Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Audio Shiur: Parshat Beshalach - The God of War

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Beshalach - The God of War

In Az Yashir, the Jewish people characterize God as "Ish Milchamah" - literally translated as a "Man of War". Really? God is a warrior? God is a man? How do we reconcile this image with our understand of God as a God of peace and harmony? After looking carefully at the text, Midrashim and a number of commentaries, we study a section of Orot from Rav Kook that addresses this fundamental question in a surprising manner.

There is a source sheet for this shiur, which can be accessed here. Also, you can find Professor Chanah Kasher's article on this topic here.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Cold Plums and a Grilled Chicken Sandwich

Before many Shabbatot, I grill a few chicken breasts which we then slice to make sandwiches on Shabbat (usually morning).  It is very delicious. So delicious in fact, that my son decided that he would use a good portion of the leftovers to make himself a huge sandwich which he would bring with him to school. He carefully assembled said grilled chicken sandwich on Saturday night, adding pickles, ketchup, etc.

On Sunday afternoon, I received the following text: "Forgot my sandwich. :-("

I felt bad. Truly I did. I even contacted a teacher who lives in Yad Binyamin, in an attempt to send him the sandwich, to no avail.

So on Monday, I sent him the following text: "I had a great sandwich today. I actually tried to send it to you but couldn't find a way to get it to you. So thanks. It was yummy."

To this he responded: "I found plums in the fridge. They were so good. And juicy..."

He is clever. And it was a really good sandwich.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Navigating the Telecommunications Maze in Israel: The Cheapest Way to Call the USA That I've Found

Twenty five years ago, when I studied at Sha'alvim, when I wanted to call home, I'd stick in our asimon (remember those?) and then our Telecards (remember those??), and wait for hours as the AT&T hold message cycled through in three languages. Some of the guys spent so long on hold that they could recite the Arabic version of the hold guy by heart. I was allowed to call home once every three weeks for a simple reason: a simple call to the States cost more than a dollar a minute.
Times have changed, and as we all know, you can now talk overseas for pennies, literally.
In the old days (when we first moved), we had Vonage. Then we switched to MagicJack. Both worked pretty well, but we had to keep a separate phone for our US and Israeli numbers. And we had to keep them hooked up to a computer, or a router, and then leave the computer on all the time.
I wanted a single phone that could handle all calls, with a reasonable price.
For a while, we were using TCS Telecom. For the rate of about 100 shekel a month, we got 600 minutes of talking (both ways), as well as a US telephone number that relative could call and reach us in Israel. It worked well for a few years, until we started experiencing service problems in the form of dropped calls and static that made the service unusable. I was looking for a way to have both incoming and outgoing calls from our regular home phone line (yes, we still have a home phone), while people in the US could call us on an American number. (They can always call us on our Israeli number, but experience has shown that most of our relatives simply don't do this. This is somewhat upsetting and distressing, that they can't be bothered to take the additional step of acquiring an inexpensive calling card, or pay the international calling rate, but that's another post entirely.) I did not want a service that required another phone, a VPN, a router, or any additional equipment I would have to purchase and maintain. Here's what I found.

First, I switched our cell service to Golan. Right now we're paying 36 shekel a month for the first line, and 23 for the second line, which includes voice, text, and internet. (Currently, they're running an insane deal where all additional lines are a shekel a month for 12 months. It's crazy.) The plans include free international calls (outbound) as well. I was hoping to take advantage of Golan's ability to have a US phone number for incoming calls, but you only get that if you pay 99 shekel a month (the premium plan), which I'm not willing to pay. If you want to reach me on my cell, it's on you.

For our home line, I needed a way to have both unlimited international calls, as well as a US phone number. For the outgoing calls, I saw an ad for (which is a cell service). They offer an 017 number that gives unlimited international calls for 10 shekel a month. You can purchase a plan for any Israeli number. A small warning. They're very nice on the phone, but it can be a challenge to get them to understand exactly what service you want to buy.

What about incoming calls? I found a call forwarding service called SendMyCall which, for a dollar a month plus 2 cents a minute (to Israeli land lines), relatives call my American number and it simply forwards the call to our home phone in Israel.

The math:
Old bill: 600 minutes (max) for 100 shekel a month (US Telecom)
New bill: Outgoing calls - 10 shekel a month (HotNet); Incoming calls: 4 Shekel + 2 cents a minute ( Assume 300 minutes = 6 dollars = 24 shekel a month = 34 shekel total. And it will never be that much. Total cost: 44 shekel a month.

