Monday, May 31, 2010

Gaza Flotilla

Update: Newly released video (12:32 PM EDT) (hat-tip - Jameel)


This is going to be an impossible, ugly, hate-filled day.

The world's governments have already decided what happened on the boats. Ambassadors summoned, partnerships cancelled, condemnations issued.

Videos like the ones below show the violence that met the Israelis who came to investigate the boats:


We know this script, we've seen it before. It's Rachel Corrie multiplied by a few hundred - a more 'civilized' version of the suicide bomber, but with the same idea: We are willing to give our own lives in order to destroy you. If we can take down Israel, it's worth the sacrifice.

So they attack the teenage soldier, force him to use his gun to save his own life, and then claim 'Police Brutality.'

No matter how much video there is to demonstrate that the Israelis were only reacting, the response is still going to be the same: International Waters, Aid Flotilla, Benign human rights activists and so on.

I wondered all along why the IDF was insisting on boarding these ships - although, of course, the answer is that they had to do it, because the people on the boats believe in 'armed resistance,' and believe in providing weapons for Gaza. Need evidence? Look at the shipments of weapons already provided under the guise of 'aid,' and look at the violence today.

I want Peace, but I understand that when someone attacks me, I have to defend myself.

But no explanations are going to suffice.

The world loves this stuff.

Get your updates from Jameel here.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

"Tremendous Opportunities and Glorious Choices"

[This week's Haveil Havalim is available here]

I’ve long been a fan of the message of, “Listen more than you speak; when you’re talking, you’re not learning.” You know – Gd gave you two ears, one mouth, better to listen, and so on.

I believe this; it’s one of the reasons I’m happy to be out of the pulpit rabbinate. I get to spend more time listening, and therefore learning.

Steven Spielberg takes this point to another level in a message gleaned from the Shma (hat tip: Jameel), on a program called, “Inside the Actors Studio”:

[Leave aside Spielberg’s point about that voice being the voice inside. As I once heard a respected rabbi observe, a key message of Matan Torah (Revelation at Sinai) is that the voice is outside of ourselves, that we don’t have the answers within, and that we need to learn them from others. The inner compass does matter, of course, but the humility to recognize the value in others’ opinions matters more.]

Spielberg’s closing lines are truly excellent:
When people don’t listen, it’s not that they don’t learn. They just deny themselves tremendous opportunities and glorious choices. They deny themselves this. And it’s their own damn fault.

Spielberg’s point goes beyond learning; it’s about an openness to the universe’s possibilities, as they emerge through others’ counsel or a random phone call or a wrong turn or a missed flight.

Mussar to myself: Listen to what the world is telling you. A person whose life is planned and whose schedule is set, who cannot re-shuffle the deck when the world changes, is frustrated rather than enriched by new input or a wrinkle in the contours of his life.

Listening, on the other hand, whether to words or to opportunities, can open up a whole new universe.

Thursday, May 27, 2010


The other day I was speaking with someone by phone and describing some of the on-going challenges of moving to Toronto, of shifting from the pulpit rabbinate into running a kollel, and so on. He said to me, “And yet, I can hear that you are smiling!” To which I replied, “Is there any other option?”

The truth is that I do not always smile. Sometimes it’s too opposite to what I’m feeling. Sometimes it’s too much effort. And sometimes I simply forget that it’s important.

One Yom Kippur I actually committed to smile intentionally at least once every morning that year. My parents like it when I smile, my wife likes it when I smile, my kids like it when I smile, I like it when I smile. I'm not half as ugly when I'm smiling. And it's important for bein adam lachaveiro (working with other people); it can even be an act of chesed. לעולם הוי מקבל כל אדם בסבר פנים יפות, Greet everyone with a pleasant face - Shammai knew it.

Now, though, I don’t need to make any special commitment, because I have a reminder. Our kollel meets in the Clanton Park shul, and I usually enter from the parking lot. Right by the entrance is the following graffiti – it’s been there since before I ever got here, and for all I know it's been there for decades:

I love it. Every time I get to that door, no matter what’s been going on, I see that reminder and it yields an instant, even reflexive response, like those studies that say people naturally alter their facial expressions to match those of others around them.

Is it the simple message and goofy grin?

Is it the incongruity of positive graffiti?

Is it the chassidic payes and hat?

I don’t know, but it works for me. I see it, and my morning changes. And if I leave the building for lunch and return, I see it again and it helps my day again. And again when I come in for night seder.

What a wonderful sign. I think I might graffiti my house with one, too.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Judaism and the Art of Automobile Repair

What did you do for Victoria Day?

Kollel continues despite Queen Victoria’s special day, of course, so we had morning seder and I delivered a shiur at our Women’s Summer Midrasha, but this afternoon I took care of some body work on a friend’s car.

I started painting cars after a fender bender with a tree some 12 years ago. That was my first collision [the tree’s fault, of course; it jumped into my turning radius at the last minute], and I dutifully took my car to a body shop, which charged our insurance several arms and legs to replace the cracked bumper. I was impressed that they could get away with that kind of off-the-highway robbery, and figured this would be a good career if I ever decided to leave the rabbinate.

Several months later, my fender was scraped in a parking lot – not enough to warrant going to insurance and paying the deductible, but well more than I was willing to fork over myself. So I read up on body work, and went to Pep Boys for sandpaper, primer and paint. A short while later, my car was as good as new (almost, anyway). Ever since, I’ve had a hobby of doing the small jobs myself. I dream of one day having a hydraulic lift and doing the real stuff.

There is a lot to be said for this sort of work – it brings a feeling of accomplishment, it allows me to sweat, it has the redemptive quality of using my body and overcoming an obstacle in a way that many cannot. Think rock-climbing or bench-pressing, but with a practical benefit you can appreciate every time you get behind the wheel. Think רוצה אדם בקב שלו מט' קבין של חבירו - One wants a single measure he produces personally, more than he wants nine measures produced by another. (Bava Metzia 38a)

So when I noticed a friend’s scraped up vehicle exterior, I pleaded for a chance to right the wrong. Months later, the friend relented; here are the results from the front bumper, the first picture right after I cleaned the main part of the spot and the second one of the entire painted area, post-painting:

I know, it’s not quite perfect. I didn’t want to scrape all of the paint off of the bumper, so if you magnify the "after" picture you'll still see the edges of the wound. Also, the contour of the bumper is such that I had a small bit of pooling at the left edge. [Note: The spot on the "after" picture that looks like paint on the headlight is just sun glare.] But overall, I feel pretty good. And so does my friend.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Haveil Havalim 268 - The Victoria Day Edition!

