way we’re going to be able to afford anything half as good in our new home.

But, really, I don’t think that’s what’s driving my dislike for “For Sale.”

It may be the finality of placing the sign, even though the deal has been “final” for some time now.
It may be my discomfort with advertising to the entire neighborhood, every dog-walker, every jogging Muhlenberg College student, every everyone, that the Torczyners are moving. (Granted it's all over my blog...)
It may be the yuckiness (there’s probably another word somewhere for this, something stronger than dislike and more toward creepiness) of feeling that people are going to be stopping by the sign and examining and assessing our home.
It may be the automatic nostalgia I know I’m supposed to feel, and so I reflexively create for myself kind of like the faux-Thanksgiving-feeling I get towards the end of November just because it's advertised everywhere.

I don’t know. But I definitely don’t like it. So if you’re planning on buying our home, please do it soon, so we can take down the sign and get on with things.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Yom haShoah, tallit, and the dangers of a rabbi’s quirks

I, personally, do not observe Yom haShoah as a day of its own.

Aside from the mourning-in-Nisan issue, I follow what I heard Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik say, in his recorded Tishah b’Av talks: Tishah b’Av should be the day to commemorate the Holocaust. I grant that there are plenty of sources to show that Jews have, historically, observed other memorial days (such as 20 Sivan) for specific tragedies, but this is the view to which I gravitate.

However, I attend Yom haShoah programs anyway, because of a much bigger issue: The problem of a rabbi displaying his own unique practices in public.

I see three problems with public idiosyncrasy:

1: One rabbi’s personal quirks may inappropriately spread to others.

Example: I daven with a tallis over my head for most of the morning davening, and I know that others have started doing the same. I don’t know whether it’s emulation, or something they picked up on their own, but I worry if it’s emulation, because although I do it for personal concentration, I’m not sure the others understand it that way.

Another example: I have long wished to wear a tallis with the recently discovered murex techelet. I don't think it is proven, 100%, to be the right one, but there is no downside to wearing it even if it is wrong. However, I resist because it’s expensive, and I wouldn’t want others to think the expense obligatory because, “The rabbi wears it.”

2: One rabbi's quirks may inadvertently make others look bad.

To return to the earlier examples: What will people think of another rabbi who chooses not to wear a tallis over his head, or who doesn't wear techelet?

This issue is brought up in the gemara; it’s a concern called “laaz,” which translates loosely as “slander.” The gemara (Gittin 5b) talks about the case of Bar Hedya, who wished to be certified as a deliverer of gittin (billls of divorce):

Bar Hedya wanted to be approved to deliver gittin. He came to R’ Achi, the official responsible for gittin, who told him, “You must be present for the writing of every letter.”
He then came to R’ Ami and R’ Asi, who told him, “You need not do so. And if you should say, ‘I will practice stringently,’ you would slander earlier gittin!’”

So we don’t have a right to introduce stringencies which will make others look bad.

Note, though, that this concern for slander requires more nuance; it should not be a catch-all warning against public stringency.

In my class on Pesach regarding Machine Matzah and its early controversies, I noted that the Sanzer Rebbe (Divrei Chaim 24) argued vociferously against adoption of machine matzah, and rejected outright the concern that his insistence on using hand matzah would make others, who ate machine matzah, look bad.

The Sanzer brought several arguments, including:
• If others truly are not careful with mitzvot, I don’t need to worry that my care with mitzvot makes them look bad;
• The “slander” concern regarding a get is worse than in other areas of law, because it would result in children being mistakenly labelled “illegitimate.”
• The “slander” concern is not relevant if others are the ones who choose to deviate from the norm, and I maintain the norm.
And more.

3. Who are you to be quirky, anyway?

"Oh, he thinks he's Mr. Pious, wearing his tallis over his head like that for davening. Why, I remember when he..."

This is a concern for yuhara, which translates roughly to "arrogance" and "self-righteousness." This, too, is a talmudic concern, that one should not adopt practices which are identified with special piety, lest he seem to think too much of himself.

Or, to quote the classic punchline, "Look who thinks he's a gornisht!" (Google it, if you don't know the joke. It's out there.)

Again, nuance is required; the gemara does say that in certain cases one may adopt special practices, and ignore yuhara appearances, because his practices won't stand out or because his righteousness will encourage others to be righteous. (See, for example, Pesachim 54b.)

But, at bottom, this is another reason to avoid exhibiting unique halachic behavior in public.

So I try not to exhibit religiously quirky behavior (other types of quirky behavior are fine…) in public, I attend Yom haShoah programs, and it’s a small price to pay to avoid these three problems.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Death hurts, but it's not unfair

It’s been another deathfest these past couple of weeks, after a good two months in which, thank Gd, people stayed mostly healthy. I’ve lost some great friends and role models.

And, as inevitably happens at these times, I’ve heard people say, “It’s unfair.”

I have to disagree (although I would never say so aloud; to insult a mourner in his time of grief would be the cruelest stupidity).

