Thursday, March 31, 2011

New (Jewish) Blog on Depression - Kindred Spirit

I’ve written about depression before, here and elsewhere, including in my Rosh HaShanah derashah from a few years ago, and a shiur linked here on halachic issues in treating depression.

And I’ve kept my link to Rivka of Ha'azina Tefillati in the sidebar for ages, visiting pretty much weekly, hoping she would come back and post again. She knows so well how to say what needs to be said to the world, to help people become more sensitive to depression and more open to people who are dealing with it. Look at this post of hers, for example.

Depression can be a killer, ending people’s lives even if the air is still travelling in and out of their lungs.

Depression can be a knife, severing relationships, stabbing marriages, carving up families.

Depression can be a cloud or a fog, in its milder form, sapping special moments of their joy, hovering with an ominous weight over days and weeks and months.

Depression can be a thief, stealing love and hope and satisfaction and happiness.

Depression can be an ex-communicator, forcing people to the fringe because they cannot face other people, or because they cannot find people who will accept them.

And it’s everywhere, everywhere, everywhere, in people who are blessed with cooperative biology and ideal coping mechanisms and in people who are genetically predisposed to funk or unable to respond resiliently to disaster. It’s in smart people and attractive people and hard-working people and creative people and, yes, funny and entertaining people. Highly intelligent people especially, actually. It’s in kids and teens and adults and seniors, men and women, everywhere.

It's not a death sentence, and it's not necessarily life in prison, either. For many people, there are treatments and therapies and friends and coping mechanisms and bootstraps that can take being tugged on every day.

But it can be on-going, requiring dogged, persistent therapy and a stick-to-itiveness that the depression erodes all too easily.

It requires friends and supporters who won’t flash in and out of people’s lives, but who will be there for the long haul, תמיד, who can deal with being rejected and resented and raged at when things are bad, without necessarily seeing the benefits of their presence and friendship.

I apologize for being so very heavy, perhaps pedantic with this post. I know that many of you know all of this, and could teach me a lot more about the topic yourselves. But I’m trying to reach those who don’t yet know, to convey an element of the seriousness in a few hundred words.

Why now?

Because yesterday I came across a newish blog called Kindred Spirit, by a woman who says, “I am a Jewish girl suffering from Depression fighting for hope and hoping for fight,” and I'm hoping you'll take a look at it, please.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Two certainties: Death and Pesach

[Posts I’m thinking about: Intimacy with children and Autism at Everyone Needs Therapy and “Dear Son” at Jack]

It’s not so easy, this business of promoting programs. We need to come up with a coherent, catchy message that combines our various programs into a single, central, attention-grabbing marketable theme, or else the diverse offerings get lost.

Witness the challenge of publicizing our two major programs for this Sunday: A pre-Pesach smorgasbord of shiurim at one local shul in the morning, and then a panel discussion on Brain Death and Organ Donation at another local shul in the evening.

We don’t want multiple marketing campaigns, or people will stop reading our emails. So we want to combine them in one email. But what kind of tag line do you put on the email promoting both of these programs?

Here are my current thoughts (and if you couldn’t tell this was going to be tongue-in-cheek yet, it is):

Two things in life are guaranteed: Death and Pesach

Have a brain dead Pesach this Sunday!

Brain Death at the Seder

Die, Die-yenu

Determining the time of death: Maggid or Nirtzah?

Death by Matzah

Stay at the Seder or Donate a Kidney: Your Choice

How many cups of wine are needed to shut down the brain stem?

Marror: How much is too much?

Please offer your own suggestions…

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The importance of being earnest

[Posts I enjoyed recently: The Pesach Problem at A Mother in Israel and Pesach Money Saving Tips at Orthonomics]

I read a striking passage from Rav Klonymus Kalman Schapira’s Bnei Machshavah Tovah (Seder Emtza’ei v’Yesod –haChevra 15) the other day. It’s part of a great theme on asserting the nefesh [soul], rather than the sechel [intellect], in one’s life.

He wrote:
Guide yourself in simplicity and sincerity in all of your affairs, for sincerity is the rule of the nefesh over a person and his deeds. Cunning is the absence of nefesh, the reign of the sechel – and not the sechel which comes from the nefesh, but worldly sechel, the customs and situations of the world and its inhabitants. Fools call this ‘sechel’, and according to this sechel they act, speak, plot and conduct their lives.

Or in the Hebrew:
תנהג את עצמך בפשיטות ותמימות, בכל עניניך, כי תמימות היא ממשלת הנפש על האדם ומעשיו, וערמומית היא חוסר הנפש, וממשלת השכל, ולא השכל שלו שבא מן הנפש, רק שכל העולם, כלומר מנהגי ומצבי העולם ואנשיו שהטפשים קוראים לזה שכל וכפיהם עושים מדברים חושבים ומתנהגים.

And so Rav Schapira gives the following counsel for the way we should respond to people’s questions:

“Answer questions earnestly, as is in your heart, in sincerity and simplicity, and use your intellect only to determine that an answer is not incorrect. Even your intellect should be simple and earnest, a tool to serve the earnestness and simplicity of your heart, to help her and to bring her intent into action.

“And if you find that this answer will harm you, or there is some other reason you cannot give this answer, then say, ‘I don’t know,’ as the sages instructed, rather than bend and corrupt with a twisted answer, without earnestness and without simplicity.”

Or in the Hebrew:
ראשית כל תענה ברצינות (הערנסט) כאשר עם לבבך בתמימות ופשטות, ובשכלך תשמש רק להבחין אם אינך טועה בתשובה זו, אבל גם שכלך זה יהיה פשוט ורציני (הערנסט) מין כלי שמוש יהיה שכלך לשמש את רציניות ופשטות לבך לעזור לה ולהוציאה לפועל. ואם מצאת שתשובה זו תזיק לך, או מניעה אחרת בתשובתך, תאמר איני יודע כמצות חז"ל ולא תעקם ותעקל תשובה נפתולה בלא רציניות ובלא פשטות.