Welcome to the Victoria Day 268th edition of Haveil Havalim!

First, the boilerplate:
Founded by Soccer Dad, Haveil Havalim is a carnival of Jewish blogs -- a weekly collection of Jewish & Israeli blog highlights, tidbits and points of interest collected from blogs all around the world. It's hosted by different bloggers each week and coordinated by the formidable Jack.

The term “Haveil Havalim,” which means "Vanity of Vanities," is from Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), and is another way to say, “Don’t get bogged down in meaningless things…”

And now on to Victoria Day:

As a new oleh to Canada [not unlike Bibi Netanyahu], I feel obligated to name this issue of HH in honor of Queen Victoria, the first sovereign of Confederated Canada, whose birthday is celebrated this weekend with a statutory holiday.

Of course, some Canadians also call this weekend May Two-Four, both for the actual May 24 birthday and for the number of cans of beer in a case… and Quebecois call it National Patriots Day because they are anything but national patriots... but I digress.

Why would a Jew, even one who lives in Canada, be interested in Queen Victoria? Read on!

Queen Victoria and the Jews? You bet. Victorian England weighed in on behalf of Jews during the 1840 Damascus Blood Libel and Rhodes Blood Libel, and the Catholic Church’s 1858 kidnapping of Edgardo Levi, and Queen V also granted knighthoods and titles to several of our kinsmen. [For more on the status of Jews in England in Victorian times, see Richard L. Stein's review of Constructions of "the Jew" in English Literature and Society: Racial Representations, 1875-1945.

Most interesting to me, though, is the report that Victoria insisted on circumcision by a mohel for her male descendants. Why? According to this site, it’s because she believed her family was descended from King David. Go figure.

Despite the paucity of submissions during this Shavuos-truncated week, I was able to find a good many Judaism-related posts to include:

Leah presents a reflective piece on matters both between human and Gd and between human and human with What Your Car Can Teach You (With Some Help from Up There) at Ingathered, while To Kiss a Mezuzah learns about that major nexus of human/Gd and human/human, the issue of Lashon HaRa (harmful speech), here. And for a fascinating insight on the human/Gd relationship and how it connects to the Torah’s prohibitions against idolatry, check out Or Am I?.

For an interesting take on the lessons one can learn from a yeshiva student, see Love of Torah--in honor of Shavuos, posted at A Chassidishe farbrengen. And while we’re on chassidim, check out Harry Maryles on the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s “missing years” here.

Trilby is sometimes credit with coining "How odd / of Gd / to choose / the Jews," to which the classic rejoinder is, "Not / so odd / the Jews / chose Gd." Along the same lines, Allison Josephs presents The Chosen (Last) People at Jew in the City. If you're into the topic, you might also want to check out one of my favorite humor pieces ever, Gd Names Next Chosen People.

Dealing with issues of Christian and Jewish evangelism, Minnesota Mamaleh presents Religion is Coming Home at TC Jewfolk.

Ben-Yehudah highlights the importance of Har haBayit in The Custom of Going to the Kotel on Shavu'oth at Esser Agaroth.

R’ Gil Student looks at the second day of Shavuos and its status in an attempt to save a woman from agunah status, here. I wasn’t familiar with that teshuvah of the Chatam Sofer, but I am glad to say ברוך שכוונתי regarding his logic.

Was Queen Victoria a Zionist? Under her patronage, the Palestine Exploration Fund was chartered. As they state on their website, “The PEF was founded in 1865 and is the oldest organization in the world created specifically for the study of the Levant, the southern portion of which was conventionally known as ‘Palestine’.” Their website includes a work called Jerusalem in Original Photographs: 1850-1920, which sounds interesting.

Were the Byzantines Zionist? I hope not, since that would horrify the anti-Zionists rioting on behalf of their bones, as reported by Jameel as well as Rafi G. Pagan we can deal with, but Zionist...?

Comedy Central? Definitely not Zionist, as Rafi G notes here and Seraphic Secret blogs here.

Now, is Elvis Costello a Zionist? Not so much, but read Contemplating Costello’s cancellation at Israelity.

Double Tapper has a look at potential war scenarios for Israel 2010 here. Will it help that the economy is strong and resilient, per a study reported at Israel Matzav? Here’s hoping...

An important read for American advocates for Israel: David Bedein presents Israel Resource Review - How to Communicate Concern Over US Middle East Policy to Members of the US Congress who oversee US State Dep't Middle East Policies. For Israeli advocates, Batya offers her own approach with Aim Carefully--Here's The Protest Letter at Shiloh Musings.

Batya also presents Dangerous Roads, on Arab drivers, at Shiloh Musings.

Jew vs. Jew hatred is front and center in The Latest Hate Rally, posted at Esser Agaroth, and it’s the source of strife in one of Jameel’s early adventures, as described here.

And for another side of Jew vs. Jew, Rahel presents Bully at the Bus Station at Elms in the Yard. I would write off Noa Raz’s account as an inflation of reality based on her history with haredim – after all, this is an uncorroborated account of an event that purportedly occured in a public place – but we’ve seen what the zealous are capable of…

On a lighter note: Mrs. S. presents Summer Plans 1.0.

Look here for some interesting information on Queen Victoria’s personal life… or just check out these posts to find out what’s happening in the lives of your favorite Jewish bloggers:

We lead off with a moment of great – and well-deserved – maternal pride from A Soldier’s Mother here. And may Aliyah by Accident merit such pride for the son whose birth was announced here this week.

Jack wants to protect his kids and wants them to know that, but doesn’t want them to know that they need protection. Hmmm....

Batya presents a vignette of bashert in It Could Be Written As A Great Short Story, and her thoughts on explaining Shavuot to her father with Shavuot, Cheesecake and Blintze Holiday as well.

Heshy Fried breaks from satire (I think) to offer economic advice with Frum man contemplates suicide over finances at Frum Satire. He might also take a look at Orthonomics’ take on the Areivim plan. And for a trifecta of challenging economics, see Lost in Kollel.

