Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Death of King Uziahu

One of the features in the weekly Toronto Torah produced by our Beit Midrash is a column on the haftorah. We begin with a description of the featured prophet or the author of the book from which the haftorah is drawn, and then we explain the haftorah's message, and its relationship with the parshah. Then, if there is more space, we discuss some unique aspect of the haftorah.

I wrote this week's column, and for the "unique aspect" I noted the death of King Uziahu, and its message for us:

The message in our haftorah dates itself to "the year of the death of King Uziahu." (Yeshayah 6:1)  What was the significance of the death of this king, in relation to Yeshayah's vision?

Divrei haYamim II 26 describes Uziahu as a righteous king of Yehudah, the southern Jewish kingdom. He sought out G-d, battled the foes of the Jews, and built up the city of Yerushalayim. However, Divrei haYamim continues to describe him as becoming arrogant in his success, to the point that he sought to bring incense upon the altar himself, despite the fact that he was not a kohen. Tzaraat broke out upon his forehead, and he left the Beit haMikdash in shame.

Amos 1:1 and Zecharyah 14:5 make reference to an earthquake which occurred in the time of King Uziahu. Bringing in midrashic passages (see Seder Olam Rabbah 20, Radak Amos 1:1 and Rashi Yeshayah 6:1, for example), the earthquake, the tzaraat, and the death of King Uziahu are all referenced at the start of our haftorah.

At this time, when one of our greatest kings overreached in his arrogance, violated the sacred space of the Beit haMikdash, and was punished, Hashem showed the prophet Yeshayah a vision of His throne room. Gd then warned Yeshayah, and through him the Jewish nation, of the impending devastation at the hands of the Babylonian Empire. The link between Uziahu's death and Yeshayah's message is clear: Without proper leadership, our chances for repentance and growth are slim indeed.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Communal Representative, Personal Epiphany?

The sh'liach tzibbur - the leader of the community's prayers - faces a real challenge.

On one hand, the sh'liach tzibbur represents the community, and his prayers should be calibrated to match the community's needs. If people are in a rush to get to work, or if they are not accustomed to extended singing, or if it's Pesach night and they want to get home to start the Seder, he should not take his time and embark upon his own personal journey of spiritual and musical discovery, lest he frustrate the people and cause disgrace to the davening as they talk or leave. [Of course, rabbis are often cynical regarding cantorial song; see my 2009 post, "Cantors Behaving Badly", for an example.] And the reverse is true: if people are into singing, or they embrace a longer davening, he should not impose his own haste upon their pace.

On the other hand, the sh'liach tzibbur is still a private citizen, with a right to his own davening, and his own connection with Gd. Particularly when the sh'liach tzibbur is not a volunteer, but rather he agrees to lead services because no one else is available, he should not be denied the right to his own spirituality. If we may exercise an imagined right to impose upon him to lead, by what right do we remove his personal prayer?

And then there is a third hand: Perhaps the sh'liach tzibbur should be viewed as a leader, a source of inspiration, his music and his passion bearing the community aloft to spiritual heights even when they are not, initially, of such a mindset? Is he obligated to do so? And ought we to let ourselves go, abandoning our personal baggage and adopting the mood of the leader?

What do you think?

Friday, January 25, 2013

Tu b'Shevat in Toronto

This is what Tu b'Shevat in Toronto looks like.

Well, technically Yad b'Shevat, but I don't expect much to change in the next few hours. Wonder how many birds will come out in -30 (Celsius) to eat the bread...

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Alert: Food Fraud and Kashrut - Pork in your milk?

We've talked about this before (such as this piece: Still think you can trust the fish counter?), but CNN has a new piece today, "Food Fraud on the Rise," highlighting the problem of substitution of one food for another on the market.

This has the potential to cause significant kashrut problems, both for Pesach and year-round. Examples of concerns include:

* Substitution of one kind of fish for another, so that one may not actually be eating kosher fish;
* Addition of grape juice to pomegranate juice, creating stam yeinam problems;
* Addition of corn syrup to honey, creating Pesach problems for those who avoid kitniyos.

