Thursday, December 30, 2010

A visit to Detroit

[Post I’m mulling today: Book Review: Boys Adrift at Orthonomics]

Making good on my commitment to schedule an occasional break and see things new and different, I took some time this week to go with my family to Detroit. I know, it’s not exactly glamorous or dramatic, but this is where you go when you have 48 hours, cold weather, and a desire to daven with a minyan.

So what did we see, and what do we recommend?

First off, Young Israel of Southfield was great. The minyannaires are friendly and warm, they have a women’s section at the daily minyan, the davening is good, the rabbi is good. What more could you ask for?

We went to the Detroit Historical Museum, and that was fun for the kids. We were worried that there wouldn’t be much for the younger ones, but we need not have been concerned – plenty of buttons to push and screens to watch. Enjoyed the video of an actor playing a Polish Jewish immigrant who came over in 1880 – it gave me a chance to teach my kids a little Jewish history – but I didn’t get the “Mazel Tov” thrown in at the end of his shpiel. Guess it wasn’t scripted by a Jew. The model of an assembly line intrigued the kids, and, of course, they liked the Lionel train set. Good space to eat the food we brought with us - this is not a given in many museums. I suppose the museum could have included something about the economic collapse of recent decades, but then, I’m not surprised they didn’t.

Café One was a very good stop for dinner one night. We had a range of items, from ziti to French Onion soup to pancakes a la mode to eggs. All of the food (except perhaps the ice cream) was very good as well as inexpensive, and it was served with a smile.

The Detroit People Mover was fun, although I think older kids would be bored to tears. A fifteen-minute ride around an elevated track, covering a small section of midtown; my kids loved it enough to do it twice. Tip, though: Don’t get on at the Greektown stop. You need to enter through the casino, or take a circuitous route we didn’t enjoy in the bitter cold.

John K. King Used and Rare Books, the self-titled “biggest book store in Michigan”, was definitely worthwhile, both for the experience [four floors of a huge warehouse, jammed wall-to-wall with reading] and for the books we found. It’s hard to find good books for pre-adolescents; the pulp they churn out today tends to try too hard to be cool by putting in the sex I don’t want my kids reading. We discovered some great reads for kids, like a series called “The Boy Allies,” about American kids having adventures in Europe during World War I – written during World War I itself. [You can see the opening volume on Project Gutenberg here.]

The one dud of the trip was Campus Martius Park, which was supposed to have an open-air skating rink. What it actually had was a tiny oval of ice in dire need of a Zamboni. My kids are spoiled by the community centres in skate-happy Toronto; they turned up their noses and declined.

I wanted to take my kids to see the Charles H. Wright Museum of the African-American Experience, but the younger ones aren't old enough yet. They're old enough to vaguely understand what they're seeing, and then to walk up to likely-looking strangers on the street to ask them how they've been doing since they were freed. Next time, perhaps.

All in all, a good trip, thank Gd; I’m glad we went. I’m taking recommendations now for our next trip; must be within a reasonable drive of Toronto.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

How long does it take to film a two-minute video?

The answer: A lot longer than you might think.

Several weeks ago, our kollel began producing two-minute parshah videos; you can find them here. Last week we started posting them on YouTube; our inaugural video is here.

This week was my turn; here it is:

Care to guess how many takes it took before I got to this one? How many cases of bad lighting, rapid blinking or wide-eyed non-blinking, situation too far down in the frame, and so on?

I was in too much of a rush, since we were about to go away on a family trip. And, in truth, after all of those takes I’m still not happy with it. I should have dropped the opening 45 seconds, treating that as a side reference and continuing to the main point. But addressing the question of when the Torah was written, and resolving a passage in which the Torah seems to refer to events that take place after its close, is just too interesting to me. Especially when it’s a chance to highlight the Ibn Ezra in action. So I went for it, and spent less time on the concluding part, with its recommendation for the viewer. Not necessarily a great bargain, but what can you do?

Maybe I should have xtranormal’d the whole thing, to avoid all of the lighting and position issues and permit a better focus on the content. Perhaps next time.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Hypothetical question

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here]

So here's a hypothetical question:

Let's say you were a former shul rabbi who had a 3-year-old blog featuring derashos, shiurim [classes] and pontifications as well as drivel, and you were contemplating an eventual return to the pulpit. Your blog included everything from your music and food preferences to your thoughts about shul, community and international politics.

Would you:
a) Delete the whole thing?

b) Painstakingly review your 700+ posts to eliminate anything that could be used against you?

c) Let it all hang out there, since you really only want a shul that is comfortable with you as you are?

Of course, it's fashionable to say (c), because our utopian vision is one in which everyone gets to say what they want and be who they want and find acceptance. But is that what a shul should have in its rabbi?

Just a hypothetical question, of course; let's not start any rumors here.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Rebbetzin's Responsa #1: Why does my rabbi tell un-funny jokes?

[Those who have been around for a few years may remember seeing me post this elsewhere. If so, יישר כחך.]


To the honored and beloved Rebbetzin's Husband, Shlit”a,

I have long been confused by the rabbinic sense of humor, or lack thereof.

My rabbi makes so-called jokes like “How do we know that Yaakov wore a hat? Because the pasuk says ‘And Yaakov left Beer Sheva,’ and we know he wouldn’t have gone out without a hat!” and “How do you know G-d is a baseball fan? Because the Torah starts, ‘In the big inning!’”

And my current rabbi is not the exception; I have heard similarly un-funny jokes from my yeshiva rabbis as well as shul rabbis since my childhood. Why is this? Why do none of the rabbis I meet have a sense of humor?!


You ask a very good question, my son. When I listen to my rabbinic friends repeat the same joke they have been telling for years, I am reminded of Bruce Wayne’s comment to Alfred regarding party guests: “Keep them happy until I arrive. Tell them that joke you know.” (Batman Begins, 2005, naturally)

Allow me to first build up your question, before attempting to respond. You see, the rabbinic paucity of humor is all the more surprising in that it is a modern phenomenon. Back in the days of the Gemara, rabbis engaged in all manner of humor:

Slapstick - Bar Kappara in Nedarim 50b-51a does the talmudic equivalent of dancing with a lampshade on his head.

Sarcasm - Rav Nachman in Eruvin 36a tells Rava, “Sure, I’ll answer you when you eat a barrel of salt!”

Puns - Rava in Pesachim 9b asks, “Is a chuldah [rodent] a prophetess?” This is a play on the name of Chuldah the Prophetess.

Nicknames - Students called Rav Hemnuna “cold fish” for being unable to answer their questions, on Kiddushin 25a. It’s a play on המנונא Hemnuna, which is close to חמנונא Chamnuna, or “warm fish.”

Black comedy - Perhaps the most famous Talmudic joke, the declaration in Berachos 64a, “Torah scholars increase peace in the world!”