Musings of a Maidel talks about dating pressure here, while Sarah muses on answering tough personal questions on a first date here.

Ari is annoyed with the growth of Big Government in America; he should try Canada...

Tzipporah is still digging...

Harry presents Divorce and death on Facebook, reflecting on personal status updates, at Israelity. And on a lighter note, Harry presents Whale hears of tax breaks, returns to Israel.

And last, but not least – what would the week after Shavuos be without a cheesecake recipe? Thanks, Mom in Israel! Although, Israeli Mom doesn’t want you to have cheesecake on Shavuos. And Chaviva highlights the non-dairy aspects of the Yom Tov as well. Maybe they’ll go for chocolate crunch bars, courtesy of Ima on (and off) the Bima?

That concludes this edition! Submit your blog article to the next edition of Haveil Havalim using the carnival submission form.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Lesson of the Rabbinate: Don’t do me any favors

I’m pretty sure I’ve blogged elsewhere about what may have been the best phone call I ever received as a rabbi.

The call came from an administrator with Torah uMesorah’s Summer SEED program, at a time when I had been trying, without success, to work with a different organization to arrange a summer learning program in my community. The other organization was hemming and hawing about whether and how much it would be able to help my community – and then in came this call, out of the blue, asking, “How can we help you?”

It wasn’t just that this call was a genuine and unsolicited offer of assistance. It was also that through the entire conversation, and through our subsequent conversations, I didn’t feel like a beneficiary.

With the other organization, I was made to feel like an unworthy petitioner. The SEED agent made it clear that I was doing him as much of a favor as he was doing for me, and for my community.

The result: I felt really good, and I was happy to work with him.

Critical Lesson in Community Service: The people I serve are doing me the favor, not the other way around.

Practical application for rabbis: Say Thank You, repeatedly, sincerely, with a smile, whether you are kashering their kitchen or learning Torah with them or officiating at their wedding. They are doing you the favor.


1. Simple: They are doing me a favor. Were I not benefiting on some level – emotional, financial, spiritual, whatever – I wouldn’t be doing it.

2. People like to give. If they feel like they are giving to you, and the experience doesn’t hurt, they will give to you again.

3. And the flip side: No one likes asking for a favor. If you make them feel like they are getting a handout, they won’t come back to you to do it again.

4. As the Sefer haChinuch likes to observe, אחרי הפעולות נמשכים הלבבות, your heart follows your deeds. If you express gratitude, you will come to act in a grateful manner – and that will be appreciated.

5. This is not necessarily intuitive, but in my experience it is true: People value interactions more when they feel like the giver, than when they feel like the recipient.

6. Your attitude is the prism through which your actions are viewed. If you display a sense that you are the giver, everything you do will be seen in that light - somewhat arrogant, somewhat condescending, somewhat entitled to thanks. And if you display an understanding that you are receiving, then everything will be seen in that light – which I believe is more positive.

7. And if you are a recipient, people will give to you in order to help you. If you are offering a favor, they might just as easily say, “No, thank you.”

In a sense, this last point is a lesson of the gifts brought by the נשיאים (heads of the tribes) for the dedication of the mishkan. Rashi to Bamidbar 7:3 cites a midrash to explain why the נשיאים did not bring gifts for the mishkan’s construction, and then did bring gifts at the start of its dedication: During the construction the leaders said that they would fill in whatever the nation didn’t bring, and so the nation did it all themselves. No one accepted their “favor.” This disappointment then motivated the נשיאים to stop seeing their gifts as a favor, and to rush to give at the beginning of the dedication.

Lesson of the Rabbinate: Don't do people any favors; instead, accept the favors they offer you...

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Staying up on Shavuos night

I always thought that when I left the shul rabbinate I would stop staying up through Shavuos night. The practice wrecks the rest of Yom Tov, it’s hard to really learn anything after a certain time of night, my wife then needs to bring the kids to shul herself the next morning… it really seems like a case of יצא שכרו בהפסדו.

Nonetheless, this year I will be up all night once again, Gd-willing; I’m set to deliver shiurim to several different groups around Thornhill, and so I’ll be teaching or walking all through the night. Assuming my cold lets up and my voice holds out, anyway.

Why in the world am I doing this?

I guess part of it is the standard expectation for my position, just like it was when I was in the rabbinate.
And part of it is that when the emails started coming, inviting me to teach on Shavuos night, I was too flattered to decline.
And part of it is the inertia that comes with minhag; I’ve been staying up Shavuos night for decades already.

But I do wish I could break free of this practice, with its exhaustion and its corrosive effect on Shavuos. Nonetheless, it has stayed, like the beard and the white shirt/charcoal gray slacks/tie wardrobe, things I thought I would drop upon leaving the rabbinate, until leaving the rabbinate meant entering the rosh kollelate. [Re: Wardrobe - I realized the other day that I have worn a button-down shirt, slacks and a tie every waking minute I have been in Toronto since last August. This is frightening, and I use that word precisely.]

And yet, and yet – there is a positive side to the sleepless night, if the shiurim go well: The walk home after minyan in the morning.

That next morning, with the early light and the fresh air and the chirping birds and the fulfilled high that comes from a night well-spent and an untrammeled shacharis/musaf davened with real kavvanah and a sense of genuine kabbalas hatorah and free of the chatter and clutter of a later minyan… that feels right. It feels good. Maybe even better than hitting the mattress afterward.

Maybe that’s also why I keep coming back. And maybe it will be enough to make me do it again next year, in ירושלים.

Sunday, May 16, 2010


[This week’s Haveil Havalim is here!]

Some musings on Genius as we prepare to receive the Torah again at Sinai.

In yeshiva, we often identified certain guys as Geniuses. But what does that mean? The term seems like a double-edged sword to me.

Of course, calling someone a genius can be sincere praise, a way to express admiration for someone else’s acumen or to explain why we trust his assessment/prescription for a given situation. “I’ll side with him, he’s the genius on this.” “She’s just an absolute genius.” And so on.

But there’s another use of this compliment, with an added layer of meaning. Sometimes we call people geniuses – natural talents, blessed with special abilities, gifted, whatever – in order to absolve ourselves of any responsibility to match their accomplishments.