I hope this saves you money.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Tables Have Turned

At the end of Ma'ariv on Friday evening, our Rav stood at the Bimah and noted the tense situation in a kosher store in Paris, asking the shul to recite two chapters of Tehillim on behalf of the Jews of France. He proceeded to open the ark and lead the congregation in heartfelt prayer; at that time we had no idea of the tragic outcome.
During the Tehillim, I found myself struck by a fascinating, albeit strange feeling. From the time that I was born, I was raised as a "galut" Jew to pray for the people of Israel. I have vivid memories of reciting Tehillim in grade school during the first Lebanon War. Some shuls in the United States have simply added a permanent chapter of Tehillim to the end of every davening for "the situation" - whatever's going on in the world, there's some situation in Israel.
But on this Friday night, the tables were turned. We were praying for the welfare and well-being of Jews in the Diaspora. And we, the people of Israel, are offering them safe haven from danger.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately called for the Jews of France to come home to Israel, where they will be welcomed with open arms. Truth be told, can one truly argue that these immigrants will be safer here in Israel than in France? We've got our share of terrorism, and Muslim extremism isn't a French or European issue by any means. 
Still, while people are murdered for being Jews both in Paris in Jerusalem, the Jews in Israel murdered by terrorists not only died for being Jewish: they fully lived their lives as Jews as well.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

They Can't Count to Fifteen

At the Bayit Hayehudi meeting in Yad Binyamin 
Last night, as I was watching an episode of Road to the Winter Classic (a reality show about the lives of NHL hockey players), my wife wandered into the room and sat down for a moment (that's about all the hockey she can stand). Almost immediately, she commented on the intense pressure these players consistently face. While of course their job is physically more difficult, I suggested that we all work hard in our jobs.
Yes, she said, but their pressure is a completely different level. They are being evaluated on a daily basis. If they succeed, they play. If they fail, they don't. In our jobs, there is of course pressure to succeed, but what other profession carries with it the constant pressure that you might lose your job tomorrow if you fail to perform?
She was right, of course. Few professions carry that pressure. And then I thought of another profession with a similar pressure: politics.
This past Tuesday evening, I attended a community gathering of the Bayit Hayehudi in Yad Binyamin. I went mostly out of curiosity - I didn't plan on learning anything new - but I'm a registered BH voter, and I felt that I should make the effort to listen to the people I'm about to vote for (or against). It was an impressive list of Knesset members who actually attended: from Naftali Bennett (shorter than I expected, but he immediately went to the food table and poured himself a cup of soup, which he ate from the dais) to Ayelet Shaked to Nissan Slomiansky (who actually got there earlier than I did - which was early, and was shmoozing with people milling about waiting for the event to begin) all the way down the list (even the MK's who couldn't make it on time came as the meeting progressed). I couldn't really understand it: MKs are notorious no-shows. They schedule zillions of events, and often cancel on you at the last minute. What's different now? They all - or at least most of them - are up for re-election. In other words, they're all out of a job, unless we - the voters - reelect them. And there is a very, very long list of people who want us to give them the job instead.
If you're not living in Israel, you have no sense of this phenomenon, but yesterday, with the closing of the Bayit Hayehudi list for the coming primary elections, a total of forty two (42!) candidates have registered in the primary (the entire list appears here in Hebrew). A good number of them were actually at the Tuesday meeting, milling about, and sitting in the front row waiting for their turn to make their pitch to the masses. Sadly, after the MKs spoke, the crowd thinned considerably, leaving the poor candidates to talk to a good number of empty chairs.)
How much money do you need to spend to even have a chance to get elected to a reasonable spot on the list? A good friend told me that a candidate has no hope of getting elected to a reasonable position spending less than 250,000 shekel. At least. After all, you need to produce a video to post on Facebook (and spend money pushing that video so that people will actually see it. These videos - one of which I've included here for MK Avi Vortzman, run from the clever to the sublime to the ridiculous. But they're what get you elected in 2014, without any doubt). You need signs, ads, consultants, and let's not forget that you needed to take two months off from your job to run.
What's a reasonable spot? Most polls see the BH numbers rising from 12 to 15 in the coming Knesset. But let's go crazy, and assume that the BH will reach the incredible number of 18 seats this coming election. What are the chances of an unknown candidate actually making the list? The answer to this question lies in understanding the makeup of the list itself. Here's the actual delineation of the BH seats:
1. Chair (that's Bennet, although some guy named Shimon Or is running against him. That takes guts. Really. No chance. None.)
2. Guaranteed spot for Tekumah. The BH party is actually the combination of two factions - the old Mafdal - the National Religious party, and Tekumah - the party that represented the Chardal and more right-wing branch of the RZ world. For many weeks, it was unclear whether BH and Tekumah would actually run together against in the coming elections as they did last election or split apart. That's an important post that I hope to write soon. But, as part of the deal to run together, the Tekumah candidates are guaranteed spots on the BH list, so they're off the table in the primaries. That spot will go to Uri Ariel, currently Minister of Housing.
3. Personal choice of the Chairman - that will go to Yinon Magel, a well-known journalist (who is supposedly secular, but whose wife is religious and who keeps Shabbat) in an effort to expand the reach of the party beyond the Religious Zionist community, to broaden the party's power and base.
4. Seat promised to a female candidate - whichever woman gets the most votes. In all likelihood, that will go to Ayelet Shaked, which is fine with me. In the Tuesday meeting, she didn't give a meaningless stump speech, but instead said, "You've heard enough speeches. Any questions?" She then proceeded to answer with poise and tact, in a very direct but also intelligent manner. I was impressed.
5. Open
6. Personal choice of the Chairman
7. Open
8. Female candidate - that will probably go to MK Shuli Muallem, simply because she has the greatest name recognition
9. Tekumah
10. The candidate representing the Center of the Country (6 people are running for that spot)
11. Personal choice of the Chairman
12. Female candidate
13. Open
14. Open
15. Tekumah
16. Personal choice of the Chairman (are you noticing a trend here? That's a lot of power for the chairman to pack the list with "his" people.)
17. Female candidate
18. Tekumah

