Thursday, July 21, 2016

Audio Shiur: Parshat Pinchas - Sacrifices and Modern Values

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Pinchas - Sacrifices and Modern Values

The section on the Korban Tamid serves as a springboard to discuss the firestorm in Israel over recent rabbinic comments that address the conflict between ancient Torah values and modern Western values

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Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Parshat Balak: The Clash of Ancient and Modern Values

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Balak: The Clash of Ancient and Modern Values

How do we react when rabbis express values that seem totally contradictory to those that we hold dear today? What do we do when they're written explicitly in the Shulchan Aruch? Using the principal of halachah v'ein morin kein regarding kanai'm pog'im bo, we explore this difficult, challenging topic.

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Monday, June 20, 2016

Parshat Beha'alotecha - Loving the Stranger

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Beha'alotecha - Loving the Stranger

What's the real reason why Yitro didn't want to stay - if he was in fact Yitro? Would we have remained with Moshe, given the same circumstances?

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Friday, June 10, 2016

Thought for Naso: Aggression in the Interest of Peace

Exactly thirty-five years ago this week, the United Nations Security Council unanimously voted to “strongly condemn” the State of Israel for an action it had taken, “which could at any time explode the situation in the area, with grave consequences for the vital interests of all States.” and represented "a clear violation of the Charter of the United Nations and the norms of international conduct.” Jeanne Kirkpatrick, the United States Ambassador to the UN at the time agreed, noting that the “means chosen by Israel hurt the peace and security of the area.” What action did Israel take in 1981 that prompted such strong universal condemnation? Israel bombed the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq, preventing dictator Saddam Hussein from acquiring nuclear weapons.

As the Kohanim are tasked with conveying the blessing of peace to the nation, a Kohen who was involved in causing a death – even accidentally – cannot participate in the Priestly Blessing. This rule is codified in the Code of Jewish Law (Orech Chaim 128:35): “A Kohein that killed a person, even accidentally, should not ‘lift up his hands’, even if he has subsequently repented.” In light of this ruling, an IDF soldier who was a Kohein once asked Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel, the following question: Serving guard duty at an IDF post, he identified several Palestinian terrorists approaching to attack. He opened fire on the unit, killing several of them. He asked the rabbi whether his action would now prevent him from reciting the Priestly Blessing in the future. Rabbi Yosef answered unequivocally: He was certainly permitted to duchen. Rabbi Yosef wrote, “Had the soldier hesitated for even a moment from opening fire, who knows how many Jewish lives could have been lost…and heaven forbid that he should violate the verse, ‘Do not stand idly by the blood of your brother…’ You merited eliminating [the terrorists] before [they could attack], and you should be blessed from above for the salvation that you have brought to Israel…” (see Mesos Teivel vol. 4 p. 26) According to Rabbi Yosef, eliminating deadly threats is not an act of war; it is an act of peace that prevents unnecessary death and protects innocent lives.

Is it difficult to imagine how different the world would be today had Israel not bombed Saddam’s reactors and Iraq had achieved nuclear weapons capability. Would a strongman who gassed thousands of his own citizens have hesitated for a moment to nuke Israel, his declared enemy? Would the United States have even considered the possibility of toppling Saddam in 1991, after he casually conquered Kuwait and threatened the stability of the Middle East? With the hindsight of history, we now recognize that Israel’s attack, rather than threatening peace and stability, enhanced and increased regional and global stability in incalculable ways. During the debate in the Security Council, Yehuda Blum, Israel’s representative to the UN said that, “the raid against the Iraqi atomic reactor Osirak had been an act of self-preservation with which Israel had exercised its right of self-defense...In order to avert greater pain to the civilian population in Baghdad, the Israeli government had decided to strike the nuclear facility before it could become an immediate and great menace to Israel.”

Today, thirty-five years later, no one harbors the illusion that the United Nations will retract its condemnation and commend Israel for its forward-looking “act of peace”. But honest students of history readily recognize the wisdom of Israel’s leaders at the time, and the peace and stability that their decisions, which prevented a madman from gaining access to the most terrible weapons humanity has ever known, brought to the world.

Audio Shiur: Parshat Naso - Uncomfortable Situations

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Naso - Uncomfortable Situations

We begin with the claim that some women make that having male judges in the room when a female convert dunks in the mikvah is inappropriate, because it makes her uncomfortable. Then we turn to Sotah, and study some of the details of the process, which all agreed, are far, far worse.

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Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Audio Shiur: Parshat Bamidbar - Yichus

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Bamidbar - Yichus

The counting of the nation emphasizes the importance of demonstrating one's yichus before he could be counted in his tribe or as a full member of klal yisrael. This emphasis on yichus seems to directly contradict a core value of Western liberal society, that judges people on who they are and how they act, and not on their birth. Can we bridge the two value systems? It's not as easy as it seems.

