Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ending and then Beginning

I don't celebrate New Year's Day as a religious holiday, but something in me registers a substantive, positive change when the year flips over and we start writing 12 instead of 11. It's not that different from the feeling that comes with a birthday, just another day and yet so loaded with meaning. It's the end of the old immediately followed by the start of the new.

Starting anew immediately reminds me of a practice of my second grade ("grade two" in Canadian) rebbe, Rabbi Hyman ז"ל. Thanks to him, I am allergic to finishing a parshah, a perek of gemara, a sefer, without starting a new one. Whenever we made one of those siyyumim (celebrations of completion) that second graders perform from time to time, he had us read the first line from whatever book we were starting next. It made enough of an impression that I still do it, 30 years later.

I used to annoy my Daf Yomi crew with the practice, too; we would finish a masechta, and they wouldn't have the new volume with them and the day's Daf was concluded, but I would insist on starting the first mishnah in the new volume.

Theoretically, there is no reason to do this for the end of some specific section; we could add another line at every pause from our learning, whether at the end of a book or mid-page. One could even argue that it's a negative practice, keeping us from spending time thinking about what we have just completed. But from a psychological standpoint, it's important to do this specifically when we complete something, so that we don’t see our study as complete, but as leading to something new.

The same could be said for starting new ventures in life whenever an old one is complete, having nothing to do with study. [This has particular value when the 'completion of the old' is associated with grief and loss, but that's a discussion for another time.]

The model for Rabbi Hyman's practice might be Simchas Torah, when we start the Torah with Bereishis immediately after we finish the Torah with v'Zos haBerachah, but just the other day I came across another, earlier basis for the practice:

The gemara (Avodah Zarah 19a) records a story involving two sages, Rabbi Shimon bar Rebbe and Levi, who were studying from the same scroll. They finished learning one book, and then they wished to start a new one. The story is only recorded in the Talmud because of their debate as to what they should learn next; the fact that they had just finished a text is not directly relevant and doesn't seem to belong, and so Rav Shmuel Eideles (Maharsha) comments:

מדנקט לה בכי האי גוונא דסליק ספרא נראה דאשמעינן שבשעה שמסיימין ספר אחד יש להתחיל ספר האחר
From the fact that it brought the story in this manner, mentioning that they had just finished a book, it appears that they were teaching us that when we conclude one book we should begin another book.

So there's a solid source. May your every completion – secular year or individual day or study session – lead directly into a new beginning.

PS - The Maharsha adds a note:
כמו שאנו עושים בשמחת תורה ע"פ המדרש מפני קטרוג השטן
This is like our practice on Simchas Torah, based on a midrash of preventing the Satan's accusation.

I don't know where this midrash cited by the Maharsha appears, but Rav Ovadia does quote it to explain why there is no kaddish between completion of the Torah and the start of Bereishis on Simchas Torah (Yabia Omer 4:Orach Chaim 22).

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Beit Shemesh: Of Sikrikim and Givonim

[I received what could be a critical alert this morning from the ADL, regarding a man named Danny Lee Warner. It is most unusual for them to send an alert specifying a name and a location, as they did with this one. The JCRC of New York has put the alert on-line; click here to see it.]

In the Bible: The Givoni tribe tricked Joshua into a pact of non-aggression when the Jews first entered Canaan. Despite the fraud, the Jews committed to honor their agreement, and supported the Givonim by giving them a role within the Jewish community.

The book of Shemuel I (chapter 21) records that Gd punished the Jews with a famine because King Shaul later attacked the tribe of Givonim. [The commentators are perplexed, for such an attack does not appear in Tanach; some suggest this refers to his eradication of the city of Nov, which eliminated their livelihood.] The Givonim demanded a horrific price for their satisfaction: The death of seven members of King Shaul's family.

As explained in Yevamot 79a, King David reacted by declaring that no Jew could marry a member of this Givoni tribe; they could not possibly be Jewish, because they lacked the traits of bashfulness, mercy and kindness. Expanding upon this, the Rambam wrote in his work of law, Mishneh Torah (Hilchos Issurei Biah 19:17):

כל מי שיש בו עזות פנים או אכזריות ושונא את הבריות ואינו גומל להם חסד חוששין לו ביותר שמא גבעוני הוא, שסימני ישראל האומה הקדושה ביישנין רחמנים וגומלי חסדים, ובגבעונים הוא אומר והגבעונים לא מבני ישראל המה לפי שהעיזו פניהם ולא נתפייסו ולא רחמו על בני שאול ולא גמלו לישראל חסד למחול לבני מלכם והם עשו עמהם חסד והחיום בתחלה
Regarding anyone who is boldfaced or cruel or who hates Gd's creatures and does not perform kindness to them: We are exceptionally concerned that this person might be a Givoni, for the signs of Israel, the holy nation, is that they are bashful, merciful and providers of kindness. Regarding the Givonim it is written, 'The Givonim were not of the children of Israel,' because they were boldfaced, and they were not appeased, and they did not have mercy upon Shaul's family, and they did not perform kindness to Israel to forgive their royal family even though the Jews had [earlier] performed kindness for them, giving them life.

The Shulchan Aruch quotes this as law in Even haEzer 2:2-
מי שיש בו עזות פנים ואכזריות ושונא את הבריות ואינו גומל להם חסד, חוששים לו ביותר שמא גבעוני הוא.
Regarding anyone who is boldfaced and cruel and who hates Gd's creatures and does not perform kindness to them: We are exceptionally concerned that this person might be a Givoni.

Given the above, I have to wonder: How could anyone marry one of Beit Shemesh's self-styled Sikrikim, who - in an organized, premeditated fashion - brutalize children verbally and physically in an attempt to intimidate them and drive them out?

I know their justifications, but the Givonim had a justification, too, and it was a lot stronger than that of the Sikrikim. Claiming the banner of Torah does not hide עזות פנים (boldfaced conduct), does not mitigate אכזריות (cruelty) and does not substitute for חסד (kindness). It appears to me that we have here a modern version of חוששין לו ביותר שמא גבעוני הוא.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Mayor Corey Booker on Jewish Education

First, an interesting question from this morning: On Monday, I went to shul with one of my children. Davening was long (Rosh Chodesh and Chanukah, after all!) and I surprised him afterward with a trip to a local bakery for a jelly doughnut.

