Monday, August 31, 2009

Learning a new nusach

Our Toronto beit midrash is housed in the Clanton Park shul, which davens a nusach that varies from my own.

[There are different versions - nuschaot - of traditional prayer, most popularly Nusach Ashkenaz, Sfard and Nusach Ari. The variations between them do not touch fundamental biblical obligations, but they do include variant texts of berachot, changes in the order of the introductory “psukei d'zimra” davening and the concluding parts of davening, and a couple of elements which exist in one version and not another.]

I enjoy aspects of using this new nusach. Saying “ויצמח פורקניה ויקרב משיחיה (May His redemption sprout forth, and may His messiah come soon)” in kaddish is a big plus for me, as is the Keter version of kedushah.

But I am having trouble with tachanun. Specifically, I am having trouble with viduy and with the yud-gimel midot harachamim [13 attributes of Divine mercy].

After the morning amidah, everyone immediately launches into viduy – Ashamnu, Bagadnu, Gazalnu – the paragraph of prayer with which we acknowledge our sins and apologize for them. But everyone says it so quickly! I'm used to saying this paragraph on fast days, and in the period leading up to Yom Kippur. I'm used to adding my personal foibles and contemplating each word, thinking through the things that I have done wrong or that I have not done right, but all around me people are klopping ashamnubagadnugazalnu and they're on the next paragraph before I've gotten anywhere. [I'm not the only one; I was in a meeting with a leading Toronto posek last week, and he complained about the same thing.]

Then, after speedreading viduy, they invoke the 13 attributes of Divine mercy that HaShem taught Moshe (Sh'mot 33). I can't keep up with that recitation, either; these represent the most intimate words uttered by HaShem to Moshe, פה אל פה, directly, a formula to be invoked when seeking Divine mercy throughout the generations – and I'm going to treat them like the fine-print legalese at the end of a car commercial?

I know that the people around me, who have been reciting these paragraphs daily for all of their halachic lives, are able to concentrate on them more concisely than I can. But I can't do it. Certainly, I could say the words as quickly as they do – but what would be the point?

So for now, I'll stand silently and wait while they say these tefillot. And I'll look forward to kaddish, and answering Amen to ויצמח פורקניה ויקרב משיחיה.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

How do you choose a minyan?

[Haveil Havalim is here!]

I’ve never had to choose a minyan; as a child I davened in my parents’ shul of choice, then I moved to a teen minyan, and upon reaching independent adulthood I became rabbi of a shul. There was never any question of where I would daven.

Now, I have the new experience of selecting a minyan for my family. Main minyan, family minyanim, shul and breakaway and shteibel, all is open before us. Which do we choose?

We’ve tried two minyanim already. We’ve discovered that we value a shorter walk, and sitting at tables rather than chairs. My kids feel more at home with Nusach Ashkenaz, although I enjoy aspects of Nusach Sfard. We want a minyan with minimal talking, a focus on kavvanah, and the presence of young children.

In particular, we want to daven with people whose davening priorities match our own, so that the davening experience is what we need for ourselves and our kids.

Illustration: Some time back, on a Shabbat when I was away from Allentown, I davened in a minyan that took the tefillah for the State of Israel very seriously. I noticed a man compel his kids to stand ramrod straight and recite the tefillah with him. Then, for Ashrei, he let them run around while he schmoozed with the fellow beside him.

That’s an example of what’s not for me. I say the tefillah for the State of Israel – but I also believe in the rest of the davening.

But it’s about more than just talking; it’s the feel of the shul, the experience as a whole. It’s about the way people approach davening, a sense that emerges from many factors, such as:

• How does the shul look during chazarat hashatz – are people staring off into space, singing along, reading parshah sheets?
• Do people come on time, or at some reasonable semblance of on time, or at 10:45 AM?
• Is the pace dictated by kiddush, or by leisure, or by kavvanah?

And so on.

In Allentown we valued the fact that we had a relatively quiet, davening-focused minyan, with people who genuinely liked each other, a good pace of davening, and a derashah I enjoyed. If I could find another Allentown here, that would be great.

The two minyanim we’ve already tried have their plusses, but we intend to try more in order to experience the scope of what’s available before settling down.

I wouldn’t want to find something that was exactly what we wanted – we can all use broadening – but, hopefully, it will be a minyan that helps us achieve the positive davening experience we want for ourselves and our children.

So here's my question for you: How do you choose a minyan?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The rabbi is a politician

My decrease in blogging frequency is mostly a function of the time I am now devoting to getting our new beit midrash off the ground, but there is also another factor: Many of the issues on my mind are political in nature, and not suitable for publication.

Political intrigue is the price of working with people, and, certainly, in starting any new organization you must deal with people and their political issues. Courses of action must be weighed in terms of cost/benefit, in terms of impact, in terms of existing programs and in terms of existing standards, to avoid causing more harm than good. Sometimes you change your approach, your style, even your agenda, in order to be politically sensitive.

I know people who claim to be “above” all of this, as though political involvement was some kind of dirty, unseemly, underground and underhanded impropriety. Oh, no, the rabbi is involved in politics! And he admitted it! On a blog, for all the world to see!

But from a Torah-based perspective, political involvement is a tool which can serve the highest social goals of Judaism. Politics is simply an approach to achieving success in basic bein adam lachaveiro (social interaction).

Politics help achieve shalom bayit; we are required to be sensitive to the concerns of the people around us, and to the balance of shalom.