I can just see your sides splitting from all of these witticisms - and there are more like them! Let's not forget that the sages of Israel, in particular, were perpetually rolling with laughter in response to the comments of their Babylonian counterparts (Beitzah 14a, for example). So the question, really, is not why Torah scholars have no sense of humor. Rather, it is why today’s rabbis have not continued the tradition from earlier times.

1. It is appropriate here to quote a certain scholar, חכם אחד, who has alleged that the lack of humor is only found in Orthodox rabbis. He contends that it is not so much that the rabbis are not funny, as that they are using only old jokes, out of fear of creating something new.

2. The Kura d’Milcha sought to provide an answer based in halachic principles. He noted the traditional belief that נתקטנו הדורות, the generations have shrunk, and argued that this applies to the rabbinic sense of humor as well.

It is true that some apply "generational reduction" only to spiritual stature, but the Kura d’Milcha pointed out that this is clearly not the case, for the Tzlach (end of Pesachim) applied this axiom to physical stature.

3. The Levi Tzedek, on the other hand, considered the Kura d’Milcha’s answer legitimate proof that the rabbinic sense of humor is not entirely dead. Barely concealing a guffaw, he told his talmidim, “Had the Kura d’Milcha lived in our day, between his bizarre understanding of Torah and my laughter we might have brought Mashiach!”

After calming down, the Levi Tzedek argued that the answer lies in an explicit Gemara (Berachos 31a): “One is not permitted to fill his mouth with laughter in this world [post-Temple]… until the nations say, Gd has acted greatly with these people.” Clearly, then, your rabbi is un-funny because he is grieving for the Beit haMikdash.

As far as the post-Temple cases of humor in the Gemara, those sages did not live “in this world” - their holiness was such that they felt as though they were living in the time of the Beis haMikdash, and so they could laugh.

In closing, I must pay tribute to one of the few rabbis I have known who could tell a funny joke. Rabbi Philip Kaplan told me the following joke many years ago:

A yeshiva student gets married, moves into a home with his wife, and comes to his rabbi before Succos to ask how to build a Sukkah. The rabbi points him to certain pages in Gemara Succah, and to a long comment of Rashi that digests the discussions on those pages into a set of clear instructions.

The student follows the instructions to the letter, spending days meticulously acquiring the proper materials, then building and decorating his fine Succah. The first night of Succos, though, a mild wind demolishes the entire structure.

On Chol haMoed the student re-builds the structure, only to have it again collapse at the first gust of wind. The student tries a third time, but again meets with failure.

The student, devastated, comes back to his rabbi and tells him the story. The rabbi listens patiently, then smiles knowingly and tells his student, “Yes, you're right - Tosafos asks that question!”

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Childlessness in the Jewish Community –

Imagine if anyone who could achieve 100 on an IQ exam was given a special hat to wear, and you couldn’t top 90.

Imagine if people who possessed at least three friends were admitted to a communal lounge, and you only possessed two friends.

Imagine if everyone could ride the bus regardless of their ability to pay, but those who couldn’t pay were forced to wear a special badge, and you couldn’t pay.

Certainly, it would be cruel to publicly penalize human beings who were disadvantaged in any of the above ways – but we do it, unintentionally, to a specific group in the Jewish community. People who are unable to bear children are often placed on the fringe, made to feel different as well as inferior.

I don’t mean to make childless people sound pathetic, as though they were moping about in a cloud. They are people with lives and families and careers and hobbies. But like everyone dealing with a problem, they still need the community’s awareness and sensitivity.

The communal snub is not intended. No thinking person would ever stigmatize someone for having blocked ducts or a low sperm count, for having been unable to find the right mate until after the biological clock ran out, or for any of the other reasons people are unable to produce children. Nonetheless, I know from personal conversation and observation that the feeling of being on the outside persists and is fed by numerous communal practices, and particularly in the shul environment.

• We loudly admire people’s children, and we highlight their success in our bulletins.

• We talk incessantly about wanting to attract young families, with children, to inject vitality into our shuls.

• We center our communities around schools and youth programs.

• We parade our children around shul, on the bimah, when the Torah is removed and returned, at Adon Olam, and so on.

• We create support systems for singles, for divorcees, for the handicapped and abused and bereaved, but rarely for the childless.

And the unintended offense is in the Torah we teach, as well:

• The rabbi will pontificate on Rosh haShanah about Gd answering Sarah and Chanah and Rachel, and he will praise the prayers of Chanah as though promising that if you, too, would pray as Chanah did, you would be blessed with a child.

• One of our Shabbat songs, צמאה נפשי, includes the exultant line לא כי בנך המת ובני החי, "No; your child is the deceased one, and mine is the live one." In context, of course, the line is not meant to come off this way - but I have been unable to sing that line for a dozen years, since a friend's pregnancy was cut off mid-way.

• We teach classes on raising children, we use child-centered anecdotes and metaphors in our speeches, we deliver derashah after derashah with lessons for educating our youth, repeating incessantly, “our sons and daughters,” “our children,” and so on.

• The rabbi notes that the first mitzvah in the Torah is to procreate, and that one of the six questions we are asked posthumously is, “Did you involve yourself in procreation?”

Each speech and shiur can be a hammer-blow. None of this is ill-intended, and none of it is inherently wrong. We must teach authentic Torah. But we could do better, with sensitivity.

I’m definitely not suggesting that rabbis deliver speeches about childlessness. Every year, when I was in the pulpit, I would think about doing that on Parshat Vayyetze, regarding the rivalry between Rachel and Leah, and every year I scrapped the idea; the topic would be painful and embarrassing for every childless couple in the shul. No, that’s not the right way.

There are right ways, though. I was careful to say “our children, our nieces and nephews, the children of our friends,” when talking about issues relating to kids. I added caveats and disclaimers when discussing the prayers and salvations of Sarah, Chanah and Rachel. I downplayed my kids when talking to people who were not blessed with their own. I reminded myself that had I lived in a less blessed time, I might well have been childless, too, and their pain would have been mine. I encouraged adoption, when I felt it was appropriate. I avoided “Im yirtzeh HaShem by you” as well as kvater opportunities when I thought they would not have been appreciated. And I davened, of course, for those who were trying to have children.

But I know it was not enough; how could it be enough, when people who had done nothing to warrant their childless state came to shul and were inevitably immersed in a child-centered culture?

We need to develop greater sensitivity, and to create institutions that will reflect this; this is why I was glad to receive an email advertising Anna Olswanger's, a site advertised as serving “Older Childless Jews” with resources and support. The site’s structure is currently a skeleton, but much more flesh could be added. הגיע זמן, it’s about time.

Of course, is a drop in the bucket, and it’s only getting started – but with enough such drops, developed sufficiently, we might yet get somewhere.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Immunizing the Rabbis?

[This week’s Haveil Havalim is here]

Esser Agaroth notes that an Israeli Knesset member, Michael Ben-Ari, has put forth a bill to immunize rabbis from prosecution for halachic statements. After all, Knesset ministers are immunized from prosecution for their remarks, even when those remarks are against the state.