Excerpt from the article:

The new records show that the most commonly fraudulent products are olive oil, milk, saffron, honey and coffee.
Tea, fish, clouding agents (used in fruit juices, like lemon, to make products look freshly squeezed), maple syrup and spices (turmeric, black pepper and chili pepper) were also top imposters.
Most of the reported food fraud was committed by producers adding fillers (i.e. other plant leaves to tea leaves), mixing in less expensive spices with high value spices or watering down liquids. Olive oils were often replaced and/or diluted with cheaper vegetable oils. Clouding agents were found in 877 food products from 315 different companies. Another popular target: Pomegranate juice, often made with grape skins and grape and pear juices.

The article also points the reader to a Food Fraud Database.

The first search I did there was for milk; I have long understood that there was no history of diluting cow milk with pig milk in the United States, but I wanted to check.

I'm not sure of what this means, but I found a record here, from 2012, of adulteration with "Milk from non-authentic animal species". I wonder what that means... And another report on the site identifies pork lard in milk powder! [Other reports have goat milk and water buffalo milk and "cow tallow" mixed in.] Requiring a hechsher on milk and milk powder is looking wise right now...

UPDATE: I stand corrected regarding the paragraph above; the findings mentioned in the previous paragraph include incidents from outside the US, as well as academic studies in which impurities were added for the sake of detection. I was duped by the fact that the site is run by the "US Pharmacopieal Convention" and the fact that I also include reports from the field.

Moral of the story: Even if an apparently simple product shouldn't require a hechsher (kosher certification by an outside supervisor), it may need it due to industry fraud.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Israel: Why we think it's ours

Sorry to give you another "source sheet" post, but things have been very busy lately. Here are the sources I expect to use for a shiur tomorrow night, on "Israel: Why we think it's ours".

In truth, the title is a bit off; the question I want to address is really "Why we keep coming back." I lay out three parts: Historical connection; Religious mandate (mitzvah or Messianic); Israel as motherland.


2.         Remains were Discovered of the Closest Building to the First Temple Exposed so Far… and a Hebrew Seal Bearing the Name ‘Matanyahu’, article_Item_eng.asp?sec_id=25&subj_id=240&id=1932&module_id=#as
The remains of a building dating to the end of the First Temple period were discovered below the base of the ancient drainage channel that is currently being exposed in IAA excavations beneath Robinson’s Arch in the Jerusalem Archaeological Garden, adjacent to the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. This building is the closest structure to the First Temple found to date in archaeological excavations.
In the excavations, underwritten by the Ir David Foundation, a personal Hebrew seal from the end of the First Temple period was discovered on the floor of the ancient building. The seal is made of a semi-precious stone and is engraved with the name of its owner: “Lematanyahu Ben Ho…” ("למתניהו בן הו..." meaning: “Belonging to Matanyahu Ben Ho…”). The rest of the inscription is erased.

3.         Earliest Archaeological Evidence of the Existence of the City of Bethlehem already in the First Temple Period, article_Item_eng.asp?sec_id=25&subj_id=240&id=1938&module_id=#as
According to Eli Shukron, director of the excavation on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “it seems that in the seventh year of the reign of a king (it is unclear if the king referred to here is Hezekiah, Manasseh or Josiah), a shipment was dispatched from Bethlehem to the king in Jerusalem. The bulla we found belongs to the group of “fiscal” bullae – administrative bullae used to seal tax shipments remitted to the taxation system of the Kingdom of Judah in the late eighth and seventh centuries BCE. The tax could have been paid in the form of silver or agricultural produce such as wine or wheat”. Shukron emphasizes,” this is the first time the name Bethlehem appears outside the Bible, in an inscription from the First Temple period, which proves that Bethlehem was indeed a city in the Kingdom of Judah, and possibly also in earlier periods”.

