Friday, July 31, 2009

Religion leads to immorality (Derashah Vaetchanan 5769)

Richard Dawkins, among others, has alleged that religion inspires immoral behavior.

Judging from the events of last week, I’d have to concede the point; numerous rabbis were arrested for involvement in money laundering, tax evasion and, allegedly, even organ marketing. Add those allegations to several scandals in the recent past, and the evidence certainly seems to indicate that religion – or, at least, Judaism - does not provide moral guidance.

The community knows it, too. This past Tuesday night, Borough Park, New York hosted an אסיפה, a gathering, of the chareidi community. The title was “A Legal Symposium,” and the goal was to discuss an American Jew’s obligation to obey the laws of the United States. Agudas Yisroel officials, chassidic rebbes and an attorney all agreed: A Jew is obligated to obey the law of the land. A Jew is obligated not to steal. A Jew is obligated to be honest.

A חידוש, what a novel idea! For this we needed an אסיפה? For this we needed a 'legal symposium?' Several years ago, Governor Ed Rendell cited his father as saying, "The ones who spend the longest time in synagogue on Saturdays are the biggest crooks from Monday to Friday." Gd forbid! But doesn't it sound like he's right? Does this bizarre phenomenon not prove that Dawkins is right as well, that religion – or, at least, Judaism – fails to provide a moral compass, and may, in fact, provide the opposite?

I think the answer is Yes, in part. Religion can lead to immorality, Judaism can lead to immorality, and I believe it is, in part, because Judaism inspires an arrogant complacence:

• The Torah sets a standard of behavior which includes being careful about what we eat, careful about how we dress, careful about what we say, careful about how we engage in business.
• The Torah gives us timetables for when to eat and when not to eat, when to pray, when to celebrate and when to mourn.
• The Torah gives us guidelines for raising our children and honoring our parents, helping our neighbors and helping those who are not our neighbors.
And the Torah says regarding all of these standards, “This is the way to live. These are the values to have. This is the way to be.”

The result is that a Jew can look at her Torah, a Jew who is even minimally observant can look at his own behavior, and feel superior to others, saying, “Based on the Torah’s priorities, I do all right! I see that other people don’t pray, I see that people value selfishness over philanthropy, I see that people eat whatever they wish – I may not be a saint, but I give tzedakah, I come to shul occasionally, I don’t eat treif… Compared to what I see around me, I’m doing pretty well!” And so the complacence and arrogance begins.

Even worse: The more scrupulous a person is in his observance, the closer her behavior adheres to the Torah’s recommended lifestyle, the greater the temptation to arrogance.

That’s when the crime begins, because this sense of superiority leads to terrible rationalizations:
Just as a husband might rationalize in his superiority, “I’m better to my family than other guys are, so it’s all right for me to do other things on the side,”
And just as a business owner might rationalize in his superiority, “I’m more honest than other business owners and so it’s all right for me to file private receipts as business expenses,”
So, too, a Jew in his superiority might fool himself, saying, “I do more to satisfy Gd’s expectations than other people do, so it’s all right for me to take a little money under the table, it’s all right for me to cut corners.”
And so Dawkins is proved correct: Religion encourages sin.

But our parshah provides a way to avoid that sense of superiority, when it directs us away from comparing ourselves to others and away from self-satisfaction with partial achievements, and toward a higher goal.

Right after proclaiming how wonderful it is to be a nation with such righteous laws, Moshe warns, ”רק השמר לך ושמר נפשך מאד פן תשכח את הדברים אשר ראו עיניך ופן יסורו מלבבך כל ימי חייך, Be very careful! Guard your life - and מאד, guard your life intensely! – lest you forget what your eyes saw, lest it stray from your heart, at any point in your lifetime! Guard your life intensely!”
What are we supposed to remember so closely, and with such a powerful warning? “יום אשר עמדת לפני ה' אלקיך בחורב, The day you stood before HaShem your Gd at Har Chorev, Har Sinai.”

Not, “Remember to keep the Torah’s lifestyle,” and not, “Keep a checklist of the mitzvot and make sure you satisfy every one of them.” Rather, “Remember that you encountered Gd at Har Sinai!”

The goal of the Torah is not simply to meet a certain standard of behavior, such that I might be satisfied with being better than others. The Torah's standard of behavior is meant to bring me to a greater goal:

The goal of the Torah is for me to encounter Gd once again, to live with Gd, as Adam and Chavah did in Eden and as our ancestors did at Sinai, whether in shul or at home or at work. It means to feel when I rise in the morning “מודה אני לפניך – I thank You, Gd, as I rise before you,” to daven with a sense of “דע לפני מי אתה עומד – Know before Whom you stand.” To go to work with “שויתי ה' לנגדי תמיד– I place Gd before me, always.”

My gauge of success is whether I have a total awareness of HaShem in my daily life.

When I have that goal, I look to achieve perfection, and I am less likely to slip into immoral behavior. This is implicit in the Torah’s repeated warnings, "‘ויראת מאלקיך,’ You shall live in awe of Gd.”

• לא תקלל חרש ויראת מאלקיך – Don’t curse a deaf person – live in awe of Gd
• ולפני עור לא תתן מכשול ויראת מאלקיך – Don’t place an obstacle before a blind person – live in awe of Gd
• מפני שיבה תקום והדרת פני זקן ויראת מאלקיך – Rise before the aged and honor the elderly – live in awe of Gd
• לא תונו איש את עמיתו ויראת מאלקיך – Don’t oppress others – live in awe of Gd

And so on. The Torah repeats it again, and again, and again. And the gemara explains: In many cases I will think I can get away with it. I will be seduced by the lure of easy money, of social status. I will know that, hey, everybody does it. And at that point, remember: The goal is not to be better than others, the goal is to encounter Me. My goal is “שויתי ה' לנגדי תמיד,” to be perpetually aware of Gd, and this does not allow for immorality, this does not allow for criminality, this does not allow for cutting corners just because everyone else does it. Regardless of where I stand in relation to others, my concern is my relationship with HaShem.

This morning, we read the Haftorah of Nachamu, Yeshayah’s message of consolation to the Jewish people. After the desolation of Tisha b'Av, after the brutal massacres and painful exiles, HaShem tells us to be comforted. HaShem pledges to take us back into that close relationship we had long ago.

But when will this happen? When we are עמי, when HaShem can say that we have become עמי, My nation. When none of us overlook sin, commit crimes and immerse ourselves in scandal out of a misguided sense of superiority. When יום אשר עמדת לפני ה' אלקיך בחורב, standing with HaShem at Sinai, is again a reality, when שויתי ה' לנגדי תמיד, when we perpetually stand with HaShem.


1. I am not leaping to legal conclusions. I know nothing about the specific guilt or innocence of the accused in this case. However, I am speaking about the collective set of scandals which have engulfed Jewish communities in the past few years, and specifying this most recent case only because of the אסיפה in Borough Park.

2. I know that there are multiple causes for scandals. I don't claim to be able to simplify any of them down to some easy formula. But I do believe this is a key factor.

3. The gemara on ויראת מאלקיך is found, among other places in Bava Metzia 58b.

4. Also tying into this idea: Akavya ben Mahallel's idea (Pirkei Avot 3:1) that one will never sin if he is contemplates the fact that as low as his physical origin and ends, he will still end up standing before Gd one day.

5. Motzaei Shabbat Update: Having now delivered this derashah, I'm troubled that quite a few listeners took this as a "them" derashah - as in, "Boy, rabbi, you really gave it to them!" Not explicitly, of course, but people seemed to think this was about some other group, those nasty people, and not themselves. Perhaps I could have mitigated the effect had I noted that the same sense of superiority and failure to fulfill part of Torah applies to people who are honest and fair to others, but feel they can cut corners on their service of Gd...

How NOT to name your Jewish institution

I’ve been working on selecting a URL (web address) for our new Yeshiva University-Torah miTzion Beit Midrash of Toronto, and I’m having a rough time of it.

Our sister organization in Chicago chose, which isn’t bad, but is a little of a harder sell, because of all of the to’s in it (too much TO is bad for you, as Buffalo will find out).

So I started thinking about naming Jewish institutions, in general, and how challenging it can be. A good name, like a logo, is catchy but also meaningful, brief and spare but able to encompass the key elements of your identity. That’s not so simple.

One way to do it is to get good initials, but good initials are hard to find. The Ner Yisrael kollel in Atlanta is called ASK, Atlanta Scholars Kollel. That’s great - for them. For us, that would turn into TSK (Toronto Scholars Kollel), which conjures up images of a disapproving schoolmarm. We could go with OSK (Ontario Scholars Kollel), but that would sound more like one of those odd creatures the JPS invented in translating the Torah's list of kosher and treif animals ni (Anyone know what an ossifrage is? Without checking wikipedia?).

You can try the one-from-column-A, one-from-column-B approach; this is popular with shuls:
Column A: Ohavei, Rodfei, Chovevei, Bnei, Tomchei, Shaarei
Column B: Chaim, Yosher, Simchah, Torah, Shalom, Emet
But this is too pedestrian.

Another way to pick a name is to pick a Hebrew word that communicates meaning and identity, but that can be tricky as well. Hebrew words are loaded with biblical and midrashic associations, some of which are negative.

I thought about, since tzafon means north, but two problematic connotations immediately came to mind: “מצפון תפתח הרעה, Evil will come from tzafon/north (Yirmiyah 1:14),” and “הרוצה שיחכים ידרים, הרוצה שיעשיר יצפין. One who wants to become wise should go south; one who wants to become wealthy should go tzafon/north (Bava Batra 25b).”