Politics help achieve tovat haklal (the good of the community), pursuing more than our own narrow agenda.

Politics help achieve hakarat hatov, recognizing the good done for us by others.

A Jew who looks down on politics and (gasp!) compromise is ignoring the lessons of Tanach and Chazal, whether from Sarah and Pharoah or Avraham's interactions with the Chiti or Rivkah and Lavan or Yitzchak and Grar or Rachel and Leah or Yaakov and Shechem (pre-Dinah)or Yosef and pretty much everyone, etc.

There are times, of course, when politics, like any tool, are cheapened. In particular, politics can be tainted by selfish pride, the desire to be everyone's best friend, which can lead to a sacrifice of all things ethical as well as sane. As a once-favorite Everclear song of mine goes, many people want to be everything to everyone. Rabbis are particularly vulnerable to this, because the price of not being everything to everyone can be high.

But to return to my starting point: Politics are part of the order of my day now (yes, more so than when I was rav of a shul), and even though it's an honorable pursuit, the details not for blog-posting. So I'll post more when I have something mutar to report.

Monday, August 24, 2009

My Inspiration

I won't deny that starting a new beit midrash is somewhat frightening. Although I am working with great people all around, the idea of moving to a new country, leaving my shul-rabbinate comfort zone, venturing into a community with greater sophistication than any I have served before, etc, is scary. I have wondered, off and on, whether I'm in over my head.

Two weeks ago, though, in packing up sefarim, I came across a document I had long forgotten. It's a paper my parents saved from my freshman year in high school - my "Jewish Studies Department" report card, filled out by my rebbe, Rabbi Yitzchok Cohen.

I've already discussed part of Rabbi Cohen's impact on me, in this post. But here's more of it.

(First, a tangential note: Where he was to fill in his name, Rabbi Cohen crossed out "Rabbi" and just filled in "Yitzchok Cohen." I love that.)

Talmud - 90 Dinim - 82 Chumash - 80 Average - 88

Bechinah [test]
Gemara - 84 Dinim - 70 Chumash - 76

Behavior - Gem of a boy. Class participation - Good at times

Okay, so I wasn't exactly top of the shiur. But the really good part is in the "Rebbi's Comments" section:

מרדכי נ"י is very interested in learning and yet doesn't know the gemara well enough. He is somewhat confused. מרדכי needs a chavruta at nights. There is no need why מרדכי shouldn't do better on chumash and mishnayot tests. מרדכי is not working as hard as he could. A boy who is blessed with a good mind and loves learning and most of all is sincere and pure. I expect much more from him. 'בעזרת ה there will be improvement. מרדכי has all the makings in becoming a true תלמיד חכם and ירא שמים (Gd-fearing person).

Now, that was a rebbe. I don't know about the sincere, pure, gem parts - maybe it was a way to soften the blow for my parents - but regarding the rest, my rebbe was straight on.

"doesn't know the gemara well enough"
"needs a chavruta"
"no reason why מרדכי shouldn't do better"
"not working as hard as he could"

All true.

So now I look back at that report, remember what life in the shiur that year was like and what has happened since, and know that if Gd could bring me all this way, then anything is, indeed, possible.

I need to get that paper framed.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

My First Shabbos Off, and a note on the famous fishbowl

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here!]

Sorry I’ve been neglecting this blog, but my schedule has gone completely upside-down, particularly regarding computer access.

As a shul rabbi I was on-call all the time, and the position certainly required all of my time and then some, but after several years I knew the rhythm well enough to be able to pull aside time for various pursuits. Here, my schedule is entirely off-kilter. More, I had a fixed office with a computer and an internet connection. Here, in this initial stage of moving in, and with our beis medrash space under renovation, everything has been fluid. I suspect this state will continue for some time.

In any case: This was my first Shabbos as a non-rabbi – a civilian! – in over a dozen years.

It was a very odd feeling, preparing for Shabbos without having all of the rabbinic layers on my mind - thinking about who would be around, who would not be around, the kiddush and the eruv (with a tornado here on Thursday!) and the classes and the derashah and the leining and the hospitalizations, etc. I actually found a solid hour before Shabbos to work on unpacking boxes!

I davened with my kids Shabbos morning, and was able to devote more attention to them. I missed leining, but the baal keriah was all right. And my own shemoneh esreih was not interrupted by thoughts of who was/wasn’t there, who I would need to buttonhole at kiddush, what I would need to remember for after shabbos, etc.

Yes, a guy could really get used to this.

In truth, I wasn’t entirely off-duty. I was asked to give a shiur on Shabbos afternoon, and I'm grateful to have had the opportunity; without it, I would not have known what to do with myself.

The shiur itself ended up being a lot of fun; I had one idea, I prepared it and made up source sheets (Mitzvas hamelech, mishpetei meluchah and Elul), and then I woke up Shabbos morning with an entirely different idea (eglah arufah and individual responsibility for others' bad decisions) and went with that. I haven’t done that with a shiur more than a handful of times, if ever; I usually like to stick with my notes and source sheets. But this proved to be a very interesting idea, and I’m glad I improvised.

One last item of note: The famous Fishbowl.

Someone commented to me during shabbos about the fishbowl of working for the Jewish community, the way many people will analyze your words, your clothing, your manner, and find fault in whatever they don’t like and discuss it with their hundred closest friends.