This morning - again Chanukah and Rosh Chodesh - I found all of my children dressed and ready to go to shul, bright and early. [Today is Boxing Day nidcheh, so davening wasn't that early] Obviously, a repeat trip to the bakery was expected.

So - Go or No Go? Confirm them in the idea that service of Gd brings quick earthly rewards? Or show them that a mitzvah has value in itself?

I needed about 3 seconds to debate that one; I took them to the bakery. What would you do?

But on to the main subject of this post:

I received a link yesterday to video of Newark's Mayor Corey Booker, speaking at a fundraiser for the Jewish Day School of the Lehigh Valley, the community day school in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The school educates, and draws support from, the gamut of the Jewish spectrum, with a message that tries to reach everyone.

Mayor Booker's speech was perfect; watch it below. [Note: Part II is even better than Part I; that's where he gets into his 'dvar torah'.] I wish every Jewish parent could watch it. He laid out simple but compelling reasons why a Jewish community must support its Jewish school.

Often, Jews draw inspiration from praise that comes from outside the Jewish community; we love to cite Mark Twain on the Eternal Jew, for example. Having a non-Jew recognize value in our community and ideals offers validation. Certainly, that's part of what I value in Mayor Booker's words - but I am more impressed by the Torah content itself.

Part I:

Part II:

Monday, December 26, 2011

Hiddur vs. Kallos

I published the following column in the Canadian Jewish News last week, but since they don't run it on-line, I'm including it here. Some of the ideas I used in a Chanukah article in YU's To Go from 5771 are involved here, but this is more sophisticated. Neal Stephenson fans (Anathem, specifically) may particularly like it:

My elementary school teachers explained Hellenic culture by telling our class that Greeks worshipped the beautiful body. Underscoring this point by noting that ancient Olympic competitors performed without clothing, these teachers succeeded in conveying an indelible image, but they oversimplified the role of Beauty in the original Chanukah and its celebrations today.

Greek culture honoured the body's physical beauty, but their emphasis was upon a broader conception of Beauty, or Kallos. Plato envisioned an abstract universe in which the characteristics we express as adjectives exist as nouns – a perfect Triangle, a perfect Blue, and a perfect Beauty, as independent entities.

Within that abstract Platonic universe, Kallos occupies a place of honour, and so every beautiful thing in our world is automatically admired as a reflection of that higher Kallos, even in the absence of any other redeeming characteristic. To cite from Plato's Phaedrus (Jowett translation), the most elevated person who observes beauty in our world "is transported with the recollection of the true beauty… he is like a bird fluttering and looking upward and careless of the world below; and he is therefore thought to be mad." And as Plato wrote in his Symposium (Nehamas translation), "Only in the contemplation of beauty is human life worth living."

This ideal was rejected by the Maccabees, for Jewish tradition spurns the idea that Beauty has inherent value. Beauty is neither good nor evil; it is only a characteristic of a good or evil entity. As Proverbs 31:30 states, "Charm is false and beauty is empty"; we don't admire Beauty for its own value.

However, Jewish tradition does teach that the act of Beautification, Hiddur in Hebrew, demonstrates devotion; as the Sages translated the Jews' song of praise at the Red Sea (Exodus 15:2), "This is my G-d, and I will beautify Him." Therefore, the same Maccabees who rejected Kallos pursued Hiddur in establishing the restored Temple's Menorah. The Talmud (Menachot 28b) teaches, "The branches of their Menorah were iron rods, and the Hasmoneans 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."

We follow in the footsteps of the Maccabees and employ Hiddur on Chanukah, too. The Talmud records a baseline practice of lighting one flame per household on each night of Chanukah, but Jews all over the world follow the Talmud's highest "mehadrin" practice of lighting multiple flames, based on the number of Chanukah nights that have passed. As the 13th century commentary Tosafot explains, this practice is called mehadrin from the word Hiddur, signifying that it beautifies the mitzvah; we practice Hiddur in order to glorify our Judaism.

Beyond the religious message, Hiddur of a mitzvah also offers great practical value. I wish for my children to value the religious decisions I have made, but if my child sees rote observance, begrudging fulfillment of obligations and bottom-line satisfaction of expectations, she may find that model less than compelling. On the other hand, if our children will see that a mitzvah is a thing worthy of Hiddur, then perhaps they will desire to own it themselves. With their beautified Menorah, the Maccabees encouraged us to demonstrate, for ourselves and for our children, that mitzvot are worthy of Hiddur.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Class: Laws of Comedy

In our Shabbos afternoon class in Gemara Avodah Zarah, we've spent a few weeks discussing Avodah Zarah 18's focus on ליצנות, leitzanut. This term is often rendered as 'scorning' or 'mocking', but the gemara also uses it to refer to attending theatres and circuses and comedy performances and gladiator matches, and perhaps even to hunting for sport. All along, the commentators emphasize the frivolous character of the activity.

Whatever the term means, the gemara makes clear that leitzanut is very, very bad - the Divine punishments include physical suffering, Gehennom, and global destruction.

So what, exactly, is leitzanut, and why is it so bad? After all, the gemara is filled with humor - from puns to slapstick - and it recommends opening a shiur with humor! In today's class we developed two interlocking ideas:
(1) Arrogantly mocking others' ideas or personalities, and
(2) Pursuing empty activities.

We talked about what concerned the sages, and its application to our forms of entertainment.

Here's the source sheet we used; credit goes to this page for leading me to some of these sources:
Key sources from Mishlei
1. Mishlei 9:8
אל תוכח לץ פן ישנאך הוכח לחכם ויאהבך
Do not rebuke a letz, lest he hate you; rebuke a wise person and he will love you.

2. Mishlei 9:12
אם חכמת חכמת לך ואם לצת לבדך תשא
If you gained wisdom, you gained wisdom for yourself. If latzta, you bear that alone.

3. Mishlei 21:24
זד יהיר לץ שמו עושה בעברת זדון
The zeid, arrogant man is named Letz, the one who acts with the anger of zadon.