I do this. Sometimes I ask myself, “Why haven’t I accomplished X?”
• Why has that teenager been able to publish a novel?
• Why is he so adept at understanding Rav Chaim Brisker? Why can he cite Rav Tzaddok so smoothly?
• Why can she play the piano so well?
And the unspoken ending of each of these questions is, “and not me?”

And my answer is, “Well, they’re geniuses/prodigies/idiots savant…”

In those cases, “Genius” is not a compliment, but a cop-out. I say, “Well, they’re geniuses,” rather than face the fact that they put in more time than I did, that they attacked their goals with greater focus and energy, that they earned their special abilities with real sweat while I directed my own attention elsewhere.

I’ve long liked to think that my childhood aptitude tests showed I was of normal or substandard IQ. Part of that is because I love the Rocky Balboa narrative of coming from behind and toughing it out, but part of it is because it absolves me of responsibility. “What do you want from me? I’m no genius.”

But, really, that’s a road to nowhere.

The message of מתן תורה, of the Creator coming to give us the Torah, is that we can do it, we can fulfill it, and no special genius is required.

And the message of our נעשה ונשמע acceptance, that Sinaitic commitment of, “We will fulfill it, and we will learn it,” is the hubris of one who is willing to try, who doesn’t write off Avraham and Sarah as untouchable geniuses but instead is willing to go for the goal.

Maybe those other people, the Avraham and Sarah of my day, are geniuses? Maybe their accomplishments are not replicable? Could be. But it won’t hurt for me to try.

Better for me not to write off others’ accomplishments as irrelevant, but rather to draw inspiration from their accomplishments, and use them as a spur for my own.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Misnaged's Bad Rap

[This week’s Toronto Torah is here; enjoy!]

In the battle that lasted from the end of the 18th century through the early 20th century, the Chasidim beat the Misnagdim.

Need proof of the victory? Just look at the fact that non-Chasidim are identified, to this day, as Misnagdim [meaning “the opposition”] rather than the mainstream. Chasidim were the ones who broke away from the mainstream, but Misnagdim were equally identified as a sect.

Chasidim won that war because our society prefers its heroes to be populist, and sees Chasidim as populists. We want our role models to be down-to-earth, reachable, and definitely not elitist, and the narrative popularized by early Chasidim was that the Misnagdim were coldly intellectual elitists, committed to a communal structure that honored scholarship over simple piety, and snobbish in the extreme toward the ignorant peasant class.

This comes to mind tonight because I am preparing a source sheet for a shiur and I am using a citation from the arch-Misnaged, one of the men at the heart of the late-18th century battle between Chasidim and Misnagdim, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin. That citation makes it clear that the classic depiction of the Misnaged as aloof intellectual elitist is simply treif.

Rav Chaim Volozhiner, as he was also called, was certainly an intellectual. A halachic genius and a mystic, founder of the famed Volozhin yeshiva, he was the chief student of the Gaon of Vilna. He was certainly a misnaged; one of the goals of his book Nefesh haChaim was to demolish the philosophical arguments of the Chasidim, and he minced no words in pursuit of this goal.

But don’t let the revisionists fool you; Misnagdim were decidedly not the aloof, elitist, enemies-of-the-masses that were described by their foes. Here is the testimony of Rav Yitzchak of Volozhin regarding his father, Rav Chaim:

והיה רגיל להוכיח אותי על שראה שאינני משתתף בצערא דאחרינא. וכה היה דברו אלי תמיד שזה כל האדם. לא לעצמו נברא רק להועיל לאחריני ככל אשר ימצא בכחו לעשות.
He regularly rebuked me, because he saw that I did not participate in the pain of others. And these were his constant words to me: This is the entire person. One is not created for himself, but to benefit others with the full extent of his powers.

Is this the ‘constant’ message of a cold intellectual elitist? I think not.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Happy Jerusalem Day, President Obama

Dear President Obama,

I hope all is well.

Normally, I receive greetings from you in advance of Jewish holidays, but this year I did not notice any message in honor of Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day. This made me realize that I have been remiss; I should be taking the initiative of sending you greetings in honor of the milestones of my calendar.

I’ll bet that, like me, you watched the trailer for Iron Man 2 a few times. I’ll further bet that, even more than me, you felt vicarious pleasure in seeing Tony Stark stick it to Congress when he declared, “I did you a big favor – I have successfully privatized world peace!” to a round of applause.

I believe that you sincerely think you are doing the world a big favor in your attempt to unilaterally bring about peace in the Middle East by imposing an agreement upon the Jews, Arabs and other inhabitants of the region. After all, think of the lives, the money and the effort expended on solving this problem since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire!

And if the solution to ending this neverending battle requires the internationalization of Jerusalem, then so be it – right? Then there would be a real chance at peace – right?

But to me, Mr. President, the plan to render parts of Jerusalem judenrein, and to take the center of Jerusalem out of Jewish hands, is no favor. It is doomed to fail, and it is a stab in the heart of every Jew who believes in her heritage.

First, the obvious: It is doomed to fail. Terror existed long before Jews were able to live in East Jerusalem; Arab and Muslim animosity toward the West exists independently. Just ask the Chechens, or the bombers in Mumbai or Bali. Or ask Osama bin Laden when you find him – his campaign began not with Jerusalem, but with his hostility toward America-friendly Saudi Arabia.

And to the second point: Jerusalem is the heart of the Jew. To you this seems to be a matter of weighing life and security against a postage stamp-sized piece of land. You have not even bothered to make a trip to Israel to explain this to Jews there; you take it as obvious, apparently.

But that’s not what this issue means to me, and to millions of others.

Judaism teaches of two mountains: Mount Sinai where the Jews received their religious identity from Gd, and Mount Moriah where the Jews built their Temple to Gd. Mount Sinai had a one-time moment in the sun, and was never venerated by Jews thereafter. No Jews made pilgrimages to Mount Sinai. No Jews longed to see that place. But Mount Moriah remained sanctified for all time, in the hearts and writings of Jews of every generation for three thousand years.

From the sages of the Talmud in the Roman period, to Rabbi Saadia Gaon in 10th century Iraq, to Maimonides in Spain and Egypt in the 12th century, to Jews murdered by the Catholic Inquisition, to Rabbi Moshe Sofer of 18th century Hungary, Jews sang and prayed and lived the longing for Jerusalem. I'm sure you know that Jerusalem is a specific subject of prayer three times each day, and is also the subject of the blessing Jews recite after every meal. It has been so for thousands of years. It's a matter of basic identity.