Presumably, this is meant to protect proclamations like the recent letter against selling/renting out homes in Tzfat, and it could easily go much further.

The article at Esser Agaroth points out certain problems with this bill, but I’d like to add one: The great need, from a Torah, halachic perspective, for rabbis to convince the public of their positions. It’s not for nothing that the leaders of every generation, from Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah (debates in Bei Avidan) to Rav Saadia Gaon (Emunot v’Deiot) to Rambam (Moreh haNevuchim) to Rav Moshe Isserles (Torat ha’Olah) to Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch (Horeb), endeavored to explain Torah and halachah in a way that would appeal to the community.

Maybe this is a difference between the Israeli and non-Israeli rabbinate. Perhaps fighting for the sanctity of Israel and the future of its Jewish communities emboldens the rabbis involved, and reinforces their sense that they need be beholden to no one. Indeed, לא תגורו מפני איש, a judge in court is not permitted to fear repercussions! But the approach seems counterproductive in the public arena, because such brazen disregard for the opinions of the greater population, and such clear contempt for diplomacy, only guarantees alienation of the great majority of listeners.

Perhaps having a significant population which rallies to your strongly worded positions makes you feel less obligated to reach out beyond – but then why make these statements at all? Do we speak only for the sake of hearing the echoes in our ears? If a rabbi speaks in his own forest, is there a sound?

To me, immunity would just provide incentive for more out-there, devil-may-care (so to speak) bombast. I’d rather see no immunity, and a greater attempt to win the battle for hearts and minds.

Evading formal government censure has never been the barometer of rabbinic success, you know. להגדיל תורה ולהאדירה (to elevate Torah and bring it glory) is the classic litmus test.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Of Lions and Donkeys (Derashah, Vayyichi 5771)

I've been asked to speak this Shabbos at an area shul. The following is the derashah I intend to give; it's really more dvar torah than derashah, I suppose.

This solemn moment, decades in the making, was the transition from the centuries-old patriarch-led clan of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, to the decentralized tribes who would constitute the Jewish nation for most of the next six hundred years. Yaakov, the aging leader who had fought wars and pursued peace, who had endured great pain and navigated great crises, who had shepherded his family from riches to rags to riches to rags to riches, who had lost children and then gained them back, now gathered his descendants for a final message that would prepare them for their future national identity.

• Reuven. Shimon. Levi. Rebuke after rebuke, with all of their brethren present to bear public witness to their dressing-down. Thanks a lot, Dad.

• Yehudah, likened to a regal lion clothed in eternal ermine robes of majesty – and Yissachar, compared to a donkey squatting in the road. Thanks a lot, Dad.

• Yosef, long-favored Yosef, is singled out not for expertly administering the region’s leading economy, not for supporting his family through a famine, not for forgiving his brothers for their attempt to end his life - but for the fact that girls climb walls to get a better look at his pretty face. Thanks a lot, Dad.

And so on. The scene is reminiscent of a family seder at which Uncle Ernie decides to remind everyone present of their most embarrassing childhood habits, or Aunt Eileen singles out every other dish for praise, while ridiculing the one you brought. Had I not read Bereishis Rabbah, I might have accused Yaakov of using his fade-to-black moment to stir the pot, turning brother against brother!

Fortunately, I did read the midrash.

Yaakov introduces the berachos by demanding of his children, “הקבצו ושמעו, Gather and listen,” and the midrash elaborates, “צוה אותן על המחלוקת, אמר להון תהיו כלכון אסיפה אחת,” “He instructed them regarding strife. He told them: Gather together, be a single unit.” Yaakov was not squandering the last potent breath remaining in his lungs. Rather, Yaakov was trying to unify his children in preparation for their national transition.

It’s a good idea, no? After all, we first met these children when their mothers were competing to see who could birth the majority of them. Then we learned that there was a rift between the children of Leah and the others. The lot of them sold Yosef. The Torah describes Yehudah’s strange solo adventure, and alludes to Reuven’s own strange escapade. And now they are about to enter a period when there will be no מלך, no one who will possess the authority to direct them. Unity would be a good thing at this point.

But this is a strange way to develop unity! Blessing some with plenty and others not at all, comparing three of them to the lion, the serpent and the deer, and the other to a donkey? Singling out some of them in front of the entire group for their errors and the dangers inherent in their talents? Where is Yaakov’s wisdom?

The answer may be that at this moment, when the Jewish people were going to cease obeying a single leader and instead identify themselves by thirteen different sub-family loyalties, Yaakov sought to train them to recognize the value in their division, the strength in their separate paths. You won’t have a central leader to direct you, so you had better learn to work together.

To accomplish this goal, Yaakov demonstrated that he thought of each child as an individual, to be honored for his own abilities and, yes, to be marked by his mistakes and his challenges, and he demanded that all of his children do the same.

As Rav Chaim ibn Attar wrote in his Or haChaim, “הנפשות כל אחת יש לה בחינת המעלה, יש שמעלתה כהונה, ויש מלכות, ויש כתר תורה, ויש גבורה, ויש עושר, ויש הצלחה,” “Each soul has a special attribute – kehunah, royalty, Torah knowledge, strength, wealth, success,” and so on. All through the years Yaakov had seen each child as an individual blessed with traits great and small, and kochos that could be turned for good or otherwise, and now he encapsulated a lifetime of these observations for the entire group’s benefit in three or four pesukim for some, and just one pasuk for others, highlighting that which made each one unique.

The result of valuing each individual, with his foibles as well as his successes, would be a greater whole.

The Torah concludes Yaakov’s berachos by saying, “איש אשר כברכתו ברך אותם, Each one according to his blessing, Yaakov blessed them.” Grammatically, the pasuk should have ended, “ברך אותו – Each one according to his blessing, Yaakov blessed him.” Why switch to the plural?

One midrash suggests that Yaakov turned to the plural in order to apply the blessings of each to the rest of the group – all of them should be lions, all of them should be regal, and so on. But the Or haChaim sees it differently, explaining, “כי ברכת כל אחד ואחד תועיל לעצמו ולכל אחיו,” that the blessing of each one benefits the collective.”

You will be separate tribes, but your unique talents and struggles will benefit the whole, building the team. Were all of you identical – all lions or all donkeys – then the result would be a weaker unit. The valuable union is blessed with a variety of skills, a variety of strengths, a variety of challenges, a variety of personal aspirations, a variety of כברכתו, united in service of אותם.

I think we naturally look at our families, our children, as Yaakov looked at his; our daughters and sons and nieces and nephews teach us early on that they have unique interests and strengths. We know that a scientifically minded child will think in certain ways, that an athletic child will enjoy certain activities, that an artistic child will excel in certain areas. Certainly, we coach our children toward the greatest overall success, but we nurture their unique strengths, each על פי דרכו.