I am glad to say that I really haven’t been bothered by this over the years. Part of that is because Rhode Island and Allentown were more merciful than other communities, but in large part it’s just that I don’t resent the pains I need to take for the sake of community. If I need to watch my words, or calculate carefully before wearing something or going somewhere, that’s part of the price of success.

Further, the fishbowl of the communal professional is not that different from the fishbowl of other jobs; only the scope is different:
If you want to teach schoolchildren, you need to be very careful about how you express yourself in the classroom and with parents.
If you want to deal with business clients, you need to be very careful about how you express yourself in meetings and communications.
And if you want to work for a community you need to be very careful about how you express yourself within that community, whether “on-duty” or “off-duty.”

Is it fair? I don’t know, but why does that matter?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Scenes from a move to Toronto

Two hours to Binghamton on Tuesday
Overnight at a hotel outside Binghamton
Almost five hours, including three rest stops, to reach the Canadian border
Ninety minutes at Immigration while they processed paperwork for us
Another almost two hours to reach our new home in Toronto
And we’re here, thank Gd, with a roof over our heads, a phone and an Internet connection, and plumbing that will work really soon, I’m told.
And we said tefillat haderech this time, I’m glad to say.

Unfortunately, I completely forgot that I had purchased French-lesson CDs for the car ride; they were buried under tefillin, Boost, a davening jacket, sefarim and computer equipment on the front side of my car. So some of the culture upgrade will need to hold off.

Still, along the way we discovered new cultural heights in our children’s education:

Parent: Yes, they say Zed instead of Z in Canada.
Child: That means our name will sound even funnier in Canada… Torch-zed-iner?

Parent: Did you know it was 400 miles from Allentown in Pennsylvania to Wiliam Allen Road in Toronto?
Child: Abba, that can’t be!
Parent: What do you mean?
Child: They switched to kilometers in the middle!

Child, pointing to bilingual sign in the Immigration office: I know that the one that starts with “Le” is in Canadian.

Despite the lack of French CDs, I did have plenty to ponder en route.

I've been mulling Hosheia (Hosea); I expect to start a series on Trei Asar after Succot, starting from the top with that oft-neglected navi (prophet). I think people see the whole Gomer bat Divlayim sequence and get scared off, but it's a book of fascinating depth, particularly in its observations on relationships - Spouses, Parents/Children, Leaders/Followers, Gd/Nation.

There is parental mercy on children, and parental cruelty toward children.

There are expectations and betrayal, and the question of who apologizes first.

And on that theme of apologies - What constitutes true repentance?

Korbanot fit in, as well - what constitutes a proper gift?

And beneath it all - May we truly compare our relationship with Gd to a human relationship, or is that all just over-simplified metaphor?

Yes, this should be very interesting.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Happy Anniversary, Rebbetzin!

Yes, it’s our 12th anniversary today.

Odd, the way calendars work out; we moved to Allentown on my rebbetzin’s birthday, and now we’re moving to Toronto on our anniversary. (And she says we never do anything for our special occasions…)

I would love to spend this post talking about the Rebbetzin, but one of the bedrock rules of my blog is that the Rebbetzin does not like the spotlight.

So, instead, let’s talk marriage.

Marriage is, to my mind, a most an unnatural institution: Two people of different backgrounds/experiences/worldviews yoke themselves to each other for life. What kind of an idea is that?! But it’s the Torah’s model:

At a wedding we invoke the image of Adam and Chavah in Gan Eden. Even in that original union of the only man and woman on earth, there was such disparity of background. Adam was crafted by Gd from nothing, and knew sole possession of the world around him before Chavah entered the picture; Chavah was originally part of Adam’s body, and never knew a world in which she was not a part of Adam.

Move ahead to Yitzchak and Rivkah. Yitzchak comes from the home of Avraham and Sarah and Canaan; Rivkah is a product of Lavan and Aram.

How about Moshe and Tzipporah? Egypt vs. Midian, Amram/Yocheved vs. Yitro Kohen Midian? A boy raised in the palace of Paroh marries a girl raised as one of seven shepherdesses?

And so on. There’s much more we could say (were I not moving today!), but I think the point is clear: The Torah presents several examples of men and women from diverse backgrounds joining to create a marriage.

Two people agree in principle to work together, to consider each other’s wants and needs as equal (if not superior) to their own, and, Gd-willing, to bring new lives into this world, the most serious of enterprises, in tandem with someone who sees the world through different lenses.

This is not only about marriage; it's a broader theme, partnership with someone of a different nature and a different outlook to achieve a great goal:
It’s aged Yocheved and young Miriam saving Jewish babies in Egypt.
It’s Moshe and Aharon leading the Jews through the desert.
It’s Betzalel of Yehudah and Ahaliav of Dan crafting the mishkan.

This bonding of diverse personalites doesn’t always work out well, of course, but for me it has been earth-shatteringly wonderful, life-changing in so many ways. I think back to the person I was before the Rebbetzin – my life in yeshiva, my approach to relationships, my dating career - and it’s hard for me to believe the difference between me and that somewhat-embarrassing person I once was. I’ve learned a lot about living, relating, and learning from this incredible woman who agreed, for reasons unknown, to marry me.

I thank Gd regularly for matching me with the woman who made me the person I am now. Happy anniversary, Rebbetzin!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Light material on packing, heavier material on viduy

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here.]