It reminds me of the founding of Edah; did those who picked that name not immediately think of “עד מתי לעדה הרעה הזאת How long will I have to put up with this evil edah/group (Bamidbar 14:26),” and similar negative associations?

(We had a similar problem in naming our children. Miriam? No, she had tzaraat. Yaakov? He experienced horrible suffering for much of life. Etc.)

So the search continues. And don’t even get me started on the matter of a logo…

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

I visit on Shabbos

(No, I don’t, but you’ll see what I mean in a few paragraphs.)

“Thou shalt not study Torah,” beginning at midday today, erev Tisha b’Av, as part of our mourning for the Beit haMikdash.

As the gemara (Taanit 30a) explains, “One may not learn Torah, Neviim or Ketuvim, or study mishnah or talmud, midrash, halachot or aggadot.” There are permitted exceptions, principally for sad topics and study related to mourning, but the overall theme is that Torah learning is a joyous experience, so we don’t engage in it on Tisha b’Av.

[I wonder if this law is not also related to the aftermath of the Golden Calf. Per the midrash, when the Jews received the Torah they also received special crowns. After the Golden Calf, HaShem instructed them, “Remove your crown” (Shemot 32:5-6), apparently a reference those crowns. “You have sinned; you don’t deserve to don the glory of Torah.”]

Many of us take this law lightly; how could Gd punish a Jew for studying Torah?

And we have other such limitations on Torah study. We are not to think about Torah in the bathroom, or when inappropriately dressed. We are taught that it is sinful to study Torah without first reciting birchot hatorah, the special blessings for Torah study. And for all of them, there are those who ignore them; how could Gd punish a Jew for studying Torah?

It reminds me of the Jew who studies the parshah every Shabbat by reading divrei torah on, or, or

Were this Jew not reading divrei torah on-line, he would likely be engaged in some other activity that I consider desecration of Shabbat – shopping at the mall, driving to a park, talking on the phone, flipping channels on TV. In that sense, it’s better that he read divrei torah, I suppose.

Again: How could Gd punish a Jew for studying Torah?

I suppose it comes down to our sense of ownership of Torah, our feeling that we have a certain right to evaluate and set priorities among its various imperatives. A mitzvah is only a mitzvah when the Torah defines it as a mitzvah.

Perhaps a good Tisha b’Av example of this is in the Kamtza/Bar Kamtza story (Gittin 55b-56a, and see also the version in Eichah Rabbah), when the sages are seated at a feast and Bar Kamtza is embarrassed by the host.

The sages don’t protest, because they think it’s better to be humble (see the Eichah Rabbah version, especially). But the Torah’s priority is to protect Bar Kamtza, who is being attacked.

And perhaps the same thing happened with the rabbis in the Brooklyn/New Jersey scandal of this past week. Maybe they thought they were helping generate tzedakah money, maybe they had some other justification for committing these financial crimes. [I am NOT justifying it; my point is that people who set their own priorities get into trouble.]

When we set our own priorities, we get skewed results and rationalizations. Better to hold off on Torah (other than the permitted parts) during Tisha b’Av, remove the crown, absorb the intense reality of exile, and get started on rebuilding the Beit haMikdash.

[Of course, the big problem is when skewed-view human beings try to define the Torah’s objective priorities… implementation is harder than theory…]

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Keeping shuls from eating their rabbis

Back in May I wrote a post, “Why shuls eat their rabbis,” on the tendency of congregations to consume their rabbis (with or without ketchup, even on Yom Kippur and Tisha b'Av).

I have since followed up, within a group of rabbis, regarding some ideas of what rabbis might do to mitigate the problems inherent in the rabbi-congregation relationship. My list of ideas was popular enough that I will present an updated version here:

1) Make sure the shul membership and board are clear on the rabbi's job description.
This may be done with a clearly-written contract, with shul surveys and questionnaires, and with personal conversations, among other means.

A few years ago I felt my board wasn't presenting a clear sense of my job. I distributed a survey at a board meeting, listing a dozen different scenarios from different aspects of shul life, and asking them to prioritize what they felt should, and should not, be the rabbi's job. The results were enlightening for me.

2) Stoop to PR
Rabbi, remember! The shul at large doesn't see what you do. Even individuals often don't see what you do for them, as individuals.

Rabbis (not me, but others) are often so good at what they do, that they make it look easy. People don't see the time spent preparing a shiur or derashah, or arranging a shidduch, or quelling a dispute, or counseling a troubled teen, or visiting a prison, etc.

The answer may be to do a little subtle PR, letting people know (in general, without specifics) what's going on. I strongly dislike doing this, finding it both distasteful and self-serving, but sometimes a little PR is necessary.

3) Do what they recommend

Situation: A committee/individual makes a recommendation for a program, or a way to approach something in davening, or a way to address a community need, and the rabbi feels another way would be better. Sometimes that rabbi and congregant have entirely different agenda. So the rabbi does what he thinks is right.

The rabbi is often right, but people grow bitter if they think the rabbi isn't listening to them.

I know that I have a tendency to want to do things my way; something in me rebels automatically when I am told, "You should visit X" or "You should do it this way," particularly because congregants are often not tactful in making those suggestions. But - when I am in a good frame of mind - I swallow that rebellion, listen, and sometimes even try the suggestion despite being certain it won't work.

Note: Of course, congregants sometime expect unreasonable things, and yes, the rabbi must say No. Hopefully, though, the rabbi will have a strong Yes background against which the No will be viewed.

4) Help congregants see the big picture

Shul members, including the president, don't "live" the shul in the way that the rabbi does. The shul occupies only a small portion of their activities, let alone attention. The result is that they often don't think about the chesed and shiurim and minyanim and maintenance issues and kitchen issues and so on. They likely don’t even know many of the members.

Find ways to bring people in on what’s happening beyond their personal space, so that they will be aware of the life of the Shul, its needs and demands. This is not about PR for the rabbi, but PR for the shul itself.

5) Remember that you are a hired hand
Keeping this in mind might help a rabbi hold on to his sanity.

To some people in a shul, everything the rabbi does is automatic and required, because he is paid. A volunteer who puts in two hours for the weekly kiddush or comes to a weekly meeting and makes phone calls is doing more than a rabbi who puts in 80 hours per week, because the rabbi is drawing a salary for his time.

And there is truth to this view. Granted that the rabbi will never be compensated for the extra work he puts in, he signed on for this job of his own free will. He competed against other candidates for it, and negotiated a contract to do it. It’s hardly fair for him to expect to be honored as a volunteer, granted all of his extra work.

Hopefully, the rabbi who keeps this in mind will maintain realistic expectations.

Those are some things that rabbis can do to avoid strife. Now: What can congregants do toward the same end?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

For in truth, no period lives for itself alone

I love reading, and re-reading, Rav Hirsch; he has few peers for both depth and eloquence.

R' Samson Raphael Hirsch, Horeb, paragraph 234:

"Just as the Torah preserves those moments when Israel flourished, and raises as holy above other days in the year those festival days commemorating the creation of the people and its preservation so that Israel should devote itself to the remembrance and the study of the truths they posit, whereby Israel may live and learn to understand itself and dedicate itself to the fulfilment of its allotted tasks, so did our sages institute remembrance days for those moments which Israel experienced when its blossoms were seen to fall, remembrance days which summon Israel to the purification as well as to the sanctification of its life and to the proper fulfilment of its conduct of life.

"For the fathers of our people understood profoundly that the fall of the people was not the pathway to the grave. It but changed the scene for Israel's activity, summoning it to new obligations, or, rather, to another aspect of that same fulfilment of its way of living which was its 'vocation' in times of prosperity.

"They saw that as in happy days Israel received the call to revere Gd humbly and to love Him with gladness, so did Israel receive the call to be the lofty example, steadfastly to keep its faith in Gd as well as its filial piety even in the days of misfortune.

"They saw that the time of its dispersion, whose labour-pangs it experienced, was but a fatherly chastisement to teach Israel, to strip it of pleasure-seeking and self-seeking, both of which undermine Israel's fortune.

"They saw that this period had as its immediate aim a betterment and a renewal of life, with the ultimate goal of furthering the advancement of all mankind.

"They realized how necessary for that upbringing, which was to act as a guide, were warnings and correctings and challenge; and, imbued with the spirit of the Torah, they recognized an excellent means in their subjective retrospect of the past.

"For in truth, no period lives for itself alone. Generations rise and fall so that those who follow may well learn from the glow of their sunrise as well as from that of their sunset; that they may reap the fruits of the rise and the fall of those who went before, avoid their errors and go forward and upward, basing their edifice upon the virtues of their progenitors."

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here.]

Friday, July 24, 2009

How to avoid the next Gmach Shefa Chaim scandal

I’ve blogged quite a bit about the issue of irresponsibility and transparency in Jewish philanthropy and tzedakah organizations – see here and here, for example – but the newest scandal, the New Jersey/New York money laundering (and organ sales?!) scandal, demands a response.

So far, it sounds like a basic money-laundering scheme, for all of the complexity of the different pieces involved. Criminals run illicit businesses, and send checks to so-called tzedakah funds, which then spend the money for “program services” that funnel the money back to the criminals. The tzedakah funds benefit by receiving a commission or a fee.

We can’t prevent these altogether – criminals will always find ways to commit crimes – but I believe we could do a lot to stem the tide with the following four rules:

First: Give only to tzedakah organizations that file a 990 or similar financial disclosure of their funding sources, their program services, and their oversight.