I’m sure your advisors have told you about all this, and all of it has been outweighed by the desire to do us a favor - to privatize world peace and save lives, including my own.

But some things are more important to every human being than our own lives: Our children. Our spouses. Our identity. Our responsibility to other human beings, and to humanity in general. And our dignity, perhaps. Think of the soldier who jumps on a grenade, or the parent who slaves eighteen hours a day so that his children will get out of the slums, or the pauper who refuses to take a handout. We often sacrifice our lives for ideals.

My people has a long history of being slaughtered in the name of ideals, and this idealism is not a Jewish trait, it’s a human trait, and it should be comprehensible to all. Our heart means more than just the ability to live and breathe and eat and raise a family; our heart also means the ability to do all of those things as ourselves, true to our identities.

I woul never want to see anyone die for Jerusalem. I would never want to see any child, Jew or Arab, suffer the effects of war, when she could grow up in a healthy environment. I long to see the world promised by Isaiah, in which swords are rendered defunct.

In a sense, I, too, am Iron Man. As Tony Stark said, “The suit and I are one.” To follow the plot further, you may be right: The heart of the suit may be poisoning me. But don’t ask me to give up my heart and identity; I expect to keep both.

Happy Yom Yerushalayim, Mr. President. May we celebrate many more.

Who wrote the Torah?

One of my shiurim for Shavuos night is, "Did Moshe write the Torah?" I'm not getting into higher criticism; rather, my question is based on classic sources themselves. What sort of input did Moshe have into the Torah, and need we be concerned that Moshe might have added elements on his own? And how does this inform our own approach to Torah?

The audio will not be on-line, of course, but here is the material I intend to distribute for the source sheet. It should give you a sense of where I am going with this:

The Sources: HaShem wrote every letter
1. Talmud, Bava Batra 15a
עד כאן הקב"ה אומר ומשה אומר וכותב, מכאן ואילך הקב"ה אומר ומשה כותב בדמע
Until here HaShem spoke and Moshe wrote; from here on, HaShem spoke and Moshe wrote with tears.

2. Talmud, Sanhedrin 99a
כי דבר ה' בזה - זה האומר אין תורה מן השמים. ואפילו אמר: כל התורה כולה מן השמים, חוץ מפסוק זה שלא אמרו הקדוש ברוך הוא אלא משה מפי עצמו - זהו כי דבר ה' בזה. ואפילו אמר: כל התורה כולה מן השמים, חוץ מדקדוק זה, מקל וחומר זה, מגזרה שוה זו - זה הוא כי דבר ה' בזה.
“For he has degraded the word of Gd” – This is someone who says that Torah is not from Heaven. Even if he says, “All of the Torah is from Heaven aside from this sentence which Gd did not say but Moshe said himself,” this is, “For he has degraded the word of Gd.” Even if he says, “The entire Torah is from Heaven aside from this textual analysis, this logical deduction, this pleonasm,” this is, “For he has degraded the word of Gd.”

3. Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:8
שלשה הן הכופרים בתורה: האומר שאין התורה מעם ה' אפילו פסוק אחד אפילו תיבה אחת אם אמר משה אמרו מפי עצמו הרי זה כופר בתורה, וכן ...
There are three who deny the Torah: One who says that Torah is not from Gd, even one sentence or even one word. If he says that Moshe said this on his own, he denies the Torah. And also…

4. Ramban, Introduction to Bereishit
זה אמת וברור הוא שכל התורה מתחלת ספר בראשית עד לעיני כל ישראל נאמרה מפיו של הקב"ה לאזניו של משה
This is true and clear: The entire Torah, from the beginning of the book of Bereishit to “before the eyes of all Israel,” was said from the mouth of Gd to the ears of Moshe.

The Sources: Moshe had a role
5. Talmud, Megilah 31b
אמר אביי: לא שנו אלא בקללות שבתורת כהנים, אבל קללות שבמשנה תורה - פוסק. מאי טעמא? הללו - בלשון רבים אמורות, ומשה מפי הגבורה אמרן. והללו - בלשון יחיד אמורות, ומשה מפי עצמו אמרן
Abbaye said: This is only regarding the curses in the book of Vayyikra, but one may halt during the curses in Mishneh Torah. Why? These are addressed in the plural and were said by Moshe from the mouth of Gd, these are addressed to individuals and were said by Moshe from his own mouth.

6. Zohar 3:261a
האי דאקרי משנה תורה משה מפי עצמו אמרן
This that is called “Mishneh Torah,” Moshe said them on his own.

7. R’ Avraham bar Natan, Responsa of Raavan 34
אפילו מאן דלא דריש סמוכין בכל התורה, במשנה תורה דריש, וטעמא משום דכל התורה מפי הגבורה נאמרה ואין מוקדם ומאוחר אבל משה שסידר משנה תורה פרשה אחר פרשה לא סידר אלא להדרש
Even one who does not deduce from juxtapositions in the entire Torah does deduce in Mishneh Torah. This is because the entire Torah was said from the mouth of Gd, and there is no precession or succession. Moshe arranged Mishneh Torah, paragraph after paragraph, and he arranged them in order that lessons be deduced.

8. R’ Chaim ibn Attar, Or haChaim to Devarim 1:1
אלה הדברים וגו'. אלה מיעט הקודם, פי' לפי שאמר "אשר דבר משה" שהם דברי עצמו, שכל הספר תוכחות הם מוסר ממשה לעובר פי ה', ואמרו ז"ל (מגילה ל"א ב) קללות שבמשנה תורה משה מפי עצמו אמרן, ואפילו מה שחזר ופירש מאמרי ה' הקודמין לא נצטוה עשות כן אלא מעצמו חזר הדברים, וחש הכתוב לומר כי כדרך שאמר משה מפי עצמו דברים כאלה כמו כן במאמרים הקודמין אמר משה מפי עצמו איזה דבר, לזה אמר אלה הדברים פי' אלה לבד הם הדברים אשר דבר משה דברי עצמו אבל כל הקודם בד' חומשים לא אמר אפילו אות אחת מעצמו אלא הדברים שיצאו מפי המצוה כצורתן בלא שום שינוי אפילו אות אחת יתירה או חסרה.
“These are the words” – “These” excludes that which came before. Since it says, “that Moshe said,” meaning that these are his own words, for the entire book is rebuke from Moshe to a transgressor, and the Sages said, “Moshe said the curses in Mishneh Torah on his own,” and even his repetition and explanation of earlier Divine commands was not because he was instructed to do so but he reviewed these on his own, the text was careful [lest one] say that just as Moshe said these things on his own, so some of the earlier statements may have been from Moshe on his own. Therefore it said, “These are the words,” meaning that only these are the words Moshe spoke on his own, but in everything that preceded this in the four chumashim, Moshe did not say a single letter on his own, but the words came from the mouth of their Commander in their form, without any change, even one letter added or subtracted.

