Tuesday, August 31, 2010

When children suffer – a child’s view

Some time back, a ten or eleven year old boy told me that he had experienced a stomach ache in shul. He told me he was wondering whether his stomach ache might have averted some disaster elsewhere. If it did, he said, he would gladly accept more such pains in order to save people from catastrophe.

This conversation really bothered me.

Certainly, we do believe within traditional Judaism that when part of the community suffers, that can atone for communal sin, and avert a different communal tragedy. [Yes, this is the idea that becomes skewed into vicarious atonement in Christianity.]

It’s also good for a child to develop sympathy for others, and to be willing to endure hardship for the sake of helping others. This is a major parenting goal; you don’t need me to do yet another re-hash of Rav Chaim of Volozhin’s perennial pedagogy for his son.

Among my questions, though:
1. Who would teach this concept to an unsophisticated ten year old boy?

2. How does this child now view suffering – his own and that of others?

3. Is it healthy for a ten year old boy to think this way?

4. What sort of behavior toward himself and others might this trigger in the child, before he is mature enough to gain a better understanding of suffering?

I don’t know. I’m very uncomfortable with this.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Rosh haShanah: Sunset or Rainbow?

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here]

Ever since my days in yeshiva in Israel, Elul has been a long month of introspection and preparation for Rosh Hashanah, a mix of awe and anxiety, a little asceticism and, perhaps, some degree of neurosis. The longer I go in Elul without conducting a full cheshbon hanefesh [spiritual accounting], the more nervous I become. I’m not ready, I won’t be ready, I need to make sure I haven’t missed any opportunity to fix things, and so on. [I know that doesn’t sound healthy, but I find it actually is healthy for me. Concentrating on these issues for a specific, intense period of time helps me, even if it’s not for everyone.]

In truth, though, Jewish law allows us to walk into Rosh Hashanah cold.

Indeed, for many good Jews Elul is a period of getting back from the summer, putting the kids in school, going back to a work grind, grasping the last days of sun and warmth, anything but introspection. They may go to minyan and hear shofar, they might say Selichos, but the first time they really stop and say, “What has this year been like?” is when the chazan starts that unique Yamim Noraim tune for Borchu.

Going by the letter of Jewish law, that’s fine. But how can that be a ‘real’ Yamim Noraim? Where is the opportunity for teshuvah? If Elul is really meant to be prep time for Rosh haShanah/Aseres Yemei Teshuvah/Yom Kippur, why is there no prescribed observance beyond our customs of shofar and selichos?

Should Rosh haShanah be a planned spiritual experience, like the beautiful sunset you know is coming and which you can prepare to watch with a picnic blanket and a sketchpad or a camera and a friend? Or should the opening notes of Borchu be a surprise, like a stunning rainbow you encounter after a bend in the highway, just after you emerge from the shadow of a mountain?

I can see advantages in both, of course. On the simplest level: Preparation enables a deeper transformative experience, but Spontaneity can take you by surprise and present a new way to see the world. And there is much more to say here, of course.

I thought about the question this year when we read Vaeschanan, as I noticed the difference between the Torah’s two descriptions of run-up to Matan Torah [the presentation of the Torah] at Sinai:

Parshas Yisro, Shemos 19 – The Jews arrive at Sinai on Rosh Chodesh Sivan, Moshe shuttles back and forth between them and Gd for six days with messages about their preparation to receive the Torah, spouses separate from each other for three days (one of which Moshe adds on his own, apparently), mikvah and korban and bris milah and so on, followed by clouds and thunder and lightning and a loud shofar. Major preparation.

Parshas Vaeschanan, Devarim 5 – No preparation. HaShem spoke to you at Sinai, and this is what you heard.

You can decide to tell the story with or without the six-day lead-in, but your decision changes the story entirely. In Yisro it’s a story of preparation for kedushah [sanctity] followed by the experience and message from Gd. In Vaeschanan it’s a story of the message from Gd, period.

Rosh HaShanah can be like Yisro and the sunset – a month of build-up, of preparation, followed by a sublime experience. Or it can be like Vaeschanan, the sublime, rainbowish experience itself. We are offered either option.

Our sages counselled preparation, and hence the shofar and the selichos, but they stopped short of legislating it, perhaps because they understood that preparation has its drawbacks, too. To some extent, we need to be taken by surprise.

And perhaps a greater message, beyond Rosh haShanah, is that a Jew should seek holiness and inspiration in both forms. In day to day life, we should look for holiness in both the sudden and the process, the spontaneous and the scheduled, the pre-programmed sunset and the rainbow startling us around the next turn on the highway, and learn to take advantage of both.

Friday, August 27, 2010

I waited my whole life for this book

I can't believe I've lived 38 years without reading Rav Kook's Orot haTeshuvah.

I'm presently developing a series of shiurim from Orot haTeshuvah - yes, my initial lishmah read has become a prepare-for-a-shiur read - and I am perpetually stunned by the Torah, beauty, depth, inspiration, confidence and encouragement found in every line.

Here's the sentence I just read (14:36):

כשאדם רוצה להיות דוקא צדיק גמור, קשה לו להיות בעל תשובה
When a person wants to be a complete tzaddik, it is difficult for him to be a person of teshuvah [return].

Is that not a stunningly gorgeous formulation? Or am I just drunk on Rav Kook, and all of you are wondering what's so special about that sentence?