But as an international Jewish community resembling the orphaned children of Yaakov, without any umbrella authority to direct our diverse energies, how do we create a culture that encourages and pursues this variegated development?

• In Israel, the Kinor David yeshiva, founded upon the philosophy of Rav Kook, is dedicated to teaching students music as well as Torah.

• In Pennsylvania, the Lancaster Yeshiva Center takes post-high school students and trains them in both Torah and the construction business. Talmidim learn masonry, flooring, plumbing and so on.

• Yeshiva University’s Sy Syms Business Program encourages students to learn Torah half the day, and gain a valuable business education during the other half of the day.

• The Yeshivat Hesder in Tekoa, where Rav Adin Steinsaltz delivers weekly shiurim, offers classes in creative writing.

This is a great beginning, and these institutions reflect Yaakov’s final words. Yaakov’s message summons us to create and cultivate more such institutions – schools and shuls, youth groups, adult programs, forums and contests – to recognize and stimulate the abilities all of us possess, bringing them into service of the klal.

At the outset I asked about Yissachar’s odd berachah; this son is classically identified as the talmid chacham among Yaakov’s children, but he is blessed not as a lion, serpent, deer or wolf, but as a donkey, hardly an impressive beast. The Zohar was troubled by this, and it answered:

• “בגין דחמור נטיל מטולא ולא בעיט במריה,” “The donkey carries a burden and does not kick its master.”

• “ולא אית ביה גסות הרוח,” “The donkey is not arrogant.” And,

• “ולא חייש למשכב באתר מתתקן,” “The donkey doesn’t care about sleeping in an unprepared space.”

Yes, even being labelled a donkey can be a positive. And so with all of our traits, all of our abilities, and even all of our challenges and struggles – when each is recognized as ברכתו, as a blessing for the individual, then ברך אותם, they will also be blessings for the community.

1. The six hundred year period is roughly until the coronation of Shaul, minus the periods of Moshe, Yehoshua and Elazar.

2. The first midrash is in Bereishis Rabbah 98:2. The second is Bereishis Rabbah 99:4. The Zohar is Bereishit 681.

3. The Or haChaim cites are from Bereishis 49:28.

4. Find out more about Kinor David at, about the Lancaster Yeshiva Center at and Tekoa at

5. One point continues to trouble me - the difference between certain tribes who receive 3 or 4 pesukim, and others who receive just 1. I don't believe my answer is strong enough in accounting for this discrepancy.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Of Sarcastic Rabbis

[Post I'm thinking about: How personal should a blog be? at Jack's Random Thoughts]

In my early dating days – I was maybe 22 or 23, I think - my rebbe wanted to set me up with a girl. He emphasized that she was a very sweet person. I told him I wasn’t sure whether this would be a good idea – after all, I was somewhat sarcastic and sharp-tongued. [Those who knew me back then can stop giggling now.] [Yes, you.]

My rebbe smiled and said something along the lines of, “When I was younger I also thought it was a chachmah [display of wit] to be able to say something sharp. Then I grew out of it.”

This comes to mind because Hosheia 7:5 describes delinquent leaders who put their lot with לוצצים, people who mock and scorn others, rather than take care of their responsibilites. Building on this, Rava said to the sages (Avodah Zarah 18b), “I beg of you, do not mock, lest suffering come upon you.”

Certainly, there is reason to use constructive mockery in highlighting the foolishness of a particularly destructive activity (see Megilah 25b regarding mocking idolatry). But as a general rule, I am with Rava: Mocking anything, dismissing it from consideration and making light of it, is self-destructive on several levels:

• As my rebbe said, sarcastic scorn is not a chachmah; it doesn’t show any particular wit. Anything can be mocked; there’s always room to find something ridiculous in an idea or practice or person, and anyone can do it.

• Sarcasm is lazy, relying on superficial caricature of the opposition instead of reasoned, articulate debate.

• The result of a dismissive attitude is that we fail to take others seriously, even when they have something to teach us.

• Sarcastic humor is contagious and addictive, so that the trait doesn’t remain within a circumscribed area; the same rabbi who delivers a speech mocking his ideological opponents may well find himself mocking his children, or his spouse, or his students in a shiur, or someone who comes to give him constructive criticism.

So I am uncomfortable with “rabbinic comedians,” who are known for making light of their opposition in their schmoozes. I’ve seen it in mussar schmoozes, kiruv seminars, shul derashos and more, and it troubles me. [Please keep specific names out of the Comments section; my omission of those names is not out of ignorance.] Cheap shots play well with the high school and “Gap year” crowds, and with adults who have never “grown out of it,” to use my rebbe’s phrase, but to me it betrays a mind that doesn’t think things through, that doesn’t see the other side, or that needs to resort to cheap humor rather than eloquent argumentation. It also makes me wonder what the speaker is saying about me when I am not present; what sarcastic jokes are aimed in my direction?

In my blog header, I thank my Rebbetzin [who is not the girl my rebbe suggested to me] for making me a Rabbi. This is one of the several reasons behind that line: She continues to teach me, by example, to lose that addiction to sarcasm. One day, I hope, I’ll successfully put the lesson into full-time practice.

Monday, December 13, 2010

25 below in Toronto

It’s noon here in Toronto, and 25 degrees below zero, Celsius, with the wind-chill.

That’s 13 below, Fahrenheit.

Just how cold is that?

Cold enough that I could go sit in my kitchen freezer to warm up.

The sliding doors of our van remained frozen shut even after the car’s heater had been on full-blast for 20 minutes this morning.

My car was completely warm and de-iced before minyan this morning, but when I left minyan I needed ten minutes of full-blast heat before the windshield was clear.

I left my daily bottle of chocolate Boost Plus on my windshield before minyan, and came out to find a bottle of chocolate ice cream. [That was intended, though.]

And winter hasn’t even arrived yet.

Of course, it could be worse; we could be in Chicago, which I understand has been frozen and snowed in.

Looking on the bright side, here are some good points about the cold:
1. It’s too cold to snow. [No, that’s not really true.]
2. The cold keeps people in beis medrash longer. [That’s true.]
3. It encourages Torontonians to think more seriously about aliyah. [I hope that’s true.]
4. And… Umm….

That’s about it for the advantages of the cold.

Stay warm, folks.

Mussar [rebuke] for rabbis, teachers and parents

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here]

During mussar seder, I've been learning Chazon Ish's Emunah uBitachon for the past several weeks. I did it almost twenty years ago, but (a) I didn't complete it, and (b) I had no clue what I was reading. [I hope and expect I will feel (b) when I read it again next time...]

Here's a potent rebuke from the book for all educators. [It's my own translation, and I went for a linear read rather than re-structure the sentences to suit English. Compare with the Hebrew I appended at the end.]

One of the most basic agents of destruction is a public teacher whose character is incomplete. The destruction which occurs with an incomplete teacher is twofold:

• He does not know the principles of ethics and he does not know in what areas he should be exacting, and he inattentively directs his students into behaviors which are repugnant according to ethical principles.