Solution 1: Even Moshe is doing it with Ruach haKodesh
9. Tosafot Megilah 31b משה
משה מעצמו אמרם - וברוח הקדש.
“Moshe said them himself” – with Divine inspiration.

Solution 2: Microphone vs. Megaphone
10. Ramban to Vayyikra 26:16
קללות שבת"כ בלשון רבים ומשה כי אמרן מפי הגבורה אמרן ושבמשנה תורה בלשון יחיד ומשה כי אמרן מפי עצמו אמרן, כי הגבורה עשתה משה שליח בינו ובין כל ישראל:
The curses in Sefer Vayyikra are addressed to the plural, and when Moshe said them it was from the mouth of Gd, and those in Mishneh Torah are addressed to the individual, and when Moshe said them it was on his own, for Gd made Moshe a messenger between Himself and all of Israel.

11. Maharal, Tiferet Yisrael 43
כל דבור שנאמר בתורה, אף שמשה היה מדבר אותו, מכל מקום היה כאילו השם יתברך מדבר... אבל משנה תורה היה מדבר משה מעצמו, כמו השליח כאשר צוה לו המשלח.
Every statement in the Torah, although Moshe said it, it was as though HaShem spoke… but in Mishneh Torah Moshe spoke on his own, like a messenger instructed by the sender.

Solution 3: Moshe surrenders his autonomy
12. Talmud, Shabbat 87a
שלשה דברים עשה משה מדעתו והסכים הקדוש ברוך הוא עמו: הוסיף יום אחד מדעתו, ופירש מן האשה, ושבר את הלוחות.
Moshe did three things on his own, and Gd agreed with him: He added one day on his own, he separated from his wife, and he broke the tablets.

13. R’ Meir Simcha haKohen, Meshech Chachmah, Introduction to Shemot
איך צוה ה' שיאמינו לעולם במשה, הא "הכל בידי שמים חוץ מיראת שמים" (ברכות לג, ב) ואין הידיעה מכרחת הבחירה! ושמא יבחר משה אחר זה חלילה, להוסיף מדעתו! ועל כרחין, שהשי"ת שלל ממנו הבחירה לגמרי, ונשאר מוכרח כמלאכים.
How did HaShem instruct that they should always believe in Moshe? “All is in the hands of Heaven other than awe of Heaven!” Knowledge does not compel choice! Perhaps Moshe would later, Gd forbid, choose to add independently! It must be that HaShem removed, entirely, Moshe’s free will; he remained compelled, like the angels.

14. Rav Avraham Yitzchak haKohen Kook, Haggadat Olat Re’iyyah, Koreich
We must understand these two forces, that of servitude and that of freedom, not as separate forces which operate independently, each with its own role, but as two joined, complementary forces…
The overall goal will be realized only with the knowledge and recognition that these two forces are not contradictory, but are joined in creating the world’s ultimate Freedom, the honor and the powerful desirability of which is not revealed unless it is crowned by exalted Servitude, servitude before the King of Glory, which is also the ultimate freedom.
Therefore, the perfect form of Freedom comes when it is bound together with Servitude, such that a person will find within himself the total control which is suitable for a truly free person, who reigns as well upon the greatest of forces, which is the force of freedom itself.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Four Ruths

Getting really close to the culmination of Sefirah and still counting, I’m glad to say. Hope the same is true for you…

This week I’m delivering a second shiur on Ruth, and as I prepare it I keep mulling the way that we see ourselves, perhaps our best selves, perhaps our wished-for selves, in this heroine. Here are four diverse examples:

Boaz, a person of wealth and generosity, says of Ruth (3:11) כי יודע כל שער עמי כי אשת חיל את – which may be translated, “Everyone knows that you are a woman of generosity.” [For more on translations of chayil, listen to the audio of the shiur I expect to teach tomorrow night, “Ruth as the Eishet Chayil.” Link to appear here when it is available, Gd-willing.]

John Keats was victim of a life of pain and loneliness, and in his Ode to a Nightingale he described those same traits in our heroine: “The sad heart of Ruth, when sick for home she stood in tears amid the alien corn.”

Juan Valera, who adores the greatness of a pure heart, writes in Pepita Jimenez, “I bestowed on them the sweet humility and the devotion of Ruth.”

And Richard Beer-Hofmann, in his Der Junge David (this translation comes from Liptzin’s “Beer-Hofmann’s image of Ruth,” which appeared in Jewish Bible Quarterly 19:4, Summer ‘91), sees Ruth offering advice to her great-grandson, King David. The words he puts in her mouth reflect his own views on Death:
Your end, like the end of all of us, is ultimately to become dung of the earth.
Perhaps a legend, a song, a melody, remembered for a while and wafted away before long.
And yet, like Gd’s stars circling in their assigned orbits above us, you - David - must complete your course here below, carrying on your assigned destiny.

I don’t know that any of these observers overreach; all of their visions are borne out in the woman at the center of the megilah we read on Shavuot. I’m just fascinated by their identification with a person whose moment on the biblical stage is brief, whose lines are terse, and whose role is so veiled in hints and mystery.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Who gave us the Torah?

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here]

My article in the Shavuot To Go, soon to be published by YU/Center for the Jewish Future [update: now available here], looks at the special association between Avraham and Matan Torah [the presentation of the Torah at Sinai], and what it can teach us about our own relationship with Torah. Before that article sees the light of day, though, I’d like to hear what you would do with the midrash in Shemot Rabbah that was my jumping-off point.