Thursday, August 26, 2010

UNIFIL: Our activities could not be implemented without the cooperation of the Lebanese Army

Thanks to the Jerusalem Post, I know that UNIFIL has now completed its investigation into the murder of an Israeli by Lebanese soldiers a few weeks ago:

Lebanese soldiers shot and killed an Israeli battalion commander earlier this month in an unprovoked attack along the northern border, according to a report sent Wednesday to the IDF by UNIFIL on the organization’s investigation into the attack.
The report was submitted to the IDF and Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). UNIFIL confirmed its preliminary conclusions that the IDF soldiers had not crossed the internationally recognized border between Israel and Lebanon known as the Blue Line when pruning a tree on the other side of the fence but still within Israeli sovereign territory.

This matches the New York Times report from back on August 5:
The United Nations peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon, Unifil, said Wednesday that it had concluded that Israeli forces were cutting trees that lay within their own territory before a lethal exchange of fire with Lebanese Army troops, largely vindicating Israel’s account of how the fighting started.

But you wouldn’t know it from CNN, of course.

Back on August 3, CNN reported some degree of confusion:
Two separate narratives emerged about the incident.
Israel said the Lebanese fired on Israeli soldiers who were on the Israeli side of the border.
In Jerusalem, Israeli Intelligence Minister Dan Meridor said the incident was captured on video and that it all occurred on Israeli soil...
The Lebanese army's account and a report from Lebanese media said, however, that the hostilities occurred when Israel wanted to remove a tree.
A Lebanese army unit stopped the Israelis, and the U.N. Interim Force in Lebanon intervened, the National News Agency said.
The Lebanese army said it asked the U.N. force to arbitrate the issue, but the Israeli forces didn't comply and entered Lebanese territory. That led the army to open fire, with Israeli forces returning artillery fire and hitting a house in the village of Odaise.
But Lebanese President Michel Suleiman said Israel violated U.N. Resolution 1701 in crossing the blue line and by bombing a Lebanese army checkpoint in Odaise. He said Israeli aggression needs "to be confronted, whatever the sacrifices are" and that he will pursue the issue diplomatically.

And on August 4, in contrast to the New York Times coverage of the preliminary UN report, CNN simply said:
"The U.N. announcement today clearly corroborates the Israeli version of events," said Mark Regev, an Israeli government spokesman, in a written statement. "Our routine activity yesterday was conducted entirely SOUTH of the frontier -- on the Israeli side -- and that the Lebanese army opened fire without any provocation or justification whatsoever."
But UNIFIL said, "The investigations are still ongoing" and the body's findings will be released only after they conclude.

So where’s the CNN update, now that the investigations are complete? Where’s the opportunity to set the record straight?

Of course, this is all part of the bigger picture on the Lebanese border, the attempt to beatify the Lebanese army at the expense of Israel. After all, consider that on the same day UNIFIL released this report, they also donated 24 vehicles to the Lebanese army, at a ceremony on which UNIFIL itself reported:

UNIFIL Force Commander Major-General Alberto Asarta Cuevas stressed that conditions on the ground have significantly improved and that cooperation between UNIFIL and LAF has become a “central cornerstone in the implementation of our mandated tasks.”
“Our activities could not be implemented without the cooperation of the Lebanese Army, which has demonstrated – time and again – its professionalism and commitment to UN Security Council resolution 1701 working in close partnership with UNIFIL troops,”


Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The best Thank You e-card ever

The other day a friend sent me an electronic Thank You card, and it was such a smile-inducer, I shared it with my kids, who loved it.

It’s a "Hoops and Yoyo" Hallmark card, with the two cartoon characters offering “a million Thank Yous” – and then chattering Thank You repeatedly in their unique way, while counting them up. Loved it, and loved the cute touches, like what happens when you hit the “Is that enough thanks?” button. [Although I’m not a fan of the word ‘nutso’ used in that audio – but I digress.] It was a real pick-me-up.


We let it run on our computer until it actually reached one million [it took about 24 hours], but I won’t ruin the surprise by telling what happens when you get there. You can send one from the E-cards section of hallmark.com; it's free with a subscription, or 99 cents otherwise. Well worth it, in my opinion.

Go ahead, try it out.

[Note: This is not Hallmark product placement; I have no skin in this game. I just loved the card I received.]

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

I want more than a Shofar blower

I was probably nine or ten years old when I demonstrated to our shul’s gabbai that I already knew how to blow shofar. I wanted to know about being eligible to blow shofar in our shul when I would become bar mitzvah; he kindly left the matter open-ended, perhaps trusting me to forget or change my mind between then and my thirteenth year. I don’t remember whether I forgot or became less capable of blowing or was discouraged by others, but I never pursued it.

I’m glad I didn’t pursue it; blowing shofar is more than just producing airflow and moving your tongue and lips into position. It’s about giving mussar [ethical rebuke] to the community.

Technically, of course, this is ludicrous. Shofar is a mechanical mitzvah, and if the tokeia (shofar blower) intends to perform the mitzvah and does it right, the mitzvah is the mitzvah and we can all mark that one off on our Rosh HaShanah “Things to Do” checklist. So what’s wrong with a synagogue that lets a kid blow shofar, or that lets all comers blow part of the blasts, first come, first serve?

My answer: Shofar is more than that. Shofar is, as even the legalist Rambam acknowledges, more than just a hoop through which we jump. Yes, we blow shofar because Gd told us to blow shofar (Rosh haShanah 16a). Nonetheless, the shofar is also a much-needed call to the sleepers to wake up (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4), and that role does not belong to a thirteen year old child. That role belongs to someone who can legitimately call upon others to rise from their spiritual slumber.

To me, shofar is a mussar shmooze. It’s a piercing blast, it’s a cry that shakes me loose from my moorings, it’s a keening wail, it’s a frightening siren, it’s even the voice of the Divine in unsubtle disguise demanding of me, “Ayekah!” Where have you been, and how did you get there? What is this arrogance I see in you? What is this casual attitude you take to berachos, to davening, to learning Torah, to talking to other people and looking after their needs? What have you done with all of that talent I vouchsafed to you? What have you done with the lives of your children, which I assigned to your care and for which you will be called to judgment? By what right do you call yourself by these grandiose titles – Rabbi, Father, Husband? Who do you think you are, Torczyner? [Yes, a Jew must know what he has achieved and must not belittle it. But we must also know what we have yet to achieve.]