• Even if his Torah is good and accurate, his words do not enter the heart of the student because his inside is not like his outside.

Further, his student will learn more from his actions than from his lessons. The mentor-student relationship requires a generous character and refined traits, and one who rebukes his student coarsely and with outraged screams for some impropriety mixes bad and good; even if there is some benefit in this rebuke and the student is awakened to his sin and decides never to repeat it, there is still harm in that the student becomes accustomed to coarseness and anger, as he has received from his mentor by seeing him utilize these repugnant methods in his rebuke. We are taught that serving a scholar is more effective than studying with him, and this student will always emulate his mentors. And, generally, the rebuke itself will be defective for it will be accompanied by negative traits.

Also: When this student continues to stand before an incomplete mentor, he continually inherits bad traits from the mentor. And because the mentor considers himself complete and full of all good traits, and he performs repugnant acts in arrogance and in a derogatory way, his student also becomes accustomed to practice repulsive things with ‘the purity of terumah.’ This mentor will bear fruit and multiply others in his form and image.

And because this mentor is empty of the Torah wisdom that comes from struggling in halachah, he stumbles into the depths of opposing others who have struggled in halachah, and he bequeaths the fruit of this sin to his students as well.

And the Hebrew:

מן המפסידים היותר עיקריים היות מלמד לרבים בלתי שלם במדותיו, המחנך הבלתי שלם הפסדותיו כפולים, בצד אחד אינו יודע תורת המוסר ואינו יודע על מה להקפיד, ומשגרם בהנהגות מגואלות על פי תורת המדות בלי משים, ואף אם לקחו טוב ונכון, אחרי שאין תוכו כברו, אין דבריו נכנסין אל לב החניך, ולא עוד אלא שלומד ממעשיו יותר משיעוריו, והתיחסות הרב לתלמידיו דורשת תכונות תרומיות ומצוי המדות, וכאשר מיסר את תלמידו בביטוי גס וזעקת רוגז על העול אשר עשה, מתערב כאן רע וטוב, אם יש כאן תועלת תוכחה והחניך מתעורר על חטאו וגומר בלבו שלא לשנות חטא זה, יש כאן ענין רע שהחניך מתרגל בגסות ובקפדנות המקבל מרבו שרואהו משמש במגונות אלו בשעת תוכחתו, וגדול שמושה יותר מלימודה, והתלמיד מחקה תמיד את רבותיו, ועל הרוב גם התוכחה לקויה כשמתלוה עמה ממדות הלא טובות, וכאשר חתמיד החניך לעמוד לפני מחנך בלתי שלם יתמיד לנחול מדות הרעות מן המחנך, ובהיות המחנך מחזיק עצמו לאיש השלם, כליל מדות הטובות, וכל גנותות שעושה הן נעשות בגאוה ובוז, גם חניכו מתרגל בתעתועיו לעשות תועבות על טהרת תרומה, והמחנך הזה יפרה וירבה תולדותיו כדמותו וכצלמו, ובהיות המחנך ריק מחכמת התורה בעמל ההלכה ונכשל על ידי זה בצללי התנגדות לבעל ההלכה נוחל ומנחיל גם לחניכיו פרי עונו.

Friday, December 10, 2010

When your brother steals (Derashah Vayyigash 5771)

I'm guest-speaking at a shul here in Toronto this Shabbos. Here's what I plan to say:

Like most people, I receive several daily emails from well-meaning friends and relatives who want to make sure I’m up on the latest videos. A Scotsman performing bicycle tricks on a castle keep, a collection of 1980’s pop stars lip-synching to the Beatles, interviews with people involved in the UN vote creating the State of Israel, I’m on it, because a few thousand best friends are thinking of me.

I assure you, I am most grateful.

This past week, one particular clip stood out from the batch – a 15-minute digest from The People’s Court, an American television show which features small claims arbitration hearings. To make a long story short: A couple claimed they had accidentally given the cleaners something which should not be dry cleaned, the cleaners had called them, and they had told the cleaners not to wash it. They washed it anyway, it’s ruined, and the couple is suing for $3,000, the cost of the item according to the original purchase receipt. The judge heard the claim, heard the defense, did a little checking – and found that the plaintiffs had presented a false receipt to the court. The item had been junk in the first place, and was never worth anything like $3,000.

Why did someone send me this clip? Because the perjuring plaintiffs were Heidi and Mendy, from Brooklyn.

Regrettably, Heidi and Mendy are not unique; they join a Hall of Shame that dedicates a new Jewish wing every other week, and the challenge these embarrassing cases raise in my mind is this: What do we do when our brethren steal? Whether it’s the meat processor turning a blind eye to his company’s improprieties, or the slumlord refusing repairs for his non-Orthodox or non-Jewish tenants, or the Los Angeles businessman snared along with his Jewish embezzling ring, how do we react when they turn to us to provide petitions, bail, or political pressure on their behalf? And how do we relate to them afterward? Do we turn away, do we re-define them as non-Orthodox, non-Jewish? Do we disown them?

This isn’t a new issue. Rav Meir of Lublin, also known as Maharam Lublin, addressed the matter in 16th century Poland in the case of a man who was jailed by the government for an affair with a non-Jewish woman. So did Rav Yair Bachrach, the Chavos Yair, in 17th century Germany in the case of a Jewish thief. So did Rav Yechezkel Katzenellenbogen, the Knesses Yechezkel, in 18th century Germany in the case of a Jew who was an adulterer as well as a thief – this is what we call progress. They were asked whether the Jewish community should intervene on behalf of these criminals – and I would venture to guess that their answer will come as a surprise to many people present this morning.

All of them offered the same response: If we feel that the penalty is excessive, then we are responsible to raise funds and apply pressure to gain the criminal’s release from prison. Far from distancing the villain, we claim him as our own.

But where does this come from?! In a nation whose Abrahamic tradition is founded upon the principles of צדקה ומשפט, righteousness and justice, how can there be any responsibility to, or identification with, a Jew who breaks the law for personal profit, knowingly subjecting himself to well-advertised penalties, desecrating Gd’s Name and placing Jews everywhere in danger of guilt by association?

The answer may lie in the actions of Yehudah, as described in the parshiyyos we read last week and this morning.

At the end of last week’s cliffhanger, the sons of Yaakov were en route north to Canaan with food for their starving families, when they were hailed by the Egyptian viceroy’s agents. The pursuers charged them with theft of the viceroy’s goblet. Bewildered, they denied the accusations. Taking pains to demonstrate their abhorrence for the crime, they spelled out the law-abiding character and personal integrity inherent in the Jewish ideal.

But then וימצא הגביע באמתחת בנימין, the goblet was discovered in Binyamin’s sack. Listen to the words of the Midrash Aggadah, putting us on the scene at that dramatic moment:

כיון שנמצא הגביע, אמרו לו אחיו גנב בר גנבתא, רחל אמך גנבה את התרפים ואתה גנבת את הגביע...
When the goblet was found, Binyamin’s brothers said to him: Thief, son of a thief! Your mother Rachel stole Lavan’s terafim, and you stole the goblet!