Putting down others
4. Rabbeinu Yonah, Shaarei Teshuvah III 174
מבלי היות לו תועלת בדבר הוא גורם נזק עצום לחבריו אשר יבאיש את ריחם בעיני האדם, וזה תכלית הזדון יותר מן הגוזל והחומס שעושה להרבות לו ממון, וגם הוא יהיר כי השפל והנכנע כאשר יכיר מגרעת עצמו ומומיו לא יתלוצץ על בני אדם.
Without any personal gain in the matter, he causes great harm to people by denigrating them before others' eyes. This is what makes zadon worse than theft or banditry, which is done to increase one's wealth. Such a person is also arrogant, for one who is humble and recognizes his own deficiencies and blemishes and does not mock other people.

5. Rabbeinu Yonah, Shaarei Teshuvah III 176
מי שלועג תמיד לדברים ולפעולות... הביאוהו למדתו הרעה היותו חכם בעיניו... וכל כך משלה בו המדה הזאת עד שיתלוצץ לדעת זולתו, והיא המדה שאין לה תקוה
One who perpetually mocks things and activities… is brought to this bad trait by being wise in his own eyes… And this trait so rules over him that he mocks the views of others. This is a hopeless trait.

6. Rabbeinu Yonah, Shaarei Teshuvah III 177*
המתלוצץ בדבר שפתים על המעשים והדברים, לא שיבוז להם בלבו אך מדרך השמחים ללא דבר וחק השחוק, ופעמים שגורם לזה משתה היין והשכרות
One who verbally mocks deeds or things, not because he personally scorns them but because this is the way of people who are happy for no reason, and it is a joking practice. Sometimes wine and intoxication causes this.

7. R' Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, Mesilat Yesharim Perek 5
כמו המגן המשוח בשמן אשר ישמיט ויפיל מעליו החצים ומשליכם לארץ ולא יניח אותם שיגיעו אל גוף האדם כן הלצון בפני התוכחה...
Like a shield anointed with oil, which shunts and staves off arrows, casting them to the ground, so they don't reach the person's body. So is latzon before rebuke…

8. Malbim to Mishlei 21:24
הזד הוא החולק על חקי החכמה בזדון, ומתוכח נגד חקי החכמה והאמונה, מכחיש בהשגחה ובשכר ועונש ועושה עבירות ביד רמה, וכ"ז שאינו יהיר אינו לץ עדיין, כי מתוכח בטענות וראיות לא בליצנות, ואם ינצחוהו ישתוק, אבל אם הוא יהיר אז לא יחוש לטעמים וראיות כלל, רק מתלוצץ על החכמים והמאמינים
The zeid contradicts the laws of wisdom with zadon, battling the laws of wisdom and faith, denying Divine supervision and reward and punishment, and transgressing with an upraised arm, but as long as he is not arrogant he is not a letz, for he battles with claims and proofs rather than leitzanut. If he is defeated, he is silent. One who is arrogant, though, is not concerned for reasons and proofs at all; he only scorns sages and believers.

9. R' Yitzchak Hutner, Pachad Yitzchak Purim, ענין א'
שמו של הכוח הזה המתפרץ בחזקה להפקיע את עצמו מידיה של החשיבות הוא "ליצנות". מדת הליצנות העצמית, כפי שהיא נמצאת בנפש בשרשה, ענינה הוא למצוא את הפרצה בכל בנין של חשיבות על מנת לסתור את הבנין מתוכה של פרצה זו.
The name of this force which bursts forth with strength to free itself from the hands of Importance is leitzanut. The essence of leitzanut, as it is found in the root of a soul, is to find the weakness in any structure of Importance in order to use it to demolish the structure.

Pursuing empty matters
10. Maharal, Netivot Olam, Netiv ha'Emet 2
הליצנות הם דברי הבאי שעושה מעשים שאין בהם ממש כלל כמו שהוא כל ליצנות, ולפיכך אין רואה פני שכינה... כי הוא יתב׳ ברא כל העולם ואין בעולם דבר אחד של ריקן והבל ושל בטלה. רק כל הבריאה הוא לצורך, אף שרואה האדם ויחשוב כי דבר זה הוא לבטלה אבל אין הדבר כך רק הכל לצורך, לכך אין רואה פני שכינה הלץ שהולך אחר דברי הבאי ודברי בטלה
Leitzanut is empty matters, performing deeds which have no substance at all, as in all leitzanut, and so one cannot be before the Shechinah… for He created the world, and nothing in the world is empty and in vain and worthless. All of Creation has a purpose, even if a person thinks something is worthless. It is not so – all is necessary. Therefore, a letz cannot be before the Shechinah, for he pursues emptiness and worthless things.

11. Maharal, Netivot Olam, Netiv haLeitzanut 1
האדם תחלת בריאה שלו בחסרון, ותמיד הוא יוצא לפעל לקבל, ואם האדם בשמחה כאילו כבר הוא בשלימות בלא חסרון , ודבר זה מביא אליו חסרון כי כאשר הוא בשלימות דבק בזה ההעדר והחסרון... רמזו ז"ל דבר זה , אמרו בפרק חלק אימתי יצר הרע ניתן באדם משעה שיוצא לאויר העולם שנאמר לפתח חטאת רובץ, והיצר הרע הוא ההעדר שהוא דבק באדם... וכל זמן שהוא בבטן אמו שיוצא הוויתו אל השלימות ואל הפעל אין דבק בו ההעדר, אבל כשנשלם הוייתו יוצא אל הפעל אז דבק בו ההעדר
Man is created lacking from the start, and he is perpetually becoming, to receive [growth]. One who is joyous is as though he has achieved completeness, without flaw, and this itself causes him a flaw. When he feels complete he is vulnerable to deficiency and to flaws… The Sages hinted at this when they said, "When is the yetzer hara put into a person? When he enters the world…" The yetzer hara is the deficiency which sticks to a person… As long as he is the womb, so that he is developing toward completeness and he is becoming, deficiency cannot affect him. But when he becomes complete then he is, and deficiency affects him.