Those demands cannot come in the voice of a child, trying on mitzvos he does not yet understand. Sure, any kid can blow a shofar – but I want my tokeia to be a baal mussar.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Rabbi of the Future

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here]

As CNN and the New York Times reported last week, Beloit College publishes The Mindset List, an annual list of facts about the world of their incoming freshmen, to help their faculty recognize the contours of the universe their young students inhabit.

It’s an eye-opening list; for this year’s freshmen (born in 1992), the factoids include:
Few in the class know how to write in cursive.
Email is just too slow, and they seldom if ever use snail mail.
Los Angelenos have always been trying to get along.
Entering college this fall in a country where a quarter of young people under 18 have at least one immigrant parent, they aren't afraid of immigration...unless it involves "real" aliens from another planet.
Colorful lapel ribbons have always been worn to indicate support for a cause.
Trading Chocolate the Moose for Patti the Platypus helped build their Beanie Baby collection.
Fergie is a pop singer, not a princess.
They never twisted the coiled handset wire aimlessly around their wrists while chatting on the phone.
DNA fingerprinting and maps of the human genome have always existed.

So it set me thinking: What about today’s rabbinical students, young men (in my corner of the Jewish world) in their early 20’s who are just starting to learn for semichah (ordination)? What shapes their philosophical universe, what assumptions do they have which will influence the way they learn, the way they daven, the way they lead their communities, when they receive semichah?

In other words: What will be the mental world of your new rabbi?

I can think of a few for these students, who were likely born in 1988-1990.

Rav Moshe Feinstein has always been deceased.
Rav Soloveitchik, the Lubavitcher Rebbe and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach passed away before they started grade school.
There have been CD editions of sefarim, and Jewish educational software, since before they started grade school.

Cutting-Edge Issues that are no longer cutting edge
The Reform movement has always accepted patrilineal descent.
Abortion has always been legal in the United States.
“Don’t ask, don’t tell” has always been the policy of the US Military.
Yeshivat Chovevei Torah has existed since before they entered Junior High School.
R' Avi Weiss's "Women at Prayer: A Halakhic Analysis of Women's Prayer Groups" was published when they were still in diapers.
The US Jewish intermarriage rate has always been around 50%.

They have heard about the Six Day War – from their grandparents.
They have heard about the 1981 Lebanon War and the Iraqi nuclear reactor and the first Intifada – from their parents.
Ethiopian Jews have always lived in Israel.
R' Meir Kahane was assassinated before they were out of diapers.
Iraq launched Scuds at Israel in Gulf War I before they were out of diapers.
Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated before they graduated kindergarten.

Jewish Life in North America
Soviet Jewry has always meant small communities led by Chabad emissaries and served by other outreach groups, rather than large masses of Jews trapped behind an Iron Curtain and squelched by Communism.
It is entirely possible that even their grandparents have no adult memories of the Holocaust era.
The Crown Heights Riots occurred when they were still in diapers.
Adam Sandler's Chanukah Song has been playing on the radio since before they entered grade school.
Award-winning Israeli wines have always been available in North America; no Malaga has ever crossed their palates.
The last new Seinfeld episode aired before they turned nine years old.
Baruch Lanner had resigned from NCSY before they were old enough to attend an event.
The Siyum haShas of Daf Yomi has always been held in Madison Square Garden –and the Barnum and Bailey Circus has held events there for Chol haMoed since they were Bar Mitzvah.

What would you add to this list?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Scottie Pippen, Jari Kurri and the Jews (Derashah: Ki Tetze 5770)

I'll be delivering the derashah in a shul this Shabbos, so here's a preview:

The Dubna Magid tells of a thief who encountered a wagon driver, whacked the driver over the head and took off down the road with his horses. After a few days of pursuit the driver eventually catches up with the thief - who turns to him and says, “Well, it’s about time; I’ve been exercising your horses for three days! My fee is $500.”

We don’t really reward the thief’s unintended “service” – but we do reward unintended tzedakah; Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah said as much in commenting on the mitzvah of שכחה.

In שכחה, a harvester who forgets stalks of grain gets credit for accidental tzedakah. Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah took that further in a Sifri, saying (ה)מאבד סלע מתוך ידו ומצאה עני והלך ונתפרנס בה מעלה עליו הכתוב כאלו זכה – If I lose a coin and a pauper finds it and uses it, I get credit as though I had given tzedakah.

Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah’s central point is about the nature of tzedakah, but his observation also highlights another important issue: The role of the tzedakah recipient, without whom this act of tzedakah does not exist.

At the moment when our gentleman dropped his coin, he was a schlemiel. But then the עני picked up the coin – and now, instant philanthropist! Or to borrow from quantum physics, the owner of the coin is in an unresolved state when he drops the coin, until either that coin rolls into a sewer drain unnoticed and so he’s a schlemiel, or a pauper takes the coin and thereby resolves him into a baal tzedakah.

Bottom line: The עני/pauper completes the donor’s mitzvah. Indeed, some suggest that this is why we don’t recite a berachah upon the mitzvah of giving tzedakah – because there must also be a recipient, and we cannot thank HaShem for creating a needy person. Without a needy person, the mitzvah cannot happen; it’s a joint effort.