[I believe his “as the sages instructed” refers to Kallah Rabti 4:22, “‘Teach your tongue to say, ‘I don’t know,’ lest you lie and be trapped.”]

Golden advice.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Pesach is coming!

[This week's Haveil Havalim is here!]

I wrote the following in 2007, when I was still in the pulpit. It is a measure of the intimidation that is Pesach that I can vividly remember how I felt when I wrote it.

Pesach is coming.
I know what you’re thinking: Of course Pesach is coming! What did you expect, when Purim is so last week!

But you don’t understand: Pesach is coming.
Five derashos - two for the first days of Pesach, one for Shabbos Chol haMoed, two for the last days. Not to mention another for Shabbos right after Pesach.

Divrei Torah for each night of Yom Tov, and Shabbos.

Shiurim for each afternoon of Yom Tov, and Shabbos, between Minchah and Maariv.

Krias haTorah for eight days, and a different one each day, including Chol haMoed.

Pesach is coming, I tell you.

And the shailos, oh, the shailos. How do I kasher my coffee-maker? What’s the latest on kashering microwave ovens? Does this need a special hechsher for Pesach? Why? Why not?

My grandmother used peanut oil and had no problem with it. My grandmother refused to use peanut oil, and would have spit on your Pesach kitchen.

What’s the story with mustard? Does meat need a special hechsher? What about fresh fish?

Rabbi, I’m away for Pesach; can I just do a bedikah on the front hallway of my house? How about just a bathroom?

Oh, yes, Pesach is coming, my friend.
The mass exodus of two-thirds of my shul to various relatives. We can't get anyone to come to our Seder. Maybe they go away just to avoid being invited to our Seder.

Somewhere, some community swells massively with the exflux of my congregants. And we don’t get nearly as many influxers as we have exfluxers; presumably the overflow is in the hotels.

Or worse: Maybe they all just say they're going away. They're hiding in their homes.

Pesach is coming to town.

“Yes, I know you’re busy playing Rabbi,” the rebbitzen will say to me one day very soon, “but how about playing husband a little, too? You know, cleaning up your study, the bedroom, the garage, the basement? Watching the kids for a while? Doing some of the shopping? And if you’re too busy to kasher our sink, why do you have the time to kasher everyone else’s?”

And my favorite: “You told Mrs. X she doesn’t need to cover that counter, and ours are the same - why are we covering ours?”

Pesach is coming; look on Pesach, ye mighty, and despair.

Yom HaAtzmaut will get short shrift.

As will Lag ba’Omer even though it’s a Sunday this year.

Yom Yerushalayim? Be happy we’ll say Hallel, pal.

Yom haShoah? I follow Rav Soloveichik that Tisha b'Av is the day for national avelus.

All of those dates will be ignored in the rush of PESACH, and by the time Yom Tov is over I’ll have not the slightest energy for planning more special events. We’ll be lucky if I get together an all-night program in time for Shavuos.

Pesach is coming.
And you know the worst part? It’s just five months from Rosh Chodesh Nisan to Rosh Chodesh Elul.

And then you wonder why I get drunk at the Seder.

Friday, March 25, 2011

This happens to me in Jerusalem all the time

I love walking the streets of Yerushalayim, trying to get from Point A to Point B through side streets where I stumble upon shteiblach and kollelim, houses with interesting architecture, children at their games, sudden views of hills or skylines, streets named for fascinating people, and so on. A favorite is walking from the Central Bus Station to Rechavyah.

I often get turned around during these walks, and end up back where I started from. Streets curve back upon themselves counter-intuitively or run into dead ends, and sometimes it's just a matter of getting caught up in the scenery. Bottom line: I can certainly sympathize with the runners at the first Jerusalem Marathon this week:

J'lem Marathon ends in confusion; leaders run off course
The first-ever Jerusalem Marathon ended in some confusion on Friday as the three leading runners apparently took a wrong turn and arrived at the wrong finish line.

The first runner to arrive at the actual finish line was Kenyan Robert Cheruiyot with a time of 2:27:48, but later on Raymond Kipkoechh, 34, of Kenya was announced as the official winner with a time of 2:26:44 after apparently going off the course and arriving at the finish line of the half-marathon in a different location.

This would totally happen to me.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Why Publish?

[Post I’m reading: Rav Nir Ben Artzi Packs The House With Latest Predictions of Doom at Life in Israel]

About a year ago, I heard a prominent shul rabbi express disdain for the standard Torah articles published by yeshiva students on esoteric topics or analyses of the philosophy of legal minutiae. He would prefer they expend energy on new thinking, new ideas, and major issues.

I believe he would agree that writing these articles is valuable for the growth of the yeshiva students, as they develop their ideas more fully and learn to express them. And I think he would agree that minutiae, and legal theories, must be examined in the traditional ways, too, in order for one to understand how to rule on the more mainstream cases.

However, I agree with his critique when I contemplate my own possibilities for print publication. From time to time, people suggest publishing a book of derashos, or of shiurim. But – aside from the time investment – I am caught short by the question of why.

Whom would I be helping? Would it be for a resume? Would it just be for the sake of my own aggrandizement – look, that’s MY sefer, there on the shelf, with the faux-leather and gold-leaf and the articles with titles like בענין כשרות מילה בליל פסח מצרים? (Not to mention – doesn’t a blog with this many posts, not to mention WebShas and HaMakor and YUTorah audio shiurim and Koshertube video shiurim, count as some sort of publication?)

And then I walk into a seforim store and see how many seforim, written by people far more erudite and eloquent than I am, are ignored, gathering dust in piles. And I wonder: Would mine be any better, or deserve any better?

Certainly, there are sefarim I want to write, more along the lines of the “bigthink” writing that the above-referenced rabbi had in mind. I want to write a work on bioethics in which the medical, halachic and historical material are presented. I want to write a mussar sefer for Modern Orthodoxy. I want to complete the translation of the Aruch HaShulchan I started over a decade ago. And so on. And maybe one day I will.