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Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Audio Shiur: Parshat Emor - The Sanctity of Yom Hazikaron

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Emor - The Sanctity of Yom Hazikaron

With the rawness of Yom Hazikaron, when we honor and remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for the State of Israel, in our minds, we search for the source of strength within the brave soldiers willing to risk and give their lives for the Jewish people. We read of the great courage of Gadi Ezra, who fell in "Chomat Magen" in 2002, and the beautiful letter he wrote to his beloved before his death. His strength must spur us to bring holiness to the world.

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Thursday, May 5, 2016

Audio Shiur: Parshat Kedoshim - Peah and our Perspective on Poverty

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Kedoshim - Peah and our Perspective on Poverty

While the basics of Peah seem, at first glance, straightforward, a more careful analysis not only of the text, but of the mitzvah itself and many of the Mishnayot in Peah, reveals a fascinating worldview on how we relate to the poor, to poverty itself, and to giving to others. While we might think that leaving Peah is similar to Tzedakah, it's different in many important ways.

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Sunday, April 24, 2016

Calendar Confusion: Why Will it Take So Long for Chutz L'aretz to "Catch Up" with Israel This Year?

I received a fascinating question from good friend and former congregant Jeffrey Schlussel that stumped me. So, I shared it with a Hebrew rabbinic email list that I follow and received a great answer in the form of an article by Israeli scholar Rabbi Dr. Chaim Simons in the Hebrew-language journal Sinai. I would like to share the question and then present as clearly as I can Dr. Simons' answer.

Jeff's Question:
I’m writing because I have a question that bothered me last year and will bother me again this year. Maybe you can help provide an explanation (although it has little bearing on you).
Because of the second Yom Sheni this year in chutz la’aretz, Israel’s torah reading will be Acharei on the same day as the 8th day torah reading for the diaspora. What bothers me is that it would seem logical given the fluidity of Jews these days travelling to and from Israel, we would want to make sure the entire Jewish world reads the same weekly parsha as quickly as possible. It would then make sense that the following Shabbat the diaspora reads Acharei-Kedoshim so we are back in unison within a week. But that is not the case. In fact, it is only until Matot-Masei, which is nearly two months later, that we are back in-line with Israel. Why? I can’t seem to find any justification. The delay ultimately deprives those coming to Israel of a parsha and forces those coming from Israel to repeat a parsha.
Do you have any thoughts? I would love to hear them.
Just to highlight Jeff's question, it helps to frame it in terms of last year, when the same thing (Eighth day of Pesach fell on a Shabbat) happened. Here's last year's calendar from Israel (all charts are screenshots from the incredibly useful Hebcal.com calendar tool. Highly recommended.)
You can see from this calendar that last year in Israel when Pesach ended on Friday (and we immediately read Parashat Shemini, we also split Behar and Bechukotai. Notice that by the Shabbat before Shavuot, we read Parashat Bamidbar - this is important, and we'll come back to it later. Meanwhile, in the Diaspora, they couldn't read Shimini until the next week, on April 18th...

But last year in the Diaspora, communities combined Behar and Bechukotai thus allowing galut Jewry to "catch up" by Bamidbar which was read in communities around the world on May 23rd.

Fast forward to this year:
Again this year, the last day of Pesach (in Israel) falls out on a Friday, and we immediately read Parashat Achrei Mot. Since we're a Parashah "ahead", there's no reason for us to "combine" a parshah. That's up to the Diaspora, who at some point need to combine Parshiot in order to "catch up." Remember that last year you did it in Behar-Bechukotai...


But when we look at the calendar this year, you immediately notice that this "catching up" doesn't take place until two months later in Matot-Masei! Why the long wait?


That's basically Jeff's question in a nutshell. And it's a great question. 

Before the Answer: A Few Basic Principles
The answer lies in understanding a few basic rules that guided the division of the parshiot according to the calendar. Again, all of this comes from a short article by Rabbi Dr. Chaim Simons which appeared in the Israeli journal Sinai (volume 36 pp. 33-40). You can find a link to the article here.

First of all, Dr. Simons suggests that evidence indicates that until the 13th century, in Israel the reading of the Torah remained on the three-year cycle. He seems to make this suggestion based on the fact that the halachic literature doesn't discuss the issue of dealing with the calendar until the 1300's. In any case, it is clear that during these centuries, the calendar was far from set, and historical evidence indicates that different communities (and later the entire city of Safed) had various customs as to which parshiot to split (on a non-leap year) in order to account for the "extra" week (just like we "split" Behar and Bechukotai. It even happened that within the city itself different congregations read different parshiot on the same week! (Truth be told, when you think about it, this is not all that surprising.)

In addition, the Gemara in Megillah (31b) writes that Ezra HaSofer decreed that communities should finish reading the Parshiot which contained the Tochecha before the conclusion of the New Year. 