Viewing a mitzvah as a joint effort is part of a larger halachic and philosophical picture which portrays all Jews as interlocking puzzle pieces, individual spirits that are part of a greater soul, nanomachines whose cooperative contributions create collective success in the mission of fulfilling Torah. It’s the way we view community, and Jewish community in particular. We are not independent pieces; Rambam calls the person who performs mitzvos on his own a פורש מן הציבור. We interconnect, and we contribute to each other’s righteousness, knowingly and unknowingly, in order to bring the greater mission to fruition.

This interconnectedness mandates the Torah’s overarching לפני עור prohibition; ולפני עור לא תתן מכשול, I am not allowed to do anything which will cause others to stumble in sin. My responsibility is not only to my own righteousness, but also to burnish the righteousness of others around me until it shines.

And this interconnectedness mandates the concept of כל ישראל ערבין זה בזה, of mutual mitzvah responsibility. I can fulfill mitzvos on behalf of others, such as by reciting kiddush for them, and Rav Soloveitchik explained that this is because my mitzvah of kiddush is incomplete so long as someone else has yet to fulfill his mitzvah. We all interlock.

Within this greater interconnectedness, I am not only capable of turning others into tzaddikim, but Halachah demands that I turn others into tzaddikim. An עני doesn’t only have the option of picking up the coin and so turning a schlemiel into a philanthropist – he is actually obligated to do so.

This interconnectedness has daily practical applications:
• A Yom Tov meal that shared with others fulfills the Torah’s mandate of inviting others to join our celebration.
• A kohen serves as a kohen only if people come to him to bring a korban on their behalf.
• When we daven with a community, it’s תפילה בציבור only when people are participating. The Shulchan Aruch writes regarding the repetition of Shemoneh Esreih that people’s responses of Amen are what make the chazzan’s berachos valid.
• Or think about lashon hara; when I refuse to listen to the latest scandal du jour, I save the other person from a significant עבירה.
• Or look at talmud torah – When I listen to the rebbe, I convert him into a מגיד שיעור, enabling him to fulfill the great mitzvah of teaching Torah.

This is why we create kehillos, shuls, batei midrash and chavrusos, gemachs and chevros kadisha ר"ל, vaadim and so on – because we need others in order to make our mitzvos complete, and because we are obligated to do the same on their behalf. All of us, multiple times each day, have opportunities to play the role of the עני, helping others to go from schlemiels to tzaddikim by cooperating in their mitzvos.

I know Canadians don’t pay much attention to basketball, but in this mission we are like Scottie Pippen, who was admitted to the Basketball Hall of Fame last week.
Scottie Pippen made his career as second fiddle to Michael Jordan, winning six championships with him. Pippen was a great player in his own right, one of the greatest defensive players ever and a fantastic shooter, even named recently as one of the Top 50 basketball players of all time – but his claim to fame is as the man who made someone else shine.

For hockey fans, think of what Jari Kurri did for Wayne Gretzky.

Being Scottie Pippen or Jari Kurri is what Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah’s tzedakah recipient does for the accidental בעל צדקה, it’s what we do when we answer Amen or listen to a shiur or decline to hear לשון הרע - we assist others in their mitzvos, we help them shine, and so we make the greater, interconnected whole a success.


1. The Dubna Magid's story, in its original form (which I have altered somewhat), appears in Mishlei Yaakov to Ki Tetze, on Bilam's attempt to gain credit for blessing the Jews. Bilam does not get credit, since he intended to harm us.

2. Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah's comment is in Sifri Ki Tetze 73; note that Rashi to Devarim 24:19 uses a slightly altered version. Also, I saw one writer who sought to read the Sifri's כאלו as though this was not wholly considered tzedakah, but I do not believe this read is correct.

4. On the issue of intent in tzedakah, note that we look at tzedakah not as Latin caritas, an act of charitable love for the needy, and not as Arabic zakat, an act of intentional sacrifice, but as tzedek, a natural transfer of HaShem’s wealth to those who deserve it. As Pirkei Avos says, תן לו משלו שאתה ושלך שלו, all that we distribute really belongs to HaShem. So I don’t need to give it lovingly, willingly, or even knowingly; tzedakah is tzedakah, regardless.

5. On the role of the pauper in enabling tzedakah, see also R’ Akiva’s reply to Turnus Rufus regarding tzedakah and בנים אתם, in Bava Basra 10a.

6. The importance of an Amen in making a chazan's berachah legitimate is in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 124:4.

7. Part of an alternative ending I considered for this derashah: The concept of turning others into tzaddikim is an unusual application of what Rav Chaim of Volozhin described as the purpose of our very existence. As Rav Chaim’s son, Rav Yitzchak, described his father’s counsel: וכה היה דברו אלי תמיד שזה כל האדם. לא לעצמו נברא רק להועיל לאחריני ככל אשר ימצא בכחו לעשות – “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.” Certainly, the normal way to fulfill Rav Chaim Volozhiner’s advice is to offer chesed, to give tzedakah, but there are a myriad ways in which we interlock, and in which we can be מועיל לאחריני, we can turn the people around us into tzaddikim.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Rav Kook on Teshuvah: Healthy, Natural and Guaranteed

As noted here, I've been learning Rav Kook's Orot haTeshuvah in Elul.

Drawing on sources from Tanach, Gemara and Kabbalah, Rav Avraham Yitzchak haKohen Kook taught that teshuvah is more than a mechanical, three-step method of admitting, correcting and abandoning our sins. As Rav Kook described it, Teshuvah is a glittering thread woven into the fabric of the universe, a natural longing for righteousness, and an engine inexorably moving all of Creation toward the original Divine vision of perfection.

Here are several key passages from Orot haTeshuvah, Rav Kook’s landmark work describing the nature of Teshuvah. The translation is almost linear; the original Hebrew is available at http://www.hebrewbooks.org/31307.