But for now, whenever I think about cutting out some activity to devote time to writing, the answer that comes back is, “Why?”

Heed Kohelet 12:12 - There is no end to the production of books...

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

How to leave your shul

[Purim Post I enjoyed: The Foucauldian Term Generator app (for iPhone) at the Michtavim blog]

Some months ago, I received an email from a colleague who wanted to know what I had learned from my experience in leaving my old shul.

As this colleague knew, leaving Allentown was a heartbreaker for me, and remains a heartbreaker. I loved the community, and I certainly felt loved in return. I even loved the shul rabbinate (much of the time...). It was just a matter of logistics - the lack of a high school, as my oldest child drew closer to that age.

So how do you deal with leaving your community, when it's a departure by choice rather than on a rail?

This is a slightly-doctored version of what I told him. I know some of it may seem melodramatic or over the top to a non-rabbi, but it's very real to me. I wish I had succeeded in following all of these steps myself:

In my experience, leaving a shul is unlike leaving most other professional positions. The level of bonding with people, the integral role the rabbi plays in the community, the way in which the rabbi shares in the lives of others, the 24/7 dedication to the welfare of the community and its members, the fact (at least, I believe it's a fact) that a rabbi cannot succeed unless he falls in love with the members of his community... losing all of this, even voluntarily, is a very real bereavement.

The result is an experience of grief, very similar to the grief associated with more traditional forms of loss. And two of the primary manifestations of that grief are a feeling of Survivor Guilt and a feeling of I-don't-belong Dislocation.

What can a rabbi do about it? I have three ideas:

1. I believe a rabbi must know why he is leaving.
Regardless of what he chooses to tell other people - some things are better left unsaid, or shared only with certain people - the rabbi must know what his real reasons are, and how they are prioritized.

This becomes very important when he questions the decision, which is a natural part of the grieving process. Think of someone who decides not to pursue aggressive chemotherapy, and the second-guessing that goes on afterward if the reasons are not clear (and even if they are).

2. I believe a rabbi must know that he is leaving his community in a good position for the future.
This means knowing that the timing is as good as possible for the community, in terms of their ability to find a proper successor. It means that the timing is right in terms of communal projects.

It means that he leaves behind a thorough, around-the-year transition document - a public version for the shul president and, perhaps, executive board, and a private version, eyes-only for his successor.

And it means that he commits himself to be available for consultations going forward, even as he leaves his successor space to grow successfully into his shoes.

3. I believe a rabbi must allow himself time and space to grieve.
I'm certain you have had cases in which people tried to re-insert themselves into their work and social lives too soon after a bereavement, surgery or divorce, r"l.

That's a natural instinct for many, and certainly for a rabbi who is trying to serve a new community. But on so many levels, the grieving process will re-assert itself. That's fine, healthy and normal, but it should be anticipated and understood, and not fought.

What do you think? What else should be included?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

In Gd's Name

[Post I read a short while ago: Pre-Purim Kosher Beer List at Kosher Beers]

When I was a synagogue rabbi, I had to deal with my own serious desensitization to the space of a shul – after all, I was in there all the time, whether for prayer or to prepare the room or to check the lighting or to roll a Torah or to teach or to look at whether the vents really did blow cold air too strongly on X's seat or whatever.

In order to preserve the special meaning that I felt should come with standing in shul, I followed the laws regarding not entering the room unnecessarily, and not using the space inappropriately, but I also tried to take special note of every time I entered and exited that room. The idea was that each visit should be significant.

Some time last year I tried to apply the same principle to the challenge of prayer. The specific challenge: The sages speak of the importance of invoking Gd’s Name without proper concentration (such as in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 5, and see Shut Nishmas Chaim 11), but we invoke Gd’s Name so many times in the course of our thrice-daily prayer, as well as in the random and regular blessings that dot the day’s schedule, that I find myself numb to the Name and its meaning, especially as a million thoughts crowd into my head.

So I tried an experiment: I numbered the Names. In my siddur [prayer book], in certain portions, I numbered the Names of Gd as they appeared. I stuck with the four-letter י-ק-ו-ק, for simplicity’s sake. 18 in Yhi Chvod, 10 in Ashrei, 20 in the five הללוקה paragraphs (Tehillim 146-150), 29 in the body of the Amidah, and so on.

The idea was simply to make myself take notice every time I saw a number in my siddur, but along the way I noticed some other interesting points, including: That King David’s Tehillim are עניים במקום אחד ועשירים במקום אחר, including many iterations of Gd’s Name in certain chapters (like #146) and relatively few in others (like #148). That the Sages were less likely to include Gd’s Name in their poetry than King David was in his. That the Name itself plays a poetic role in certain places. And so on.

Of course, after a time that which was new becomes old, and by now I need new ‘tricks’ to keep myself in line. But this was effective for a time, and perhaps it will help others to develop methods of their own.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Purim Highlights

[This week’s Havell Havalim is here!]
[And take a look at Purim 2011/5771 in Iran]

Purim was wonderful this year. A few highlights:

1) Zachor
“Zachor” is the special Torah reading of the Shabbat preceding Purim, a reading which many authorities rule is the only biblically-mandated Torah reading of the year. I read it for my bar mitzvah, and then every Shabbat Zachor in the quarter-century since, other than the two I spent in Yeshivat Kerem b’Yavneh (where the Rosh Yeshiva zt”l did the Ashkenazi reading).

But now I’m not the Rabbi of the shul, and although last year things worked out for me to read it at the minyan I attended, this year I decided I was going to stop the string. It felt arrogant, this insistence that I had some special right to read Zachor.

So we went to shul Shabbat morning and when I walked into shul one of the gabbaim approached me and asked me to read Zachor. He explained that the person who was supposed to read it had learned it “Sephardit”, with a “tav” instead of a “sav”, and the shul’s custom is to read it with a “sav”. So could I read it?