12. Talmud, Berachot 30b
אביי הוה יתיב קמיה דרבה חזייה דהוה קא בדח טובא אמר וגילו ברעדה כתיב אמר ליה אנא תפילין מנחנא רבי ירמיה הוה יתיב קמיה דרבי זירא חזייה דהוה קא בדח טובא אמר ליה +משלי י"ד+ בכל עצב יהיה מותר כתיב אמר ליה אנא תפילין מנחנא
Abbaye was sitting before Rabbah, who saw that he was very happy. He said, "Is it not written, 'Rejoice in trembling!'" Abbaye replied: I am wearing tefillin.
R' Yirmiyah was sitting before R' Zeira, who saw that he was very happy. He said, "Is it not written, 'In all sadness there is advantage!'" R' Yirmiyah replied: I am wearing tefillin.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

They really are watching

While out shopping a couple of weeks ago, I saw a woman walking down an aisle with her daughter; the daughter looked to be about 10 years old, and she was holding a container of blackberries. Suddenly, the container top opened, and the berries fell all around her. I was taken aback when the mother took a quick look around, then told her daughter to keep on walking.

The following relevant video isn't terribly artistic, and it goes for the easy lines and Hallmark images, but that's okay; the message is gold. (h/t Modern Uberdox)

This also surfaces in my mind around Chanukah, when we light the menorah. How do parents light the menorah - Is it an obligation? A tense time because so much needs to get done? Or a celebration, eagerly anticipated and given real honour?

They're watching us.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Christopher Hitchens' lessons on writing a derashah

[Not sure how I feel about this: Bringing the Kotel to You at Life in Israel]

I saw the following in Christopher Hitchens' 2004 bashing of Michael Moore on Slate. It's an attack on Moore's style of documentary, but it's also a very good point regarding the way a rabbi sermonizes:

I know, thanks, before you tell me, that a documentary must have a "POV" or point of view and that it must also impose a narrative line. But if you leave out absolutely everything that might give your "narrative" a problem and throw in any old rubbish that might support it, and you don't even care that one bit of that rubbish flatly contradicts the next bit, and you give no chance to those who might differ, then you have betrayed your craft. If you flatter and fawn upon your potential audience, I might add, you are patronizing them and insulting them. By the same token, if I write an article and I quote somebody and for space reasons put in an ellipsis like this (…), I swear on my children that I am not leaving out anything that, if quoted in full, would alter the original meaning or its significance. Those who violate this pact with readers or viewers are to be despised.

Two points here:
1. Certainly, a derashah must have a point of view. However, a derashah which only presents that view and fails to point out and address opposition is simplistic and dishonest.

2. Sources must be cited honestly. Quoting half of a midrash or a commentary because that supports your contention, but omitting the rest without so much as pointing out the problem, is, indeed, dishonest.

A good derashah, in my point of view, acknowledges complexity and addresses it with nuance, and uses sources without abusing them. Writing a good derashah is hard work. No wonder my Thursdays were such nightmares when I was in the rabbinate...

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Rabbi Akiva's lesson for Gap Year students

When I was in yeshiva in Israel (Kerem b'Yavneh, 20 years ago), mid-December was the time when hundreds of young men spending their "gap year" learning in Israel toppled over the edge of burnout.

Sometime around November, a combination of 1) studying mussar, 2) experiencing peer pressure 3) sensing they had a rare opportunity to learn and 4) escaping home supervision reached a tipping point and students began learning until 1 AM or later, taking few breaks other than to collapse into bed. Calls home were reduced, the "Out Shabbos" or Shabbaton was a nuisance, showering became a special pre-Shabbos experience, and relatives' visits certainly did not warrant leaving the yeshiva campus.

I don't know that things are still so, but in those days this phase would last for weeks, and then burnout would set in. The pace would prove too much, and most guys would drop into bed for a few days before coming to some sort of equilibrium. I have fond memories of that time.

One of the main drivers of the whole experience was the mussar I mentioned above – messages focussed on convincing us to take advantage of every moment. One of my favorites was the Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Goldvicht zt"l's answer for a question raised in Tosafos Kesuvos 17a מבטלין:

The gemara there seems to conflict with a story involving Rabbi Akiva. The gemara says that one who is learning Torah should cease his study to take care of a funeral. On the other hand, a story (recorded in Masechet Derech Eretz) presents Rabbi Akiva saying, "Once, early in my time serving the sages, I was walking along the road and I found a meit mitzvah [a corpse without anyone to take care of it]. I took care of it, transporting it 4 kilometers until I reached a cemetery and buried it. When I reported this to [my mentors] Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua, they told me, 'Each step you took was like spilling innocent blood.'"

What was wrong with Rabbi Akiva's actions? Don't funeral needs override Torah study?

Tosafot there asks the question and offers two explanations, but I recall the Rosh Yeshiva zt"l explaining it in his own way: Rabbi Akiva was 100% right for taking care of the meit mitzvah. However, being right doesn't change the fact that he had lost many hours from study, and he would never be able to re-coup those hours. Even were he to add hours from other activities, those would be hours which he could always have added. The Rabbi Akiva he could have become would never exist; he had murdered his potential self.

That sort of thinking can drive you crazy, I know that, but it's so blunt, black-and-white, unvarnished and unapologetic, that I find it compelling. It's true – being "right" doesn't mean you get what you want – and it's demanding. I loved, and still love, lessons like that.

Thursday, December 15, 2011


Four years ago I decided to start this blog, with the post that appears below. This followed a stretch of a little over a year in which I had blogged anonymously.

My anonymous blog was fun, and it allowed me an outlet I never could have had when publishing under my own name - but it felt wrong to publish without the responsibility that comes when you attach your name to something. Also, the longer I went with it, the more I felt that I wanted to take credit for that writing. So I went nonymous, and I began with the post below, which explains part of why I wanted to blog:

Why a blog?

A few reasons:

Reason 1. Part of being a rabbi is being an educator. In that role, I want to teach, to inform, to challenge, to inspire, to lead, to convey a new point of view, to wrestle with ideas and perhaps - but not necessarily - reach a new conclusion. I want to offer depth and nuance, and participate in dynamic interaction.
The standard methods - speeches/classes/articles - just don't provide that venue.

Speeches - There is little room for serious challenge in a forum that must entertain as well as inspire. The davening and kiddush that follow guarantee that the inspiration, for most listeners, will quickly fade. There is little room for nuance in a presentation that does not allow for note-taking and requires that the rabbi address too broad a semi-listening audience.