The brothers are frantic – we are betrayed by our own! And so Yehudah acknowledges before the viceroy, perhaps bowing his head, surely wringing his hands: מה נאמר, What can we say? מה נדבר, What can we speak? מה נצטדק, How can we justify ourselves? Gd has discovered our guilt, we will all be servants to our master.

And then read Yehudah’s plea at the outset of this morning’s reading – not once does he claim innocence, not once does he challenge the Egyptian sentence. For all of the subtext which Rashi and Rashbam detect in the interstices of Yehudah’s speech, not once is there an allegation of injustice. Yehudah avers that the Hebrew finds dishonesty repugnant beyond measure…

…but then Yehudah offers his own life in place of his brother’s, to gain the freedom of this dishonest thief.

This is not because of Yehudah’s promise to Yaakov to protect his brother; as Rav Dovid Kviat of the Mir Yeshiva notes, Yehudah’s responsibility to Binyamin terminates with the theft of the goblet, that’s not the duty for which Yehudah enlisted. Yehudah protects his brother for a different reason: ישראל אף על פי שחטא ישראל הוא – A Jew who sins, whether against Gd or man, is no less a Jew than any other.

Perhaps this is what inspired the Maharam Lublin, the Knesses Yechezkel, and the Chavos Yair, to rule that we ransom the thieves of our communities in order to rescue them from excessive penalties. We abhor their crimes, and our every word and deed must holler to the heavens and announce to the nations that we reject their base behavior! Just as the world knows that an observant Jew will not step foot in McDonalds, the world must also know that an observant Jew will not engage in shadowy business deals. But we nonetheless stand by the thief's side, to save him from destruction.

A necessary caveat: There are boundaries to our responsibility, and the poskim are careful to delineate them; Parshas Vayyigash is not carte blanche for the villains of Jewish society to sin and then demand limitless bail from our wallets. For example: If criminals endanger the Jewish community, then we are no longer bound to them. And if they act להכעיס, not for personal gain but for the sake of angering Gd, declaring themselves to be Other, then we are no longer bound to them. But barring such drastic conditions, we are very much bound to them. They are our brothers, they are our sisters, and we are theirs.

In Canada, thank Gd, the prospect of torture in prison is not a factor. We need not lobby and petition to avoid a death sentence for a common thief, and so the precedents I cited above are less relevant. But the question of whether to stand by our neighbors who have been indicted, to swallow our distaste and recognize them as lantzmen, is still very much present. What do we do?

To go beyond Yehudah and Binyamin and the authorities I cited earlier, and address this question as well: I would argue, as an extension of what we said above, that we are possessed of a responsibility to claim this criminal as our own, to recognize in him that same spark of Avraham and Sarah which makes us unique, and, ultimately, to bring him back to Torah. For prooftexts, look at our vast literature on kiruv. Kiruv is not limited to people who do not yet keep kosher; kiruv extends to people who do not yet keep yosher.

Reasonable people may disagree with me, of course, but I believe that we perform the mitzvah of הוכיח תוכיח את עמיתך, of rebuke, by drawing people close and helping them change their ways. Not to honor them, certainly, but to help them regain an honorable life.

To be frank: Doing this is icky. I don’t want to hang out with an adulterer, a thief, an embezzler. When I lived in Pennsylvania, I visited Jewish inmates at the local state prison. One of them was guilty of insurance fraud, including defrauding an elderly woman in order to feed his gambling habit. Certainly, I found his crimes repugnant, and I could only wonder what the non-Jewish readers of the newspapers thought when they read of his crimes. But I had to ask myself: If we won’t associate with them, then who will fill that gap? And who will help them achieve that honorable life? Think what we can accomplish, helping these people become whole!

We are summoned to rehabilitate rather than reject. What began with Yehudah’s attempt to ransom Binyamin continues with our efforts to redeem our own brethren. We declare to the world our revulsion at their crimes – and then we take them in, and help them to become sensitive and feel the revulsion as well.

One voice in a Mechilta suggests that Yehudah’s defense of Binyamin is what won the monarchy for his descendants. This is logical; a melech/king is responsible for the welfare of every citizen, however distasteful their behavior. The king cannot turn away from his citizens. Because Yehudah understood this, he was worthy to ascend to the throne.

Gd-willing, when we absorb this lesson, when we do not turn away and disown but instead revile the crime while rehabilitating the criminal, then we will be worthy of seeing the descendants of Yehudah ascend the throne again.

1. I know that Vos iz Neias is running the explanation offered belatedly by Heidi and Mendy. I read it, and am very skeptical.

2. The teshuvos I cited are: Maharam Lublin 15, Chavos Yair 139, Knesses Yechezkel 38. See also Pischei Teshuvah Yoreh Deah 151:1. For a dissenting view, see Yam Shel Shlomo Gittin 4:72. And Chavos Yair has an interesting response to concern for guilt by association.

3. The Midrash Aggadah is Bereishis 44, and the Mechilta is Mechilta d'Rashbi 14:22.

4. Rav Dovid Kviat's observation is in his Succas Dovid to Vayyigash. Apparently, he does not accept the view of the end of the Midrash Aggadah I cited, that Binyamin convinced his brothers that he was innocent.

5. Sanhedrin 44a is the source of ישראל אף על פי שחטא ישראל הוא.

6. I wanted to talk more about the parallels in kiruv for sins against Gd and sins against man, but this would have distracted from the rest of the derashah.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

What does your rabbi do all day?

[Post of interest: Liveblogging the Chidon haTanakh at the Muqata]

You know the classic joke about the kid who asks the rabbi what he does all week, right?

Starting in 2002, I began keeping a low-tech, text file “to do” list of items on my schedule for each day. I would print out a hard copy, and I would keep it as a record of what had happened that day. Of course, it didn't include last-minute changes - someone dies, someone goes into the hospital, and so on - but it was close enough for my purposes. Part of the motivation was my pack-rat mentality of storing data, and part was to have a written record for consultation.