Teshuvah is guaranteed
The world is guaranteed to come to full repentance. The world is not static; it continues to develop. True, complete development must bring about total physical and spiritual health, which will bring with it the light of the life of teshuvah. (Orot haTeshuvah 5:3)

Teshuvah comes from the longing of the entire universe to become better and more pure, stronger and more elevated than its current state. At the core of this drive is a life-force that triumphs over the limited, weak character of natural existence. The repentance of an individual, and certainly of the community, draws its strength from this life-force, which flows unceasingly, at full strength. (Orot haTeshuvah 6:1)

Teshuvah always resides in the heart; even at the moment of sin, the impulse for teshuvah is hidden in the soul, radiating influence which will be revealed later, with the arrival of the regret that calls for teshuvah. Teshuvah resides in the depths of existential life, for it preceded the universe, and before sin arrives its teshuvah is already prepared. Therefore, nothing in this universe is as certain as teshuvah, and, ultimately, all will be repaired. (Orot haTeshuvah 6:2)

Teshuvah is a natural product of health and maturity:

The desire for teshuvah is a person’s most healthy spiritual desire. A healthy soul in a healthy body is compelled to achieve the great bliss of teshuvah, experiencing in it the greatest natural pleasure.

A properly functioning body removes harmful materials, thereby improving and healing the body. One who is spiritually and physically healthy will remove evil deeds and the evil, corrupt impressions they produce, every evil thought, and the distance from Divine influence which founds all evil, crudeness and ugliness. (Orot haTeshuvah 5:1)

Teshuvah is a process of developing our potential:

A person’s life is perfected by developing his inherent character. However, one’s still-undeveloped character lacks insight, and so sin is guaranteed along this path of development. “There is no righteous person in the land who will commit good and not sin. [Kohelet 7:20]” On the other hand, eliminating one’s natural character in order to prevent sin is itself the greatest sin, [regarding which the Torah says of the nazir in Bamidbar 6:11,] “He shall atone for his sin against life.”

Therefore, Teshuvah repairs one’s corruption and restores the world and this person’s life to its root, specifically by helping the inherent character to develop. (Orot haTeshuvah 5:6)

The potential for Teshuvah is always present:

Even if a person consistently stumbles, damaging his righteousness and ethical behavior, this does not damage his fundamental perfection. A person’s fundamental perfection is found in his longing and desire to achieve perfection, a desire which is the foundation of teshuvah, and which continually governs his path in life. (Orot haTeshuvah 5:5)

The rewards of Teshuvah:
With every aspect of ugliness banished from a person’s soul upon his internal commitment to teshuvah, whole worlds are revealed, in celestial clarity, in the midst of his soul. Removal of sin is like removal of a blinder from above an eye, such that the full field of vision is now revealed, a light from the breadth of heaven, earth and all they contain. (Orot haTeshuvah 5:2)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

And now for something completely different - The Yoda GPS

A lot of heavier material lately; time for a break:

Yes, it appears that Yoda (and Darth Vader) have now recorded voice-overs for TomTom GPS. Which makes me very disappointed that we have a Garmin. Granted that Garmin has its own alternative voices, I just can't see putting Squirrely the Squirrel in the same league as the Jedi and the Sith. The most fun we have with the Garmin is switching it to Mandarin and the like before making deliberate wrong turns, so that our children can learn how to say, "Re-calculating" in new tongues.

And for those needing more substance, or more of a break, this week's Haveil Havalim is here.

(hat-tip: Jendeis)

Friday, August 13, 2010

Elias Abuelazam? Not a Jew

I wanted to leave this morning's Rav Kook post on top for several days, but my ire is up.

Like pretty much every other North American citizen, I've spent the past news cycle reading about Elias Abuelazam and his killing spree - apparently a racist attack against African-Americans, to boot. And every report I've read in the North American press has identified him as "an Israeli."

Great - A Jew goes off the rails and starts knifing people in the US, that's another one for the anti-Jewish crowd to eat up. They've wrung every drop of Jewish blood they could out of the Flotilla ambush, and they did their best with the Lebanese border attack until video showed that the Lebanese army had staged it, so they need a new reason to attack Jews - and Elias Abuelazam, aka "Israeli citizen arrested in serial stabbing case," is ideal.

But it ain't quite the way the media is painting it. People hear "Israeli," they assume, "Israeli Jew." But, in fact, he is an Arab Christian.

You wouldn't know that from the major news outlets. To quote headlines collected by a blogger named Sheila B:
New York Times: '...arrested at the airport as he tried to board a plane to Israel...'
CNN: First two words in headline, 'Israeli Citizen'.
NBC: Headline, 'Serial Stabbing Suspect Nabbed on Way to Israel'.
CBS: Headline, 'Israeli Suspect Nabbed in Deadly Stabbing Spree'.
ABC: Headline: 'Serial Stabber Suspect Arrested in Airport Trying to Flee to Israel'. And finally, finally, ABC did mention he's an 'Israeli-Arab'.
FOX described him as an Israeli citizen.

Of course, it doesn't matter whether he is Jew, Christian, Muslim or Martian - people have been murdered, families have been destroyed. The killer's ethnicity shouldn't be the story.

But it bugs me. What justification is there for this obfuscation? The media are normally not allergic to identifying Israeli Arabs as separate from Jews; just the opposite, they look to play up differences between the two populations, even when there are none. Remember the "Apartheid state" canard?

So why is he simply an "Israeli" now? Why encourage people to blame the Jews?

Rav Kook says: Teshuvah. It's guaranteed.

I've been learning Rav Kook's Orot haTeshuvah this Elul. In honor of Rav Kook's 75th Yahrtzeit, observed today [and see my Canadian Jewish News article in his honor], I want to quote three lines.