I, too, am stabbed by pain. I hate eulogizing people, I am tired of the grieving process. Why do we have to lose anyone, let alone such good people? They were in the prime of life, or they were just about to enjoy retirement, or they were anticipating the birth of a grandchild, or they were doing good things, or they didn’t have a chance to say Goodbye…

But I do disagree with the “unfair” label.

Of course, from a Jewish perspective I disagree because we are taught to say ברוך דיין האמת, Blessed be the Judge of Truth, upon hearing of a death. We express this religious sentiment, which we hope we will come to feel in the course of the grieving process. We long to heal the ruptured relationship with Gd, to see through the immediate grief and agony and appreciate the good we were given.

But, beyond that longing for reunion with Gd, I think saying “it’s unfair” is illogical.

I see four logical arguments regarding Gd’s role in life and death:
1. Gd creates life as well as death.
2. Gd creates life, and not death.
3. Gd creates death, but not life.
4. Gd neither creates life nor death.

There may be gray areas in between, such as the idea that Gd is responsibility for “big picture” but not for details, but I don’t see that those shaded ideas contribute anything new here, so I omit them.

View #2 (possibly supported by Rava in Moed Katan 28a) says that death is the agent of unknowing fortune, and so it can hardly be termed “unfair” – “unfair” suggests a decision was made.

Similarly, View #4 assumes that no decision was made, and so death cannot be “unfair.”

View #3 strikes me as entirely against any idea of Gd I might conceive. I could sooner understand total atheism. So I discount this as well.

That leaves me with only View #1, which is the traditional Jewish view. If View #1 is true, then everything we received until this point is a gift… and how can I call rescension of a gift “unfair”?

I am in pain, but I concede that I have received far too much to ever say that the end of this gift is unfair.

ברוך דיין האמת.

[This week’s Haveil Havalim is here.]

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Idiot Brigade Rides Again

I know I’m going to get flamed for this, but I have to do it. I’ll just enable comment moderation.

First, a disclaimer: I would eat Streits Matzah.

In the past week I’ve lost three friends who were all wonderful people, each unique but each a solid, productive person who brought good to the world and smiles to other people’s faces. Alex, you were the sweetest of the sweet. Howard, you were a mentsch’s mentsch, and always in a private, humble way. Joe, you combined love of learning and love of community so beautifully.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about what people bring to the world around them.

And every time I read the incredibly stupid and hurtful allegations lodged against the Vaad of Queens for their stance on Streits – just look at some of the comments to my post on the Ugly Side of Kashrus Recommendations - it irritates me no end. Why did good people have to die, leaving behind these guys?

It doesn’t take skill, or dedication, or brains, to sit at a keyboard and write stupid things about volunteers who are trying to provide solid guidance for their communities. It just takes an idiot brigade of people who cannot contribute anything positive to the world, who cannot muster the force of will to try to build, and so, instead, resort to whiling away their hours tearing down others.

One poster hides behind an Anonymous tag, and even anonymizes his ISP, and Googles “Queens Vaad” on Blogsearch. Then, on each site he finds - including mine - he posts conspiracy theories as well as lists of other sites where he has posted his conspiracy theories.

His favorite plot is this: The rabbi who certifies Streits signed a letter a few months ago – along with ten other rabbis, mind you – criticizing the conversion process used by a certain rabbi in Brooklyn. That Brooklyn rabbi’s son is rabbi of an OU shul. The head of the Vaad of Queens’s kashrus division does some work for the OU’s kashrus division. Also, that Brooklyn rabbi’s son is a member of the 30-or-so-person executive committee of the RCA, and the RCA has cooperative projects with the OU. That’s why the Vaad of Queens decided not to recommend Streits.

I’m not kidding; look at the comments I linked before. I’m guessing he came up with this brilliant insight in the following conversation, probably during Musaf over Yom Tov:

Abe: Hey, did you hear this thing about Streits, the Vaad of Queens and the Five Towns Vaad saying Streits ain’t kosher enough for them?

Boruch: Yeah, ain’t it terrible? Rabbi Soloveitchik, he’s a giant! He’s the head of YU! How could they do that to him?

Chaim: No, that was Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik. He passed away years ago. This is his son.

Abe: You’re both idiots – it’s not his son, it’s his grandson. His son was Aaron, he’s the one who’s a historian, and his grandson is Moshe. Wonderful guy. And I was thinking. Why would they do that?

Boruch: I dunno. Maybe they found pork in the factory?

Abe: Are you kidding me? Come on. It’s gotta be a scam. They gotta have something to gain.

Chaim: Like what?

Abe: Money. Like, if Streits hires them to certify the matzah, instead of this Rabbi Soloveitchik.

Chaim: Can’t be. I looked up all the tax forms some guy keeps posting on the blogs. The rabbis on these Vaad things are volunteers. They don’t even do any supervision. No money in it for them.