I don’t care if they are exempt. Yes, preparing a 990 will cost them money. But it’s a responsible way to function. I hate to say this, but I will no longer give significant money to Ner Yisrael, to the OU, to National Council of Young Israel, to Chaim Berlin, etc. They are all legally exempt from transparency, but as the Rama wrote in Yoreh Deah 257:2, tzedakah distributors must transcend their legal obligations in order to demonstrate innocence in the eyes of ה' and the Jewish people.

I would accept an annual public meeting with an explanation of the organization's finances, though. (Many synagogues, including my own, do this.)

Second: Give only to organizations that can explain their mission and program services in a clear, coherent way.

Open-ended gemachs, as well as Rabbi’s Benevolent Funds that don’t offer a clearly defined mission, are too open to abuse.

Third: Give only to organizations that mail you an annual report.

The report should summarize and explain the information outlined in Item 1 above – funding sources, program services, and oversight, and any significant changes therein. I do this for my Benevolent Fund (this year's report is here), and it has made me much more careful about how I handle the Fund.

Fourth: Eliminate the culture of winking and nodding.

As I discussed here, communities often assume that tzedakah funds, including the Rabbi’s Benevolent Fund, can somehow operate outside the law.

I have had people try to give me honoraria by writing checks to the Benevolent Fund;
I have had people try to write checks to support individuals and claim a tax deduction by doing it through the benevolent fund (you can’t claim a tax deduction for checks written to a specific person) [Yes, a fund can collect for individuals if the collection is in-line with the mission, but this is easily bent and broken.];
A few years ago a local bank went public and offer shares to local people, and I had out-of-town people try to get me to open an account with benevolent fund money, as their partners.

This is wrong, and it creates a culture of approving illegal operations. It must stop.

Ultimately, nothing will deter a determined criminal - but that doesn't mean we shouldn't bother with security systems for our homes, and for our communities.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Shul What-Ifs

I was reading a piece on CNN's site about odd declarations in job interviews (examples: "I have a problem with authority." "You touch somebody and they call it sexual harassment!" "I've never heard such a stupid question." "What is your company's policy on Monday absences?") and was reminded of something I contemplate every once in a while: Shul What-Ifs.

Over the years, I’ve had a few What-Ifs - unexpected and/or awkward moments, the sort of occurrence you don't expect to happen, and which you need to handle immediately. These include congregant outbursts, kids running amok (moreso than usual, yes), a sefer torah nearly being dropped, a fire alarm being pulled by accident, a cell phone ringing during Shabbos davening, a man seating himself in the women’s section, etc.

Every once in a while, though, I wonder how we would handle something truly unusual. As in:

• During the rabbi’s speech, someone stands up and starts singing the national anthem;

• The chazan for musaf says the repetition of the amidah, word for word, backwards;

• All of the people sitting in an entire section of the shul stand up for the silent amidah – and recite it aloud;

• All of the people sitting in an entire section of the shul stand up for the silent amidah – and turn to face south while reciting it;

• All of the people sitting in an entire section of the shul stand up for the silent amidah – during the Torah reading;

• A sinkhole suddenly opens up under the bimah;

• The rabbi abruptly halts mid-speech, and sits down.

I like to contemplate these cases (especially if the chazan goes on too long… now you know what I’ve been mulling all these years…), and wonder what would happen in my shul in these situations.

What would happen in yours? And what unexpected/awkward circumstances have you witnessed?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Nine Days, and the challenge of hoping for mashiach and redemption

The Nine Days of intense mourning begin tonight, leading up to Tisha b’Av. As always, at this time of year I grow depressed. I think about how many times I have observed this period, how many times our nation has observed this period, without seeing the geulah (redemption).

It’s a cruel parody of hope, the way we sing “Next year in a rebuilt Yerushalayim (and while I recognize and value what we have, it is not a re-built Yerushalayim; I'm not doing the Nachem debate right now, I've done that elsewhere),” and the way we say to each other in advance of the Three Weeks, “If mashiach hasn’t come by then.”

Over a decade ago I spent time transcribing tapes of Rav Soloveichik’s Tisha b’Av shiurim, and I can hear his voice talking about how communities in Europe buried their kinot books after each Tisha b’Av, declaring that they wouldn’t need those books the following year. The Rav would point out the line in the kinot (mourning prayers of Tisha b’Av), “בכל שנה אומרת היא השנה הזאת,” “Each year she declares: This is the year!”

It’s all too depressing.

My depression comes from two opposite approaches, clobbering me in the middle:

1) I am wowed by the heights that observant Jewry has reached. I agree with those who say that we have reached a stage at which more Jews, in sheer numbers although not in percentage of the nation, are more learned and more carefully observant and more full of chesed, than at any point since the destruction of the beit hamikdash. We have public shiurim and mitzvah campaigns and outreach efforts, and even if they are not enough, is not our motivation sincere and our effort complete, and do we not view effort, rather than achievement, as the essence?

And so I wonder: What more can we do, to deserve that a mashiach-quality leader be sent for us? If we do all of this and still are not worthy, what more can we possibly do?

2) And then, on the other end, I see how flawed we are, how flawed all of us are, everywhere on the spectrum of religiosity. Even those who are most careful about the kashrut of their meat are guilty of lashon hara (harmful speech), even those who are most careful about learning Torah are guilty of sinat chinam (unfounded animosity toward others), even those who are most benevolent toward others are still spending unearthly sums on luxury and working long hours to fund it instead of dedicating their time to Torah. And more Jews, in sheer numbers as well as in percentage of the nation, are more corrupt or farther from Judaism than at any point since the destruction of the beit hamikdash.

These are terrible things to say, I know; the great Yeshayah was punished for saying “כסדם היינו, We were like Sodom.” So I will not compare us to Sdom, but I will say that in my experience, and certainly based on myself, we are, as a nation, far from where we need to be.

And I wonder: How, then, can we be expected to deserve a mashiach-quality leader, and redemption? Is it at all possible, or are we set up to fail?

Which, perhaps, is one reason why the Rambam demanded that we believe in the arrival of Mashiach, “להאמין ולאמת שיבא – to trust in his arrival and to see it as truth.” Working toward being worthy of mashiach is insufficient, because depression is too tempting; we need to believe that we can bring it, that this world can be worthy. If we cannot believe it, we cannot bring it.

We need to believe; we need to hope. But how can I?

My approach: I won’t deny the huge odds, but I will ignore them. I will focus on the immediate job in front of me – this class, this relationship, this page of gemara, this tefillah (prayer). I will plod away, as Jews have for 1941 years. I will focus not on a mega-goal of mashiach, but on a micro-goal of mitzvah.

And I will hope and trust in redemption, that each successive step will bring us one step closer to defying those odds.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Banging on the shtender

One of the best classes I ever took, in any field, was Homiletics, with Rabbi Haskel Lookstein.

Rabbi Lookstein taught this course on Fridays at YU, for members of the semichah program. I can’t imagine that the rabbi of Kehillath Jeshurun and principal of Ramaz had nothing else to do on a Friday morning, but every week he was there, helping us understand how to convey the Torah we had learned to various types of audiences.

I know I am not the only one who is greatly in his debt for this service; I'm still not a great orator, but I learned quite a bit in those sessions.

One of my favorite observations from Rabbi Lookstein’s class was this: You can only bang on the shtender [lectern] once. That’s it; you can come close, stop your hand just short, but once you actually hit it, you can never do it again.

As I understood his point, hitting a shtender while presenting a derashah is a demonstration of both passion and certitude, and to do it repeatedly, especially on diverse topics, demonstrates either a surfeit of passion or a surfeit of certitude, neither of which wins over an audience.

I am someone of passion, but I am rarely someone of certitude, so ironclad confident in my judgment that I will demand everyone agree with me. So I am not generally tempted to bang the shtender.

I did it once, for a Shabbos Shuvah derashah four years ago, when I was speaking about lashon hara tearing down community institutions. It was a particularly fraught time in our community, and I was right, I think; that wasn’t a squandering of the pulpit-thumping privilege.

But I wonder whether there have not been other times I could have, should have, given that resounding bang, whether there were not other causes I should have championed with the fever of the committed and the fervor of the certain:

Shabbos observance.
Mikvah observance.
Domestic abuse.
Parents and children.

I’ve spoken about all of these, of course. All of them, in different ways, carry great weight for Jews as individuals, for Jewish families, for the Jewish nation and for the world. Any of them could have been a topic warranting the Big Bang.

But, in the final analysis, the speaker is compelled to choose his opportunity, and so I did.

What about your rabbi? What makes him bang the shtender? Nothing? Everything? Or certain topics?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Stay away from the cheerleaders

[Haveil Havalim is here!]

I've been going through the tens of thousands of emails stored on my shul computer, trying to decide which ones are relevant to leave behind for my successor. The result is a lot of trips down memory lane, mostly fun, a couple not so fun.

The other day I came across one particular set of unpleasant memories. It was a political issue, and I remember vividly how I got caught up in the stream of events and conversations, and was מפריז על המדה, going farther than was truly wise in the situation. It turned out mostly all right, but "winning ugly" doesn't leave me with a good feeling.

In retrospect, a lot of the problem came from listening to the Cheerleaders. I find that rabbis are particularly vulnerable to that problem.

A lot of us (even non-rabbis) believe we have everyone’s best interest at heart. Further, a lot of us (even non-rabbis, again) believe we are speaking based on Torah and Divine instruction (cf derashah here). The result is that we can slip into overreaching fairly easily. And cheerleaders make it worse.