From his introduction:
התשובה היא תופסת את החלק היותר גדול בתורה ובחיים, עליה בנויות כל התקוות האישיות והציבוריות
Teshuvah [repentance] occupies the greatest portion of Torah and Life, and upon it are founded all of the hopes of the individual and the community.

From Perek 5:
העולם מוכרח הוא לבא לידי תשובה שלימה
The universe is compelled to come to complete teshuvah.

And, most powerfully, from Perek 6:
אין דבר בטוח בעולם כמו התשובה
Nothing in this universe is as certain as teshuvah.

I cry when I read this sentences. Okay, I cry easily, but still - I haven't been this moved by a Torah text since the first time I read Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch.

Rav Kook spends a lot of time on the mystical character of teshuvah - how it ties into the fundamental nature of the universe, why it is necessary, how it influences one's actions in the past as well as the future - but he doesn't use mystical jargon. I find it inspiring, very readable, and very worthwhile.

I'm embarrassed it's taken me this long to learn it כסדר.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Make sure to check my Tefillin

In a conversation the other day, someone used me as grounds for permitting a certain leniency, extrapolating from another practice I had once permitted.

This was a significant mistake, for two reasons:

First: I had specific halachic guidance, unique to that situation, from a respected authority. The talmudic rule of אין מדמין מילתא למילתא, that we do not extrapolate from one case to another, applies here.

And second, and the focus of this post: Practices and rulings, whether lenient or stringent, are not automatically enshrined as law.

Unfortunately, people often cite precedent unquestioningly. Every shul rabbi knows the Precedent Conversation:
Rabbi: I think we should change shul policy, to do X [such as have the chazan wear a talis/jacket; daven at plag on Friday night; have youth leaders daven hashkamah before running their youth groups].
President/Gabbai/Board/Membership: Rabbi Predecessor didn’t require this. Wasn’t he frum enough?

And so do teenagers learning in yeshiva:
Teen: I don’t feel comfortable doing that [eating in Restaurant X; going to a movie; kissing her uncle] anymore.
Parent: It was good enough for your parents/grandparents, it’s good enough for you.

But argument from tradition is not necessarily valid. I am familiar with the argument that Judaism was classically passed down memetically, by imitation of the previous generation’s behavior, but (1) This thesis is not universally correct, and (2) Saying that general current practice is based on general past practice does not mean that all past practices are carried forward. Respect is our predecessors’ just due, but questioning is warranted.

There are poskim, legal authorities, whose word ought to be automatic law by dint of their proven knowledge, clarity and analysis; their maturity and gravitas; and their apprenticeship to other such authorities. But even then, such guaranteed authority is granted to their explicit rulings, not to vague stories which are open to interpretation.

To return to my opening point, then:

When I move on from this world and my tefillin go to someone else to use, I hope his rabbi will have them checked, and not simply say, “Those were Torczyner’s tefillin, they should be fine.”

When I eat a certain product, I hope that someone who sees me will ask about the hechsher and not assume that I must have done so.

And when someone finds out that I permitted X, I hope he’ll stop and ask, “But does that mean I should do the same?”

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

How Jewish Law defines the application of Jewish Ethics

Jewish law and Jewish ethics are intertwined, with one defining how the other is implemented. An ethical mandate must still be fulfilled only within the letter of the law; a law must be followed with ethical behavior.

Here is an example, from a book I’ve been reviewing recently, the Chazon Ish’s Emunah uBitachon (Perek 3 – translation and any errors are my own):

At times, ethical obligations and halachic rulings are a single unit, with the law determining what the ethical system will prohibit or permit.

For example: Bava Batra 21b says regarding competition between schools that there is no legal standing for an argument [against a new competitor] of, ‘You are interrupting my livelihood.’

Therefore, we have the following situation: A city has schoolteachers who are supported by their work, and then new teachers suddenly arrive from elsewhere. Naturally, people are not satisfied with the old teachers and jump to the newcomers, harming the established teachers of that city. The injured parties develop hatred in their own hearts against their new assailants, and out of this heartfelt hatred they seek complaints, blemishes and claims against them. They teach their tongues to speak evil about them, and they go from evil to evil to produce empty charges and awaken the community’s mercy against the cruelty of the newcomers. They increase quarrels and fights, and sometimes even take revenge, as they are capable.

All of these deeds would be innocent of sin if the law agreed that they could block the newcomers. Then the newcomers would be the ones sinning with their lives, rebelling against the law which was stated to Moshe Rabbeinu at Sinai. There would be no prohibition against strife, harmful speech or baseless hatred. Indeed, there would be a mitzvah of battling in order to establish proper religious conduct.

But the law has determined that jealousy between scribes increases knowledge, and that this basic principle is of greater importance than the life of individuals. Therefore, the newcomers are acting within the law and those who stand against them are spilling innocent blood. When they hate the newcomers they are transgressing, ‘You shall not hate your brother.’ When they speak evil against them they violate the prohibition against harmful speech. When they gather groups to quarrel they violate, ‘There shall not be one like Korach.’ When they take revenge by preventing the newcomers from succeeding, they violate, ‘Do not take revenge.’

So when Bava Batra 21b says, “Rav Huna agrees regarding schoolteachers, that they cannot prevent [competition],” that law includes many resulting ethical obligations….

When the city’s established schoolteacher cries out before Gd, ‘Save me from my pursuers, for they are stronger,’ a voice replies from the heavens, ‘Woe to those who act like Zimri and ask for reward like Pinchas! You are the pursuer! You are the one who does not honor the Torah! I wrote in My Torah that a schoolteacher cannot block [competition].’

The upshot: Ethical obligations and expectations are about more than my own moral compass. Within Judaism, my moral compass must be linked with and informed by, my awareness of the law, and must function within that law.