Shemot Rabbah 28 describes Moshe on Har Sinai, and an attempt by ministering angels to deny him the Torah. The starting point of defiant angels appears on Shabbat 88b-89a as well, but there Moshe replies to the angels that the Torah is meant for us, not for them. Here, Gd provides the answer, and it’s rather different:

באותה שעה בקשו מלאכי השרת לפגוע במשה עשה בו הקב"ה קלסטירין של פניו של משה דומה לאברהם, אמר להם הקב"ה אי אתם מתביישין הימנו לא זהו שירדתם אצלו ואכלתם בתוך ביתו, אמר הקב"ה למשה לא נתנה לך תורה אלא בזכות אברהם שנאמר לקחת מתנות באדם, ואין אדם האמור כאן אלא אברהם שנאמר (יהושע יד) האדם הגדול בענקים
At that moment the ministering angels sought to harm Moshe. G-d shaped Moshe’s face to appear like that of Avraham, and G-d said to the angels, “Are you not embarrassed before him? Is this not the one to whom you descended and in whose home you ate?” G-d then turned to Moshe and said, “The Torah was given to you only in the merit of Avraham.”

I was confused by this midrash, on several levels:
• We are taught (Bava Metzia 86b) that the malachim did not actually eat in Avraham’s home; rather, they merely pretended to do so. If that is true, then they owed Avraham no debt.

• We are further taught (Bava Metzia ibid) that the malachim who visited Avraham were Michael, Raphael and Gavriel. The malachim who protested were a set of anonymous “מלאכי השרת, ministering angels.” Are we to assume that the general angels should have felt gratitude for Avraham’s service of their three compatriots?

• What connection is there between offering food to the angels, and forcing them to forego their right to the Torah?

You can go to my article to read my answer, but I’d like to know what you make of this.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

How to cook corn on the cob

I deliberately keep my clocks on the wrong time, which causes my Rebbetzin some frustration. There's no real reason for it; I just do things that way.

[I also never changed the dead battery in the clock in my shul office, but that was for a specific purpose: to avoid the temptation to look at it during a meeting. That same goal was the reason I never wore a watch; I didn't want to fall into the trap that took George H. W. Bush in 1992.]

So once my long-suffering wife asked me, "How can you tell what time it is?" To which I replied, "Just go to!" She called me on it, so I typed it in - and sure enough, there it was, a site to inform the poor, achronistic websurfer of the time of day.

That came to mind this evening, when I was preparing corn on the cob for the kids' dinner [the last of my Rebbetzinless week]. I wanted to do something unusual with it, rather than simply boil it. So I went to - and lo, there was a page offering instruction on steaming, boiling, microwaving and grilling becobbed corn.

This, of course, led me to contemplate some other potential How-To websites addressing life's challenges: (I like the clumps, for the record)

And life's particularly Jewish challenges:

For the record, I found a recipe I thought would be different enough to be interesting, without being so interesting that the kids wouldn't go for it; you can find it here. It wasn't bad!

Ice Cream for Dinner

[This week's Toronto Torah is here!]

[Many of my recent posts have been more on the fluff side, and so I thought I would post tonight on a shiur I'm developing - but the shiur most on my mind is technical, on the Tur's view of Tevilas Kelim and the need for 40 seah vs. the Smak's understanding, and it just isn't working out in a blog-appropriate way. So, it's another fluffish post; my apologies to those who are looking for meatier material.]

As I type this, I’m hard at work on a serious container of chocolate and vanilla and some-undefined-chunky-stuff ice cream. (1.5 liters, for those who think in metric; really big, for the rest of us. It will all be gone by the time I finish writing this post, if my teeth don’t freeze.)

I’m usually a pretty healthy eater – real meals, with red things and green things that grew from the ground or ripened on trees, and even the occasional whole grain thing. If I want to grow up to be Batman, I need to eat right.

Nonetheless, over the years I have learned the importance of a Good Mood, and I’m in need of a Good Mood, so ice cream for dinner it is.

The week’s actually gone pretty well, thank Gd, all predictions of doom in the Rebbetzin’s absence to the contrary. Getting the kids up in the morning, assigning them clothes, parcelling out breakfasts and lunches and dinners, cooking the odd (but not too odd) meal myself, doing laundry and dishes (but not simultaneously, at least not if I was holding bleach)… it’s been pretty smooth, in no small part due to my wife’s preparation.

But today was very challenging, and so I’m falling back on one of the best pieces of advice I know: Get into a Good Mood.

I took a surprisingly long time to learn how important this can be; I dislike and distrust self-indulgence, and I've been taught to tough out any problems. But eventually my too-slow brain came to understand that this is not self-indulgence or surrender; it’s actually an investment in success.

Presumably, this counsel is not as important for some, but if you’re like me – no poker face, heart worn directly on sleeve and bereft of armor, you’ve read me long enough to know – then a Good Mood is key. Being down will affect everything from counseling to derashah-writing to program planning to communications to flyer design to committee recruitment (not to mention השראת השכינה).

Hence the ice cream.

Which is starting to melt on my keyboard, so I guess that’s it for this post. I have mood-altering work to do.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The story of a tie

This seems like the sort of sap-filled story that would appear in a chain email (“Don’t delete!” “Send this to ten friends!” “Send this along and save a life!” “No, save ten lives!” “No, save ten lives with lots of exclamation points AND CAPITAL LETTERS!!!!!”), but I’m posting it anyway because it’s my story, and I like it, and it’s a nice way to say Thank You to a good person.

The tie pictured above is nothing out of the ordinary; if I remember correctly, it was given to me by a family member who was shopping in a not-too-expensive store and decided to scout for new ties for me. [Ties are my only means of haberdashic self-expression; beyond ties I stick to white shirts and charcoal gray pants, to avoid the nuisance of matching clothes.] It probably ran 15.99, 19.99, or something along those lines.

I wore the tie a few times, but fell out of love with it fairly quickly. It seemed very plain, and the texture was not terribly smooth. It wasn’t out-of-fashion (I think?), but there was nothing interesting about it, either. The bottom got dirty once and I nearly decided to trash the thing rather than pay for it to be cleaned, but I am congenitally incapable of throwing out anything that might, someday, in some way, have some minor use.

And so it was that this poor article of clothing, אבן מאסו הבונים, languished in the back of my closet until one Sunday evening about a year ago when I was about to go to a big program and needed to grab a tie. I was pre-occupied with nervousness about the program, and I reached into the closet without thought. This tie emerged. I gave it a doubtful look, but put it on and dropped it from my mind.