This was strange, for three reasons:
1) This was not or usual minyan, and I had never leined there;
2) There were plenty of eligible baalei keriah at this minyan;
3) It would be easy enough for a baal keriah to switch from Tav to Sav for this reading, which is all of 3 sentences long...

I took it, of course, appreciating the opportunity. And I had to wonder: This is very weird. Was this a sign?

2) Megilah
I feel guilty for not volunteering to read the megilah at nursing homes or hospitals this year, but it was worthwhile to be able to help out at home for a change. Especially as my wondrous Rebbetzin prepared/hosted an incredible seudah for our kollel. And I did lein for a couple of shul minyanim.

3) When is the age of chinuch [mitzvah education] for Jewish holidays?
During a morning משלוח מנות run, our youngest demonstrated that he is not yet at the age of chinuch. Despite what seems like months of pre-Purim prep in pre-school and Purim discussions at home, he doesn’t quite get the story.

This I know because our car stereo was blasting Schlock Rock’s “Achashverosh” (Falco’s Amadeus being one of the guilty pleasures of my high school years), and when we reached the line, “Let’s go save the Jews,” he asked, “I didn’t know the Jewish people were in the Purim story!”


Sunday, March 20, 2011

And again: Drinking on Purim

This is a "sticky post" - It will remain on top through Purim. Please scroll down if you are looking for newer posts.

First: In response to the emails I have received, this year there will be no costume for me.

I'm not shaving all or half of my beard, and I'm not leaving a goatee. I'm not dressing up as Thing 1, a surgeon, a gorilla, Batman, Batman in a sombrero, a New York Ranger, a New York Ranger who is also a member of the US Olympic Hockey team, a box-wearing hamantashen vending machine, or a box-wearing victim of Bernie Madoff... sorry. I just didn't have the time to think of something particularly inventive, and I'm not going to do it just for the sake of doing it. My apologies.

But to re-live a couple of those old costumes, feel free to click here.

Now then: In what has become an annual tradition, here are my thoughts on drinking on Purim. It's based on my past posts, but with significant changes to take into account the comments from previous years.

Warning: Soapbox ahead.

On Purim we celebrate the ultimate joy of a sudden national rescue, and our sages taught that we should imbibe alcohol at the Purim Seudah as part of this celebration. Just as we abstain from various foods and from drink at certain times of the year to induce sadness, so we indulge in various foods and in drink at other times of the year, to induce joy. The gemara’s standard for imbibing is to drink until we cannot tell the difference between “Cursed is Haman” and “Blessed is Mordechai” (Megilah 7b).

Authorities differ on how much to drink, but the following is clear: An adult who is medically, psychologically and emotionally able to drink, and who has a designated driver, should drink some amount of alcohol - preferably enough that he will feel lightheaded (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 695:2). One should enjoy his Seudah relatively early in the afternoon, drink a little, and then sleep off the effects of the alcohol.

Many people, and I include myself in this number, have embraced the practice of drinking minimally at the Purim Seudah and then fulfilling the state of intoxication by taking a nap after the meal. This approach is sanctioned by the Rama (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 695:2). Most years, I actually do the eating/drinking/nap before participating in a communal seudah.

I know the following is obvious, and I apologize for taking your time with it, but if my blog has any reach at all then I feel an obligation to state this obvious point. Please:

1) There is no reason to give alcohol to minors who are pre-bar mitzvah to drink on Purim. It is not necessary for their fulfillment of any mitzvah. The practice might be secularly legal as sacramental wine - consult an attorney - but it is a foolish and dangerous ritual and therefore prohibited as endangering our children as well as violating our obligation of chinuch for our children.

I do believe there is a difference between giving children a taste of wine from Kiddush and engaging them in Purim drinking. The former is a formal setting, and no one (I hope) is drinking to get a buzz. On Purim, though, because the general drinking is more loose and more geared toward celebration, I believe that the rule should be that children drink no alcohol at all.

2) If your own child is a minor, but older than bar mitzvah, and able to handle a small amount of wine, then it makes sense to help your child fulfill the mitzvah with a small amount, in a supervised setting, assuming this is legal in your jurisdiction.

3) Adults should not drink on Purim in the presence of young children, beyond what would normally be consumed at a meal on Shabbat. Immature children cannot tell when we are in control and when we are not, cannot comprehend the dangers associated with alcohol, cannot accept the idea that adults can do what children are not permitted to do, and cannot understand the difference between Purim and the rest of the year.

The finest joy is a celebration which centers around a Mitzvah, and this is the essence of Purim – the four mitzvot (Megilah, Sending Gifts of Food, Giving to the Poor and having a Feast) which are about experiencing joy and spreading joy and thanking HaShem for saving us from destruction.

I apologize for wasting anyone’s time by stating the obvious, but as I said above, I feel the responsibility of stating this in any forum I have available.

And not to be a party-pooper at all, but those who want to know more about this theme should see Shaarei Teshuvah of Rav Chaim Margaliyot (printed with a standard Mishneh Berurah), in his final comment on Orach Chaim:

ויותר יש לזרז עצמו בד"ת במקום שיש שם איזה שמחה אף אם היא שמחה של מצוה ועיין בסוף סוכה בענין שמחת בית השואבה וכן מבואר לעיל סימן תקכ"ט אדם אוכל ושותה ושמח ברגל ולא ימשוך בבשר ויין ובשחוק וקלות ראש לפי שאין השחוק וקלות ראש שמחה אלא הוללות וסכלות ולא נצטוינו על הוללות וסכלות אלא על שמחה שיש בה עבודת היוצר עכ"ל והוא לשון רבינו הרמב"ם ז"ל והמפרשים ז"ל פירשו לשחוק אמרתי מהולל ר"ל שיהיה באיזה ענין שיהיה השחוק הוא הוללות עבט"ז לעיל
אך לשמחה מה זו עושה ר"ל שלענין שמחה אין להחליט שאינה יפה שבאמ' יש שמחה של מצוה ולכן יש ליתן לב לדעת מה זו עושה ר"ל מה טובה אם הוא שמחה של מצוה או לא אך הואיל ואפשר כי מתוך אכילה ושתיה והוללת יתמשך לשחוק וקלות ראש לכן יקח תבלין לבסם השמחה בד"ת וחדוות ה' יהיה מעוזו ויטב לבו בד"ת וז"ש וטוב לב משתה תמיד
It is even more necessary to energize one’s self with words of Torah in a place where there is joy, even if it is joy associated with a mitzvah. See the end of Succah regarding simchas beis hashoevah. And so is explained in the Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 529, “One should eat, drink and be happy on the holiday, but not draw himself after meat and wine and laughter and lightheadedness, for laughter and lightheadedness are not joy, but empty celebration and foolishness. We are not instructed in empty celebration and foolishness, but in joy which includes service of the Creator.” This is a citation from the Rambam.
The sages explained the verse (Kohelet 2:2), “I have called laughter ‘empty celebration’” to mean that in any form, laughter is empty celebration. See the Taz earlier. [I don’t know which comment from the Taz he means.]
But “What does joy accomplish (Kohelet 2:2)” means that regarding joy, one should not conclude that it is not good. In truth, there is joy associated with mitzvot! Therefore, one should set his heart to know what joy can accomplish, meaning, what is its nature – is it joy associated with a mitzvah, or not. But since it is possible that one will be drawn to laughter and lightheadedness as a result of eating, drinking and empty celebration, therefor, one should take spices to sweeten the joy with words of Torah, and his strength will be in the joy of Gd, and his heart will be good with words of Torah. This is the meaning of ‘One of good heart is always at a feast.’

May we have wonderful and safe Purim - ליהודים היתה אורה ושמחה וששון ויקר!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down

Thumbs Up - Great article:
Grant Hill's response to Jalen Rose

Basketball player Grant Hill's New York Times response to his rival Jalen Rose's documentary, "Fab Five", in which Hill was denigrated as an Uncle Tom.

Very good reading, and it made me think of the way Jews in one camp denigrate Jews in other camps, who haven't experienced life or Judaism their way.

Favorite line: My mother always says, “You can live without Chaucer and you can live without calculus, but you cannot make it in the wide, wide world without common sense.” As we get older, we understand the importance of these words.

And Thumbs Down - You've heard of Purim Torah, well, this must be Purim Activism - as in, activism so silly it's clearly self-parody:
Where are the women in the Maccabeats Video?

Among the most obvious problems:
- Complaining that a Purim video has an infant play Esther, even though it also features small children playing the other roles in the megillah.

-Criticizing that video because it features only adolescent males and small children (excuse the redundancy), even though it's made by an all-male acapella group. (Or is the complaint that Jews shouldn't have all-male acapella groups? I may have missed that.)

-But this gem of logic must be the best quote - If we can be modern enough to make a snazzy music video, can’t we also be disciplined enough not to reduce a woman to a sexual object when she ascends the podium? I'm missing something here, but I don't know what it is.

It actually reminds me of what Jalen Rose did to Hill in that documentary, come to think of it.

Enjoy the reading...

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Purim Post: Mad Lib Eulogies

Warning: Poor taste and funeral humor below.

In my time in the rabbinate, I probably attended about four hundred funerals, officiating at the great majority of them. I worked for hours on eulogies, interviewing family members, thinking about the person's life, researching connections to the parshah or the Jewish calendar, and ultimately trying to find words to express the way in which the life of the niftar (deceased) carried personal meaning for relatives, the community, and me.

The Gemara says that a eulogy is supposed to induce tears. Herewith the words of the RCA Lifecycle HaMadrikh, 1995 edition, on the value of a good eulogy: “It must be a heartfelt lament of the great loss that is felt by family and friends, through conveying a true reflection of the deeds and virtues of the deceased.

Heartfelt, a lament, a true reflection of the deeds and virtues of the deceased... this isn't always so simple. It's hard - I mean, people die all the time.

Frankly, I suspect that some rabbis are not terribly disturbed by the modern tendency to allow a day, or even two, before a funeral, since it gives them more time to work on what should be a moving presentation on the meaning of a person's life.

Fortunately, in my hiatus from the pulpit I've had the opportunity to develop various kinds of new materials for shul rabbis. In honor of Purim, visiting the outer limits of taste... and beyond... I present to you a new aid for rabbis:

The Mad Lib Eulogy.

First, before you look at the eulogy text below, fill in the following blanks. Go ahead, get a piece of paper and try it:

(1) A Name ______
(2) A positive adjective ______
(3) A Year ______
(4) A 20th century tragedy ______
(5) An Emotion ______
(6) A positive adjective ______
(7) A positive adjective ______
(8) A positive adjective ______
(9) A Nationality ______
(10) A Relation ______
(11) A Relation ______
(12) An Emotion ______
(13) A Hobby ______
(14) A good figure from the Torah ______
(15) A Relation ______
(16) One of the sacred books of Judaism ______

And here's one version you could produce:
(1) John was a (2) menschlich person his entire life. Born in (3) 1939, in the middle of (4) the Holocaust, he knew the meaning of (5) sadness. Despite challenges, he developed into a (6) kind human being, a (7) good friend and a (8) supportive son to his (9) Belgian parents.

(1) John was a good (10) son, but his greatest affection was reserved for his (11) children, in whose presence he was always (12) happy. He enjoyed (13) fishing with them, whenever he had time.

(1) John’s love for his (11) children is reminiscent of the love displayed by (14) Avraham for his (15) son. The (16) Midrash tells us that (14) Avraham displayed the greatest love for a (15) son that anyone has ever known – and (1) John built his life around that model.