Abe: Okay, fine. But then it’s something else. Maybe they hate the Soloveitchik family. I know – it’s Slifkin, Round II! They’re loony right-wingers, they remember the way Rabbi Soloveitchik protected Slifkin, and they want to make the Soloveitchik family look bad.

Boruch: Can’t be. Rabbi Soloveitchik refused to meet with Slifkin, or even read the guy’s books. Besides, most of these Vaad people are either YU grads or YU friendly.

Chaim: Wait, I got it!

(Chaim is shushed by people around him who cannot hear their own Musaf conversations.)

Chaim (in a lower voice): Okay, I got it. Listen: The Vaad has a deal going with Rubashkin. Rubashkin bought shares in Manischewitz. The Vaad shuts down Streits, that leaves Manischewitz with the monopoly – and Rubashkin gets rich.

Boruch: Ooooh, wait, even better: The Lubabs take the money they make, and pump it into Moshiach billboards with the Rebbe’s picture all across Thailand. What do you think?

Abe: I think you’re crazy, is what I think. Forget Rubashkin; they’re so 2008. I got it: Rabbi Soloveitchik, along with ten other rabbis, once signed a letter condemning someone’s conversions…

Disagree with their decision, fine – although I’d suggest actually finding out what happened first.
Disagree with their method of explaining themselves, sure.
Disagree with their timing, too.

But to vilify people because you don’t agree with them, concocting Rube Goldberg scandals with neither evidence nor logic, is just sickening. It makes you guilty of everything you accuse them of trying to do.

Personally, I know very little about the whole episode. I have only love and admiration for Rav Aharon Soloveitchik זצ"ל, and I have heard wonderful things about his son, Rav Moshe Soloveitchik. Further, on the basis of the rulings of rabbis with more knowledge than I possess, I believe that Streits is fine to use.

But I don’t think the Vaad of Queens was out to get anyone. And I do think that people who waste the world’s time, and create mountains of ill will, all for the sake of spreading machlokes (strife), will burn in a special place in Gehennom.

Flame on; comment moderation enabled.

Friday, April 17, 2009

A Liberating Swim in the Mikvah (Derashah Shemini 5769)

In the 1920s and 1930s, psychiatrists prescribed hydrotherapy for delirium, excitement and other nervous disorders. Thetreatments involved everything from extended baths to strong sprays of cold water, all based on the observable fact that immersing in water, and thereby shutting out the world, calms people.

Many of those hydrotherapeutic prescriptions have since been discredited, but the core practice remains popular. There are few experiences as soothing, and as liberating from stress and dark emotion, as a good bath – and that, according to Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, is what drives the mikvah mitzvah outlined in our parshah.

The Torah instructs us to immerse after contact with death – whether with a human corpse, or with the carcasses of various animals, or even with the diminished potential associated with the loss of male seed or a woman’s egg. In all of those cases, one goes to a mikvah, dipping entirely into a body of collected rainwater.

As with every other set of laws, Judaism offers a range of interpretations to explain what Gd wants us to learn from this mitzvah. One of my perennial favorites, Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, presents an approach which demonstrates the way that immersion in a mikvah fits into the broader life of the Jew.

As Hirsch explains in his commentary on the Torah, a human being is not, automatically, blessed with free will and capable of making independent decisions. The potential for free will is present from the very start of life; we are free to become righteous, or the opposite! But we travel and interact inside a confining system which dampens that expression, accustoming us to a materialism and an animal existence in which our environment as well as the pressure of our basic needs limit our opportunities and dictate our decisions.

This limitation, this repression of our spiritual freedom, is nowhere stronger than in death, that ultimate expression of our most basic animal aspect and that acknowledgement that our souls lack complete mastery over our world.

Enter immersion in a mikvah, to rescue a human being from this loss of spiritual dominion. As Hirsch writes, “When a man immerses the whole of himself in water of that nature, and completely and in direct contact enters this element, he completely… leaves the stage of Mankind and for the moment returns to the sphere of the world of elements, to begin a new life of Taharah. It is symbolic of a new birth.”

Immersing in a mikvah is our opportunity to shut out the physical world, to silence our more animal natures, and to return to the pristine character of our moment of creation. It applies to men and women alike, a step toward a cure for ailments which cannot be seen with the naked eye, but which are nonetheless real.

And so, the Jews who flee Egypt immerse before they can receive the Torah.
And so, every person who wishes to convert to Judaism immerses.
And so, the Jew who wishes to bring an offering to Gd in the Beit haMikdash immerses.
And so, ancient Jewish homes excavated all over Israel contained private mikvah baths.
And so, the Jews who came to Easton in the end of the 18th century, Jews who lacked kosher restaurants and glatt meat and eruvin, made certain to immerse in Bushkill Creek.
And so, every shochet who wishes to shecht, every mohel who wishes to conduct a bris, immerses beforehand.
And so, a bride and groom immerse before marriage.
And so, many Jewish men immerse on Fridays and before Yom Tov.