4.         The shared genetic heritage of Jews and Palestinians,
The good news is that the genetics of Arabs and Jews have been pretty extensively researched. The classic study dates to 2000, from a team lead by Michael Hammer of University of Arizona. They looked at Y-chromosome haplotypes - this is the genetic material passed from father to son down the generations. What they revealed was that Arabs and Jews are essentially a single population, and that Palestinians are slap bang in the middle of the different Jewish populations... Another team, lead by Almut Nebel at the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, took a closer look in 2001. They found that Jewish lineages essentially bracket Muslim Kurds, but they were also very closely related to Palestinians. In fact, what their analysis suggested was that Palestinians were identical to Jews, but with a small mix of Arab genes - what you would expect if they were originally from the same stock, but that Palestinians had mixed a little with Arab immigrants. They conclude: We propose that the Y chromosomes in Palestinian Arabs and Bedouin represent, to a large extent, early lineages derived from the Neolithic inhabitants of the area and additional lineages from more-recent population movements. The early lineages are part of the common chromosome pool shared with Jews (Nebel et al. 2000). According to our working model, the more-recent migrations were mostly from the Arabian Peninsula...
So, as far as male lineage goes, the genetic story is very clear. Palestinians and Jews are virtually indistinguishable.

5.         The DNA of Abraham's Children,
Researchers collected DNA from Iranian, Iraqi, Syrian, and Ashkenazi Jews around New York City; Turkish Sephardic Jews in Seattle; Greek Sephardic Jews in Thessaloniki and Athens; and Italian Jews in Rome… Jewish populations, that is, have retained their genetic coherence just as they have retained their cultural and religious traditions, despite migrations from the Middle East into Europe, North Africa, and beyond over the centuries, says geneticist Harry Ostrer of NYU Langone Medical Center, who led the study. Each Diaspora group has distinctive genetic features “representative of each group’s genetic history,” he says, but each also “shares a set of common genetic threads” dating back to their common origin in the Middle East. “Each of the Jewish populations formed its own distinctive cluster, indicating the shared ancestry and relative genetic isolation of the members of each of those groups.”
The various Jewish groups were more related to each other than to non-Jews, as well. Within every Jewish group, individuals shared as much of their genome as two fourth or fifth cousins, with Italian, Syrian, Iranian, and Iraqi Jews the most inbred, in the sense that they married within the small, close-knit community. In general, the genetic similarity of any two groups was larger the closer they lived to one another, but there was an exception: Turkish and Italian Jews were most closely related genetically, but are quite separated geographically.

6.         Outside artifacts – Mernepta Stele, Mesha Stele, etc.,

7.         Exodus 3:15-17
15And Gd said further to Moses: ‘So shall you say to the children of Israel: HaShem, the Gd of your fathers, the Gd of Abraham, the Gd of Isaac, and the Gd of Jacob, hath sent me to you; this is My Name for ever, and this is My memorial to all generations. 16Go, and gather the elders of Israel together, and say to them: HaShem, the Gd of your fathers, the Gd of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying: I have remembered you, and I have seen that which is done to you in Egypt. 17And I have said: I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Amorite, and the Perizzite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite, to a land flowing with milk and honey.

8.         Jeremiah 31:7
Behold, I bring them from the north country, and gather them from the ends of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, the pregnant with the woman who is giving birth. A great company shall return there.

9.         Tzefaniah 3:19-20
19Behold, at that time I will deal with all those who afflict you; and I will save she who is lame, and gather she who was driven away; and I will make them an object of praise and a name, whose shame had once been across the earth. 20At that time will I bring you in, and at that time will I gather you; for I will make you a name and an object of praise among all the peoples of the earth, when I turn your captivity before your eyes, declares G-d.

10.      R’ Yehudah Alkalai The Third Redemption 1843
Now we pray every day: Let our eyes behold Thy return to Zion in mercy and if we believe our own words, then upon whom will the Divine Presence become manifest? Upon the trees and the rocks? Therefore, as the first step to the beginning of redemption of our souls we must return to the Land…

11.      Talmud, Gittin 57a
‘The land of the deer [lit. desire]’ is its textual name. A deer’s hide cannot hold its flesh [after being removed], and this is also true for Israel: when they live upon it the land expands, and when they do not live upon it the land shrivels.

12.      R' Emanuel Ricci, Hon Ashir (1731)
In the year 5478 (1718), when Gd granted me the privilege to ascend to Israel, to Safed in the Galil, I saw with my own eyes how this curse has come true. Due to our many sins, it is completely filled with destroyed houses. In the two years that I remained there, however, I was happy to see that, day by day, it was being rebuilt, thank Gd. I claim that this is a sign of the imminent arrival of the Redeemer, for if he would come when Israel is in a state of ruin, there would be no place for the ingathered exiles to dwell.
13.      Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad (1867), pg. 361-362
A desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds-a silent mournful expanse... A desolation here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action.... We never saw a human being on the whole route.... There was hardly a tree or shrub anywhere. Even the olive tree and the cactus, those fast friends of the worthless soil, had almost deserted the country.