Even as we mourn (1) John's passing, let us also be grateful for the years we had with him, and for his love for his (11) children. May it be a model for us and for our children, and may his memory be a blessing for us all.
Of course, this tool must be used with care; in particular, make sure to choose positive adjectives where indicated. Otherwise, you can end up with somewhat different results:

(1) John was a (2) green person his entire life. Born in (3) the Year of the Monkey, in the middle of the (4) Hindenburg Disaster, he knew the meaning of (5) ennui. Despite challenges, he developed into a (6) stringy human being, an (7) absorbent friend and a (8) pungent son to his (9) Mongolian parents.

(1) John was a good (10) cousin, but his greatest affection was reserved for his (11) stepmother, in whose presence he was always (12) agitated. He enjoyed (13) making tortillas with her, whenever he had time.

(1) John’s love for his (11) stepmother is reminiscent of the love displayed by (14) Lot for his (15) family dog. The (16) Zohar tells us that (14) Lot displayed the greatest love for a (15) family dog that anyone has ever known – and (1) John built his life around that model.

Even as we mourn (1) John’s passing, let us also be grateful for the years we had with him, and for his love for his (11) stepmother. May it be a model for us and for our children, and may his memory be a blessing for us all.

Try it out this Purim, and put your results in the comments.

Note: Feel free to expand this to Chuppah speeches, Bar/Bat Mitzvah speeches, etc. The only requirement is that you read them aloud in a rabbinical sing-song, punctuated appropriately with sighs and smiles along the way.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Halachic Myth for Purim

[Post I'm reading: Judging Mother at Everyone Needs Therapy]

During every year’s run-up to Purim I come across a standard halachic myth: That the foods used for mishloach manot (aka shalach manos) must be of separate halachic ‘species’, such that one would need to recite two separate blessings before eating them.

There are requirements for the foods, of course, most notably that they should be foods which are immediately edible, and ideally (in terms of the spirit of the law) they should be suitable for one’s Purim Seudah, but there is no requirement to have foods which require two berachos. Proof – the Rambam (Hilchos Megilah 2:15) and Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 695:4) specify an option of using two pieces of meat as mishloach manot! And yet, generations of children have come home from school with this idea. Where does it come from?

It reminds me of the myth that people with tattoos may not be buried in Jewish cemeteries. I once heard it suggested that this came from mothers whose sons were going off to military service; they wanted to intimidate their children, so that they wouldn’t get tattoos. But there is no basis for this, either.

Or the myth that we don’t eat giraffe because we don’t know on what spot to schecht it. As has been noted by others, shechitah is certainly not the problem – we schecht, essentially, between the lowest and highest cartilage rings, for which the giraffe affords us plenty of space. Broadcaster Bill Chadwick said of Gene Carr, “He couldn’t put the puck in the ocean if he was standing at the end of the pier” - that’s the sort of shochet who can’t schect a giraffe! [At the link above you'll find a related quip, but I prefer hockey...]

Of course, there are customs that have esoteric origins, and are not really myths. For example, many people who give away a deceased person’s clothes will not give away his shoes, and for years I thought this was a myth. Then I saw Sefer Chasidim 454 – that doesn’t make this halachah, but it does provide a basis.

But two berachos for mishloach manot? Myth.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Enough of "They Kill, We Build"

[Haveil Havalim is here]

The sentiment is all over the blogs, Netanyahu has emphasized it, all sorts of ambassadors and consuls and spokesmen have underscored it, but I can’t get into it.

"They kill, we build," the line goes. "They murder tiny infants, we build homes for families."

But it’s no consolation for the massacre of the Fogel family in Itamar.

And more, the public relations argument that we build and Palestinian Arabs murder babies is irrelevant, a response to a straw man argument that no one has alleged.

The world doesn't claim we destroy. The world's actual argument is that we are stealing land. So to them, the government’s permission to build hundreds more apartments is, “They kill, we steal.”

I'm not saying we shouldn't build. We must build. But stop making an empty PR argument out of it.

The world doesn't get it, they won't get it, and certainly not when we respond to straw men.

Sorry to be so depressing this morning, but there it is.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Korbanot: It's the thought that counts

My article from this week's Toronto Torah:

Feeling like an astronaut does not mean I’ve been to the moon (to borrow from Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald), and studying the laws of Lulav is not halachically equal to picking up a palm branch and waving it. When dealing with korbanot, though, it seems that feeling = doing.

Vayyikra Rabbah (7:3) illustrates this point, saying, “Since you involve yourselves in studying them, I consider it as though you had actually brought them.” This message is reminiscent of Hosheia’s surprising statement, as explained in Yoma 86b, that reciting the pesukim of the korbanot is considered equivalent to performing their rituals.
Similarly, the Mateh Ephraim (621:10) says that one should study, in advance of Yom Kippur, the version of the Avodah which matches the version in the Avodah poem he will read on musaf of Yom Kippur.

This idea is most unusual within Judaism’s view of mitzvah fulfillment, though. We do not apply this concept of “study = fulfillment” to any other temporarily inaccessible mitzvah, such as Hakhel or Mechiyyat Amalek. How do we understand the korban-specific equation between recitation and practice?

One answer may emerge from the Rambam’s discussion of why HaShem decreed the existence of korbanot, at all. Rambam was troubled by Yirmiyahu’s declaration (7:22-23), “For on the day I removed your fathers from Egypt, I did not speak to them and I did not command them regarding burnt offerings and celebration sacrifices. Only this did I instruct them, saying: Hear My voice and I will be your G-d, and you will be My nation.” Yirmiyahu seems to say that HaShem does not desire korbanot - but the Torah itself, and particularly Sefer Vayyikra, is testimony to the contrary!

Rambam (Moreh haNevuchim 3:32) explained that Yirmiyahu was trying to teach us the importance of the thought that accompanies, and validates, a korban. “The primary object is that you should know Me and serve no other, and I will be your Gd and you will be My nation. I instructed you in all of these rituals in My Name, until the name of idolatry would be erased and the principle of My Oneness would remain, so that this principle would endure in your hands.”