And so, Jews of all persuasions – right here at our Mikvah in Allentown - have come to see mikvah as a transformative experience for key moments in their lives, based not on halachic requirement but on an understanding of what this remarkable act of religious hydrotherapy, in the right context, can accomplish.

I am not a practitioner of or proponent of creative ritual in general, but I believe that those groups who have taken on use of the mikvah in addition to its halachic function – not as a replacement for halachah, but as an addition to it – are doing a wonderful thing. They understand the Hirschian message, they are sensitive to their own deeper condition, and they are taking the reins of their spiritual lives through this action.

We could all cite a thousand current articles from magazines and newspapers from across the religious and non-religious spectrum, highlighting the problem of finding spirituality in our daily lives. Our time constraints, our work obligations, our health considerations, our family pressures, our volunteer work, all clamor for our time and our attention, and the resulting noise drowns out the קול דממה דקה, that small voice that says, “Don’t forget about the soul.”

The mikvah is a way to re-connect. Anyone can do it – feel free to speak to my wife Caren, or to me, about ways to take advantage.

For the Haftorah last Shabbos, during Pesach, we read Yechezkel’s message of re-birth, the resurrection of the dry bones and the promise of an ultimate rejuvenation of the Jewish people. Just before that message, in the preceding chapter, Yechezkel pledged to the Jewish people that HaShem would use water to purify us – granting us a לב חדש, a new heart, and a רוח חדשה, a new spirit.

At a time when so many of us are trying to feel something beyond stress and strain, at a time when we need that new heart and that new spirit, we have the opportunity to re-embrace our parshah’s spiritual hydrotherapy, and so merit a לב חדש and a רוח חדשה, as well as Yechezkel’s promised final step, והנחתי אתכם על אדמתכם, a return to our land of Israel.

I have much to say here, but no time right now. Perhaps later, or in the comments...

When Poetry is Useless

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch wrote beautifully, in the 43rd chapter of Horeb, about the way that a Yom Tov’s national celebration overrides the private mourning of avelut.

I don’t have that text near me at the moment, but I do have Hirsch’s commentary to the chumash (Vayyikra 10:6), where he rhapsodizes on a related issue: the way that the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) is not permitted to mourn normally.

He wrote of the Kohen Gadol who “represents before Gd the ideal Jew, the ideal of the Immortal Nation; for him, the idea of Gd, and the idea of the Nation, is to drive into the background the feelings of his own wounded self. For before Gd, there is no such thing as Death, and the one who has been called away has only changed the scene of his existence; the Nation too knows no Death, אין צבור מת, in it, all past generations live on, and out of it all the coming ones blossom; in it, at all times past and future are present…

I love reading R’ Hirsch, and this post is in no way meant to knock him. His logic is always impeccable, and his writing is always beautiful. I wish I had time to learn German just to be able to read Hirsch in the original.

But, to be blunt, all of the florid poetry in the world, and all of the sound argumentation, are useless to me at the moment.

We suffered a loss in the community this morning, and someone mentioned the rule that mourning (even if a burial would occur on chol hamoed) is pushed off until after Yom Tov. That called to mind the well-known stories of sages and scholars who overrode their personal grief for the sake of Yom Tov celebrations, Simchas Torah dancing, etc.

I know those stories, and I know the halachah as well as its logic, but it doesn’t change a thing. Grief is hot, burning, and it cannot be cooled by logic and it cannot be soothed by poetry. That certain individuals have managed to overcome it does not diminish the size of the task; just the opposite, the fact that these stories fascinate us testifies to its near-impossibility.

Tonight there is a new widow, and tomorrow (well, today by now) there will be a funeral, and then will come Shabbos and shivah and shloshim. The same scene will be enacted, many times over, elsewhere, today and tomorrow and the next. It’s the most natural thing in the world, and I ought to be used to it by now.

But it still hurts, and the poetry is just that: words on a page, far less real, at the moment, than the person who was breathing just yesterday.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Pray your own way (Derashah Day 7 of Pesach 5769)

Over the past few weeks, several people have sent me a graphic of a three-lane highway through Yam Suf, complete with a truck labelled “Moses Transports” and a road sign indicating “Split sea next 4 miles.” It’s a cute picture, but it has nothing on the midrashic account of how Gd split the sea.

Per the midrash, Gd split the sea into twelve separate corridors, one for each tribe, with nutrition - and more - provided by the walls of water themselves.

That image of a twelve-tunneled sea with tribal lanes is fascinating, but troubling – why does Gd want this? The Jews left Egypt as one nation, ובני ישראל יוצאים ביד רמה, and they are praised for arriving at Sinai as a unified nation, so why divide them into tribes for the trip through the water?

The image is especially troubling when we study the history of those tribal divisions. From the rivalry between Rachel and Leah, to the division between the children of the various matriarchs, to the sale of Yosef by his brothers, the origins of tribe-specific identity hardly bode well for their descendants.