Trying to fit the last items (90% of everything we have ever owned, but those are still the "last" items...) into boxes today.

True scene from packing-
The Rebbetzin: Are all of these suits being packed?
Me: All except the ugly one.
The Rebbetzin: Which one is that?

And then, this morning’s ScienceDaily email brought a link to an interesting packing article:

World Record In Packing Puzzle Set In Tetrahedra Jam: Better Understanding Of Matter Itself?

ScienceDaily (Aug. 15, 2009) — Finding the best way to pack the greatest quantity of a specifically shaped object into a confined space may sound simple, yet it consistently has led to deep mathematical concepts and practical applications, such as improved computer security codes.

When mathematicians solved a famed sphere-packing problem in 2005, one that first had been posed by renowned mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler in 1611, it made worldwide headlines.

Now, two Princeton University researchers have made a major advance in addressing a twist in the packing problem, jamming more tetrahedra -- solid figures with four triangular faces -- and other polyhedral solid objects than ever before into a space. The work could result in better ways to store data on compact discs as well as a better understanding of matter itself…

…Not to mention, it would really help the Torczyner clan figure out how to pack all of our sefarim, tools, computer gear and toys into these boxes…

But this post will not be entirely devoid of Torah. I’ve been mulling a conflict between the Rambam and the Sefer Chasidim regarding Viduy, our verbal acknowledgment of sin on Yom Kippur:

As the Rambam writes in the beginning of Hilchot Teshuvah (Laws of Repentance), we are instructed to acknowledge our sins to Gd. This mitzvah is called Viduy. The Rambam writes:
כל מצות שבתורה בין עשה בין לא תעשה אם עבר אדם על אחת מהן בין בזדון בין בשגגה כשיעשה תשובה וישוב מחטאו חייב להתודות לפני האל ברוך הוא שנאמר איש או אשה כי יעשו וגו' והתודו את חטאתם אשר עשו זה וידוי דברים, וידוי זה מצות עשה, כיצד מתודין אומר אנא השם חטאתי עויתי פשעתי לפניך ועשיתי כך וכך והרי נחמתי ובושתי במעשי ולעולם איני חוזר לדבר זה, וזהו עיקרו של וידוי, וכל המרבה להתודות ומאריך בענין זה הרי זה משובח

The Sefer Chasidim (#20) seems to agree with this definition of Viduy, citing the Rambam with only marginal difference:
כל מצוה שבתורה בין עשה בין ל"ת אם יעבור אדם על אחד מהם בין בשוגג בין בזדון כשיעשה תשובה וישוב מחטאיו חייב להתודאות לפני האלהים יתעלה שמו שנאמר איש או אשה (אשר) [כי] יעשו מכל [וגומ'] והתודו את חטאתם זה וידוי דברים ובה מ"ע. כיצד מתודה אומר אנא ה' חטאתי עויתי פשעתי לפניך כך וכך עשיתי והרי נחמתי ובשתי במעשי ולעולם איני חוזר לדבר זה. וזה עיקרו של וידוי. וכל המרבה להתודאות והאריך בענין הרי זה משובח.

However, the Rambam and Sefer Chasidim disagree regarding a key issue: If I acknowledged a specific sin last Yom Kippur, and I have not repeated it, do I need to include it in this year’s viduy?

This is subject to a talmudic debate among tannaim [sages of the mishnaic era] (Yoma 86b):
תנו רבנן: עבירות שהתודה עליהן יום הכפורים זה - לא יתודה עליהן יום הכפורים אחר, ואם שנה בהן - צריך להתודות יום הכפורים אחר, ואם לא שנה בהן וחזר והתודה עליהן - עליו הכתוב אומר ככלב שב על קאו כסיל שונה באולתו. רבי אליעזר בן יעקב אומר: כל שכן שהוא משובח, שנאמר כי פשעי אני אדע וחטאתי נגדי תמיד. אלא מה אני מקיים ככלב שב על קאו וגו' - כדרב הונא, דאמר רב הונא: כיון שעבר אדם עבירה ושנה בה - הותרה לו. - הותרה לו סלקא דעתך? אלא אימא: נעשית לו כהיתר.

The anonymous initial view in this debate is that one should not re-acknowledge the sin in the following year, and that one who does so is like a dog sitting in his own vomit.
Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov disagrees, saying it is praiseworthy to re-acknowledge the sin, for this behavior displays an awareness of the foul nature of the sin.

So along comes the Rambam (Hilchot Teshuvah 2:8), and he agrees with Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov:
עבירות שהתודה עליהם ביום הכפורים זה חוזר ומתודה עליהן ביום הכפורים אחר אע"פ ו שהוא עומד בתשובתו שנאמר כי פשעי אני אדע וחטאתי נגדי תמיד.

But the Sefer Chasidim (#621), who cited the Rambam’s definition of repentance and who generally agrees with the Rambam, follows the initial view from that debate:

אדם שהתודה ביוה"כ הזה על עונו לא יתודה ליוה"כ אחר אותם עונות שלא יהא ככלב שב על קיאו (כן) כסיל שונה באולתו ולר' אלעזר בן יעקב מותר להתודאות שנאמר כי פשעי אני אדע וחטאתי נגדי תמיד ואם שאר ימים יתודה בשנה הוא מתודה על כל עונותיו כדי שיתחרט כשיזכיר עונותיו וידאב לבו לשמים ותמיד יתחרט על עונותיו כי מפני שזוכר עונותיו ישים תשובה בלבו וכל זה אינו ככלב שב על קיאו.