Who are the cheerleaders?

People who share our agenda, so that they egg us on (from the sidelines, naturally) into ever louder, ever more vociferous commentary ("Yeah, you tell 'em, rabbi!"), and even more risky action ("Go for it!").

And not just those with a direct stake in the outcome. Friends in whose eyes we are surely in the right, since we are their friends. Friends who might be more objective but don’t live in our communities and don’t know the players, but who are certain that we must be on the side of right. And the enemies of our enemies, people who would not ordinarily stand by our sides but who will make an exception in this case because their foes are being vanquished.

These are the cheerleaders, and they are dangerous. They allow us to talk ourselves into taking outspoken positions, into overstepping reasonable rhetorical bounds, into acting before the time is right. (No, it's not just "They," it's very much "We" for listening, but this post is about the "They" part of it.)

All of which means we need to be carefully about choosing our sounding boards, and about listening to well-intentioned counsel.

Ah, the lessons to be found in well-preserved emails...

Friday, July 17, 2009

Of Nesiim and Parents and Flexible Authority (Derashah: Matot-Masei 5769)

Kalev ben Yefuneh, now 80 years old, nasi of Yehudah, a legend for his righteous stand against the meraglim some forty years earlier, strode into Moshe’s tent. He was accompanied by Shmuel ben Amihud, a newly appointed nasi replacing the deceased criminal Zimri. With them came 10 more leaders – Elidad ben Kislon, Buki ben Yagli, Chaniel ben Efod, each the leader of an entire shevet/tribe.

These twelve governors had been summoned by Moshe Rabbeinu, their great leader. Moshe had just announced his imminent death and appointed Yehoshua to succeed him, and now he gathered his governors… but for what? What would he tell them?

“וידבר משה אל ראשי המטות לבני ישראל לאמר זה הדבר אשר צוה ה' – And Moshe spoke to the heads of the tribes of the Jewish people, saying, ‘This is what Gd has commanded.’”

The leaders waited with bated breath.

“איש כי ידור נדר לה' ... לא יחל דברו – When someone makes a vow to Gd, he shall not make his word mundane. He must fulfill everything that comes from his mouth.”

At this point, perhaps, Achihud ben Shlomi turns to Paltiel ben Azan with a quizzical look: For laws of purity and shemitah and kashrut and inheritance Moshe didn’t summon us, but he gathered us from our important business to say, “People must keep their word?”

But then Moshe continued with laws about nullifying vows, about recognizing that commitments made in all sincerity might be in error, and might not be worth upholding.

And with this addition, perhaps, the reason for gathering the leaders of bnei yisrael became much more clear. This was a message that they, of all people, needed to hear – the message of nullifying one’s word.

Certainly, the laws of vows do apply to the entire nation – but Moshe first presented this message to the leaders, as a message targeted toward them. There is no דבר אל בני ישראל here – Moshe doesn’t say, “Tell this to the nation.” It’s a message which educates the leaders, first and foremost, in how to do their jobs.

These leaders would be crucial for the post-Moshe era. Moshe had just appointed Yehoshua as the federal leader of the Jewish people, but the nesiim, the tribal governors, would still be needed.
• There would be land to distribute.
• There would be disputes to resolve.
• The Jewish people in Israel would live tribally, doing almost nothing as a coherent whole.
• Even war would be handled by individual tribes, not by the nation.

And so Moshe follows up his appointment of Yehoshua by telling the nesiim: You still have a leadership role to play – and this is how I want you to play it:

לא יחל דברו – In your capacity as leaders, you may not make your words mundane political tools, saying one thing and meaning another, playing politics with carefully crafted remarks, saying what people want to hear in order to keep them happy. Your words are not חול, they are קודש - not mundane, but sacred.

But, at the same time, Moshe warns that a true leader recognizes the limitations of his קודש words. Chazal warned us, “ואל תשתחווה לדבריך, Do not bow to your words” – do not view your words as a sacrosanct idol, to be preserved and honored at all costs.

Perhaps better than any other Jewish leader, Moshe knows this balance.

• Moshe grew up at the knee of Paroh, a man who never learned how to back down, who pretended to retreat in the face of each מכה only to revert to his stubbornness in the end. Moshe saw what happens to a leader who cannot change course.

• But then, on the other hand, Moshe himself was sent on a mission in which he could not back down, in which he was to stand face-to-face with Pharoah over a period of months repeating variations on the same words , שלח את עמי, Send out my nation, no fewer than seven times.

• Which is not to say that even Moshe had the balance between backbone and flexibility quite right.
When Moshe charged Yehoshua with his mission, he said, כי אתה תבוא את העם הזה, Yehoshua, you will come into Israel with the nation – leading with the people, not forcing them to obey your words.
But HaShem corrected Moshe, saying, כי אתה תביא את העם הזה, You will bring this nation into Israel yourself – as the gemara elaborates, טול מקל והך על קדקדם, If they don’t listen then take a stick and hit them over the head!

And so Moshe warns the leaders: You will need to get this balance right.

One might argue that this lesson is obvious; do you really need Moshe Rabbeinu to tell you to be flexible? Does it really take the greatest leader of all time to remind you that Paroh is a bad role model?

Probably not – but the challenge for a Nasi is more complex, because a Nasi speaks with Divinely-invested authority; Gd warned the nation, ונשיא בעמך לא תאור, Do not attack the nasi; Gd required that we honor these people, and follow them, and so their words carry great weight. Further, the nasi speaks on behalf of government, on behalf of law and order, on behalf of the best interests of their shevatim and of the nation as a whole.

Seen in that light, a Nasi faces a great challenge: He must honor his words as Divinely-authorized edicts, but he must simultaneously override the temptation of claiming infalliblity.

Historically, there were times when the nesiim backed down on their Divinely inspired commands.

For example: A few decades after our parshah the tribe of Binyamin descended into lawlessness, and those nesiim, acting on Gd’s instructions to wage war against Binyamin, declared a religious ban against marrying anyone from that tribe. But when they saw the decline of Binyamin, they reversed themselves, recognizing that one cannot bow to his words, even words uttered in the name of Gd.

This is an important lesson for religious leaders, but it is also important for parents, because parents, too, are religious leaders, speaking with Divine authority.

When the Torah instructs, כבד את אביך ואת אמך, Honor your father and mother –
When the Torah warns, איש אמו ואביו תיראו, Have awe of your mother and father –
HaShem invests parents with religious authority like that of the nesiim, such that when parents speak to their children, Gd endorses their words.

Add to this the fact that we instruct our children for their own good, their own physical and spiritual well-being - telling them to get ready for school, to do their homework, to eat their vegetables, to wear a yarmulka or to come to shul or to give tzedakah – and it’s easy for us, like the nesiim, to view our words as inflexibly קודש.

So Moshe warns the nesiim, and he warns all of us: לא יחל דברו, don’t make your words mundane, but, on the other hand, know when to give in.

[I closed with a message for parents who are celebrating the birth of their children this week.]


1. The opening thought - the perplexity of the nesiim and the appropriateness of Moshe's message for them - is built around a thought from Rav Baruch Yashar in בין השיטין של תורה.

2. "Do not bow to your words" is from Kallah Rabti 4:17. Moshe's charge to Yehoshua is in Sanhedrin 8a. The battle with Binyamin is in Shoftim 20-21.

3. We had celebrations for three babies this week. If not for that, I might have used Berachot 34a as the closer. HaShem vows to destroy the nation after the Eigel, and Moshe nullifies the neder. HaShem is omniscient, He knows He won't carry it out - so why make the neder in the first place? Perhaps to teach Moshe about the possibility of hafarat nedarim, of backing down.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Saving lives in shul

I’ll never forget it.

It was my first year in Allentown, Shabbat Chol haMoed Succot. An elderly gentleman was called up to the Torah for the third aliyah. He made the opening berachah, and we read the powerful words of that reading (Sh’mot 33:20-23):

And HaShem said to Moshe, “You cannot see My Face, for no man may see me and survive.”
And HaShem said additionally to Moshe, “Here is a place with Me; you will stand on this rock. When My glory passes, I will place you in the cleft in the rock, and I will shield you with My Hand until I have passed. And I will remove My Hand, and you will see My aftermath, but My Face will not be seen.”

The gentleman then recited the closing berachah, thanking Gd for giving us the Torah of truth – and then he died.

I didn’t know he was dead. He collapsed, and I caught him (I think). We laid him out on the bimah, and doctors rushed over to apply CPR and use our AED (automated external defibrillator), while an ambulance was called. The shul said tehillim, and eventually he was moved out and taken to the hospital. We continued davening; we found out later that he had passed away.

That was the first time I was faced with someone needing serious medical attention in shul, but it was by no means the last. Over the years we’ve had several people faint or have seizures, during davening or shul meals or just general use of the building, and I’ve learned a few lessons from the experiences. They may be obvious to everyone, but I'll post them here just in case.

1) A shul must have an AED and an oxygen tank, and people must be trained to use them.
Our shul had an AED before I arrived, thanks to the prescience of the membership. It’s a good thing; the AED has saved at least one life, and the oxygen has been used to treat many more.

2) If someone needs medical attention, keep the davening going, whether with tehillim or simply by continuing the normal davening.
This is somewhat counterintuitive, because it feels crass to go on with musaf while someone is fighting for his life. It certainly is difficult to maintain concentration, and the minyan may need to move to a different room in order to avoid disturbing the rescuers. Nonetheless, this is valuable for several reasons:
First, davening for someone always helps them.
Second, davening provides friends with something they can do.
Third, it helps for crowd control; having a hundred people mobbing the rescuers and keeping air from the patient is counterproductive, to say the least.