This is so that "The year and her curses should end" before the entrance of the New Year. This applies both to concluding Ki Tavo (with the long Tochecha) before Rosh Hashanah, and also to finishing Bechukotai (with the short Tochecha) before Shavuot. The Baalei HaTosfot note that in their communities, they never read Bechukotai before Shavuot nor Ki Tavo before Rosh Hashanah. Rather, they always read those parshiot at least a week beforehand. 


The Baalei Tosfot explain that by design, we read a parshah after the "Rebukes" in order to specifically distance ourselves from the "curses" of the Tochecha. Yet, we don't want too much distance - one week is just enough to make the point that we're connecting the Tochecha to the "New Year" of Shavout, but keeping our distance. This means that ideally, we should read Parshat Bamidbar on the week before Shavout.

With these guiding principles in mind, we can now understand the difference between last year and this year, and why the Diaspora will wait so long in order to "catch up."

Leap Year vs. Non-Leap Year
Essentially, the major difference between last year and this year is that last year was a "regular" - non-leap year, and this year was a "leap" year, in which we added an extra month of Adar II in order to stretch the calendar into the springtime. During a "normal" year, a number of parshiot in Vayikra are combined together. Look back at the 5775 calendars above. In Israel, with the addition of the Shabbat of Shemini after Pesach, had the calendar kept all of the normal readings combined (and not separated Behar and Bechukotai), we would have ended up reading Parshat Naso before Shavuot, and been too far ahead of Shavuot. So, the calendar combined Behar and Bechukotai in order to have Bamidbar fall on the Shabbat before Shavout. While to the layperson it might look like it's designed in order to allow the Diaspora to "catch up", that's only a convenient coincidence. Rabbi Yissachar ben Mordechai Ibn Sussan, a 15th century Sefardic posek, wrote in his "Tikkun Yissachar" that it would be inappropriate for communities in Israel to combine Parshiot for the sake of Diaspora Jewry. The community in Israel is the "ikkar" and follows the essential law of keeping only one day of Yom Tov. So he had no interest in changing the reading in Israel to "help" our brothers in the Diaspora. In other words Israel, we do what we do. If you want to "catch up" to us, do whatever you have to do...but don't expect us to help you. So last year, basically the Diaspora got lucky, and things worked out nicely leaving a "split" for a relatively short period of time.

What About 5776?
This year was a leap year, so the Vayikra parshiot are essentially separated to account for the extra month. In order to catch up, the Diaspora, which has an extra week, needs at some point to combine two parshiot. When should they do it? Looking back at the 5776 Diaspora calendar above, notice that without combining any parshiot in the weeks after Pesach, on the Shabbat before Shavuot you read Parshat Bamidbar. Perfect! Just as the Ba'alei HaTosfot advocated. So no parshiot were combined before Shavuot. 

What about after Shavuot? Why do you wait until Matot-Masei, and not pick an earlier date to combine? It turns out that the parshiot are combined not in the interest of global unity, but again for a different reason entirely: we want to read Parshat Devarim (with it's mournful Eichah lament of Moshe) on the week before Tisha B'av, and Va'etchanan immediately afterward. In order to do this in Israel, we must divide Matot and Masei into two weeks. In the Diaspora they leave Matot and Masei together in order to achieve the same result, thus "rejoining" with Israel. Interestingly, Dr. Simons adds that while the Tikkun Yissachar accepted this approach, he does note that R' Saadia Dayyan Tzova (from the Syrian city of Aleppo) wrote that in their community, they combined Korach and Chukkat together, and kept Matot-Masei split, apparently in order to "rejoin" with Israel which was only 250 miles away!

According to this understanding, having the different communities in Israel and the Diaspora was never really a halachic concern at all. Intuitively this makes sense. Travel between countries was dangerous and relatively rare, and communication was slow. What difference did it make whether the communities read the same Sedra on the same week?

Today, with instant global communication and regular, safe travel between Israel and the Diaspora, it would of course make sense for the Diaspora community to make a greater effort to "catch up" to Israel. (In Israel, there's really nothing we can do, and Israel would never change for the sake of the Diaspora anyway.) Since the layout of the parshiot is completely based on custom, and apparently quite fungible, it would be fascinating to revisit the suggestion of the Tikkun Yissachar, and suggest combining Korach and Chukkat instead of Matot and Masei, to minimize the split between the communities.

Yet, that only begs the question. Who would you ask? Who could make a decision to change the custom which would be universally acceptable to all of Diaspora Jewry? What would ensure, I imagine, would instead be a scenario in which communities within the Diaspora would then accept different customs - the more "Zionist" communities combining earlier, to better unite with the Jewish State, which the more conservative communities would insist on maintaining minhag hamakom, preferring to merge later on in the summer. Thus, we'd be back to the situation in 14th century Safed, where the parshah being read depended on the shul you attended, bringing us back full-circle - to the way things have always been. 