To be sure, Sefer Chasidim does cite the view of R’ Eliezer ben Yaakov, and he does permit [if not encourage] year-round viduy for old sins in order for one to remember and regret his sin – but not on Yom Kippur.

So here’s my question: Why is there a debate between R’ Eliezer ben Yaakov and an anonymous sage regarding re-acknolwedging old sins? And why does Rambam side with R’ Eliezer ben Yaakov, while the anonymous sage does not?

[Note: Hebrew citations here are courtesy of the Bar Ilan CD-ROM; too busy to re-type them myself today.]

Back to the boxes…

Friday, August 14, 2009

I am my money

[For those who came looking for my post from last night: Sorry, but I took it down. The post was too simplistic for the idea I wanted to convey. Perhaps I will re-visit the topic at some point.]

The gemara [Gittin 57a] tells of an anonymous matron from the house of Boethus [see Marta bat Baytus here] who lived during the Roman siege of Yerushalayim. She sent her servant to the market for fine flour, but it was sold out before he arrived. He was not a terribly independent thinker, and he returned home for guidance on purchasing flour of a poorer quality. The matron sent him back for the cheaper flour, but, once again, it was sold out by the time he arrived. Again, he returned home for guidance.

This scene went through four iterations, the servant going for four different types of flour and, each time, returning empty-handed. [Maharsha suggests a link to the four types of flour-offerings brought in the beit hamikdash.]

Finally, the matron goes out to the streets herself, experiences something that is a shock to her pampered system (see the gemara there), and dies. During her pre-death shock, she throws her gold and silver into the streets, declaring, “What use is this to me?”

That story has always bothered me:

• First, was this servant truly so dull-witted that he didn’t realize he should purchase the best remaining flour, rather than go home to consult?

• And second, while the emotional aspect of the matron throwing her money into the street is clear, is there a deeper message? The gemara there connects it to Yechezkel's prediction [Yechezkel 7] that the Jews would throw their gold and silver into the streets; perhaps there is a deeper message involved?

Two stories of my own:

• I was recently cheated of some funds. I got over the loss quickly, but I remained troubled by what this told me about the person's personality.

• A while back, someone offered me money as a gift, for something I had done. I declined to take it for myself, and this person was upset.

These events, and similar ones, set me thinking about what money means to us, beyond the ability to purchase our (perceived) needs.

It seems to me that money is often our interface with the world; whether in coins or bills or barter, it is the “currency” of our relationships:

• What we do with money displays our values;
• The way we share or use our money shapes our relationships;
• Our financial decisions are key ways we exercise control over our world;
• Our spending shapes our commitments to others;
• And so on.

There is much more to say here, many sources could be invoked, etc., but it’s a blog post, not a derashah. [No derashah to write this week! What an odd feeling.] Bottom line: Our use of money, like our facial expression or our speech, is a key interface between us and the world, a statement of our identity.

This may be Yechezkel's message of people casting money into the streets; more than a statement that money is worthless during a famine, it’s a statement that their entire persons are gone, their identity is gone.

And perhaps that’s why the matron’s servant couldn’t act on his own: He feared misrepresenting his boss in public, lest her man be seen purchasing sub-quality produce.

Of course, since this week is Parshat Reeh, the message does tie into tzedakah as presented in Devarim 15:7-11. If our spending is an expression of our identity, then surely tzedakah is a way for us to express that finest element of our personalities…

Okay, fill in your own derashah and closer here; I told you, this is a blog post, not a derashah.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Is Gd my concierge?

I have often wondered about our Mi sheBeirach l'cholim, the prayer we recite for people who are ill. Why do we mention specific people?

We enumerate the names of רחמנא ליצלן relatives, friends, people whose condition is made known to us via email, etc. And then, we add a catch-all בתוך שאר חולי ישראל, asking Gd to heal them along with all of the others who need healing. So why do we first enumerate “our own” people?

The question becomes particularly relevant when shuls try to figure out a way to handle their ever-growing lists of people who are ill. The lists grow, the lines up to the bimah grow, the crowd gets restless... so some shuls tell people to say the names privately while the gabbai pauses, others ask for names to be submitted in advance, and so on – but why name names at all?

We find a similar idea in the gemara at the end of Taanit, in which shifts of pray-ers (אנשי מעמד) prayed on different days for specific groups of people, such as sailors. Why not pray for everyone?

For that matter, why enumerate our requests in the amidah – why not just ask Gd to provide us with everything we want/need? (And if one will say we don't know what's best for us, the prayers we do recite do not avoid that problem!)

One might suggest that the point is for the davener – we concentrate more intensely when we think about the needs of a specific person, or about our own spelled-out desires.

But the other day I saw a comment by Tosafot (Bava Metzia 106a “l'nisa”) presenting a different view. Tosafot said that Gd is more likely to respond to a farmer who says, “Please help my wheat grow well” than to a farmer who says, “Please help everything I do.”

Regarding the general request he says דבסתמא לא היה מקבל הקב"ה תפלתו של זה שיצליח כל מה שיזרע אם לא שיעשה לו נס, but regarding a specific request he is willing to apply ותגזר אומר ויקם לך.