In other words, to borrow from Sanhedrin 106b, “רחמנא ליבא בעי,” HaShem desires the heart. The goal of the korban is to bring us closer to Gd; absent that goal, the korban itself is meaningless. [Of course, this emphasis upon the heart does not render the korban ritual meaningless; viduy without a korban chatat is as meaningless as a korban chatat without viduy. Nonetheless, the thought is essential to the korban.]

We see evidence of the importance of our feelings in the names that the Torah and our sages used to identify the korbanot themselves. Whereas ritual mitzvot are often named for the objects they employ – Matzah, Lulav, Menorah – the korbanot are primarily named for the emotions and thoughts they represent: Chatat [sin-offering], Asham [guilt-offering], Todah [thanks-offering], Shelamim [peace-offering], Neder and Nedavah [voluntary vows to Gd]. [The korbanot which do not follow this model – such as Pesach, Bechor, Maaser – tend to involve other mitzvot beyond the korban itself.]

Perhaps this is why we can, in the temporary absence of a Beit haMikdash, study about the korbanot and merit Divine credit as though we had brought those offerings ourselves. If the korban’s primary element is its thought and emotion, and the secondary element, its ritual, is unavailable, then our engagement in the primary piece may suffice for now.

May Gd’s will be that we soon see the re-building of the Beit haMikdash and the restoration of our korbanot in both ritual and emotion, the primary and secondary elements united once again in the Land of Israel in our service of HaShem.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Class: Medical Halachah - Confidentiality of Patient Information

I am scheduled to teach another class in the Medical Halachah/CME series this Sunday. Our topic will be the Confidentiality of Patient Information. Here are the vignettes I plan to use:

The welfare of society
Albert, a family physician, runs a routine blood test on his 40-year old patient, Jason, and discovers that he is HIV-positive. Albert urges Jason to inform his wife immediately. If Jason is reluctant, is Albert obligated to inform Jason’s wife?

The welfare of the patient
Beth, a pediatrician, suspects that her 14-year old patient, Julie, is engaging in unprotected sex with classmates. Should Beth inform Julie’s parents?

Potential future welfare
Carl, a family physician, knows that his patient, 22-year old James, has a family history of acute depression. James is dating a girl seriously, and Carl knows her family. Is Carl able or obligated to inform the girl, or her parents? Should local laws play a role in his decision?

Preventing violation of Jewish law
Dana, an OB-GYN, is informed by her patient, 25-year old Jane, that she contracted an STD in the course of an extramarital affair. If this is true, Jane’s husband is required by Jewish law to divorce her. Does Dana have an obligation to inform Jane’s husband?

Daf Yomi: Introduction to Menachos

In case anyone who is starting Daf Yomi with Menachos would like a quick overview, here is the Introduction sheet I plan to distribute to my shiur tomorrow morning:

Overview of Menachos

Key pesukim

  • Vayyikra 2:1-16 (Voluntary minchah; Omer)
  • Vayyikra 5:11-13 (Minchas chotei)
  • Vayyikra 6:7-16 (Voluntary minchah; Minchas chinuch and Menachos of kohanim)
  • Vayyikra 7:9-15 (Distribution of menachos; Lachmei Todah)
  • Vayyikra 23:9-22 (Omer; Shtei haLechem)
  • Vayyikra 24:5-9 (Lechem haPanim)
  • Bamidbar 5 (Minchas Sotah)
  • Bamidbar 6 (Minchas Nazir)

The types of Menachos (רמב"ם הל' מעשה הקרבנות ט, יב, יג, הל' סוטה ג, הל' תמידין ומוספין ה, ז, ח)

Minchas Maafeh (Baked Menachos)

  • Minchas Machavas – Add flour to oil, then add more oil and mix, then knead in lukewarm water and bake in a shallow machavas pan, then break into pieces (pesisah), place in kli sharet, add oil and frankincense.
  • Minchas Marcheshes – Add flour to oil, then add more oil and mix, then knead in lukewarm water and bake in a deep marcheshes pan, then break into pieces (pesisah), place in kli sharet, add oil and frankincense.
  • Minchas Maafeh TanurChallot – Mix flour and oil, knead in lukewarm water, bake, break into pieces (pesisah), place in kli sharet, add frankincense.
  • Minchas Maafeh TanurRekikin – Knead flour in lukewarm water, bake, anoint with oil, break into pieces (pesisah), place in kli sharet, add frankincense.

Minchas Soles (Flour Menachos)

  • Neder/Nedavah - Add flour to oil, then add more oil and mix, then place in kli sharet and add more oil, then add frankincense. Hagashah to mizbeiach, Kemitzah and haktarah, kohanim eat the shirayim.
  • Minchas Sotah (aka minchas kena’os) – Barley flour in a kli sharet. No oil or frankincense. Tenufah, Hagashah to mizbeiach, Kemitzah and haktarah, kohanim eat the shirayim.
  • Minchas Chotei – Wheat flour in a kli sharet. No oil or frankincense. Hagashah to mizbeiach, Kemitzah and haktarah, kohanim eat the shirayim.
  • Omer haTenufah (aka minchas bikkurim) – Singe barley, grind into flour, mix with oil, add frankincense. Tenufah, hagashah, kemitzah, haktarah of kometz, kohanim eat the shirayim.

Lachmei Todah

  • Normal – 10 loaves of chametz (sourdough is mixed with the flour) from 10 esronim; 10 challot maafeh tanur, 10 challot rekikin and 10 challot murbechet (scald flour in hot water, bake, fry in oil) from 10 esronim
  • Nazir – 10 challot rekikin, 10 challot maafeh tanur

Communal Menachos

  • Omer haTenufah (aka minchas bikkurim) – Singe barley, grind into flour, mix with oil, add frankincense. Tenufah, hagashah, kemitzah, haktarah of kometz, kohanim eat the shirayim.
  • Shtei haLechem – Beat wheat, grind into flour, knead and bake two challot chametz. Tenufah with the two shelamim lambs.
  • Lechem haPanim – Beat wheat, grind into flour, make twelve challot matzot, bake in special molds.