3) The rabbi does not need to be in the middle of the action.
I am CPR-trained and AED-trained, and, like many rabbis, I always want to be in the middle, doing something to help in the most concrete way possible. However, that isn’t necessarily the best place for the rabbi; finding another way to contribute may help others do likewise.

One other thought: We often encourage frail and recently-hospitalized people to come to shul, whether directly ("I look forward to seeing you in shul when you come out of the hospital") or indirectly ("We miss having you around.") This may not be the best tack.

Of course, people joke that because of our large number of doctors, and because we have equipment and experience, our shul is the safest place in town to pass out. There’s a lot of truth to it, certainly for someone who otherwise might have passed out at home, with no one else around. But, at the same time, the walk to shul might be the small exertion that puts someone at risk. Better to stay home and stay safe, daven to HaShem on Shabbat in private and join with the community during the week.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras

The other night I attended a meeting in which a key participant avoided answering an important question. I passed a note to a friend, saying, “If it ducks like a duck, it’s a duck.” To which he replied with an equally zoological note, “When I hear hoofbeats, I think of zebras.”

I wasn’t familiar with this line, but it had the ring of a popular saying, so I tried to deduce what he meant.

My first thought was of Monty Python, of course, and the scene with the coconut-shells being rapped together to sound like hoofbeats… but I couldn’t see any relevance.

Then I thought it might have to do with the classic zebra question – is the zebra marked with white stripes on a black background, or black stripes on a white background? But that really had no relevance here, that I could see.

So then I thought about zebras and how life isn’t black-and-white. Perhaps I should hear hoofbeats and think of horses, understanding that life can be gray sometimes, rather than draw black-and-white conclusions a la zebras. Was this a rebuke about my swift judgment of the duck?

I was confused… so, upon arriving back at shul after the meeting, I turned to Wikipedia, and found out that it’s actually a medical aphorism, related to diagnosis. Horses are simple, Zebras are complex. Essentially, the message is this: When faced with symptoms, assume the least-complex diagnosis first. (There’s even a book with that title, available at Amazon here.)

(Which, by the way, means that when I took a labyrinthine route to reason out the meaning of those words, I actually ended up violating their advice...)

To put this in other words, the line is another version of Occam’s Razor, or the KISS principle (Keep It Simple, Stupid): Don’t reason beyond the data.

Which, while good advice, is easier said than done. Human beings are physically and spiritually wired to reason beyond the data, to make leaps of deduction that have little relationship with reality. When we are happy about this, we call it intuition and human creativity; when we are less pleased, generally after the fact, we call it foolishness.

It reminds me of an article I read a month ago, regarding an experiment with dog owners who were told that their dog had done something wrong. A great percentage of them thought their dog was wearing a guilty expression in regret for its crime – but, in fact, in half of the cases the dog had done nothing wrong at all. If anything, the dog’s expression was a response to rebuke, not a response to an emotion of guilt, but the dog owners had assumed that the dogs could feel guilt for their misdeeds.

We see zebras all the time in the realm of religion. It’s the tendency that encourages people to see their deity in a piece of toast, or a fluffy cloud, or the trunk of a tree. It’s the tendency that allows people to see patterns in their lives, in events both positive and negative. It is not always a pro-religion force, though; we also see zebras when we question Gd’s existence, finding proof of randomness or malice wherever we choose.

And, as so often happens, the gemara’s sages described this tendency perfectly. They said regarding Bilam (Makkot 10b), “בדרך שאדם רוצה לילך בה מוליכים אותו,” which translates roughly as, “A person will be brought along the path he wishes to follow.” It was true for Bilam, and it’s true for us as well.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

How to attract people to your shul

Yesterday, someone came to my site by Googling “How to attract people to your shul.”

(For the record, they ended up here. As opposed to the Serbian person who Googled something far more obscene involving carnal relations and spitting, and ended up here.)

The results for that Google search are actually pretty interesting - they turn up discussions of technology, homosexuality, quality of davening, interfaith services, social action and more.

If you ask me - and you did by coming here - the first way to attract people to your shul is to start working on the following four questions:

1. Do you know whom you want to attract?
Are they local people? Local Jews of your beliefs, or local Jews who have other beliefs and are associated with other shuls, or local unaffiliated Jews, or local non-Jews?

Or are they people who live outside your area? Where do they live?

Are they young families with children? Families with teens? Older couples who have the time to serve on your boards and committees, and attend your programs? Retired people? People with discretionary income? What are your priorities?

2. Why aren’t these people at your shul already?
Is it because they think your beliefs are wrong? Is it because they have a better kiddush where they go? Is it because you have no jobs, or no affordable real estate? Is it because your community is on the Jewish equivalent of Pluto?

Is it because your chazan is a droning bore, or because you don’t have a chazan? Is it because the rabbi is a cold fish, or too warm and fuzzy? Is it because you have a rabbi at all? Is it because your rabbi doesn’t blog? Is it because they don’t believe in shuls? Is it because they want a stronger schoool?

Is it because they've heard horrible things about your shul? Is it because your shul is so successful that they feel more needed and welcome elsewhere?

Is it because their friends don’t go to your shul? Is it because they – and/or their friends - aren’t Jewish?

3. What are your strengths and weaknesses (not “challenges” – weaknesses, call them for what they are), for attracting these people to your shul?
Do you have a database of all of your members, broken down by age and children and year they moved in and education and interests and all sorts of other useful pieces of information? If not, stop everything and create that database. Even if it doesn’t help you attract a single new member, it will help you avoid losing the ones you have.

If you already have a database, can you determine your strengths? Do you have young couples, who might know other young couples who might be interested in moving in? Do you have people who work at key companies, and might be able to help you get information on jobs from HR? Do you have older families with children who live in key starter communities like Queens and New York’s Upper West Side, such that they might know people who are looking to move?

Do you have a youth program? A kiddush? A youth kiddush? A breakaway minyan? No breakaway minyan? A short, tall or in-between mechitzah? A beautiful building? A mother-baby nursing room? A thorough educational program for adults and youth? A great day school? A great high school? Playgrounds and parks and attractions?

4. Now that you have identified strengths and weaknesses, what can you do about them?

Can you fund a restaurant? Can you expand the eruv? Can you create a resource to list available jobs? Can you create a Youth program? Can you fire the chazan? Can you hire a chazan? Can you improve your school? Can you make your community warmer, larger, smarter, frummer, younger? Can you advertise your warmer, larger, smarter, frummer, younger community in an eye-catching, heart-catching way?

My biggest gripe: Communities that put together cash incentives to convince people to move in, without working on the problems that are keeping people away. To quote Ms. Mayefsky, z”l, that’s like putting a band-aid on a fracture.

Those are four questions, of many. Asking and answering them doesn’t guarantee any growth; I have done these exercises in Allentown, but didn't get all of the progress I wanted.

But Googling can only provide more questions, not more answers. The answers are all at home.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Job of a Hospital Chaplain

I fell into hospital chaplaincy quite by accident; it’s not something I ever wanted to do, as a dedicated profession.

My fall took place during my first or second year in the rabbinate. A retired rabbi living in the area volunteered to visit Jewish patients at the local Veterans’ Hospital, but he was going south for the winter, and he asked me to fill in for him.

I learned a lot in this role, because it involved a lot of visiting people I had never met (and who could barely hear me – a lot of them were WWII and Korean War vets), and because it involved the first serious ecumenical work I had ever done.

I learned then, and this idea has been reinforced in the years since, that a hospital chaplain plays many roles, including:

• Officiant – Even though we don’t have last rites (separate from viduy), people consider tehillim a ritual, and benefit from actually seeing the rabbi recite it… even if they personally do not ‘believe in’ prayer.

• Case manager – Patients who don’t have relatives to oversee their cases are often given sub-par care. It’s harsh to say that, but it’s true. A chaplain can ask questions, and even by his presence demonstrate that someone is watching.

• Hope manager – For an aged man or woman who has neither children nor siblings nor friends ambulatory enough to visit, the chaplain represents someone who is interested in his well-being.

• Host for visiting relatives, orienting them to the hospital facility and, as needed, to the community at large.

• Comedian – Well, I had a captive audience. And I didn’t say I was any good at it.

One role I played only rarely was Spiritual Advisor.

I have mentioned elsewhere that the chaplains at that VA felt they were not respected, that the doctors saw them as insignificant and even out-of-place in the hospital. One countermeasure they implemented was a chart (to be stored with the medical chart!) listing dates and times of visits, and key spiritual milestones and benchmarks. Is the patient comfortable with his projected outcome? Is the patient angry, or calm? Have you discussed spiritual issues, life after death, etc?

For me, the idea of imposing this Spiritual Advisor role upon the patient, and especially benchmarking it, seemed foolish then, and it still seems foolish to me today. Perhaps this is different in other religions, but I never saw my visiting-rabbi role as including spiritual exploration. In part that’s because those patients could barely hear me, and were often unconscious. And in part it’s because they were largely people who had not seen fit to study religion or seek out a rabbi beforehand, and it seemed awkward to introduce it for them now. If they sought to discuss religion, I was ready, but I certainly was not going to position myself as Spiritual Advisor, come to investigate their Judaism.

On the other hand, perhaps I was and am too timid. Maybe those patients were just waiting for
me to ask them to put on tefillin. Who can know?