And then, of course, we must add the flipside: Ethics provide boundaries for our actions just as the law does. The fact that one is legally justified in an action does not mean that he must take it; there is a concept of לפנים משורת הדין lifnim mishurat hadin, transcending the law, such that we consider a person praiseworthy if he forgives his rights.

Therefore: The new teachers are praiseworthy if they avoid competing. And those who live in the town are praiseworthy if they do not block the newcomers, even where they have the right to do so.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

My life as a secret agent

CNN has an article here about a woman named Laura Miller who styled herself “Secret Agent L” and did nice things for people anonymously, and then started a blog to encourage others to do the same. You can find her blog here.

ברוך שכוונתי – My wife and I did this in our community in Rhode Island, when we had just gotten married. This is the first time I’m writing about it; as the Rambam wrote, it’s best to be fully anonymous, but I think Laura Miller is also right – it pays to publicize this sort of thing, in order to encourage others to do likewise.

It was very simple: We went to a local florist on a Friday and bought a bouquet, and then gave it to our partner in crime, a high school student who did the delivery. The note was simple: “Have a good Shabbos,” and it was signed, “A Friend.” That was it.

We did it for several months – this was before we had children, when we (thought we) could afford it. We sent the flowers to older people who lived alone and to families, to people who had friends and people who were more reclusive, to people from our shul and to people who were not affiliated.

It was fun, and it felt good, and it was a mitzvah, designed around the gemara’s account of Mar Ukva and his wife leaving money behind a door, for a pauper to find (Kesuvos 67b). I admit that we naively thought it might take off on its own, inspiring recipients to do likewise for others, but we never heard of anyone else doing it.

[Of course, we also worried that there might be a "creep factor" involved - that someone might suspect something weird or improper was behind the flowers, leading to trouble. Not unlike some of the "secret missions" listed on Laura Miller's blog; in one, for example, someone leaves body wash and body lotion in a fitness club shower, with a note that this is a gift given in kindness. I, for one, wouldn't use those if I found them; I'd worry about a hidden camera prank, or worse.]

Fast-forward a dozen years later, and the Internet is a great tool for helping to promote this sort of activity. יישר כחך, Laura Miller – good job, and may you grow stronger in your efforts.

Added note: In a sense, the shul rabbinate is essentially a career of anonymous favors - finding ways to help people, directly and indirectly, often without them knowing you are the provider. Now that I’m out of the pulpit the opportunities are fewer, but there is always some way to do it.

To cite Rav Yitzchak of Volozhin, regarding his father, Rav Chaim of Volozhin:
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."

Monday, August 9, 2010

"A little girl sick with cancer"

It’s been a great week here; we’ve gotten together with several friends who have made aliyah, we’ve visited Ramat Shilo/Ramat Beit Shemesh, Yad Binyamin (a wonderful Shabbos!), and Beer Sheva, and we’ve had a chance to breathe after the hectic year that just passed. Very, very good; a beautiful trip – and we still have two days left, thank Gd.

It has been hard to deal with one aspect of traveling around Israel, though: the constant call of people in economic need.

I knew they would be here; as a policy, I regularly purchase small items with large-shekel bills so that I’ll have the half-shekel and one-shekel coins to distribute to them. But this time it’s worse, at least in Yerushalayim. I don’t know that the general מצב (situation) is any worse, but it never hit me as hard before, probably because I wasn’t as exposed to the phenomenon.

The major sites for people sitting on the ground and calling for help, at least where we’ve been this trip, are the shuls and the תחנה מרכזית (central bus station). When I was here in yeshiva I rarely traveled. When I was here with Federation trips we rode charter buses rather than travel by city bus; we went to Yad Eliezer and youth villages, but that's not the same as the woman on the street with her hand out. I was here for work this past January, but that was a lightning trip – four days from beginning to end, including the flights. On this trip, though, we’ve spent a lot of time walking back and forth between Rechavyah and the תחנה, walking up and down King George/Strauss/Yechezkel, and walking from Rechavyah to the Old City. The result: Lots of exposure to people in need.

Many of them are the usual suspects – older men and women on the street, as well as chassidim of various varieties at the minyanim. But others, too. A young woman in a snood, looking very much like any number of women I saw in Yad Binyamin, at the תחנה last night. An apparently healthy young man in shul the other morning. And the woman who provided the title of this post, who has been stationed outside the תחנה (by the train-track construction, where you cross the street if you came in by intracity bus) every day for at least the past week, repeating in a monotone, “ילדה חולת סרטן, A little girl sick with cancer.”

I have a hard time with this. I am well aware that some of the collectors could go to work, and that many of the stories these people tell are false or colored. Still – how can you hear ילדה חולת סרטן and walk on? And yet, I did just a short while ago…

Very tough.

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here.]

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Rabbi! Your job should not be fulfilling

NOTE: If you arrived here from my Beit Midrash email of February 4, the article you want is here; I apologize.

A few different people have emailed me a link to the New York Times' recent article on Clergy Burnout... gotta wonder if it's only because I'm finally taking a vacation...

The article gives me a chance to hold forth on an important issue within Rabbinic Burnout. I've talked about Burnout before, in posts you can access here. I've talked a bit about Rabbinic Vacations, as they do in that NYT article. But I think the Times article fails to drill down on a key question: Why don't clergy take vacations?

The article assumes that clergy don't take vacations because they are overworked, or because they feel it's irresponsible to take a vacation when congregants are in need. Those are part of it, certainly, but there is another, more scary reason why clergy have a hard time taking vacations: It's because we sometimes fall into the trap of looking to our jobs for the bulk of our sippuk hanefesh [fulfillment].