From the language of Tosafot, it seems to me that there is an issue of being too demanding, too taking-it-for-a-given, too mechutzaf, too treating Gd as a concierge at our beck and call. To say “Take care of all of this” is to display a cavalier attitude toward the help we are getting. Better to be specific, to note all of the specific ways in which Gd helps us.

In a sense, it's the converse of Dayyenu. Just as thanks must be specific, highlighting each element of assistance, so the request itself should show respect for the favors we are receiving.

Just a thought.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Have Yad, Will Travel

I was taught to lein (read publicly from the torah) by one of the finest baalei keriah (Torah readers) I have ever heard, and the ability has served me very well, in many ways, over the years since.

When I was in RIETS, I spent a year as baal keriah for Young Israel of Massapequa, a small shul on Long Island. I lived in the shul (it was a converted home) every other Shabbat, leined, taught a class on Shabbat afternoons, and had a great time. It was a warm community of great people (and it didn't hurt that they paid well).

Move ahead a few years and I was ready to look for a shul. My soon-to-be Rebbetzin was in school in Boston, so we needed a shul in the general vicinity – and we found, through a family friend, Congregation Ohawe Sholam (yes, that's the way it's spelled), the Young Israel of Pawtucket, Rhode Island. They needed a rabbi as well as a baal keriah, and I fit the bill. It was a great match; what a fantastic community. I also learned “the signs” there – a code of hand-gestures a gabbai could use to lead a baal keriah with decent peripheral vision. I wasn't a believer in the signs until the day I had to take over at the second aliyah of Vayyakhel-Pekudei, without preparation, and was able to complete it on the strength of those signs.

Fast-forward four years and we moved to Allentown, where, again, the shul needed both rabbi and baal keriah. I nearly didn't get the job – the other candidate was more charismatic, as I recall – but my leining definitely helped. I taught a series of gabbaim those signs, just to be on the safe side. The result was a wonderful eight years.

Jump ahead eight-plus years, to this morning. I'm in Toronto for a few days of meetings, and nervously mulling the fact that the community is so large that people can get by without being actively involved in leading its institutions. Certainly, people can always help other people, and can find roles to play when they wish, and Toronto is known for its activism, but if people aren't sought out, how many just fall through the communal cracks, going through life without becoming involved in making thing happen? This bothers me; I don't feel comfortable in that kind of environment. After the past 12 years, I feel at home in a community of people who are taking their time to make things happen, whether school or shul, eruv or Federation or mikveh or JCC or vaad hakashrut.

So this morning, as I'm finishing putting on tefillin at the 7:30 minyan (what a luxury – a 7:30 weekday minyan!), a gabbai from an earlier minyan comes by looking for a baal keriah. I volunteered, and “got the job.” I had a chance to help. Just three quick aliyot, but it made my morning and set a good tone for the day.

It was a tiny thing, but it was a way to see that, yes, even in mighty Toronto they come looking for you to help. And if you know how to handle a Yad, you'll be able to respond.

Saturday, August 8, 2009


Today was the day of The Last Derashah, my last Shabbat as rabbi here in Allentown.

I opted not to post that derashah on the blog, for two reasons:
1) It didn’t have that strong a dvar torah component, and
2) It was really more of a love letter to my shul and community, an intimacy meant for the people I’ve been with for the past eight years. This blog is great, and I feel an attachment to my readers, but that’s nothing like the intensity of rabbi/congregant, rabbi/colleague, rabbi/friend.

Now, in retrospect, I can add a third reason for not publishing today’s speech: It was entirely too self-referential.

I talked about friendships and relationships, about minyannaires and daf yomi, about accomplishments and projects left incomplete, about committees and advisors and presidents, and about my children (and, of course, my inestimable Rebbitzen). And a lot of the sentences, way too many of the sentences, began with the personal pronoun.

I. I. Me. I. I. Me. And so on.

It didn’t sound that bad when I prepared the derashah, but standing there delivering it – largely because I ad-libbed large sections on things that occurred to me as I was speaking, a practice I avoid like the proverbial plague in a normal derashah – it was just entirely too much about me, my experiences, my views, my disappointments, my friends, my my my my my. So that’s another reason to leave it off of this blog.

I wasn’t really trying to make a lot out of myself; the speech wasn’t about trying to grab the spotlight. But I worry that others might have seen it that way. It reminded me of the older yeshiva guy who took me aside during Simchat Torah hakafot twenty years ago and told me, “You don’t always need to be in the middle.” I wasn’t trying to be in the middle, I was just having fun – but it stung then, and it has stayed with me. Don’t let yourself appear to be hogging the spotlight.

This is one of the funny things about the rabbinate, though; a rabbi must be humble and cannot seek to appease his ego, but you can’t be an effective rabbi if you are afraid of the appearance of spotlight-hogging. I do believe that the best rabbi-ing is done behind the scenes, but you lead the community charge on certain issues, you teach classes, you are, like it or not, a דוגמא אישית (role model), and you get up and speak to a captive audience every week.

So perhaps people already thought I was egocentric, and today’s speech just burnished that reputation. Don’t know; it’s time to focus on the big move. And along those lines, here’s a paraphrase of a hope-oriented midrash I cited in closing, from Bereishit Rabbah 30:

Rabbi Shemuel [bar Nachmeni?] taught a lesson about five people from Tanach-

• Regarding Noach… we learn that even millstones were eroded in the water of the flood, but then it says, ‘These are the children of Noach who left the ark.’ How did they make it? ראה עולם חדש, they saw the possibility of a new world.