And then, when we examine that future, we find it only gets worse. In the days of the Shoftim, when the Jews were oppressed by Canaanites, the judge and prophetess Devorah found she couldn’t inspire certain tribes to fight on behalf of the others. And then, later on, strife would develop between the Yehudah region in the south, and the other tribes to the north.

On the whole, particularism never worked out well for the Jews as a nation – so why did Gd divide up the tribes in a great demonstration of particularism at their moment of united origin,as they left Egypt and crossed through the Sea?

A mystical idea might help us understand this Divine decision.

R’ Chaim Vital taught, in the name of the Ari ז"ל, that each shevet (tribe) inherits a certain spiritual character from its original progenitor. Reuven with his teshuvah. Yehudah with his leadership. Yosef with his charm as well as his activism. Even Shimon with his violence. Each of Yaakov’s sons charted a path of personal identity and Divine connection, based upon traits inherent to his own soul and passed down to his descendants.

Therefore, each shevet possesses its own means of prayer, its own words and its own structure which enable it to communicate optimally with HaShem. For the most part, including the Amidah, our davening is the same, but each tribe has special quirks in its shared soul, which are reflected in the ideal form of prayer appropriate for that shevet.

Each tribe is therefore charged with a mandate: To be particularistic in its spiritual life and to celebrate that which is unique to its character, inherited through mystical spiritual genetics as well as the language of shared experience and shared commitment.

To return to the Sea, then:

Chazal testify that every Jew who crossed the sea witnessed Gd in a way that even the greatest prophet, even Yechezkel in his vision of the Divine throne room, never experienced. This was a moment of supreme, sublime connection to the Gd who created not only the Jewish nation, but each individual Jew as well.

Lumping the Jewish nation together as a single bloc at that spiritual moment would have obliterated that celebrated heritage which was special to each tribe. Better to provide each tribe with its own passage, highlighting that which was special about each.

Today, we don’t know our individual tribal identities; we daven in the nusach we have received, and we hope that’s sufficient.

But taking the lesson of tribe-specific spirituality a step further, we can find a method of davening that works for our personal natures, as individuals. Whether that means more singing or less, more contemplation or more verbalization, more spontaneous additions or less, there is a path, within the bounds of halachah, for each of us to connect – but we need to put the work into finding it, whether in one shul or another, on a daily basis. Trying sporadically, on a shabbos or a yom tov or a random Monday, is not a promising way to reach the deepest parts of our spiritual identities; we need to be open-minded, we need to be thorough, and we need to be consistent, if we hope to find the path that resonates best for us.

Those unique passages through the Sea promise us that we will be best served when we recognize the character of our personal relationship with Gd, and turn it to our advantage.

This same theme of spiritual particularism shaped the mishkan, the traveling shul the Jews built in the desert.

The mishkan is usually seen as a symbol of unity – it was parked at the center of the Jewish camp, it was built by everyone together, and many of its elements, such as the menorah, the keruvim and the trumpets, were made out of single blocks of metal.

Nonetheless, the mishkan itself – the tent in which the rituals of service to Gd were performed – celebrated particularism. The mishkan tent was formed, in part, of the hide of an animal called a תחש. The sages translated תחש as ססגונא, explaining that this animal is שש בגוונים הרבה, it rejoices in its many colors.

The sasgona, the tachash, does more than just preen; this animal thrills in its diversity.

Yes, the mishkan was a central site to which all Jews could gather for a unified avodah. But each Jew, each tribe, would bring its own individual approach to that central site, would draw on those characteristics that had marked them as unique at the Sea, and through the combination of those disparate elements we would create a sasgona-like whole, many colors reaching Gd together.

1. The midrash on the twelve tunnels is in Mechilta to Beshalach 4; the midrash on what the Jews experienced at the Sea is in Mechilta to Beshalach 3.

2. That special spiritual character of each shevet is visible in their placement around the mishkan, as well as the portions assigned to each shevet in Israel.

3. The idea that we stick to our inherited nusach because we presume it to be tribally appropriate is halachically important, and greatly debated regarding switching between nusach ashkenaz and sephard.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Ugly Side of Kashrus Recommendations

Disclaimer: The ugly business between the Vaad of Queens and Streits is the trigger for this post, but let me say outright that I know nothing special about that case, and that I continue to tell people locally that they should feel comfortable using Streits for Pesach.

As I read the explanations for why the Vaad of Queens needed to cease recommending Streits this year, I am reminded of the old line about not wanting to see legislation or politics or sausage being made. The same may well go for kashrus recommendations.

But having said that, I must add that the problem they face at the Vaad - and at any Vaad - is a huge one: How do you responsibly recommend someone else's certification, without knowing their operation?

I have been head of a small vaad hakashrus for the past eight years, and with the help of wonderful mashgichim we've faced many difficult challenges, but I find few situations harder to handle than the dreaded question, “What do you think of Rabbi Ploni's certification, the Sun-K?" (Note: This certification does not exist. I think.)