Classes - Classes allow for nuance, but because of the large groups involved, timid (and even not-so-timid) voices are drowned out, and ideas that should be explored to a greater extent are instead reduced to a few moments and a "let's move on."

Articles - Articles in shul bulletins as well as newspapers are a stronger candidate, but those lack the capacity for dynamic interaction, for feedback and discussion and debate.

Reason 2. Oh, and I want to be able to be funny, too, or at least spontaneous, and in speeches you have to worry about breaking the flow of the speech, in classes there's never enough time, and in articles there's never enough space. So, perhaps the blog will provide a venue for that.

Reason 3. And, while I'm at it, another reason - I don't see why an idea, once expressed in a derashah, should vanish into thin air.

Reason 4. And, all right, another reason - to avoid the temptation of recycling my own material.

So here I am, proud owner of a new blog, which I have named Rechovot: A Place to Expand. My goal is to post some of my derashot, class-themes or general musings here, to continue the conversation.

And with that... here goes.


And here it has gone, for four years now.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Just a joke

[First, and most apropos: Straight from the laugh factory in Vilna, from Modern Uberdox]

I needed to write a column for Toronto Torah and wanted to build off the following joke, but I couldn't come up with a dvar torah that would fit the column and I was up against a deadline, so I went in a different direction. Rather than waste the joke, though, here it is:

Jonathan travelled from Vancouver to England for a business trip, via a series of connections. He failed to sleep on the flight from Vancouver to Winnipeg, enjoyed no success dozing off on the trip from Winnipeg to Toronto, and then found himself next to screaming twin toddlers on the flight from Toronto to London. By the time Jonathan exited Heathrow Airport in London he was desperate, so he rented a car and and parked along a side street to get a little rest.

As luck would have it, though. the quiet place Jonathan selected was on one of the city's major jogging routes. No sooner had he settled back to snooze when there was a knock at his window. He looked out and saw a jogger.


"Excuse me, sir," the jogger said, "do you have the time?" Jonathan looked at the car clock and answered, "8:15". The jogger thanked him and left. Jonathan settled back again, and was just dozing off when there was another knock on the window and another jogger.

"Excuse me, sir, do you have the time?"


The jogger thanked him with a smile, and left. Now Jonathan could see other joggers passing by and he knew it was only a matter of time before another one disturbed him. To avoid the problem, he put pen to paper and placed a sign in his window saying, "I do not know the time!"

Once again, Jonathan settled back to sleep. He was just dozing off when there was another knock on the window.

"Sir? Sir? It's 8:45!"

[If you feel like writing a dvar torah that uses this joke, feel free to put it in the Comments.]

And while we're at it, here's a video from a friend of mine from Allentown, whose son is one of the violinists [the one wearing glasses]. I love this - and make sure to wait for 3:23.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Is it Jewish to Occupy Wall Street?

As part of our kollel's "Occupy Wall Street" shabbaton, we provided the derashah. We were charged by the Rabbi to make it something "creative", though, rather than the standard speech or shiur. So we came up with a skit, which we presented after davening. The text is below; we ad-libbed somewhat, but we basically stuck to the script:

Abraham Schapiro III enters from left, wearing a nice suit and a yarmulka and carrying a briefcase. Neatly opens briefcase and withdraws container with sandwich. Play-acts reciting berachah and beginning to eat, while looking at a smartphone.

-15 seconds pass-

Jonathan Goldberg comes in from the right, in an untucked flannel shirt open over a T-shirt, yarmulka, jeans and hiking boots. Puts down a protest sign ("Down with Wall Street") and opens a brown paper bag. Play-acts reciting berachah and beginning to eat, while looking at a smartphone.

-10 seconds pass-

Abraham Schapiro III looks over at Jonathan Goldberg with a degree of annoyance, then goes back to his phone. 10 more seconds, another annoyed look. 10 more seconds, and he addresses Jonathan:

Abraham Schapiro III (AS): Some Jew you are!

Jonathan Goldberg (JG): [surprised, puts down the phone] What's that supposed to mean?

AS: Look at you – protesting in the middle of some park alongside Anti-Semites and Communists. Is that what they are teaching in yeshiva these days?

JG: I haven't met any Anti-Semites there, and last time I looked in the Torah I saw plenty of support for what I'm doing.

AS: And what exactly are you doing? What are you protesting?

JG: I'm protesting wealth.

AS: What does that mean, "protesting wealth"? Isn't that like "protesting sunshine"? Wealth just is¸wealth isn't something to protest.

JG: I'm protesting wealth held by individuals. By 1% of society. By big banks that get bailed out.

AS: We need banks, you know. Without banks, society would fall apart. That's the way the world works.

JG: The world doesn't have to be that way – wealth could be shared, people giving to each other!

AS: And what makes you think the Torah supports that?

JG: Gd brought a flood because people were taking property from others. Sounds to me like Gd is on my side!

AS: A flood, and suddently you think Gd is a Marxist? You amateur Bible-thumper, you've got to be kidding me. Those people broke the laws – the laws that Gd set to encourage and promote and protect wealth. If Gd doesn't want people to make money, why does He protect property rights with laws against stealing, against desiring others' property, against invading their estates?

JG: Because Marxism isn't the same as anarchy; Gd wants wealth to be shared, but He provided rules for how the sharing is done. Look, doesn't the Torah require lending, saying that someone who refuses to lend is בליעל, a wicked, worthless person? Doesn't the Torah prohibit charging interest when you lend to your brother? Doesn't Gd wipe out Sdom because they don't give to others? Seems to me, Gd wants us to share what we have.

AS: Sure – and when Gd handed Avraham and Sarah lots of wealth, and when He multiplied the crops Yitzchak planted, and when He transferred to Yaakov all of Lavan's cattle, they all gave it away right? And why did Yaakov drive such a hard bargain with Lavan for his salary, for that matter? And Joseph, the capitalist who made Pharaoh a fortune – was he some kind of anti-Gd renegade? Why didn't all of them renounce their wealth?