If I depend on a given activity for all or most of my fulfillment, then other activities become unattractive, empty, devoid of satisfaction. Rabbis who depend on "rabbi-ing" for their satisfaction will have a hard time spending time with family or friends, or travelling, or even learning Torah for the sake of their own growth. Those activities don't provide the reward - only being the Rabbi does.

Aside from the danger this poses to the rabbi's family life, it also poses a risk to his health, as noted in the New York Times article. And it poses a risk to his rabbinic performance, too, because your job, no matter what it is, cannot provide that type of satisfaction.

Why can't a job fill my constant need for sippuk? A job has natural stresses and tensions that come with its oblgations. A job has failures (gasp!) that come with its challenges. So it can't provide satisfaction all the time. Try to use it that way, and the job burns out.

A decade ago, I heard a talk on the topic from Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski on Clergy Burnout. The audio is on the RCA website, but for RCA members only; sorry. Here, though, is a transcript of a key section on why clergy should not look to their jobs for satisfaction:

We all need emotional sippuk… What are our sources? I’m going on record as saying that more than 50%, or perhaps 75% of our emotional input, should come from non-work-related sources, such as family, friends, learning Torah, mitzvos, whatever. Some of us have hobbies, some of us have kinds of things that we like to do for relaxation, whatever. But the work should not be expected to provide – we have a job to do, we have a tafkid to do, fine. But we should not be dependent on our work for the lion’s share of our emotional input, because if we do then we are going to reach burnout… Don’t expect the job to give you the greater part of your sippuk. The greater part of your sippuk should come from other sources…

Here Rabbi Dr. Twerski compared the job which is expected to provide fulfillment to a flat iron that is expected to double as a griddle and a space heater. Use an iron as an iron, and the filament will last for ten or twelve years of occasional operation. Use it for these constant purposes, and it will burn out immediately.

Sometimes we go so heavily into our jobs that we neglect the other sources. We don’t spend enough time with the family, we don’t spend enough time with friends, we may even find that we’re compromised on the time that we’ll spend learning, and there is a justification for it, sometimes מצוה שאי אפשר לעשות על ידי אחרים is דוחה תלמוד תורה, so there’s kinds of things we have to do that may take legitimate halachadik [his word, not mine] priority over learning, so what happens is – let alone that we don’t take enough time for relaxation except maybe we can get away for two weeks – and what happens is that we don’t get enough sippuk from other sources, which means that it’s going to depend totally on the work we do.

The title of this post is an exaggeration, obviously. All of us should find some fulfillment in our jobs, and this is certainly true for rabbis, who help people meet their own spiritual needs. But if a rabbi finds he can't take a vacation, he should ask himself: Is it because I feel empty when I take time away from the job? If so, it's time for some serious re-balancing. Don't take it from me, take it from Rabbi Dr. Twerski.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Killing Flies in the Holy Land

Therapydoc posted about bug-aversion here, reminding me of something that happened to me last night.

Sitting in the apartment where we are staying on this (all-too-short) trip, I spotted a fly on the wall. It wasn’t a small creature; it was a large fly, an insect of significance, possibly even gestational significance for all I know. No entomologist I.

I don’t like to kill things, and so I generally try to save such creatures by trapping them and releasing them outside, but it was late Monday night and I had not slept since an all-too-short Motzaei Shabbos doze and I was exhausted from the plane trip and I knew that if I took the creature outside it would only return indoors even before I did. And, after all, the fly was indoors, in human terrain, not out in its own kingdom.

My one problem: I’m in Israel.

So what? Israelis kill bugs, you know. Probably better than Canadians, too, since Canadians don’t believe in pesticides and insecticides.

But I still hesitated. I forever oscillate between the cynicism of my New York upbringing and the Torah sentimentalism of my education. Being in Israel really brings out the conflict; I get teary when I see the mezuzot at Ben Gurion, and I long for the days when they played Hatikvah as your plane landed at Ben Gurion. (Well, I don’t know that Air Canada ever did that, but El Al did.) I’m totally a kiss-the-ground type, and hope to remain that way even after the day I make aliyah. But I know how silly a lot of that looks to Israelis, for whom this is the land of traffic jams and school supplies, crime statistics and the price of yogurt. I go back and forth.

But to return to the story: It felt weird, executing the fly.

I did it anyway, of course. I was able to justify the brutality by deciding that it was not for my own sake, but for the sake of the Rebbetzin; it was an act of chesed, as I see it. Just another mitzvah opportunity, just doing my job.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Happy Anniversary

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here]

Today, the Sunday following Parshat Eikev, marks the one-year anniversary since I left the pulpit rabbinate. I'm still sorting out what that means to me.

I've had the chance to grow in many new directions this year; my knowledge base and writing skills are among the beneficiaries of the switch. I'm learning more about management, as well; in shul life I learned a great deal about administration, but I have received a real education in the difference between organizational administration and personnel management.

Distance has helped me look at the shul rabbinate in a new light, too. I'm better able to distinguish between elements of the rabbinate as a whole, and elements of the pulpits I held.

I still miss many aspects of shul life - shul life in general, and the lives of the shuls I served in particular. I miss the personal connections, most of all. The way that a shiur was not only an educational experience, but also a relationship. As I meet more people here and deepen my connections, I'm starting to build those relationships, but the framework is very different.

I miss the comprehensive communal role. The sense that I was serving others more, and myself less. I might blog about this more over the next few days; we'll see.

For now, it's off to Israel. We board our flight in just a few minutes, Gd-willing...

One thing is for sure - We could never have taken a trip like this, getting away for this period of time and without 100 different on-going community/personal issues to track, in the shul rabbinate.

Okay, I can admit it: I miss that.

But I'll take advantage for now.