Yesterday, to remind myself of what the shul rabbinate was like, I looked back and found the following on December 7 of various years. I include them here, for your amusement and because I haven't had time to write a new blog post in the last few days:

Tuesday December 7, 2004
7:45 AM Daf Yomi
8:45 AM Send out daily Torah Thought and daily Jewish Law emails
3:45 PM ______ (bar mitzvah boy)
7 PM Yachad U Year Two class at ______’s house, Week 9
8:30 PM Gemara Beitzah class at ______’s house
Talk to Chulent Contest contestants about guidelines
Look up the issue of the corners of ______________’s tallis
Purchase power bar to plug in chulent contest crockpots
Jobs from yesterday’s day school Education Committee meeting
Unwrap shul’s new crockpots
Get back to ______ from her call
Call ______ to talk about her daughter remaining at the day school
Deadline to send in shul events to HaKol (local Federation newspaper)
Prepare Thursday’s Yachad U class
Prepare “teshuvos” dvar torah for Friday night
Kasher shul ovens for meat
Prepare Parshah Aggadah/Halachah class for Shabbos – Dreams; Taanis Chalom
Do text for __________ headstone
Write Derashah for Shabbos
Prepare Beitzah shiur for tonight
Finalize class for Yachad U tonight

Wednesday December 7, 2005
7:45 AM Daf Yomi
9 AM Send out daily Torah Thought and daily Jewish Law emails
12 PM ______ at shul; Kuzari, and talk about setting up HFL board meeting
2 PM Meet _____________ to talk about day school website
7 PM Pastoral Relations Committee meeting
Send out weekly Jewish Events email, and send it to the Allentown Times (עליו השלום) as well
Deadline for announcements for HaKol (local Federation newspaper)
Talk to ____ about possibly cancelling Friday night's program because of snow predictions
Prepare materials for PRC meeting
Article for shul Chanukah Hamodia bulletin
Check in with ______ (supermarket vp) about progress in bringing bakery up to LVKC standards
Prepare Shabbos noon class - Add Rashi's connection to Chachmei Ashkenaz predecessors
Brainstorm ways to become more involved with high school kids
Look into use of Multiple Intelligences approach in teaching children chumash

Thursday December 7, 2006
7:45 AM Daf Yomi
9 AM Send out daily Torah Thought and daily Jewish Law emails
9:30 AM Learn with ____________
Put two pizzas in shul refrigerator for parent/child program
10 AM Prepare materials for 3 PM class at Country Meadows – Tehillim
10:45 AM Teach Yachad Grad class
12 PM Kitchen duty for kiddush preparation
3 PM Tehillim at Country Meadows
5 PM Parent/Child learning program with pizza
7 PM _________ (bar mitzvah boy)
Call ______________ in hospital
Call _______________ to confirm that I will help (I think this was benevolent fund assistance)
Add new biweekly shul calendar to website
Purchase food for Sephardic Oneg and Seudah Shlishis for this Shabbos
Deadline for HaKol (local Federation newspaper) article
Check in with ______________ (he had not been around in a while)
Email kiddush committee regarding kiddush and seudah shlishis arrangements for 12/16
Find out when ______________ (local caterer) wants to cook in the shul kitchen for bat mitzvah
Send letter endorsing _________________ for Covenant Foundation honor

Friday December 7 2007
6:30 AM Put _________’s chulent in the fridge (this Shabbos was our annual Chulent Contest)
6:30 AM Send daily emails
7:45 AM Daf Yomi
8:45 AM Upload Daf audio
8:45 AM _________ comes in for chulent prep
9 AM Call ___________ to check in (this person’s father had passed away recently)
9 AM Call ____________ to check in (this person had agreed to give his wife a get, reluctantly)
11 AM _________ puts up her chulent
2 PM Put up _____________’s chulent
Email friends of the person above whose father had passed away, to ask them to check in with her
Fix Eruv pole – Liberty and Albright corner
Call ______ about his late monthly check for his ex-wife
Call _______ at the hospital
Call _______ at hospital and check in with her husband
Check in: ___________ (person undergoing chemo), _______________ (person living alone), _______________ (person whose husband had passed away a few months before, ________________ (another person living alone)
Prepare chulent contest baskets and ballots
Blog: Birkas haChamah
Provide HaKol with pictures from our Israel Fair
Eruv email and infoline notification
Revisit derashah – Make the hope point more complex, perhaps with an illustration from Tanach
Yahrtzeit reminder calls for 5 Tevet
Move Chanukah sefer torah into big shul, and menorah into big shul
Leave lights on in the shul’s downstairs rooms
Turn off the hot water for the kitchen sink (we only had one control for the hot and cold water, and people easily slipped into hot water by accident)
Set up new blogs to host daily emails

Ah, the memories this brings back…

Monday, December 6, 2010

I feel stupid when I pray

[Post I'm looking at now: Modern Uberdox on his kids' chutzpah]

Well, I don’t actually feel stupid when I pray – but I understand why someone would. I understand why someone would feel foolish, impotent, and superstitious for throwing his words heavenward in pursuit of reward, ritual satisfaction or salvation.

This past week the world watched a horrific forest fire in the Carmel Forest outside Haifa in Israel, a devastating catastrophe that cost forty lives of rescuers, burned many more, and made who knows how many people homeless – right in the middle of a Jewish holiday that celebrates fire, with prayers and songs commemorating flames that, miraculously, would not be extinguished. And beyond that bitter irony, the fire came on the heels of a day of international fasting and prayer for rain due to the water shortage Israel is experiencing.

Worse than unanswered prayers are prayers thrown back in our faces. If prayer is intercession, an attempt to persuade Gd to act in a certain way, then how could we not feel stupid when we pray? How could we not feel like whatever deity is out there is not moved by our words, however meaningful and important our goals?

I know that some explain prayer as self-assessment (the classic agrammatical homiletic on להתפלל), or an attempt to build up our merit so that we will be worthy of Divine response to our needs. Rav Chaim of Volozhin has his own deep take in Nefesh haChaim. Accepted and understood, and I made some of those points here. Some of those approaches may help explain why prayer does not necessarily lead to results.

Here's another approach, though. We might look at prayer as a steering wheel pointing us toward Gd, and our lives as the cars being driven in that direction. The steering wheel itself has no value, and the car is useless - and dangerous - without the steering wheel.

My car could go in any direction. Certainly, I spend much of my time in activities which could be termed mitzvot. I learn, I teach, I try to help other people, and I try to educate my children; that's pretty much my day. But what's my motivation, what makes me do these things? Could be ego. Could be the pursuit of financial reward; I get paid, of course. Could be a feeling of satisfaction. What makes these activities into mitzvos?

It's tefilah (prayer), the steering wheel pointing me toward Gd.

Davening (praying), turning to Gd and pledging my service, coming to Gd with my requests, making Gd the center of the things I do, is what identifies the behaviors of my day as mitzvot. Without sincere prayer, these could be self-serving behaviors. With sincere prayer, they are Divine-serving activities. (Which is one reason why talking during prayer irks me; it evicts Gd from prayer. But that's a topic for another time. See my sidebar link here.)

So I can't look to prayer to bring me results. If anything will yield me results - and we have no guarantees in that area, either - it will be the things I do with my non-prayer time.

Note: I am certainly not linking the fire to anyone's actions or inaction, casting blame on people who prayed but didn't perform mitzvot, or anything remotely like that.