JG: Maybe because they were busy using their money to invite in guests and take care of others. Look, the Talmud says it, too. Pesachim 54b says, "Gd wants wealth and food to be spread around, which is why He has currencies circulate and why He makes produce rot." Gd is angered – angered, I tell you – by people like you, gambling in the stock market with other people's money to generate fortunes for your cronies while other people suffer.

AS: Don't go quoting me Talmud all self-righteously – That same Talmud, Yoma 19a, says that the Kohen Gadol is supposed to be wealthier than all of the other kohanim. And judges on the Sanhedrin, the High Court, are supposed to be wealthy. Are they all evil too? And what about us, you and me, when we say Birkas haChodesh, praying for a good month, and we ask Gd for a life of עושר וכבוד, wealth and honour – what do you make of that? Your definition of a good month includes making money, don't kid yourself.

JG: Yeah, but-

Abraham Schapiro III's phone vibrates; he excuses himself and takes the call. Jonathan Goldberg contemplates the sky, thinking up his next line. Abraham Schapiro III puts his phone away.

JG: Look – I'll grant you that Gd's record is ambiguous enough that you can find different ways to read it, but look at the record of Jewish communities. Maimonides wrote (Hilchos Matnos Aniyyim 9:3), " We have never seen or heard of a Jewish community which did not have a Kupah of Tzedakah." Every community looked after its needy citizens. Even the kings did it - Maimonides (Hilchos Melachim 2:6) wrote about the king's job description, "He must be generous and merciful for small and great, he must exit and enter at their desire and for their good, and he must care for the honor of the smallest of the small." A Jewish state is a welfare state, taking care of everyone's needs out of the collective property.

AS (waving a hand): Stuff and nonsense! Sure there was tzedakah, sure we have an obligation to aid others, that was never in question. But don't tell me Jewish communities were anti-business, they were pro-business. Bava Basra says that Jewish communities in Talmudic times had councils who implemented all sorts of rules to support business. Bava Metzia 60a prohibits renegade merchants from creating unfair incentives to lure consumers, and it talks about protecting the market price from individual merchants who undercut it. Pro-Business, Pro-Wealth, that's the track record, and you anarchists-

JG: Marxists!

AG: Whatever you call yourselves, you are defying the weight of Torah.

JG: Wait just a minute – all of those rules you mentioned support what I'm saying, not what you're saying! The gemara is supporting creation of a system that controls wealth creation, as well as a government that makes all sorts of rules defining when one may, and when one may not, make money! Gd is a big-government progressive! Long live the NDP!

AS: Total nonsense. Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said, in Shabbat 151a, עשה עד שאתה מוצא ומצוי לך ועודו בידך, Make money while you have the means to do so. Make money, that's his instruction. Gd loves Stephen Harper for his support of Israel, but He also loves the Conservative drive to get government out of regulating business.

Jonathan Goldberg starts to reply, but is interrupted by his own phone. Abraham Schapiro III puts away his lunch and phone, looks at his watch, and gets up to walk away. Jonathan Goldberg cuts off his phone conversation and jumps up.

JG: Where do you think you're going?

AS: To catch minchah. Sorry, I'm not convinced, and I'm not joining your protest.

JG: Maybe you should ask the rabbi at minchah; rabbis have always taken the side of sharing the wealth.

AS: You've got to be kidding me – how are synagogues going to survive on that kind of preaching? Rabbis know how their bread is buttered.

JG: Really? Tell that to the Tzemach Tzedek, who banned the purchase of fish for Shabbos back in 17th century Poland in order to shut down merchants who were overcharging! Apparently he wasn't concerned about dues from the fish merchants, huh?

AS: That's one iconoclast, it hardly makes for a movement.

JG: Yeah? The Magen Avraham quoted it in 242:1 as a halachic recommendation. And Tzemach Tzedek wasn't the first – the practice of protesting high prices goes back to the times of the mishnah, when none other than Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel threatened to shut down bird merchants by changing his ruling on korbanot, because the prices were too high!

AS: Yeah, well he was a Nasi, he was independently wealthy.

JG: Then how about the rabbis' limitations on ona'ah, against profiteering (Bava Metzia 49b-50a)? A cap on profits - If you think the free market should determine prices, how do you deal with the way the sages put limits on profits?

AS: At least that's better than your silly Flood argument – but it's still wrong. First, the laws about ona'ah don't apply to all products. Second, I have more rabbis on my side – look at the way the rabbis promoted open credit for lending.

JG: Why does that support you? That supports my side! Do you realize how often the rabbis changed the rules of finance שלא תנעול דלת לפני לווין, to ensure there would be credit for borrowers? Didn't Hillel create the Prozbul, requiring that people extend loans?

AS: Sure, but look how they did it.

JG: What do you mean?

AS: Look: If a Liberal government wants to encourage lending, what does it do?

JG: It makes lending a requirement, and punishes those who don't lend, like through taxes.

AS: Exactly. And when a Conservative government wants to encourage lending, what does it do?

JG (with distaste): It makes borrowers reward lenders for lending.

AS: And what do you think the rabbis did שלא תנעול דלת, to encourage lending?

JG (resigned): I hear.

AS: I'll spell it out anyway, for fun: They made the borrowers pay. They required better-quality payment, and lowered the bar on evidence and collection methods, to create incentives for lending.

JG: But they did want to expand credit, still.

AS: Yes - All in the name of business. And that prozbul Hillel created to ensure that people would lend? It got rid of the shemitah nullification of loans. He encouraged lending by punishing the borrower and helping the lender.

JG folds his arms, pouting.

AS: Listen – You made a good case with those points about the Flood, and Sdom, and sharing wealth. And you're right about tzedakah, of course, and about the way the rabbis worked against price gouging.

JG: And you're right about the way they encouraged lending, I suppose. And about the Torah's protection of property rights.

AS: And don't forget R' Shimon ben Elazar's encouragement to make money while you have the chance.

JG: Yes, that too. So what do we end up with – some kind of wishy-washy, "To each his own?"

AS: Basically.

JG: Bummer.

AS: Glad you've seen the light.

Abraham Schapiro III gets up to leave. After a beat, Jonathan Goldberg follows him.

AS: Where do you think you're going?

JG: Coming with you to minchah - and then it's back to the protest.