Some argue for chezkat kashrut - the idea that, within halachah, everyone who is Shabbat-observant is assumed to be credible until we find out otherwise. This, though, is halachically incorrect.

Chezkat kashrut refers to immunity from suspicion of malfeasance; I can trust that a Jew who observes Shabbat will not knowingly violate the laws of kashrut. But if the Sun-K and I have different understandings of what "kashrut" requires - such as if we differ on how often a mashgiach (supervisor) should visit a plant - then all bets are off.

So here's how the process generally goes:

Step 1 - Do I know anything myself?
The answer, generally, is, “Absolutely nothing.” How could I know what the Sun-K does at their plants, short of visiting those plants myself? Sorry, I don't have a travel budget to cover that.

Even if I know the certifying rabbi personally, that may not be enough; I know that local vaadim often need to accept certain unusual leniencies for the sake of their communities, or because of grandfathered certifications, and how can I know that this is not the case with that certification?

This is a two-way street, of course: I would not want anyone to accept my certification because they went to yeshiva with me, because I created WebShas, or because of any other irrelevant factor - let them find out the specifics of the certification, and then go from there.

Step 2 - Check with people I trust
So I call or email people I trust, who have a better handle on the Sun-K’s operation or the particular product in question, and they tell me whatever they can tell me. On that basis, sometimes, I can answer the questioner.

But often that information is insufficient, because the people I call don’t have any better clue. So now what do I do? I still need to provide an answer! So-and-so wants to hire a caterer, but I can’t find anyone who knows anything. A bakery wants to bring in a product certified by the Sun-K – what can I tell them?

Step 3 - Contact the Rabbi in question
This comes third, rather than first, because (1) I don't want to get into a personal war with someone if I choose not to recommend the certification, and (2) These inquiries tend to be useless.

I call Rabbi Ploni of the Sun-K, who, invariably, reassures me that everything is on the up-and-up, even better than what I do in my own vaad.

“Do I know you from Lakewood?” he name-drops.
“The OU used to certify my plant; they stopped because the company didn’t want to pay their fee, but I haven’t changed a thing. Really.”
“I have a bigger beard than you.” (Yes, a certifying rabbi really said that to me.)

So I try to ask penetrating questions:
* How often do you visit the plant? Do you use full-time mashgichim (supervisors)?
* Do you accept X item (ie gelatin, unchecked strawberries, etc)?
* Do they prepare milchig and pareve in the same plant?
* Where did your mashgichim learn?
* Do you, your mashgichim, your in-laws or their in-laws like Lipa?

All right, just kidding on that last one.

But these questions are really just shots in the dark; every answer could be technically right, and the recommendation could still be wrong. Sometimes I can get a vibe in the course of the conversation, but it's generally just not helpful. The best I can hope for is an invitation to visit the plant itself, but even then, how do I know what happens the month before that visit, or the month afterward?

The bottom line: After these three steps, I'm often still stuck, and that's the way it is; I have no other options. It's not politics, and it's certainly not money (I am a volunteer for our Vaad, which barely breaks even and then only thanks to our Federation's help); it's just the absence of a good investigative mechanism.

So what do I tell the questioner? "I'm sorry, but I don't know enough to say."

This has led to all sorts of fun. I've had kosher certifiers call me up and use rather un-kosher language on the phone with me. I've received "lawyer letters" threatening all sorts of damage. Etc.

But, at the end of the day, I can't approve something unless I feel confident that I know it's all right. My word means too much to me to do otherwise.

A Tale of Two Loves: 3-day Yom Tov, and Shir haShirim (Song of Songs)

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here!]

I’ll admit it – I enjoy the 3-day Yom Tov.

No, not enough to want to remain in galut outside Israel, and I could do without going three days minus a hot shower, but enough that I find the phenomenon a pleasurable experience.

Weekdays – Get up anywhere between 4:45 and 5:45 AM.
Yom Tov – Get up when the kids get up, between 6:30 and 7 AM.

Weekdays – Spend the bulk of the day in the office or on the run; drink breakfast and grab lunch when you can, see the kids for as much time as you can get around dinner.
Yom Tov – Spend the bulk of the day with my kids in shul, or at home eating, or napping.

Weekdays – Spend a good chunk of time on the computer, answering emails or preparing classes.
Yom Tov – Computer is off, nothing to prepare.

And so on. What’s not to love?

And Shir haShirim (Song of Songs), which I have long loved, brought me a new insight this year.

I know a good number of people who get caught up in righteous indignation at Artscroll’s bowdlerized translation. I understand their angst, and on some level I feel it as well. But it seems to me that in their outraged obsession with the physical they miss the point of the book, and this year I was able to clarify why.

A general theme runs through Shir haShirim, the Torah reading, and the Haftorah of Shabbat Chol haMoed Pesach: The human being’s deep longing for a relationship with Gd.

The frustrated davener, the suffering individual, the seeking soul, anyone who has ever looked heavenward and demanded, ‘Why can’t I connect,” should be able to find resonance in that triad of readings.