All I'm doing is suggesting that prayer isn't really meant to get results, on its own. Prayer is only powerful when it has a car to steer.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Beauty of Chanukah

This is my article for this Chanukah's YU To Go:

Judaism is of two minds regarding Beauty, at times according it a place of honor, and at times denigrating it as superficial and without meaning. To take but one example: The Torah presents contradictory views of whether beauty indicates righteousness. Scripture and sages emphasize that our matriarchs must have been women of surpassing beauty – but regarding would-be leaders like Eliav and Avshalom, we are warned not to be impressed by aesthetics. Judaism both promotes and denies the value of beauty.

The rites of Chanukah, on the other hand, seem to demonstrate that the debate is closed: Physical beauty is a goal to be sought. Our celebrations are thoroughly invested with an impulse for beauty, directed by an imperative which values the attractive.

Chanukah’s perennial emphasis on beauty

Witness the talmudic description of the menorah constructed by the impoverished Chashmonaim in the wake of their military victory:[1]

שפודים של ברזל היו וחיפום בבעץ העשירו עשאום של כסף חזרו והעשירו עשאום של זהב

The branches of their menorah were iron rods, and the Chashmonaim coated them with tin. When they became wealthier, they made the branches of silver. When they became still wealthier, they made the branches of gold.

Although the iron and tin menorah was halachically acceptable, the Chashmonaim sought to beautify the menorah of the Beit haMikdash with gold. And lest one argue that this was only because the Menorah’s biblical predecessor was made of gold, note that the same impulse for hiddur, for beauty, applies to our own Chanukiah. Citing the biblical[2] principle of “שלא יהיו מצוות בזויות עליו, that one must ensure that his mitzvot are not degraded,” they ruled[3] that we must make sure to use a clean, fresh Chanukiah.[4]

This same desire for impressive appearances informs the candle-lighting options presented in the gemara:[5]

מצות חנוכה נר איש וביתו והמהדרין נר לכל אחד ואחד והמהדרין מן המהדרין בית שמאי אומרים יום ראשון מדליק שמנה מכאן ואילך פוחת והולך ובית הלל אומרים יום ראשון מדליק אחת מכאן ואילך מוסיף והולך

The mitzvah of Chanukah is for each family to light one lamp. Those who beautify[6] light one lamp for each individual. According to Beit Shammai, those who beautify still more light eight lamps on the first day, and then reduce by one per day. According to Beit Hillel, they light one lamp on the first day, and then increase by one per day.

The weight assigned to aesthetics informs our choice of fuel for the Chanukiah, too. Malachi[7] rebuked the Jews of his day for bringing inferior animals as korbanot, and he dared them, “הקריבהו נא לפחתך,” “Bring it now to your [human] ruler! Would he be satisfied, would he show favor to you?” The sages applied this principle to various elements of korban activities: Using water which has been left exposed for Succot libations,[8] using inferior klei sharet [service implements] in the Beit haMikdash,[9] bringing an offering with excrement upon it[10] or in it,[11] and tearing open a korban’s limb before bringing it on the mizbeiach.[12] They also extended the principle to kiddush wine, which is compared to the wine poured on the mizbeiach.[13] And, invoking this principle, Rav Yosef Teumim[14] ruled that one may not use fouled oil for the Chanukiah.[15]

Using beauty to defeat the Greeks

Perhaps this emphasis upon beauty in our Chanukah celebration is not a definitive statement on Judaism’s approach to the physical, though; perhaps it is a Chanukah-specific product of our ancestors’ victory over the Greeks. Each Yom Tov which celebrates the defeat of a foe includes some denial of that enemy’s approach, a message designed to counter the ethos of our antagonists. So it is that our Pesach celebration includes the slaughter of the lamb, one of Egypt’s gods.[16] So it is that Purim incorporates elements of unity, countering Haman’s description of the Jews as מפזר ומפרד, scattered and divided.[17] Perhaps Chanukah employs beautification of Divine service in order to counter the Greek emphasis on the beauty to be found in the elements of this world.

In a fourth century BCE discussion of Love, Plato put the following words into the mouth of Socrates: “Only in the contemplation of beauty is human life worth living.[18]” True, he was referring to internal as well as external elegance, but his definition of beauty did not extend to the beauty of ritual mitzvot. This aesthetic emphasis persisted in Greek culture and values into the Hellenistic period, and Jews who were attracted to the world of Plato’s descendants may have been drawn to this ideal.

To this influence our Chanukah celebration replies: Find beauty in mitzvot! Kindle a splendid Chanukiah, pour pure fuel into its lamps, and honor the mitzvah with increasing levels of splendor. With this you will encourage your generation and the generations of your descendants to avoid the errors of the mityavnim, and to embrace a life which sees beauty in mitzvot. Like the korban for Pesach, like mishloach manot for Purim, the beauty of Chanukah’s celebration will perpetuate the lessons of the original victory.

To take this a step further: Our ancestors may have rejected Hellenism, but who can doubt that the values of Chanukah’s vanquished yet survive and thrive? Our present reality seeks and rewards beauty - and we are undoubtedly influenced. Our eyes, and therefore our hearts, are drawn to beautiful things. Seen against this backdrop, the drive to beautify our mitzvot is about more than continuing the victory over the Greeks; throughout the year, the elegance of our Torah can serve as a magnet to attract our focus and inspire our commitment. The greater our efforts to demonstrate a Jewish life which is glorious and worthy of honor, the greater will be the reward in its lasting influence upon us and upon our children.

May we be מהדרין מן המהדרין in all of our mitzvot, on Chanukah and throughout the year, reveling in the beauty of our Torah, countering the influences of the Hellenic world and creating a Judaism for all to admire.

[1] Menachot 28b

[2] See the many rishonim cited in Sdei Chemed ב:לח who argue that this is a biblical principle, extrapolated from the rule that one may not fulfill the mitzvah of כיסוי הדם (covering the blood of a schechted bird or beast) with one’s foot.

[3] Masechet Sofrim 20:3, Tur Orach Chaim 673

[4] On Shabbat 22a they also noted that we may not examine coins by the light of the Chanukiah, and that we may not light a non-Chanukiah flame from the Chanukiah itself, under this same principle.

[5] Shabbat 21a

[6] This is the translation of מהדרין according to Tosafot Shabbat 21a והמהדרין. Rashi, on the other hand, renders מהדרין as “those who pursue.”

[7] Malachi 1:8

[8] Succah 50a

[9] Sotah 14b

[10] Zevachim 85a

[11] Menachot 69a

[12] Chullin 90b

[13] Bava Batra 97b, and see Rashbam there

[14] Pri Megadim, Eishel Avraham Orach Chaim 154:19, based on Ran, Chullin 36b בדפי הרי"ף

[15] The aforementioned rabbinic principle of avoiding degradation of mitzvot appears to be distinct from the biblical mandate of avoiding the use of inferior items for mitzvot. The former prescribes behavior, where the latter is about mitzvah objects.

[16] See, for example, Shmot Rabbah 16:2

[17] Shut Chatam Sofer 1:196 citing Manot haLevi to Esther 9:19

[18] Nehamas translation of Plato’s Symposium, 211d