In any case, I never went back to it; I am happy to visit anyone and everyone, but not as an official chaplain.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Changed by a decade of Parenting

[This week’s Haveil Havalim is here!]

Our oldest turned 10 this past Thursday, the 17th of Tammuz, and the milestone set me to thinking about what a decade of fatherhood has tried to teach me.

The following will be old-hat to parents who are ahead of me on the chronological curve, as well as to many who simply figured things out long before I did, but it’s a short list of ways that parenting can mature us:

Parenting forces total responsibility.
This is beyond being reliable; I’m talking about something greater here. I’m talking about changing your life around in order to fill a responsibility. I’m talking about taking full responsibility for others’ actions and for the events of their lives, the buck stopping here.

If your six-year-old stuffs a ball down the bathtub drain and the plumber charges you $70 to get it out, you can't take it out of his allowance. If your two-year-old ruins something, there is no recourse. It's all on your head.

Parenting forces flexibility.
I can honestly say that I am more flexible now, by several orders of magnitude, than I was ten years ago. I don’t get as upset about the foiling of plans, or about not knowing what’s happening until the last minute; it’s a natural part of life with children.

I learned this especially in shul, regarding davening. When my rebbitzen was expecting our second, and the first was still under 2 years old, I brought him to shul on many occasions. As a rule, I ended up standing outside and doing the bare minimum of davening. I wasn't used to that, but he taught me.

I’m not sure people who share my life think I’m that flexible, but I feel the difference between what was and what is.

Parenting tries to teach us that we don’t need to stand out.
Anyone who survives a dozen years in the rabbinate must harbor an element that appreciates the spotlight (even if you’re nervous about being center-stage), but being a parent often means turning the spotlight to your child.

Having your child perform on stage or play a game or write a story is a great way to learn to stay in the background and keep your ideas to yourself. Balancing being visible enough to be a role model, while not so visible as to be intimidating, is real work.

Parenting makes us feel ignorant, which is not the same thing as being able to admit ignorance to others.

When I say, ‘feeling ignorant,’ I mean being willing to hear and embrace an entirely foreign point of view, recognizing that we know nothing. Trying to raise a child and recognizing you know nothing at all about how to do it was a good learning experience.

Telling a laughing pediatrician that you don't know how to get medicine into your stubborn child ("There are two of you and one of him, and you're bigger than him!"), or studying an off-colored diaper and wondering whether the weird shade of green means anything, is a good way to realize just how much you don't know.

The above is just a short list; much more could be said.

I wouldn’t say I’ve absorbed any of the above ideals 100%, but I’m definitely a world different now from the way I was in the Labor and Delivery room in 1999. I cringe to think about the person I once was… and I can’t wait to see what I will become in the next ten years, Gd-willing…

Thursday, July 9, 2009

A Mandate for Environmentalism in Israel (Derashah Pinchas 5769)

During the past month, buried beneath headlines on Iran’s vote and then Michael Jackson’s death, environmentalists have taken a giant step forward. Last week the US House of Representatives resolved to cut US emissions, and now the G8 leaders, meeting in Italy, have moved to do likewise; they’re talking about cutting emissions by 80% in the coming decades.

But I would wager that most of us haven’t been following this at all – because the world’s general attention has been focussed elsewhere, and because much of the Jewish community, and particularly the observant Jewish community, tends to ignore environmental issues.

This isn’t true of the entire observant Jewish community, of course; organizations like Canfei Nesharim have done some great work, both in spurring activism and in explaining the Torah foundation for it. But nonetheless, many observant Jews see environmentalism as someone else’s cause, and for a variety of reasons.

• One pragmatic reason environmentalism is not a popular topic is that its proponents are often the same people who malign Israel constantly, while those who challenge it are also strong supporters of Israel and Jewish causes;

• A second reason, also practical, is that we have other, more personally pressing priorities, like Israel, like Jewish continuity and survival, like Jewish education. The rest of the world isn’t doing anything for us on those parochial issues, so we invest our energy in solving those problems and leave the bigger picture to the rest of the world.

• A third reason environmentalism has trouble in our community is that many of its leaders take tendentious scientific positions, relying on research that has not been proven and that has even been disproven, and we Jews are nothing if not a skeptical nation;

And then there’s a fourth, deeper, reason, which is a matter of philosophy.

The gemara records a debate between Rabban Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Yishmael:
• The former argues that a Jew is obligated to spend all of his time in Torah study; as far as earning a living, leave that to Gd, it will all be handled for us.
• Rabbi Yishmael, on the other hand, says that we are supposed to take action, working the fields, holding jobs, before using the rest of our time for Torah.

The gemara does not pasken this shailah; no winner is declared in this perennial debate. But some of us seem to feel that although we do follow Rabbi Yishmael when it comes to earning a living, we should follow Rabban Shimon bar Yochai when it comes to the environment, and rely on Gd to take care of it.

To cite the famous joke in which a prospective son-in-law tells his prospective father-in-law, “Gd will provide,” we tend to play the role of the son-in-law, leaving the fate of the planet in the hands of a benevolent Gd.

In truth, that philosophical idea of non-intervention is consistent with the past three-and-a-half chumashim:

• In Bereishit, Gd did it all personally, creating the world and engineering miracles to send the Jewish people to Egypt.
• In Shemot, Gd intervened to rescue the Jews from Egypt, sending makkot, splitting the sea, and so on.
• In Vayyikra we learned about tzaraat, a miraculous punishment for people who commit evil, and we heard the blessings and curses promising Divine action for and against our nation, depending upon our merit.
• And in the first half of the book of Bamidbar we saw Divine miracles produce water and quail and punish the meraglim and Korach.

For those initial books of the Torah, our responsibility was to fulfill our mitzvot, and Gd would handle the big picture.

But in our parshah, this morning, the charge changed. This morning we were told לאלה תחלק הארץ, this people is going to have a land, and once we became home-owners in Canaan, our responsibilities were forever altered.

Even Rabban Shimon Bar Yochai must agree that we are responsible to take care of that land. This is the mitzvah known as יישוב הארץ, settling the land, and the responsibilities it places upon our shoulders begin in biblical law and continue in rabbinic legislation and the guidance of our sages:

• לאלה תחלק הארץ - Next week the Torah will inform us of the way to build cities in Israel; among other instructions, we will be required to leave spacious parkland around those cities;

• לאלה תחלק הארץ - The gemara notes that numerous rabbinic laws protecting cities, homes and land in Israel.

Many of our mitzvot, biblical and rabbinic, are geared toward ensuring the on-going quality of our land; the Torah and the sages were concerned with the way we would treat our home, to ensure that we would be environmentalists in Israel.

Personally, I consider myself a global environmentalist; I believe that we are responsible not to destroy this world we have been given, not to waste Divine gifts, and not to harm the property of others, but to practice a modern version of Adam and Chavah’s לעבדה ולשמרה to work the land and to preserve it.

But even for those who are turned off by the anti-Israel sentiment of so many in the eco-movement, even for those who serve the many causes which already consume our community’s small resources, even for those who are troubled by the questionable scientific assertions as well as the partisan politics behind them, all of us must agree that the charge in this morning’s parshah, לאלה תחלק הארץ, This nation will have a land, charges us with a responsibility to protect and develop the land of Israel.

For some this happens through aliyah. For others this happens through organizations like JNF, planting a tree or donating for the construction of a reservoir. But for all of us it must happen – יישוב הארץ is our mitzvah.

After HaShem told Moshe about the distribution of Canaan, the daughters of Tzelafchad protested that they wanted a share, that their father’s land should not be absorbed by the rest of the tribe but should remain with them. Their argument won the day.

The gemara says that although Gd was already planning to include the law of a daughter’s inheritance in the Torah anyway, they merited to have it recorded in their name, as “the law of the daughters of Tzelafchad,” because they were the ones who came forth to plead for a share in Israel. There likely were other daughters who did not have brothers – but the daughters of Tzelafchad stepped forward because of their love for Israel, and so their name endures forever.

Gd-willing, we will also display our love for the land of Israel – and our names will be likewise preserved.

1. Yes, I know that there is a machloket on applying Yishuv ha'Aretz as a mitzvah today. For a good start on sources regarding this mitzvah, go here.

2. Bnot Tzelafchad - See Bava Batra 119a on their merit.

3. The talmudic advice on rotating fields is also pragmatic, for the sake of the farmer, but it was the quickest example to hand. There are many more, just as there are many more mitzvot which the rishonim describe as being geared toward preserving the land.

New clothes and haircuts for the Three Weeks?

[See the bottom of this post for explanations of the 17th of Tammuz and the Three Weeks of mourning.]

Today’s fast of the 17th of Tammuz, and the whole start of the Three Weeks of mourning, came with an odd feeling this year.

At minyan last night I looked around and saw all the fresh haircuts and trimmed beards, and couldn’t help but think it looked like Rosh HaShanah, or Pesach.

The feeling was amplified by my own pre-Three Weeks shopping spree. Since the traditional practice of Ashkenazi Jews is that we don’t buy new clothing during the Three Weeks, and since our family is moving, Gd-willing, soon after this mourning period ends, I’ve purchased new shoes, slacks and ties recently. Although I’ve been wearing them for the past several days, a definite newness remains.

Fresh haircut, clean-cut beard, new clothes… yes, it feels much more like Yom Tov than a fast day mourning the destruction of the Beit haMikdash.

But I suppose I could look at it this way: We’re all set for the arrival of mashiach!