• Regarding Yosef it first said, ‘They tortured his foot in chains,’ but then it says, ‘And Yosef became the viceroy.’ How did he make it? ראה עולם חדש, he saw the possibility of a new world.

• Regarding Moshe, first he fled from before Paroh and then he drowned Paroh in the sea! How did he make it? ראה עולם חדש, he saw the possibility of a new world.

• Iyyov first said, ‘I spill my bile earthward,’ and then it says, ‘And Gd added double for Iyyov.’ How did he make it? ראה עולם חדש, he saw the possibility of a new world.

• Regarding Mordechai , at first he was destined for hanging, and then he hung those who would have hung him. How did he make it? ראה עולם חדש, he saw the possibility of a new world.

ראה עולם חדש, they saw the possibility of a new world. If I can envision a new world, I can make it through to the other side of anything.

(The new Haveil Havalim is here!)

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Rabbi's Job Description

I mentioned here that I once surveyed my board, to get a better handle on their view of the rabbi's job description.

In that survey, I submitted sixteen scenarios, taken from eight different areas of rabbinic work, and asked them to answer (a) whether these were items for the rabbi to handle, and (b) how high a priority these should be for the rabbi, on a scale of 1 to 10.

I found the results very useful, and not entirely what I had expected. (To honor confidentiality, I will not discuss the actual results here. Sorry.)

In retrospect, I would do two things differently:
1) Poll the whole shul as well;
2) Change the ranking to 1-5 instead of 1-10; I find that people do better with 1-5.

Here are the scenarios:

Halachic Authority
Offering religious guidance on when to recite certain prayers or blessings
Handling kashrut questions

Addressing ideas for making the shul davening more inspirational
Helping plan and organize ritual celebrations

Implementing programs for communal and individual study
Making sure the library is an up-to-date, well-stocked resource

Advising on ways to relate to a lesbian daughter
Providing marital counseling

Making sure members know the shul is “there for them” and responsive to them
Providing short-term assistance in a financial crisis

Program Coordinator
Drafting a flyer publicizing a shul event
Recruiting people for a shul program

Community Representative
Writing a column on a Jewish theme for the local newspaper
Serving as the Jewish representative on the board of the local hospice

Building manager
Adjusting the heat or A/C for the morning minyan
Making sure the synagogue building is open for a program

Take the survey; I'd love to see what you - and your shul board - do with it...

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Beit Midrash vs. Shul, Theory vs. Practice

The other day I was reminded of the difference between the beit midrash and the shul. It was an amusing reminder, and it made me think about my current transition from shul back to beit midrash.

After Shacharit I presented a technical halachah related to HaMotzi (the blessing recited before eating bread). If you are allergic to technical halachah, you might want to skip the next three paragraphs.

I pointed out two competing imperatives: We want to minimize the interruption between reciting HaMotzi and eating the bread, but we also want to recite the berachah upon a whole loaf, if possible, to show respect for the berachah. So when do we actually cut the bread?

Early sources, such as the Rosh, felt that cutting the bread does not constitute a significant interruption. Others agree, particularly with thin-crusted bread like ours. Nonetheless, some suggest one should satisfy the “interruption” concern by starting to cut the bread - without cutting too deeply - before reciting HaMotzi.

The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 167:1) records this as the recommended practice, but the Rama notes that one should not do this on Shabbat. On Shabbat we are especially concerned about using two whole loaves (memorial for the manna, and more) and about avoiding any damage to those loaves, so we don’t cut the loaf at all before the berachah. The Mishneh Berurah supports this as well.

Fine, a straightforward after-davening halachah to start the day.

But that day we had a group from Baltimore visiting the area, and a young man, perhaps late high school at Ner, mentioned politely that he had seen a sefer suggesting cutting the bread before HaMotzi on Shabbat as well. He couldn’t remember the source, but someone had showed it to him.

I took a few minutes to do some superficial looking, and found nothing in the standard halachah sefarim – Rosh, Tur and Beit Yosef, Aruch haShulchan, even Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, all seem to agree with what the Rama presents. Some (Aruch haShulchan, Darkei Moshe from the Mordechai in Eruvin*) note that cutting on Shabbat like the weekday isn’t a disaster, but no one specifically recommends cutting before HaMotzi on Shabbat.

I am certain that the young man did have a source (and yes, I asked him to contact me if he were to find it). For every halachah, there is always a rishon (early source) somewhere, or certainly an acharon (later authority) somewhere, with a reason to disagree with the mass of halachic authorities. Sometimes the disagreement is because of lomdut (deep analysis), sometimes it’s because of an exotic source, sometimes it’s because of an overall shitah (thematic approach) or shikul hadaat (weighing opposing considerations and coming up with a conclusion). But there’s always someone, on every issue, who will go against the status quo.

When I was in beit midrash, I – like many others – was always concerned about these dissident views. I would learn them, enjoy them, and look for ways to accommodate them. For example: At the seder I preferred the haggadah that had unique ways for covering and uncovering, picking up and putting down, ordering the hallel and its berachah, etc.

But a shul rabbi’s presentation of halachah is a different story; a shul rabbi must offer rulings that are clear, that are grounded in mainstream sources rather than unique points of view, and that are practical for the hamon am (general population). Lomdut is saved for shiurim, and kept out of psak. I feel that to do otherwise is irresponsible and irrational, and erodes people’s trust in the rabbinate.