So let's count it up. Among the first eighteen spots (and the realistic number for BH is fifteen), there are...four total open spots. That's right: four. And let's not forget that among the people vying for those spots are:
MK and Minister for Senior Citizens Uri Orbach
MK and Vice Minister of Education Avi Vortzman  (who, it seems, paid for the Yad Binyamin event. His posters were all over the room, and they were even playing his them song in the background. Yes, he had a theme song. And, apparently, he's also Superman. Or Superman is his secret identity. Or something. See his video.)
Vice Minister of Religious Affairs Rabbi Eli Ben Dahan (who I will be voting for. He's done great things to bring religious affairs into the twenty-first century, and also strongly supported the Tzohar Law, which passed last year.)
MK Moti Yogev
MK and Chair of the Knesset Finance Committee Nissan Slomiansky

That's correct. The current BH members of Knesset themselves are running for four spots, and there are now five of them (of course, Naftali Bennett could choose a couple of them with his reserved spots, but he doesn't have to). Then add to the list nationally recognized names like former Chairman of the Yesha Council Dani Dayan, former IDF Chief Rabbi Avichai Ronski, and others who I don't even know, and you begin to wonder: what possible chance would any of the other twenty-five candidates have to make a reasonable spot on the list?
What could possibly motivate someone to spend 250,000 shekel from his savings, when the odds are so stacked against you? As my friend noted, these are all wonderful, dedicated and devoted people. They really do feel that they have something important to bring to the table.
But, sadly for them, they can't count to fifteen.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Audio Shiur: Parshat Shemot - The Paradox of Leadership

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Shemot - The Paradox of Leadership

What's the paradox? We study two specific pesukim in Shemot which describe the beginning of the conversation between God and Moshe at the burning bush.

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Monday, December 15, 2014

What Do The Coming Elections in Israel Mean in the Real World?

With the breakup of the government, the media is in a frenzy, ecstatic about the prospect of the coming elections in March for two reasons: it gives them something to talk about, but even more importantly, politicians will be spending gobs of money buying media in all its myriad forms for the foreseeable future. Now is a good time to own a newspaper. Or a radio stations. Or a PR firm. Or all three.
Many think that other than the unending chatter about who will run with whom and which place he or she gets in the party rankings, the elections have no real bearing on the lives of regular Israelis. Nothing can be farther from the truth. I'll give two small examples, both connected to the Ministry of Education.

Reform #1: Bagrut Exams 
Love him or hate him, it's a recognized fact that Rav Shai Peron took on the post of Minister of Education with great passion and energy. He decided that Israeli education is too test-based, connected to the rote memorization of information, and uninspiring. (If you ask me, he's right.) So, in less than two years, he introduced a series of sweeping reforms that literally altered the high school curriculum for students across the country. He made teachers lives' harder, giving them greater freedom (and responsibility) in the classroom, and removed entire swaths of required subjects, drastically reducing the number of Bagrut (matriculation) exams both in terms of subject matter and number of tests. Teachers complained (somewhat legitimately) that he imposed the program too quickly, without giving them time to adjust to the new system, properly explaining how it would work, or giving them the necessary training (all valid complaints). He responded by telling them, in so many words, to deal with it.