Chavitei Kohen Gadol

Mix flour and oil, scald in hot water, knead dough and break into loaves, bake, fry with additional oil, break loaves in half, break each loaf into pieces (pesisah). Bring half with frankincense in morning, and half in the evening, unless it is the minchas chinuch he brings on his first time.

Disposition of menachos of kohanim

  • Male Kohen – Burned entirely on the mizbeiach
  • Unmarried bat Kohen – Normal minchah
  • Minchas Eishes kohen – Shirayim go to the beis hadeshen.

Topics in Maseches Menachos, by perek

  1. Lishmah for Menachos; Pesulim for Menachos; Specifics of Kemitzah and Chafinah; Metzora; Tereifah
  2. Pigul in Menachos Part I
  3. (HaKometz Rabbah) Pigul Part II; Required components of various avodos; Salt; Mixtures of menachos; Power of the tzitz; Haktarah; Requirements Part II; the Menorah; Safrus; Mezuzah; Tefillin
  4. (HaTecheles) Tzitzis; Requirements Part III; Korban Tamid; Chavitei Kohen Gadol
  5. Chametz in Menachos; Requirement of North; More on Chametz; Sanctification of Menachos; Shemen and Levonah; Hagashah and Tenufah; Defining different types of Menachos
  6. Melachah for korbanos or other permitted purposes on Shabbos and Yom Tov; Omer Part I; Tziddukim; Chadash Part I; Terumah, Maaser and Kilayim; What’s a Grain?; Chadash Part II; Omer Part II
  7. Division of korbanos; Korbanos of non-Jews; Korbanos of kohanim; Belilah, Meshichah and Pesisah; Kneading the menachos
  8. Quantities of flour in menachos; Different types of loaves; Lachmei todah; Korban todah; Vows to bring a todah; Requirements of various korbanos
  9. Sources of grain for menachos and fruit for bikkurim; Sources of oil; Sources of wine
  10. The measuring vessels of the Beit haMikdash, for dry and liquid measures; Oil and the menorah; Measurement in the Beit haMikdash; Nesachim; Semichah for korbanos;
  11. The shtei halechem; the Shulchan; Measurement of the Beit haMikdash and its kelim; Placement of the klei hamikdash; Changing of the lechem hapanim;
  12. Redemption of kodashim; Tumas ochlin and korbanos; Vows of menachos, Part I; Shiurim of chachamim; Vows of nesachim
  13. Vows of menachos, Part II; Various vows for the Beit haMikdash

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Let my leaders fail!

I did the weekly three-minute parshah video for the kollel this week; hope my cold isn't too obvious:

Here is the quote from Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, Oznayim laTorah for Vayyikra:
יש להליט בדברי חז״ל אלה רעיון מאלף: הנשיא או המנהיג, אם הוא בעל מרץ ומעוף, מחפש תמיד דרכים איך להיטב את מצב עמו או עדתו, ומרוב מעשים יש שהוא טועה ועושה דבר אשר מוטב היה שלא לעשותו; הוא חטא ב״קום זיעשה״, עשה מה שלא היה צריך לעשות, או אם נתבטא בלשון חז״ל — עבר ״על לא תעשה״. חטא כזה מתכפר אם זדונו כרת ע״י קרבן חטאת, שהרי שוגג הוא. לעומת זה יש נשיא או מנהיג, שהוא תמיד מסתפק, אם כדאי לעשות דבר זה או אחר לטובת עמו ועדתו ופן יצא מזה דבר שאינו לטובת העם, ומרוב הזהירות אינו עושה כלום ומזניח את עניני הכלל. ואח״כ כשהוא רואה, ששגג בזה ״שלא עשה״, שלא הקדים את פני הרעה — הרי הוא דומה לעובר על ״מצות עשה״, שקרבנו עולה... ויש, איפוא, למצוא רמז בדרשת חז״ל הנ״ל, שאשרי הדור, שהנשיא שלו, אם שגג באיזה דבר, הרי הוא ״מחייבי ׳חטאות״, היינו שמרוב מרצו ועבודתו לטובת הכלל נכשל פעם ועבר על ״לא תעשה״ על דבר שלא הי׳ ראוי לעשות, ויתרון לנשיא כזה על נשיא ״מלא ספקות״ ומפניהם הוא מזניח את עבודת הציבור, על נשיא ״ממחייבי עולות״

We can unveil in these words of the Sages an instructive ideal: The nasi or leader, if he is a person of energy and alacrity, continually seeks ways to improve the standing of his nation or group. As a result of his many deeds, sometimes he errs and does something when it would have been better had he not acted. He sins with an action, doing what he should not have done. To use the language of the Sages - he violated a 'Lo Taaseh'. for such a sin one atones with a chatat offering, granted that for intentional violation there would be a punishment of kareit, since this is not intentional.

Opposite this is a nasi or leader who is perpetually in doubt whether to do this or something else for the benefit of his nation or group, lest something emerge which does not benefit the nation. Due to his great care, he does nothing and he abandons the needs of the community. Then, when he sees that he erred through inaction, and did not act to prevent bad develops, he is like one who sins by failing to perform an ‘Aseh’, and who brings a korban olah.

There is a hint to this in the lesson of the sages (Horiyyos 10b), “Fortunate is the generation whose nasi, if he has sinned, is among those who are obligated to bring a chatat offering,” meaning that because of his great energy and work for the good of the community he stumbled on occasion and violated a ‘Lo Taaseh’, erring in doing something he ought not to have done. This nasi is greater than a nasi who is full of doubt, such that he abandons the work of the community, a nasi who must bring a korban olah.

The theme is important, beyond the material I could fit into two minutes and thirty seconds. For rabbis in shuls, for teachers and administration in schools, for boards of community institutions like UJA/UJC, Jewish Family and Children Services, JCCs and so on - we need leaders who have the latitude to act on educated instinct, and that latitude can only be granted by communities which are supportive.