14.      Isaiah 11:6-9 (JPS translation)
6And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. 7And the cow and the bear feed; their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the basilisk's den. 9They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.

15.      Zachariah 8:4-5
4So declares Gd: Elderly men and women will yet sit in the streets of Jerusalem, a man with his staff in his hand due to great age. 5And the streets of the city will be filled with boys and girls, playing in her streets.

16.      Malachi 3:4-5
4Then shall the offering of Judah and Jerusalem be pleasant unto the Lord, as in the days of old, and as in ancient years. 5And I will come near to you to judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, and against the adulterers, and against false swearers; and against those that oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow, and the fatherless, and that turn aside the stranger from his right, and fear not Me, saith the Lord of hosts.

17.      Rosemary George, The Politics of Home: Postcolonial Relocations and Twentieth-Century Fiction, pg. 9
Home is a place to escape to and a place to escape from. Its importance lies in the fact that it is not equally available to all. Home is the desired place that is fought for and established as the exclusive domain of a few

18.      Isaiah 49:14
And Zion said: G-d has abandoned me, and G-d has forgotten me.

19.      Isaiah 62:4
You shall no longer be called ‘Abandoned,’ and your land will no longer be called ‘Desolate,’ for you will be called ‘My desire is in her.’

20.      Rav Avraham Yitzchak haKohen Kook, Orot, Eretz Yisrael 1
The Land of Israel is not an external thing, an external prize acquired by the nation, a means toward the end of national unification and reinforcement of the nation’s physical or even spiritual survival. The Land of Israel is an independent entity, bound to the nation in the bond of life…

21.      Midrash, Psikta Rabti 26
Jeremiah said: When I ascended to Jerusalem, I raised my eyes and saw a woman sitting atop a mountain, wearing black clothing and with her hair undone, crying out, seeking one who would console her. I cried out as well, and sought one who would comfort me. I drew close to her and spoke with her, and told her, “If you are a woman, speak with me. If you are a spirit, leave me.” She replied, “Do you not recognize me? I am the one who had seven sons whose father left to go overseas. While I was yet crying for him, it was prophesied to me, ‘The house has collapsed upon your seven sons and killed them.’ I don’t know for whom to cry, and for whom to release my hair!” I replied and told her, “You are no greater than my mother, Zion, who has been turned into grazing for the wild animals of the field.” To which she replied and said to me, “I am your mother, Zion.”

22.      R’ Yissachar Techtel, Em haBanim S’meichah, First Prologue
I have learned this from the Torah of our master Moshe himself. It is written, ‘And I will remember My covenant with Yaakov, and also My covenant with Yitzchak, and also My covenant with Avraham I will remember, and the land I will remember.’… Rashi there wrote, ‘Why are they listed in reverse? As if to say: Yaakov the youngest is worthy of this, and if he is not worthy then Yitzchak is with him, and if he is not worthy then Avraham is with him.’
Based on this, one may add that even if all of them are unworthy, meaning that the merit of our ancestors has ended, still, ‘The land I will remember,’ for the merit of the Land of Israel itself will save them from trouble… She will protect us, to free us whenever we are placed in trouble, Heaven forbid.