Reform #2: Getting into College
I work in the admissions office of a large college of education called Orot. Our state-sponsored, four-year, degree-granting college awards its graduates both an undergraduate degree as well as a teacher's certificate. Because we're a government recognized (and funded) college, the Ministry of Education determines the requirements for acceptance, which are universal for all teachers colleges. If you can get into one school, theoretically you should be able to get into any of them.
In the past, in order to get into pretty much any undergraduate program in Israel, you needed to take (and score relatively well on) a test called the Psychometry. (its pronounced psee-cho-me-tree in Hebrew). Israelis universally hate the exam, as it's a combination of Hebrew language, advanced math, and English language. Kind of an SAT on steroids. Students understandably hate it. And, like in the United States, an entire industry has sprung up around teaching how to study for and take the test. Also, like in the States, the connection between success in the Psychometry and in college is anecdotal at best. Remember also that for most Israelis, there's at least a three year break between the end of high school and the start of college. Think about how hard it must be to return to formal education by preparing for a mindnumbingly annoying, pointless exam. Welcome back!

Last year, the Ministry of Education changed the admission standards (at least for colleges of education), requiring far less students to have taken the exam to gain admission. It in fact left the choice of which students to admit up to the schools, leaving, to borrow a Hebrew term, a balagan. Like many government decisions, the exact details of the regulations were left somewhat opaque and would only be determined over the course of time. Now, with the fall of the current government, no one really knows how many students to admit, and what requirements to ask them for.

So, if you're a high school student, you really have no idea how many subjects you need to learn over the coming years to graduate high school. My tenth-grade son came home and told me that he and his classmates were planning on going on strike (yes, he really said that) to protest the fact that they didn't know what subjects they were supposed to learn. (His mean dad made him go to school. Apparently, so did every other parent in the country.) And if you've completed your army service or national service and want to gain admission to college, do you need to invest thousands of shekel and hundreds of hours to take a meaningless and essentially pointless test to get into college or don't you? No one really knows.

And truthfully, no one will really be able to answer these questions until well after March 17th, when the new government (and Minster of Education) is not only sworn in, but settles into his or her new job enough to be able to answer these very simple questions.

And, truth be told, these are relatively minor issues. How about the people running hospitals, or army divisions? Who answers their tough questions between now and March about future policy decisions that need to be made now?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Hallel on Chanukah: Praising God Despite the Darkness

What would happen if this week, leading politicians from across the political and religious spectrum in Israel declared a new national holiday for our victory over terrorism? How would we react? I imagine that we would be at least somewhat perplexed. Celebrate? This week? Isn’t it just a little bit early? For all of our efforts this past summer, Hamas seems determined to proclaim its great hatred and wish to annihilate us. Iran is lurking in the background, and even our friends celebrate terrorists as martyrs. It's hardly a time to celebrate.
Yet, this is exactly what the Jewish people do during the Chanukah war. The conquest of Jerusalem and the re-dedication of the Beit Hamikdash by no means signaled the end of the war against the Greeks. In fact, the war dragged on for at least another two years, and the hero of our story, Judah the Maccabee, died in a subsequent battle against the Greek army. One can easily wonder: how could they celebrate? OK – rededicate the Beit Hamikdash  and quietly begin the sacrifices again. That much we can see. But why not establish Chanukah at the end of the war, when everyone can enjoy the peace and prosperity that peace finally brings?
The answer to this difficult question lies in the words of Hallel that we say throughout Chanukah, words that reflect an important Jewish value that we must keep in our minds, especially during such difficult and trying times.
When we examine the chapters in Tehillim that comprise Hallel, at face value, several sections don't seem like much of a Hallel at all. What’s supposed to be praise turns out to be rather depressing. Yes, there’s the הודו לה' כי טוב – we do praise God for the good, and declare His greatness and goodness to us. But then there are entire chapters that are not so positive, that really must make us wonder what they’re doing in הלל.
אפפוני חבלי מות ומצרי שאול מצאוני – the pains of death encircle me, the confines of the grave have found me;
אתהלך לפני ה' בארצות החיים: I will walk before God in the lands of the living
האמנתי כי אדבר אני עניתי מאד: I have faith even though I say, “I have suffered greatly.”
How is this הלל? Why are these words of praise and thanks to God?