Friday, April 15, 2016

An Exhibit of Haggadot in Jerusalem: Our National Past and Future

If you suddenly found yourself stuck on in a foreign country and a business trip with Pesach approaching, what would you do? You'd probably seek out the local Chabad, and that would be that. But what if you lived hundreds of years ago, before Chabad? Aside from the basic needs of matzah, wine and maror, where would you find a Haggadah to celebrate the night of the Seder?

This isn't a new problem at all. In fact, Jews throughout history found themselves in need of a copy of the Hagadah text for family use. While most communities could rely on the communal Siddur for prayer in shul, we conduct the Seder home, necessitating a copy of the text available to every household. This resulted in an unusual plethora of texts of the Haggadah, offering a fascinating view of Jewish history though these amazing book.

The Gallery on the Library Website
A Facebook post from my friend Dr. Yoel Finkelman (whose ridiculously cool job involves buying historical Jewish artifacts for the Library) shared information about a new exhibit at the National Library of Israel (neatly tucked into the Hebrew University Campus in Jerusalem) displaying a series of handwritten Haggadot that span some eight-hundred years of history. Rena and I decided last Friday to visit, and we were quite glad that we went.

When we first got there, the room was locked (I guess no one had asked to get in. But, to our pleasant surprise, the librarian on duty was great; she found the person who had the authority to tell the security guard to open the exhibit space, and we were in. She also gave us a nifty full color guide of the exhibit, bookmarks, a brochure about the library and its 1960s exhibit upstairs (which we went to see), and even emailed me a virtual tour of the Hebrew U. campus!

The space of the exhibit is actually a small room which you can peruse slowly in half an hour. And, in truth, you can see pictures of the Haggadot on the exhibition website, which is well done. Nonetheless, in person you can better see the little hand-written drawings that were drawn usually by artists, but sometimes by an amateur, which add much color and character to each Haggadah. Even more importantly, there is something incredibly powerful about being in a room with Haggadot that were hand-written literally around the world over the course of centuries, from the Cairo Geniza all the way to a 1942 hand-written personal Haggadah written in Mozambique by a family fleeing from Belgium during the Holocaust. While we couldn't actually touch them, their physical presence conveyed a tangible sense of living history.

The Really Nifty Exhibit Brochure - for Absolutely Free!
If the Hagaddah is the story of Jewish redemption, the story of these books is the tale of our national travails around the world, as the People of Israel fled from way station to way station, searching for peace and stability, while yearning truly to reach the final destination of our exile in the Land of Israel.  At every stop we celebrated our past and future redemption. And if we lacked a text, we either hired a professional or wrote one ourselves by hand.

Looking at this small collection of books, I couldn't help but think of them as clues in a centuries-long search for Home. Standing over the display cases in that tiny room in Jerusalem, I found myself feeling a sense of closure: these books, that had for so long guided our people on a path towards Redemption, had finally made their way to the rebuilt State of Israel. As they rest in the National Library of the Jewish State, they remind us not only of the many places and eras that came before us. They also remind us of the many centuries of yearning and prayer - of reciting the blessing at the conclusion of Maggid of which begins with the words, אשר גאלנו וגאל את אבותנו - "that God has redeemed us and our forefathers"...but then adds, "כֵּן ה' אֱלהֵינוּ וֵאלהֵי אֲבותֵינוּ יַגִּיעֵנוּ לְמועֲדִים וְלִרְגָלִים אֲחֵרִים הַבָּאִים לִקְרָאתֵנוּ לְשָׁלום, שְׂמֵחִים בְּבִנְיַן עִירֶךָ וְשָׂשִׂים בַּעֲבודָתֶךָ" - "So too Lord our God and the God of our fathers shall bring us to additional holidays and festivals that will come upon us in peace, joyous about the building of Your city and rejoicing in Your worship..."

This blessing was recited over the Haggadot in the exhibit and many thousands like them around a table of Jews - sometimes small, sometimes large - who actually can ever know - but those families throughout the ages always expressed a yearning and a hope for a future of Redemption, rebuilding and renewal. While the individuals around those tables may not be here, their Haggadot remind us that their dreams and prayers and yearning propelled our people to rebuild, reconnect and renew.

We have yet to arrive at the realization of the final stage of the blessing: וְנאכַל שָׁם מִן הַזְּבָחִים וּמִן הַפְּסָחִים אֲשֶׁר יַגִּיעַ דָּמָם עַל קִיר מִזְבַּחֲךָ לְרָצון - "and we will eat there from the offerings and the Paschal lambs whose blood reached the walls of your altar according to your desire..." Not yet at least. Still, hidden in those Haggadot is the reassurance and the knowledge that the Jewish Nation will fully realize the truth of the Haggadah, if not this year, then Next Year in Jerusalem.