Shir haShirim features the on-again, off-again relationship with Gd, a hot love and a cool pull-back, a game of hide-and-seek, an intense fire which warms but also burns.

The Torah reading, although selected for Yom Tov simply because of its mention of the holidays, carries the same theme. Moshe demands that Gd draw close to the Jewish people. Gd complies, but only partially. Moshe requests a closer personal relationship with Gd. Gd again complies, but only partially. The seeker, the lover, is simultaneously satisfied and frustrated.

And then the Haftorah, in which Yechezkel sees the famous dry bones brought to life, a vision of the consummation of the relationship, in which Gd and nation are finally united, Shir haShirim and Moshe’s game of hide-and-seek brought to its fruitful conclusion.

Shir haShirim, certainly, is a graphic love letter, a sensual description of an intense love. But to read it with an eye toward that sexual element is to miss the deeper layers of longing for oneness with Gd – it would be like reading a love letter and seeing only, “He wants to go to bed with her.” Perhaps some relationships are like that, but ours is not.

There are many layers to our bond with Gd, to our search for Gd, as illustrated by Moshe and Yechezkel. We long for Gd to travel with us, we long for Gd to be manifest upon us, we long to see and understand Gd, to be rejuvenated by Gd.

So, yes, recognize that Shir haShirim depicts love in the most physical of terms – but also understand that to read it only on that level is to truly miss the point of this holiest of holies.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

A Birkat haChamah photo, and Blogging the Passover Seder

First, a photo of my wonderful children, at Birkat haChamah.

Well, no, not actually at Birkat haChamah. You see, we had scheduled the communal Birkat haChamah for 9:30 AM, but when I checked the weather report before Shacharit they predicted increasing clouds. So we recited Birkat haChamah at shul after the siyum, and my kids did it with the esteemed Rebbetzin at home. Sans camera.

Then it got cloudy. Then it snowed. Then the sun came out - right at 9:30! - and then it got cloudy and snowed again.

So this photo is actually from bedikat chametz during a brief period of sun, and it’s only a little while after they did Birkat haChamah, and that will have to do.

Jack posted the other day about leading a Seder, and I commented that leading a Seder is a lot like blogging.

As Jack replied, you don’t get to moderate the comments at the Seder, which I’ll grant can be an issue at times… but I still enjoy the similarities.

The Haggadah itself is a blog, recording how Jews through the ages told and re-told the story of yetziat mitzrayim (the exodus).

Whether the Aramaic-speaker saying Ha Lachma Anya,
or the farmer saying Arami Oveid Avi,
or the tannaim R’ Eliezer, R’ Yehoshua, R’ Akiva and R’ Tarfon recounting the story in Bnei Brak,
or the Yerushalmi with its four children,
or Yehoshua telling the Jews at the end of his life B’eiver hanahar yashvu avoteichem mei’olam,
or sages counting miracles and devising acronyms for the makkot (plagues),
or Yechezkel’s b’damayich chayee,
or Yoel’s dam v’eish v’timrot ashan,
we leapfrog through Jewish history within the text of the blog itself, reading posts from so many authors, so many families of those Jewish generations.

And then you have the other blogs which link back to the original articles, with their comments. The early authorities with their glosses, followed by latter-day commentators, provide richness beyond the original.

All of these blogs are trying to do what many bloggers do - trying to inform the reader, and keep the reader interested enough to keep on reading, and to return.

And then, at our seder, everyone chimes in with what they know, remember or feel, on each note and story and lesson – we are the commenters.

And, one day, if we can get our act together, we write up our thoughts and create blogs of our own.

Yes, blogging is much like the seder. We lean back in our chairs, we eat, we drink four cups… okay, I don’t drink and blog. But you get the idea.

And, Jack, if your blog doesn’t come with comment moderation enabled, well, you can always come to mine next year, in Yerushalayim.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

I prefer Orthodox Quality to Orthodox Quantity (Derashah Shabbat Chol haMoed Pesach 5769)

The following is excerpted from "An Orthodox Ascendancy?" from March 24’s Jewish Week, by sociologist Steven Bayme:
On a family trip in the late 1950s to Hartford, Conn., a relative observed that nine new synagogues had opened in the city within the past year. Most were Conservative, some were Reform. When I queried whether any Orthodox synagogues had opened recently, my relative politely replied that Orthodoxy was entirely a matter of nostalgia and would soon go the way of the American buffalo.
In fact, the buffalo has made a remarkable comeback. At least equally remarkable has been the resurgence of Orthodox Judaism… Demographically, Orthodox Jews constitute at most 10 percent of the total U.S. Jewish population. Yet 23 percent of Jewish children are Orthodox, according to a United Jewish Communities report. Among affiliated Jewish homes 197,000 children are Reform, 153,000 are Conservative, and 228,000 are Orthodox. The smallest of the movements (Orthodox) contains 38 percent of the children of affiliated Jewish homes.