During my first year of study in Israel at Yeshivat Sha’alvim, I learned what הלל is really all about. On יום הזכרון, Israel’s Remembrance Day for fallen soldiers, Rav David Kimchi, then a Madrich at the yeshiva who had fought in Lebanon in מלחמת שלום הגליל – the (first) War for Peace in Galilee in the 1980’s, spoke to the American students. He described the terror of battle and the randomness of war. You simply didn't know who would live and who would not. After surviving a tank battle, he explained how the paragraph of מה אשיב came to have special meaning to him:
מה אשיב לה – how can I repay God for all his kindness to me – for saving me from the chaos and horror of battle?
נדרי לה' אשלם – I will repay my vows to God. What vows? What does King David mean? Rav Kimchi explained that when you’re in battle, in a tank – and things aren't going well, you’re scared – terrified, and cry out to God for salvation. So you make נדרים: “God, if you get me out of this alive, I promise to learn this many pages of Gemara; to do this many מצוות.” So, when we are delivered, we must keep our vows.
Finally, David says, יקר בעיני ה' המותה לחסידיו – “Precious in the eyes of God is the death of his devout ones.” Everyone, said Rav Kimchi, lost a friend, a platoon member, and family member. Those are the חסידים – the devout ones who give their lives for the Jewish people. 
This is the Hallel of King David. He says praise and dedicates himself to God not when things are wonderful and happy. Rather, he says Hallel when the pain of war still burns freshly in his mind – when the smell of the battle and the vivid and painful images fill his head. It is at that time that King David says: Yes, I have suffered – BUT. Yes, I feel pain – BUT. But, I must still give thanks to God. But, I must still say הודו לה' כי טוב – and give praise to God, for all the good that I still enjoy.

Yes, BUT. There must be a but, and we must continue to say הלל, because we must also see the positive side of the picture, and appreciate what we take for granted in today’s day and age.

This past year has been more challenging than years past. We endured a challenging war which placed many Israelis - citizens and soldiers - in the line of fire. We have witnessed a resurgence of terrorism that once again strikes, seemingly at random, leaving horror and dread in its wake. And still we say Hallel and give praise, because we have so much for which we must be thankful.

When we read the history of the Chanukah revolt, historians teach us that one of the most perplexing aspects of the entire Chanukah story is Antiochus himself. After suffering a humiliating defeat in Egypt, Antiochus returns to Jerusalem to reassert his authority on the Holy Land. Yet, in a real sense he is already in control. He has no real need to rule with an iron fist, but for some reason he does. Repudiating the Greek policy dating back to Alexander the Great to let the local culture maintain its own religious practice, Antiochus decides that he’s going to get rid of Judaism. And he does try, although to this day, no one really knows exactly why. Upon his return to Judea, the Book of the Maccabees tells us that he and his army massacre Jerusalem, murdering 40,000 people, and selling another 40,000 into slavery.
One can easily imagine today what would happen to the Jewish people were we not in control of the Land of Israel. Let’s not kid ourselves: we know how our enemies about us. There would be no worldwide outcry if an Ayatolla turned himself into another Antiochus. He’d love the opportunity. But this time things are different. Finally, for the first time in Jewish history since Chanukah, we can protect ourselves. We can, and we do.
And for this, even during our suffering, we must say Hallel.
The lighting of the Menorah does not signify the end of the war by any means. Yet, the people during those times are able to see יד ה' – and to rededicate themselves to their traditions and their teachings. They’re able to pick up and go on – and not focus on the terrible suffering that they have endured, and continue to endure at the hands of the Greek army. So too we must do the same: to cry for those we lose, but to never lose sight of the יד ה', and never to forget the goodness that we enjoy and can never take for granted.
Even while we say יקר המותה לחסידיו – “Precious in the eyes of God is the death of his devout ones” – we must still say, הודו לה' כי טוב, and forever remember the goodness and blessing and strength that God gives the Jewish people today.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayeshev - Yosef's Sin

Audio Shiur:
Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayeshev - Yosef's Sin

Dedicated in memory of my father, Harav Simcha ben Yitzchak Kalman, whose yartzeit was this week.

The Sages castigate Yosef for failing to have faith in salvation from God by asking the Egyptian Minister of Wine to rescue him from prison. I've always wondered: Isn't that what we're supposed to do? Aren't we supposed to try and save ourselves? Why is he criticized, and in the eyes of Chazal, punished so severely, for an action that seems, at face value, positive? I think I have an answer, but you'll have to listen to the end to hear it.

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Friday, November 28, 2014

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayeitzei - Rachel's Hidden Agenda

Audio Shiur:
Audio Shiur: Parshat Vayeitzei - Rachel's Hidden Agenda

Why did Rachel steal her father's "trafim"? What in the world are trafim? We discuss biblical motivations, voodoo dolls, and the unintended consequences of our actions.

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