So in a two-minute halachic lesson after davening, or in addressing a shailah, I generally go with straight mishneh berurah. I may note dissident views occasionally, but not to provide a recommended practice.

To return to my opening paragraph: Now that I am transitioning out of the pulpit and into more of a beit midrash role, but still actively teaching in the community, I suppose I will find myself straddling these two worlds. Should be fun.

*Note that the Mordechai doesn't quite say this. The Mordechai says that bread which has been partially cut still qualifies for lechem mishnah. He does not discuss preferences for HaMotzi. But the implication is what the Darkei Moshe is using.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Tu b'Av - The Fifteenth of Av

We are taught that Tu b’Av - the fifteenth day of the month of Av on our calendar - is one of the two greatest days on the Jewish calendar, sharing the title with Yom Kippur. Tu b'Av is celebrated tonight and tomorrow, August 4-5 of this year.

For last year's Tu b'Av Haveil Havalim, I offered a digest of the gemara's explanations (Taanit 30b-31a) for why Tu b'Av is a Jewish holiday.

Here is that information again, with a couple of added notes interspersed:

1. On Tu b’Av, the die-off of the Desert Generation stopped, so that the remaining Jewish nation knew they would enter Israel, and so that Gd again spoke to Moshe (Devarim 2:16-17).

Note, as well, that Tosafot (Bava Batra 121a) offers an alternative explanation of the "end of the die-off" and its association with Gd speaking to Moshe again:

Tosafot notes that a shivah observance beginning on Tisha b'Av would end on Tu b'Av. Gd would not speak to Moshe during a period of mourning, since we are taught that one cannot experience prophecy when he is depressed (Shabbat 30b) - so Gd would only have spoken to Moshe after the end of the shivah period.

2. On Tu b’Av, the Civil War between Binyamin and the rest of the Jews (see the end of the book of Shoftim) stopped.

3. When Moshe announced that Israel’s land would be divided among patrilineally determined tribes, and that men would inherit land, Machlah, Noah, Chaglah, Milkah and Tirtzah requested the power to inherit their deceased father Tzelafchad’s portions. This was granted to them, but among the consequences was a decree that women who inherited land would need to marry within their tribes, guaranteeing that when their sons inherited their land, it would remain within the tribe. This decree was lifted, broadening marriage options and gladdening shadchanim everywhere, on Tu b’Av.

4. After the Bar Kochba revolt was smashed by the Romans in 135 CE, the victors refused to allow us to bury our dead. Years later - on Tu b’Av - the Romans pioneered the now-routine practice of returning murdered Jews, and permitted us to bury them.

5. When the Northern Kingdom of Yisrael split off from the Southern Kingdom of Yehudah, Yeravam, leader of the north, set up roadblocks to keep Jews from the north away from Yerushalayim and the Beit haMikdash. Those roadblocks were removed, generations later - on Tu b’Av.

6. Tu b’Av, coming midway through the summer heat, is when we finish cutting wood for the korbanot of the Beit haMikdash, and so it is a day of siyyum, celebrating completion of this great mitzvah.
Note that according to some authorities, this is the origin of the practice of celebrating completion of a portion of Torah with a siyyum.

7. Tu b’Av comes at around the time when the nights begin to lengthen and the days begin to shorten (not precisely, of course, since Tu b’Av is a lunar date!). From this point on, then, we have less time to work in the fields, but more time to study Torah at night.

ט"ו שמח! Happy Tu!

Monday, August 3, 2009

My first JACS meeting

I went to my first JACS (Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons, and Significant Others) meeting Sunday evening. I’ve counseled addicts before, I’ve read up on addiction, but I’d never been to a JACS meeting.

I won't discuss the meeting, of course; anonymity is a core principle. But I do want to say one thing about JACS, rabbinic participation and my own participation.

Our shul has been hosting these meetings on a weekly basis for several months, and this is the first time I answered their persistent invitation to join in. I’m glad I did. I’m sorry it took me so long.

I do know why it took me so long: Fear.

It’s not odd or unusual that I was afraid; any rabbi would be afraid:
• Here is a group of people who have their own rituals and language, and who are reputed to be highly sensitive to inappropriate behavior and language.
• Those who don’t know you may not like you. Those who do know you may not be happy you are there.
• You are afraid of being judged for your clothing, your profession, your life. You worry: Will I be rejected?

(Hmmm… sounds a lot like the reasons people are afraid to come into shul, actually.)

• And, of course, I had all sorts of other commitments for the meeting times. We started hosting JACS at the time I started getting involved in launching the Toronto beit midrash, so I’ve been busy with the shul and community here as well as the new venture there… lots of things competing for my time…

(Yes, sounds a lot like the reasons people give for not coming to shul, come to think of it.)

But I went, finally, on what was likely my last Sunday night in Allentown, and I’m glad I did.

I wouldn’t say it was an earth-shattering experience; I wouldn’t say I was blown away by the experience. I wasn’t. It was moving, yes, and in many ways, but the main thing is that it broke a barrier for me, letting me see that I could participate and not be rejected and survive.

I was stunned afterward to learn that other communities, much larger than ours, don’t have regular JACS meetings. I don’t understand why. But I know that I’ve found another way to serve (one of the first things I did when I got home was to look up the JACS Toronto website), and I hope that other rabbis will soon find it, and broaden their comfort zones, too.

[This week’s Haveil Havalim is here!]