I can’t stand articles like that.

For one thing, this sort of coverage tends to lead Orthodox readers to a self-congratulatory triumphalism, an ugly brand of “We’re number one” which really means, when we look at the complete statistical picture, “We’re dying the slowest!”

There is no value to claiming ownership of the estate when the manor is burning; if Orthodoxy is to reign supreme because Conservative and Reform have lost more of their children to secularism than we have lost, then that is cause for klopping al cheit, not for raising fists in celebration.

But beyond disliking this triumphalist reaction, I fear that the entire sociological construct of evaluating success based upon numbers is misguided. It was wrong in the 1950s to think that we were weak because we were few, and it is equally wrong today to think that we are healthy because we are many.

I concede that we have always gauged Jewish health with numbers:
• The Torah is filled with censuses, countings and recountings of the tribes of Israel.
• HaShem’s earliest promises to our ancestors included, “ואעשך לגוי גדול,” “I will make you a large nation,” and “וארבה את זרעך כחול הים,” I will make your children as many as the sand at the sea, and the stars in the heavens.”
• In the Haggadah we trumpet the fact that we descended to Egypt במתי מעט, as a tiny tribe, and quickly multiplied under HaShem’s protection.

But numbers are neither the truth of a nation’s character, nor the certain foreteller of a nation’s future. Numbers are a statistic, a symptom to be deciphered one way or another depending upon the philosophical bent of the reader.

Just look at the great many foes who enslaved us and fought against us, and have disappeared; Egyptians and Babylonians, Greeks and Assyrians and Persians and Medes and Romans all had numbers on their side, and all have long since disappeared. Numbers did not help them.

And the same is true for the Jews, in the Torah; Gd explicitly declares that numbers do not influence victory:
• The prophet Gidon leads the Jews to war, and is told, counter-intuitively, to reduce his army, because not all of the soldiers are of good character.
• After the Golden Calf, HaShem tells Moshe He is ready to eradicate the entire nation, and begin again with Moshe alone.

How many are counted doesn’t matter nearly as much as who is counted, and what they are doing when they are counted.

Certainly, as we have noted, HaShem did set forth promises to Avraham and Sarah, pledging that their descendants would become many – but the point of the promise was that their descendants would be like them, would be future Avrahams and Sarahs. Being as numerous as the stars in the heavens and the sand at the sea is meaningful if we seek Gd as they did, if we serve as they did, if we spread Torah as they did.

Mishlei says, "ברב עם הדרת מלך, There is greater glory for Gd when a greater number of people serve Him" – but that’s because they are actually serving Him. The magic is not in the numbers, it’s in the service.

Thus, in the Beis haMikdash, the rituals were designed to include the maximum number of kohanim, because having large numbers of Jews involved in serving Gd would create greater glory; the Talmud actually tells of a muscleman kohen who wanted to carry multiple parts of the offerings himself, and the rest of the kohanim prevented it in order to involve more people. With many people performing Gd’s will, that is a number to celebrate.

When 20,000 Jews gather in Madison Square Garden and six times that number around the world to complete Daf Yomi, that’s something to celebrate. When we break records in the number of Jews enrolled in Jewish schools, the number of Jews who keep kosher, the number of Jews who put up mezuzot on every doorpost in their homes – those are the numbers that matter, those are the numbers that are the hope for a Jewish future.

From time to time, I am asked, “How many families do you have in the shul?” But I much prefer when people ask, “How many mispalilim do you have on Shabbos morning – and how many people are in shul at 9 AM?” “How many families use the mikvah?” “How many people come to shiurim on Shabbos afternoon, or Tuesday night, or weekday mornings, or Monday noon?” “How many people volunteer their time to keep the shul, the mikvah, the chevra kadisha, the LVKC, the Federation, up and running?” Those are the key questions for a community, those are the signs of spiritual health.

Steven Bayme’s article focusses on whether Orthodox Jews will take a constructive leadership role in the greater Jewish world, and he concludes, “The critical question… will be whether 21st-century Orthodoxy will be modern, open-minded, inclusive, and well-educated in both secular and religious realms.”

But before we ask whether the Orthodox can lead, or play nicely with others, let us ask whether the Orthodox can even survive. Numbers are interesting, but the picture they present is as incomplete today as it was in the 1950’s. When we know that our רב עם is הדרת מלך, that our great numbers are committed to the Divine mission, then we will know that our survival is assured.

1. There was a lot more I wanted to say on this, but it kept turning into a negative rant, which is bad form for a derashah. Also, it's for the third day of a three-day Yom Tov; time to keep it short and simple.

2. Gidon's troop reduction (Shoftim 7) was also to maximize the miracle, of course, but his method of reducing the troops is often understood as an attempt to weed out the inappropriate soldiers - see Rashi and Ralbag to Shoftim 7:5.

3. The principle of adding people to the service of Gd is found, among other places, in Pesachim 64b. The muscleman kohen is in Succah 52b.