23.      R’ Yissachar Teichtel, Eim haBanim Semeichah
It is known from the Sages that our mother, Zion, cries and wails for us; we are her children, and she waits for us to return to her.
‘With my own flesh I saw my Gd.’ In 1942, before Pesach, a horrifying decree was issued by the accursed wicked ones in in Slovakia, to kidnap Jewish girls from age 16 and up and bring them to a cruel land, an unknown place. Until today, the fate of thousands of pure Jewish souls who were brought there is unknown; Gd will avenge them quickly. There was then a great fear in the Jewish camp, and I know of one who wished to save his young daughters lest they fall into this wicked trap, and he tried to cross the border with his daughters. This was Chol haMoed Pesach, and he promised his wife that he would send a message by telegraph from across the border when he arrived, letting her know that he and his children had arrived safely at their destination. The mother sat in her house with her eyes failing with worry, anticipating at every moment the arrival of the happy news that they had crossed the border in peace and arrived in a safe place. But the father and his daughters were caught before they could cross the border, and they were brought to a city near the border and jailed all through chol hamoed and through the end of Pesach, and they were in great danger of being sent to a cruel land, in accord with their practice of punishing for flight. Anyone who fled and was caught was sent to a cruel land, in a manner which was yet more cruel than that used for others sent there. This became known to his wife, to the mother of the daughters, and we can only imagine the bitter emotion that overtook their mother and turned her joy at their flight into grief, and her Yom Tov was turned to mourning, Gd save us, for her husband and daughters. She sat and wept all through Yom Tov without halt, and the world actually turned dark for her; one cannot put into words her depressed state, when she learned what had happened to her husband and daughters. She knew what awaited them.
But remember this man for the good: The great and righteous man, who served Gd with true self-sacrifice in the fullest sense of the world, who in this time endangered his life, the great and pious Rav Shmuel Dovid Unger, head of the Nitra community, who did not rest and was not silent until he had redeemed these three captives at a great price. They went free and could return home to their house without any obstacle, on the last day of Pesach. They let this woman of bitter spirit know immediately, by telephone, that her husband and daughters had emerged free, and would return home the next day, isru chag, in peace, and without obstacle.
There is no need to tell the effect this great news had on the spirit of that bereft woman, knowing that her husband and daughters had emerged from between the lions’ teeth in peace. From that moment she waited with eyes failing with worry for the moment when the father and daughters would return to her home. The next day she did not have the strength to wait for them at home; she sat at the entrance to the yard, her eyes looking out for the moment they would come, and when they came and she saw them she burst out in a cry, pouring out all of the awesome emotion in her heart. She could not produce words of thanks to Gd for the magnitude of the miracle performed for her and for them, from the outpouring of feeling in her heart. One who did not witness the moment they actually met and saw each other again, mother with her daughters, after they returned from such a horrific captivity, and the mother’s weeping when she saw that her daughters had returned home, and the joy of the mother of children at that moment, never saw a feeling of joy.
Therefore, since I know of that illumination which occurred in our days, so I imagine and describe the joy of our mother, the Land of Israel, when all of us will return to her after such a horrific captivity which we have experienced at this time, and the amazing joy which the mother will experience with her children, meaning Israel with us and us with her. Therefore I have named my book, “The joyous mother of children.”

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Orthodox Community's Vulnerability to Sexual Predators

I was at a meeting last week discussing the problem of sexual abuse in the Orthodox community, and someone raised the question of whether we are particularly vulnerable to this problem. I don't know how our statistics match up with those of broader society, but I do know we have two specific weaknesses which predators can and do exploit:

1. We encourage our children to develop close, trusting bonds with adult role models – family members, rebbeim, camp counselors, shul rabbis, youth group leaders, and so on. I know that the school I want for my kids is a school in which the rebbeim take a personal interest in the kids, in which there are shabbatonim, in which there are real relationships.

2. We load our parents down with commitments to learning and boards and committees and fundraisers. It's all we can do to pay attention on the rare occasions when our children volunteer information, forget about initiating our own proactive research to make sure they are not being drawn into trouble.

[Naturally, other communities have both of these, too. I am speaking about our community at the moment, though, and ignoring the question of whether we are "particularly vulnerable".]

Of course, we also have a separate problem of our communal reluctance to report to the police, whether due to an ancient fear of government authority or a very current fear of erroneously trashing an innocent person. But these two other problems are just as real and very dangerous.

What can we do about these factors?

I don't think we can stop encouraging our children to find role models; we need them, parents cannot be the sole models in children's lives, certainly not when we want to continue a communal religious and ethnic identity. So instead, we need to make sure our institutions implement policies which block predators at every step, whether at the hiring stage, or in implementing and monitoring protocols governing staff conduct, or in holding periodic reviews of staff conduct. I understand Torah uMesorah has a set of guidelines; perhaps that does the job, I haven't seen it.

But more than that, we as parents need to keep an active watch. Aside from training our children to feel confident protecting themselves and to know their boundaries, we need to ask questions and keep track. I know very well how difficult this is, but it seems to me that it's part of our most basic responsibility toward our children.