The fast day of the 17th of Tammuz, observed Thursday July 9 this year, commemorates five tragedies:

1. Moses descended from meeting Gd and receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai, saw the Jews celebrating with the Golden Calf, and broke the two tablets Gd had given him.

2. The daily Tamid offering, which had been brought regularly in the Jerusalem Beit haMikdash [Temple] from the time the Jews built the Mishkan for over one thousand years, was halted during the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem before the Beit haMikdash was destroyed.

3. The Romans invaded Jerusalem, prior to destroying the second Beit haMikdash. (The Babylonians invaded Jerusalem to destroy the first Temple on the 9th of Tammuz.)

4. A Greek or Roman official named Apostimos held a public burning of the Torah.

5. Idols were set up in the Temple itself; it is not clear what year this happened.

The 17th of Tammuz begins a three-week Jewish national period of mourning for the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem, as well as numerous other nation-wide tragedies, such as the Chmielnitzki massacres, the Crusades, and the Holocaust. This period culminates with the fast of Tisha b'Av, the ninth of Av.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

CNN presents three reasons to make Aliyah

In case you needed more reasons to pack up and move to Israel, CNN provides three new reasons to apply to Nefesh b’Nefesh:

1. The Republican party has officially gone off the deep end
Yes, it’s true. I don’t know whether this is...
...the result of a level of intellectual dysfunction that comes from an endless loop of Limbaugh,
...the product of a breed of cognitive dissonance that forces Republicans to see no wrong in Sarah of the North,
...the effect of so many US governors spontaneously combusting in the past few years that Sarah Palin doesn't seem all that unusual...

...but can anyone explain to me why, “More than seven in 10 Republicans said they would be likely to vote for Palin for the presidency?

2. Homeland Insecurity
Why do these reports not surprise us?

Plainclothes investigators sent to test security at federal buildings in four U.S. cities were successful in smuggling bomb components through guard posts at all 10 of the sites they visited, according to a government report.

The investigators then assembled the bombs in restrooms and freely entered numerous government offices while carrying the devices in briefcases, the report said.
The buildings contained offices of several federal lawmakers as well as agencies within the departments of State, Justice and Homeland Security, which is responsible for safeguarding federal office buildings.

I mean, really. 10 out of 10? Couldn’t you even make it look difficult?

3. And then the third reason to make aliyah: Iran is no longer a threat to Israel
No, not because the US has given a green light, or even a blinking yellow light, to Israel to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.
And not because the Iranian government has been exposed to the world for the unpopular dictatorship it is.
Rather, it's because Iran, it turns out, is actually a benign, free society, functioning at the very height of democracy:

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose re-election last month led to massive protests, on Tuesday called the balloting "the most free election anywhere in the world."
"It was a great event," he said in a nationally televised address.

You heard it from the man himself.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Michael Jackson I knew and admired

Names give the illusion of identity; in the Torah, to know someone's name is to know his characteristics, his basic nature.

Think of the angel asking, "Why do you need to know my name?"
Think of Gd changing a person's name to signify a change in her basic nature.
Think of the sanctity, as well as multiplicity, of the Divine Names.
And think of the mishnah in Pirkei Avos that says the "name of Mashiach" was created before the universe.

But names, certainly in our world, are not the same as identities. Names can be changed, and names can be shared. And so it is that as the world remembers one man named Michael Jackson, I am reminded of another - Michael Jakubowics Jackson, a man who endured the horrors of the Holocaust, then came to the US and settled in Allentown, Pennsylvania until his death in January of 2004.

Beyond eyes, nose and a mouth, there wasn't much in common between the two Michael Jacksons, at least in terms of their public personas. My Michael Jackson was tall, dignified, a curious and deep thinker, a man of complex faith, a man who knew both suffering and survival, a loving family man.

Michael wrote extensively, from notes on books he read to letters to Yiddish and English-language newspapers, to his autobiography, Head of the Line. I'm glad he wrote so much, so that he will be able to inspire others posthumously; he was and remains a role model for me.

For whatever it's worth, here are excerpts from the הספד (eulogy) I delivered at my Michael Jackson's funeral. Perhaps it will inspire someone to learn more about him, through his book.

“ויבא אל הר האלקים חרבה, ” And Moshe came to the mountain of Gd, to Chorev, also known as Sinai. “וירא מלאך ה' אליו בלבת אש מתוך הסנה,” “And an angel of Gd appeared to Moshe from the flames of the fire, from the middle of the bush.” “וירא והנה הסנה בוער באש והסנה איננו אוכל.” “And he saw, behold, the bush was burning with fire, but the bush was not consumed.”

Michael ben Avraham Zalman, you were that burning bush. You were surrounded by fire!
Mr. Jackson was daily and nightly beset by visions of the Holocaust, memories of family and friends; it made its way into all of his conversations.

Last night _____ told me about Mr. Jackson’s Pesach Seder. At the Seder we all sit with our families at our tables and laugh and reminisce and talk blithely about the way Jews were once, so long ago, slaves in Egypt, and now we are free - but Mr. Jackson knew all too well what it meant to be a slave, he suffered the torture and did the hard labor, he knew exactly what Avadim Hayyinu meant, and he never escaped it, he never got to be free. It was in his mind always.

Mr. Jackson was the סנה בוער באש, the burning bush.

But at the same time, והסנה איננו אוכל – Mr. Jackson was not consumed by that fire, he never let it destroy him. Try for a moment to imagine what it’s like to lose one’s entire family, to suffer brutal beatings, illness and degradation, fear that one may lose his life at any moment - and then realize that Mr. Jackson, together with _____ who he loved so much, made a life here in Allentown, raised two children _____ and ____, and saw grandchildren, and even started their own company, Nina Sportswear. We shouldn’t only remember Mr. Jackson for his survival of the Holocaust – we should also remember the way he and ____, against all odds, built a life for themselves afterward.

Mr. Jackson, you never let the fire consume you.

How was it that you survived? Moshe asked that same question, regarding the Burning Bush which was not consumed. Moshe saw this burning bush, and he said, “אסורה נא ואראה את המראה הגדול הזה, מדוע לא יבער הסנה.” “I will go see this giant sight” – like Mr. Jackson, a large, physically imposing sight – “I will go see it.” And Moshe asked, “Why won’t this bush burn? Why isn’t this bush consumed by the flames all around it?”

I asked myself the same question, regarding Mr. Jackson, Michael ben Avraham Zalman. Why wouldn’t you burn?

I came up with a three-fold answer, all from your own writings and expressions: The answer lies in your Gevurah (might), your Emunah (faith), and your sense of Klal Yisrael, of the Jewish people as a single unit.

Gevurah – this is a Hebrew word referring to strength, specifically strength of will, the ability to overcome and conquer not merely one’s environment but to overcome and conquer one’s self.

On page 223 of his Holocaust memoir, Head of the Line, Mr. Jackson wrote, “A mensch ist schvacher vun a flieg, en shtarker vun eisen.” “A human being is weaker than a fly and stronger than steel.” This is the essence of a Gibor, a powerful person – the ability to persevere, and to find unearthly resources of strength on which to draw.

You were a Gibor in overcoming your pain, both physical and psychological. You and ____, both Giborim, both powerful people, shook off the ashes and built a Jewish home here in Allentown. והסנה איננו אוכל, the bush was not consumed.

Second, your Emunah, your faith. How many times did you say to me, “גם זה יעבור,” “This, too, shall pass?” You had a powerful Emunah, a powerful faith that whatever happened, there was a Gd watching over the world.

Certainly, you challenged and you questioned. You couldn’t bring yourself to come to Shul on Simchas Torah each year, because of the memory of your brother Tzvi, who was shot and killed on Simchas Torah 1944. You had your קושיות. You understood well those who could not accept the existence of a Gd who could tolerate the Holocaust. But for yourself, you maintained your Judaism. You went to Shul whenever you could, you learned through the Parshah with Rashi every week, you loved to quote Mishnah, Midrash and Gemara. Somehow – I can’t understand it – you managed to continue a Jewish life, a life of Emunah. והסנה איננו אוכל, the bush was not consumed.

Third, your belief in the Jewish people as a single unit. In the beginning of “Head of the Line” you wrote of your fears for the future of the Jewish people, and you wrote that the only hope for the Jewish community would be in unity, would be in hanging together. You always stuck with other Jews – during the war, and after. You continually expressed frustration at the rifts between different parts of the Jewish community.

The Sneh, the burning bush, survives because it is not a lone branch – it is a Sneh, a bush, a group of branches united together.

Mr. Jackson, you survived the worst the world could throw at you, and you came through. You were like the burning bush, which was located at Mt. Sinai. This morning, the Daf Yomi group learned a Gemara which reminded me powerfully of you – the Gemara says, “When a pauper brings a simple, inexpensive grain offering to Gd, it is considered before Gd as though he had brought his very soul to Gd,” “כאילו הקריב נפשו לפני.” You were מקריב נפשך לפניו, you actually did bring your soul as a Korban, in that fire. You were the Sneh, the Burning Bush.

But there was another fire on Mt. Sinai, a year after that first one of the Burning Bush – this was the fire that burned when the Jews received the Torah. We are told, “וההר בוער באש עד לב השמים,” “The mountain was aflame, up to the heart of the heavens.” Out of that flame came Torah to the Jewish people – and out of the flames of the Holocaust came two powerful people, two Giborim, ___ and Michael Jakubowics, Mr. and Mrs. Michael Jackson.