The two exit stage left.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Jews and Civil Rights Activism

This Shabbos our beit midrash will be holding an "Is it Jewish to Occupy Wall Street" Shabbaton at a local shul. On Friday night we're having a Civil Rights dinner program, and we'll discuss a pair of scenarios. Each table will have a set of sources to use in preparing their responses to the scenarios. Here's the material we plan to distribute [each table will have a sub-set of these sources]; I'd love to hear your thoughts:

Scenario #1: Police officers are indicted for harrassing members of a local minority, and a protest rally is held to challenge these practices. Should Jews participate in the protest? Why, and why not?

Devarim 10:19
And you shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Rambam, 12th century Egypt, Mishneh Torah Hilchot Melachim 10:12
It appears to me that we act with resident strangers [who have renounced idolatry] in the manner of the land and with acts of kindness as we do to Jews, for we are instructed to keep them alive, as it is written, 'You shall give it to the stranger in your gates, and he will eat it.' When the Sages said, 'We do not offer them greetings twice,' that was regarding idolaters, not resident strangers. Even regarding idolaters, the Sages instructed us to visit their sick, to bury their dead as we bury Jewish dead, and to support their indigent along with Jewish indigent, to promote peaceful paths, as it is written, 'Gd is good to all, and His mercy is upon all of His creations,' and 'Her paths are pleasant paths, and all of her ways are peace.'

Bereishit 33:12-17
And Esav said, "We will travel and go, and I will go with you." And Yaakov said to him, "My master knows that the children are weak and the nursing cattle are upon me, and they will be pushed for a day and all of the sheep will die. Let my master go before his servant. I will lead slowly, per the work before me and per the children, until I will come to my master, to Se'ir." And Esav said, "I will leave here with you, abandoning the nation that is with me." And Yaakov said, "Why should this find favour in the eyes of my master?"
And Esav returned to his path to Seir that day. And Yaakov travelled to Succot, where he built a house…

R' Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, 19th century Russia, Haameik Davar to Bereishit 33:1
[Yaakov said] "Why would travelling together find favor in the eyes of my master? Do not send me any of your men, for their company would be a burden for me." Esav understood from this that Yaakov's loving company with him was only due to temporary need, and that the idea of companionship with him and his men in general was not pleasing to him, and that Yaakov's eye was really toward dwelling securely, alone.

R' William Malev, Congregation Beth Yeshurun (Conservative), Houston, Texas, 1958; (The Temple Bombing, Melissa Fay Greene, pg. 183)
I certainly agree that martyrdom is perhaps the noblest service which anyone can render to a great cause. My only contention is that no one has the right to martyr somebody else for the cause he believes in. Certainly, the Jews of the South have the sovereign and unalienable right to become martyrs in the cause of desegregation if they so wish. I reject however any claim on the part of the national 'defense' organizations to impose martyrdom on the unwilling Jews of the South and to bask in their reflected glory of their self-sacrifice. It would seem to me that if they think so much of martyrdom, they ought to come down South and try it for themselves.

R' Yosef Dov Soloveichik, Confrontation, 1967
We cooperate with the members of other faith communities in all fields of constructive human endeavor, but, simultaneously with our integration into the general social framework, we engage in a movement of recoil and retrace our steps. In a word, we belong to the human society and, at the same time, we feel as strangers and outsiders.

Scenario #2: A fire destroys a community centre in a low-income section of town. Should the Jewish community rally funds to help rebuild the centre? Why, and why not?

Vayyikra 25:14
And when you sell to your friend or purchase from your friend, one shall not oppress his brother.

Midrash, Sifra Behar 3
How do we know that when you sell you should only sell to your friend? 'When you sell to your friend.' And how do we know that when you purchase you should only purchase from your friend? 'Or purchase from your friend.'

Vayyikra 25:35
And if your brother becomes needy and his hand descends with you, you shall grab hold of it, the stranger and resident, and he shall live with you.

Midrash, Sifra Behar 5
'Stranger' – This is a righteous stranger. 'Resident' – This is a stranger who eats neveilot [non-kosher]. 'And he shall live with you' – Your life precedes his.

Talmud, Gittin 61a
We support needy non-Jews along with needy Jews, we visit ill non-Jews along with ill Jews, we bury deceased non-Jews along with deceased Jews, in pursuit of peaceful paths.

Rambam, 12th century Egypt, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Zechiyyah uMatanah 3:11
A Jew may not give an idolater a free gift, but he may give it to a resident stranger [who has renounced idolatry], as it is written, 'You shall give it [neveilah] to the stranger in your gates and he shall eat it, or you shall sell it to a non-Jew.' To a non-Jew you sell it, but do not give it. To a resident stranger you may sell it or give it, for you are instructed to keep him alive, as it is written, 'the stranger and resident, and he shall live with you.'

R' Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, Confrontation, 1967
Jacob continued, my brother Esau will also ask a third question: "And whose are these before thee?" Are you ready to contribute your talents, capabilities and efforts toward the material and cultural welfare of general society? Are you ready to present me with gifts, oxen, goats, camels and bulls? Are you willing to pay taxes, to develop and industrialize the country? This third inquiry is focused on temporal aspects of life. As regards the third question, Jacob told his agents to answer in the positive. "It is a present unto my lord, even unto Esau." Yes, we are determined to participate in every civic, scientific, and political enterprise. We feel obligated to enrich society with our creative talents and to be constructive and useful citizens.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

More on "Dress-Up Judaism"

Time is very short this week, so here's an article I've written for the coming week's Toronto Torah. It's on a theme we've discussed before, such as here: Dress-Up Judaism.

Why dress up for davening?

A young man proposed to his inamorata while unshaven and wearing dirty jeans and a T-shirt, and he was stunned when she rejected his offer. He asked her, "Didn't you say you would take me as I am?"
She replied sadly, "Yes, but I didn't think that you would."

We intuit that G-d will "take us as we are", that prayer should require a proper heart rather than proper garb. The Creator who formed us knows our most intimate thoughts, and from a timeless perch outside of our reality He has already witnessed our weakest moments as well as the fulfillment of our greatest potential, so what would be the purpose of artifice? How could dressing up disguise our failings?