I walked into the program, and saw a friend/congregant who smiled and whose first comment was, “That’s a nice tie!”

The blue and black fabric doesn’t look any different today than it did last year; it is no more in or out of style, its texture is still the same. But when I look at it I remember my friend’s comment, her smile, and the fact that she noticed a tie I barely noticed, let alone liked.

I haven’t seen my friend since I left Allentown, but every time I wear this tie I think of her.

"Memorable" need not mean travelling cross-country to see someone, or buying an expensive gift. It can also mean a kind word, or noticing someone else...

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Rebbetzinless Husband turns to music

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here]

Music is my drug; I got in the car this morning and turned it on, and Presto, instant mood change. I was nervous about a couple of things happening today (more on that below), a little tired, a little focussed on some of the projects I’m developing. But then the music kicked in, and the world suddenly turned on a better axis. [Song: “All we want” by Elias. Usually my first song after Lag ba’Omer carries some real or imagined portent, but not this time. I think.]

Every year the period from after Pesach through Lag ba’Omer is difficult for me; I have greater difficulty zoning out the world in order to write derashos and articles, focussing on a difficult Minchas Chinuch to develop a shiur, or calming down after a shiva visit, without the influence of shirah. The quality I produce really does drop; I can see the difference. But then comes Lag ba’Omer morning, and BOOM is it ever different. I feel genuinely good.

For other people the drug is television or movies, for some people it’s food, for me it’s drums and a guitar. I let it flow over me, and the effect is immediate.

Which is a good thing, because as of this afternoon I will be Rebbetzinless through Thursday night. The grand Rebbetzin is heading to the USA for work for the week [due to the benighted US patent disclosure laws governing international communication; long story], and I will be in charge of the kids, as well as the rest of my responsibilities. Breakfast, lunches to take to school, dinners, getting them going in the morning, cleaning up, doing dishes, you name it. We’ve hired help coming to watch the kids during shacharis and to babysit during night seder, but the rest will be my responsibility.

My honored wife has actually prepared things for me to the point where it’s as automated as it could be. Food pre-cooked for dinners, lists of which clothing the kids need for which days, reminders for nuances of the schedule… a document along the lines of theTransition Document I left behind for my pulpit successor last year, I suppose. She is very good to me.

So this week will be somewhat hectic. If this weren’t the day I got my music back, I might be nervous. To say the least. But not today. Today I got my music back.

You're so vain...

Four years ago, when half of my right eyebrow turned white, my dermatologist counselled me to apply a cream (Elidel) that might help the pigment cells regenerate, and to dye it in the interim. He also talked about treating the small segments of skin that had turned a little lighter than normal.

My gut reaction was to recoil; it seemed vain, this idea of undergoing cosmetic treatments. (Leave aside the substantive halachic issue surrounding whether a male may dye his hair for cosmetic purposes.) The doctor pressed the point, gently noting that many people would respond negatively to a face that looked odd.

He was likely right, but I decided against his advice and left my ugly mug as is.

That conversation came to mind this past week, as I prepared a shiur for adolescents, entitled, “What I learned from Susan Boyle.” I ended up going a different route with the shiur, but here's the core idea I was going to use:

After talking about the difference between the ways people reacted to Susan Boyle before she sang and the way they reacted afterward, I was going to present five sources, with different perspectives on beauty:

1. Samuel I 16:1-7 (Shemuel’s trip to coronate a son of Yishai)
And G-d said to Samuel… Fill your horn with oil, and I will send you to Jesse of Bethlehem, for I have seen a king for Myself among his children.
And when they arrived and Samuel saw Eliav (the firstborn), he declared, “G-d’s anointed one is here before Him!”
And G-d said to Samuel, “Don’t look at his appearance and his height; I have rejected him. It’s not about the things people see; people see the visible, but G-d sees the heart.

2. Talmud, Taanit 31a (regarding the talmudic Tu b’Av matchmaking session)
Beautiful women enticed potential husbands by saying, “Look at beauty; wives are for beauty!”

3. Proverbs 31:30
Charm is false and beauty is empty; a woman who is in awe of G-d is to praised.

4. Isaiah 33:17
Your eyes should see the king in his beauty.

5. Talmud, Taanit 20a-b
Rabbi Elazar, son of Rabbi Shimon, was riding a donkey along a riverbank, traveling from Migdal Gedor, where he had been studying. He was very happy, and filled with pride because he had learned a great deal. He encountered an extraordinarily ugly man, who greeted him, “Peace to you, my master!”
Rabbi Elazar did not reply with a greeting; instead, he said, “Empty one – how ugly this man is! Is everyone in your city as ugly as you?”
The man replied, “I don’t know; go tell the Craftsman who made me, ‘How ugly is this vessel You created!’”
Rabbi Elazar realized he had sinned. He descended from the donkey and threw himself down on the ground and said, “I am humbled before you; forgive me!”
The man replied, “I will not forgive you until you go tell the Craftsman who made me, ‘How ugly is this vessel You created!’”

The first source says that beauty is a false indicator of worth, while in the second source women cited their appearance as something worth noting.
Then the line from Proverbs decries beauty as a false indicator, but Isaiah says that a king should maintain his beauty for the public.
And then Rabbi Elazar, son of Rabbi Shimon, is chastised for being influenced by physical appearances.

(I would have brought many more sources on both sides if this wasn't a session for teens; there is considerably more evidence on both sides.)

Which is it? Is beauty a valid indicator of worth, or a misleading cheat?

I think my dermatologist was right: Beauty is a major factor in first impressions and shallow encounters. The positive texts above talk about shallow relationships – a first meeting with a potential spouse, a royal audience. It’s normal to pursue beauty when setting up that relationship, because the other party has nothing else to use in making an assessment. And pursuing beauty in these shallow settings won’t convince me that my physical appearance is Me; I know the difference.

But when we use appearances to shape what should be deep relationships, then we include beauty as one of the traits define our genuine identity and worth. The negative texts talk about what should be a deeper relationship - picking someone to be king, admiring one’s spouse, valuing someone else. Those ties should be based on our true characters. If we pursue beauty in these cases, then we send a message (to others and ourselves) that physical beauty is our true identity.

Not terribly deep or novel, I suppose, but I think it’s a message that matters for teens.