“A mensch ist schvacher vun a flieg, en shtarker vun eisen.” “A human being is weaker than a fly and stronger than steel.” You were stronger than steel, Mr. Jackson. What remains is for us to emulate you, and carry your lesson with us.

יהי זכרו ברוך.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Rabbinic Term Limits?

I’ve been thinking about the issue of rabbinic turnover, and the effect it has on a community.

Certainly, there are many reasons why communities and rabbis prefer long-term relationships, among them:

• From the rabbi’s perspective, it’s satisfying and fulfilling to see the results of his labors. It’s incomparably wonderful to see a family evolve, a child grow up, a learning process bear fruit.

• From the rabbi’s perspective, as well, job security is important. Starting in a new community, with all of the potential mistrust and misunderstandings, is very difficult; working with people you know, people who know you, is far less stressful.

• Again from the rabbi’s perspective, making friends and becoming close with people is hard to do if your horizon is short-term.

• From the rabbi’s perspective as well as the community’s perspective: Seniority helps the rabbi deal with communal issues; no one can say to him, “We used to do it this way,” “We always did it that way.” And people feel less like, “Rabbis come and rabbis go, let’s do what we want.”

• From the community’s perspective, it’s important to retain institutional memory. Generally, the rabbi, who knows every congregant and is involved in many of the events and stories of shul administration, is the repository of that memory.

• Also from the community’s perspective, it’s better to have a rabbi who stays for many years, to enable long-term communal planning and development, as well as long-term relationships.

• From everyone’s point of view: In dealing with community-wide institutions, it’s good to have a rabbi who has seniority and can speak to history, as well as the present, from a position of knowledge and wisdom.

• And further for the community: If the rabbi is good at what he does, who would want to change that?

But I’ve been thinking lately about the advantages of rabbinic rotation. I’m not advocating term limits, but I do see benefits for a community when the rabbi is not there forever:

• Most rabbis have a certain style, whether in teaching or programming or speaking or running the davening, and after a while people can become numb to it;

• Every rabbi has certain flaws and faults, things he doesn’t notice or areas in which he does not function that well. Bringing in a new rabbi can compensate, as these new areas may be addressed;

• Rabbis, themselves, can stagnate when they do the same job for too long, once they have gotten everything under control and they are set in a routine;

• Most perilously, rabbis who are in place for a long time may end up running certain areas of communal life to such an extent that his ultimate departure leaves too great a vacuum.

Overall, in my mind, the balance is still in favor of long-term rabbinates, but it’s just something to think about.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Meeting my younger self

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here!]

Disclaimer: This post seems to me, on re-read, rather narcissistic. I hope it doesn't offend.

We meet our younger selves all the time, often in unplanned ways – in photographs of graduations and bar mitzvahs and weddings, in anecdotes we'd long forgotten but others have remembered, in visits to places we had once lived, in essays and stories buried in drawers and unearthed quite by accident.

This past week I had a particularly strong visit with myself, as I re-started work on WebShas.

The origin of WebShas is a long story, but in a nutshell, it was a project I created in the beginning of my semichah studies (1995 - before graphical browsers!), as a way to consolidate my learning and make it more useful/accessible for myself. It started as a simple list of topics covered on each page of gemara, and mushroomed quickly into a topical index of the gemara, organized in an hierarchy of categories. Working on it taught me much more than gemara, though; it gave me an education in library science, data taxonomy/classification/organization, research, and presentation.

I worked on WebShas for about three years, but then stopped when I entered the rabbinate. Now, a dozen years later, after a few false starts over the years, I think I'm ready to devote a little time each day to completing the job, with an eye toward accomplishing that within 3-4 years. And as I re-visit the work of my younger self, I am gaining real insight into the person I once was.

I'll admit I'm not terribly impressed with his presentation skills; certainly, I was more focussed on covering ground than on taking the time to express ideas clearly. (To be fair, I also envisioned it more as a research tool for advanced students than a resource for the layman.)

On the other hand, I am in awe of the hubris I displayed in starting the project to begin with. The breadth of it, in terms of the elements and themes I tried to sort an categorize, is enormous. From items on braita structure to pigul of a korban to talmudic insights into economics to the makeup of rabbinic decrees... it seems I was brave and stupid, a combination that actually sounds about right.

And as I add information to the index, every so often I have to stop and think about where some abstract concept or complex topic should go - and when I call up the file, I find that I already thought this through more than a dozen years ago, and came to the same conclusion. It's a funny feeling.

There's more to say, but that's enough navel-gazing for one night.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Defeating Necrophobia through a Dead Cow

Early in my Rhode Island years, I helped the chevra kadisha move the body of a young man who had passed away.

I’ve always had a death-phobia, but that was a particularly rattling experience for me; it reminded me that we don’t have 100% certainty about what occurs when we die. We have faith, but even the Torah’s pesukim don’t fully address our questions about what befalls both body and soul.

Of course, some people are congenitally immune to those fears, or have been exposed to death so often that they are desensitized, but many people share my reaction of a dozen years ago – death is fundamentally frightening. This is one of the reasons why the world has been so caught up in the recent death of the big ‘80s stars, first Farrah Fawcett and then Michael Jackson – the death of these people who were so vital and so much a part of public life - so recently a part of public life - is a scary reminder of our most basic questions about the invisible future.

In the Parah Adumah, though, I see a message for dealing with our death-induced fear.

The Parah Adumah (red heifer) is used in a ritual performed to purify people from contact with death. As we described it in this morning’s parshah, a red cow is killed, and then the carcass is incinerated. A small amount of the ash is then placed into specially prepared water, and that water is sprinkled on a person who is impure. This didn’t go on all the time, of course; the ash of the parah adumah lasts for generations, so that only nine parot adumot have been used in history.

This parah adumah is actually described twice in the Torah, in separate contexts:

• First: After the Jews crossed through Yam Suf, they traveled for three days without fresh water. Finally, they arrived at an oasis called Marah, only to find that the water was not potable. Frightened by their physical suffering they complained to Moshe, and Gd showed Moshe how to treat the water to make it sweet. Then, we are told, the Jews were taught חק ומשפט, which Rashi explains includes parah adumah, and so the parah adumah is eternally linked to the water of Marah.

• Second, this week, we learn the specific laws of the parah adumah, and here the sages link the parah adumah with the Cheit haEigel. When Moshe disappeared atop Har Sinai for nearly six weeks, the people feared that they had lost their Divine protection and they created an Eigel, a calf, as a substitute, treating it as a quasi-god. We use a cow for purification to counter that idolatrous calf.

In both of those cases, the message is that the Jews experienced fear of physical or spiritual death, and Gd was there for them – and their message is the message of the Parah Adumah as well.

Marah and the Eigel provide the two basic components of the Parah Adumah ritual: We take the ashes of a cow, reminiscent of the Eigel at Sinai, and we introduce them into water, reminiscent of the water at Marah. We then sprinkle them on the person who has been close to death to remind her that we have been close to physical and spiritual death in the past, as a nation, and Gd has saved us.

Indeed, the whole idea of using a dead cow to purify someone from death is inherently paradoxical, but perhaps that’s part of the message – that even when we are brought face-to-face with death, we can conquer this fear because Gd will be there for us.

Just as Gd told Yitzchak, “Don’t be afraid – I was with your ancestors, and I will be there for you as well”;

Just as Gd told Yaakov, “Don’t be afraid – I was with your ancestors, and I will be there for you as well”;

So Gd tells every one of us, in our moment of greatest despair and fear, “Don’t be afraid – I was with your ancestors, and I will be there for you as well.”

The Torah underscores this message by connecting it with Miriam, placing it right before her demise, because she faced down death with trust in Gd.

Miriam was all of six years old, apprentice to her mother as a midwife, when the Egyptian Pharaoh ordered the two of them to kill all of the Jewish baby boys. She and her mother overrode any fear of man, defied Pharaoh and saved the babies. And so the conclusion of Miriam’s story follows the Parah Adumah, a lesson for all of us in how to deal with our own fear of death.

Forty years ago this month, with the entire world of their day as well as future generations watching, three men conquered their fear of the unknown, landing on the Moon in the Apollo 11 mission. They used training and simulators to get rid of the unknown; as Buzz Aldrin wrote, “True fear is the fear of the unknown, and all our training had been geared towards eliminating the unknown as much as possible.”

But when a human being confronts death, he can’t eliminate the unknown; there is no ‘death simulator’ available. Nonetheless, the Parah Adumah’s message is that any of us can conquer our fear of the unknown by remembering that just as HaShem was at our side at the waters of Marah, and just as HaShem was present at Sinai, so HaShem will be with us now to help us along.

1. I am always loathe to suggest original ideas, and particularly regarding Parah Adumah, regarding which the sages teach that we cannot divine the explanation for some of its details. However, I base my comments on those of the sefer Or Avraham; he pointed out (based on the wording of a special tefillah for Parshat Parah) that Parah has the two elements of Marah and Eigel, and that the Eigel explanation is associated with Parshat Chukat but that other explanations would be necessary for Marah.

2. Of course, the gemara and most midrashim exclude parah adumah from Marah, offering other definitions of חק there, but parah adumah is the one that Rashi chooses to present.

3. I also wanted to do something with the ezov of korban pesach and tolaat shani of mishkan, but the erez is more problematic. Of course, the general bundle appears in taharat metzora.

4. Miriam is the Torah's icon of fearlessness in many more ways, but I left her larger story out lest it distract, and focussed specifically on the fear-of-death element.

5. Buzz Aldrin's comments are found