The case of the rejected suitor demonstrates the value of dressing up: Donning special clothing, like the uniform the kohen wore for his service in the Beit haMikdash, is an act of respect. Dressing up shows that we value our meeting with G-d.

Our parshah (Bereishit 33:18) mentions that Yaakov arrived in Shechem shalem – intact, whole, complete. According to Rav Meir Simchah haKohen of Dvinsk, the Torah emphasizes Yaakov's complete state in order to explain a nuance in his conduct.

During Yaakov's travels, he brought a korban nearly every time he arrived in a new location; see Bereishit 28:18, 31:54, 35:1, 35:14, 35:19 and 46:1. However, Yaakov did not bring a korban when he arrived in Succot, despite having just survived his midnight battle with a malach and his meeting with Esav. Why was this trip different?

Rav Meir Simchah explains that Yaakov had not healed fully from his fight when he arrived in Succot. Our patriarch considered himself blemished due to his physical wounds, and unworthy to bring a korban for his Creator. It was only when he arrived in Shechem - the stop after Succot - that he was shalem, and ready to bring a korban.

Certainly, we should never feel that G-d is unapproachable; we are taught that HaShem's mercy is universal, regardless of our material or spiritual wounds and deficiencies. Nonetheless, our goal should be to emulate Yaakov and approach G-d in a state of shleimut, wholeness. G-d may take us as we are, but we should aim to become greater.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The lost art of bold ideas?

I've read and re-read Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo's pair of essays on The Art of Bold Ideas (part 1 and part 2), but I must admit that the author's thinking is beyond me.

Two thoughts:
1. It seems to me that the author inappropriately conflates a range of frustrations (intellectual laziness, foolish certitude, addiction to information as opposed to knowledge, religious defensiveness, poor teaching, etc) under one heading (lack of bold ideas).

2. In writing off the many foibles of our generation as a "lack of bold ideas", R' Cardozo not only does his many causes a disservice, but he also ignores reality.

Sectors within 'Orthodoxy' of the past two generations have seen several major changes; some of these have affected only some of Orthodoxy, and some of them have affected the whole:

* An embrace of the State of Israel and Zionism on practical and philosophical levels

* Social engagement with secular Jewry - a marked change from much of European Orthodox culture in the 19th century

* Acceptance of a liberal arts education in Orthodox circles

* Political engagement with the non-Jewish world on a level not seen for many centuries

* Development of women's religious education and secular education, including the achievement of advanced certification in both areas

* Shift of the center of halachic authority from Europe to North America to Israel

* Funding of Orthodox institutions by non-Orthodox Jewish institutions

* Translation of Torah - both verbal translation and philosophical translation - to appeal to the masses

And more; this is just a quick list.

In fact, it might be argued that we need a generation of consolidation, for that which changes too quickly loses its center of gravity. This would no doubt frustrate those who champion change and call for revolution, but it may be a necessity nonetheless.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Putting the kibosh on "dynamic"

Click here for "Rav Kingfish", an excellent piece by Jonathan Mark at The Jewish Week on the flaws of the "dynamic" rabbi.

Some of the article's key points match my own misgivings in many ways, including -
* the emphasis that 'dynamic' places on parts of the rabbinate at the expense of others;
* the problem of perpetually needing to 'top' dynamism;
* the way that "dynamic" can go to a rabbi's head.

And it reminds me of a piece I wrote in December 2008: Young and Dynamic and 124/78.

Here's something odd: Among the finds I reported in that piece was that a Google search for rabbi and “young and dynamic” yielded 604 results. Tonight it resulted in 501,000. The phrase "dynamic young rabbi" had 206, but tonight it registers 1,900. What do you make of that? Google's expanded reach, or something else?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Eleven years later

I came across the following old letter on my computer recently, and it reminded me of a time long gone, the year 2000, when my Rebbetzin and I were moving from our first shul.

We had been solicited to apply for a shul in a large American city [henceforth known as "BigCity"], we had visited for Shabbos, we had been very impressed by the reception there and they seemed to like us quite a bit, but we knew there were other candidates. On the advice of the Rabbinic Placement Office at YU, we interviewed in Allentown, Pennsylvania, as a "just in case". It was Parshat Vayyetze; this Shabbos is our 11th anniversary of that proba Shabbos in Allentown.

We fell in love with Allentown that weekend; it was just what we wanted: Great people, a warm, united and learning community, institutions to build, an attractive place.

We compared this with BigCity. The membership size was comparable, but BigCity had dozens of Orthodox shuls, a vaad hakashrus large enough that community members didn't know the names of any mashgichim, an eruv run so remotely that we didn't meet anyone involved with it, and so on. We were somewhat intimidated by the scale, I think, but our visit to Allentown also crystallized the more fundamental realization that the large, schismed community wasn't what we really wanted.

Two days later, we called the chair of the search committee from BigCity and told him we were withdrawing our names. Here's the text of our follow-up letter to the committee; the details of the community are excised:

December 12, 2000
15 Kislev 5761

Dear Members of the Search Committee,

As I am sure [Search Committee Chair] has informed you by this time, Caren and I have decided to withdraw our names from consideration for [Shul name].

In visiting BigCity, we were very impressed by the strength and breadth of your Jewish community. We found institutions which serve the people well, both on the level of physical needs (i.e. Kashrut, Eruv, Mikveh) and on the level of spiritual needs (i.e. [local Torah institutions and schools]). We also found the people very welcoming and friendly.

Our decision to withdraw is linked to that strength which we found in BigCity. After serious introspection, we believe that we are best-suited for building a community on a fundamental level – creating and strengthening those very institutions which make BigCity a thriving Jewish enviroment.

Thank you very much for all of the time and effort you invested in this process, and for introducing us to your wonderful community. If you have any further questions, please feel free to contact us at ...

Sincerely yours,

I am still kind of stunned that we did this. Getting the position in Allentown was far from a foregone conclusion; in the end there was a run-off, such that we had to go back for a second visit, as did our rival candidates, and the final vote was a close call. But we had the sense that this was what we wanted.

Thank Gd, we are very happy with the decision we made. I'm amazed at the Divine aid we received then, particularly in deciding to go to Allentown for that "just in case" visit at all, and then through the rest of the way. הרואה את בנולד is an unusual gift; who ever knows where their decisions will lead?