Monday, January 22, 2018

Specialization in Life and in Education

Somehow, with all the conveniences of modern technology, life doesn't seem more convenient. We feel pulled in ever-more directions, with ever-more responsibilities, obligations, concerns and interests. While these pulls can often be destructive, they offer an almost unlimited array of opportunities as well. Do you like guitar? Today you can teach yourself to play any instrument using YouTube or a number of apps on your phone. Interested in botany, or knitting, or Israel advocacy, or basically anything else you can possibly imagine? There's a website, email list, podcast and Facebook group dedicated to exactly your interest. An almost unlimited number of Torah shiurim and resources span every possible skill level on topics from Tanach to Talmud to Tefillah and every sub-topic in-between. It's all really interesting.

In the worst-case scenario, we ignore this potpourri of possibilities, perhaps perplexed by their scale and breadth. Rather than diving head-first into something, we escape from it all to the safety of the also unlimited spectrum of time-wasting options at our fingertips. Surely that is an trap into which we all fall from time to time. But we also engage in the positives as well, learning a new subject, studying this or that; trying a new class or a hobby. We find ourselves dabbling – a bit of this, something of that, without really specializing in any one area or interest. Today, the world presents with an infinite array of options ready for the taking, making each of us dabblers in everything, but masters of none.

In his commentary on Gemara Berachot, Rav Kook writes that while a little knowledge in many areas represents one possible path, it is certainly not ideal. The Gemara in Berachot (39b) in the context of making Berachot on bread, mentions an interesting fact about how Rav Ami and Rav Asi chose which bread to use for their Seudat Shabbat.
רב אמי ורב אסי כי הוה מתרמי להו ריפתא דערובא מברכין עליה המוציא לחם מן הארץ אמרי הואיל ואתעביד ביה מצוה חדא נעביד ביה מצוה אחריתי (ברכות לט ע"ב)
"Rav Ami and Rav Asi, when the opportunity to use the bread of the eiruv in the Shabbat meal would present itself, they would recite: "Who brings forth bread from the earth" over it. They said in explanation: Since one mitzvah was performed with it, we will perform another mitzvah with it."
Rav Kook (Ein Ayah Berachot vol. 2 p. 12) sees in this passage an important message about specialization. He writes that in our pursuits throughout life we can choose one of two general paths: Completion through Quantity (sheleimut b’kamut) and Completion through Quality (sheleimut b’eichut).
השלימות בכמות היא שירבה נמצאים מושלמים אע"פ שבכ"א לא יהי' כ"א השלמה מועטת...והאיכות היא שישתדל שמי שראוי מהנמצאים לקבל השלימות ישלימהו כפי האפשרי ברב יתרון, ומהשלמה של אחד בתכלית המעלה ימשך טוב לרבים.
“Completion through quantity Is that a person will increase his areas of completeness even though in each area he will only realize a small measure of completion…[Completion through] quality refers to the effort to focus on the most worthy of attributes to strive for completion – in that area he will achieve fulfillment to the greatest possible degree…”
In other words, we can strive to improve a small amount in many different areas or we can ignore most areas of study and choose to focus our efforts and energies on one specific area or endeavor, striving to be the very best we can be in that one discipline. Which then is better: quantity or quality? Should I strive to be a “jack of all trades” or a “master of one”? To Rav Kook, the answer is clear: Quality over quantity.
והוא כלל גדול ג"כ בכל חכמה ומלאכה, כי שלימות העולם בכללו תבא מריבוי בקיאים כ"א במקצע מיוחד בתכלית המעלה, ולא ממי שסופג הכל רק בדרך שיטחי, כי ההשלמה האיכותית גדולה היא בערכה על ההשלמה הכמותית.
"This is also a great rule in all areas of wisdom and work; the completion of the entire world will come from a growing number of experts who have achieved the greatest possible excellence in their specific fields, and not from one who absorbs everything in a superficial manner. For completeness in quality is greater in value than completeness in quantity."
Rav Kook views this matter from an educational perspective as well, noting that educators should focus their efforts specifically on students capable of reaching great heights.
וזוהי הדרך המשובחת שכוננו חכמינו ז"ל להעמיד תלמידים הרבה ולהגדיל תורה בחוג המוסגלים לקבלה ולא לפזר כוחינו בין בתי כנסיות של עמי הארץ. וכן בכללו ישראל, להרבות עצמה בתורה ויראת ד', ולא לנוד להאיר עמי הארץ וגוים רבים באור ד' בדרך מועט שיכולין לקבל. כי מריבוי האור שיזרח בשלמים הגמורים יאיר אור גדול ג"כ על שאינם שלמים, אבל בהשתדלות לפזר הכוחות על הרבה נושאים, וכ"א לא יהי' שלם בתכלית, לא יבא לעולם אל מטרה נכונה.
"[Completeness of Quality] is the praised path established by the Sages who said to 'Establish many students' (Avot 1:1) and exalt the Torah among those who are capable of receiving it, and not to disperse our energies among the synagogues and simple people…for the greatness of the light that spreads from individuals that are whole and complete will shine on those that are less complete. On the other hand, the effort to disperse our energies in many areas so that we achieve wholeness in any one area will not bring us to the correct goal. "
Rav Kook's comments must carry great weight as we evaluate our own choices and priorities in life. Are we specialists in a single area, focusing our light and energy to become experts who can shine the greatest possible focused light? Or do we dabble, dispersing ourselves in different directions, but failing to create much light at all?

In education, society has clearly chosen to reject Rav Kook's priorities. In our community, we don't focus only on the diamonds who can achieve greatness. Instead we strive to reach each and every child. The Chareidi community makes a different choice, gearing its educational system specifically towards those who can thrive and achieve greatness. Each system has benefits, but also brings great costs as well. It is incumbent upon our community to at least wonder what costs we pay for rejecting Rav Kook's position by choosing a different educational path.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Making Decisions - Dvar Torah for Parshat Bo by Bezalel Spolter

Last year, as a senior, I had to check a couple of yeshivot for the next year. All over the place, no matter where I went and who I talked to, the question was always the same: "Have you decided what yeshiva to go to for next year?" The answer was always no.

The pressure was very intense. The decision I had to make would decide what I would do for the next five years, what kind of Torah I would learn, and even what kind of person I would turn out to be. Yet, people kept asking me the same thing over and over again. I had only checked out two yeshivot but I really liked both of them. It was a very hard to choose between them.

As I thought about this earlier today, watching seniors check out my yeshiva, I wondered. How do you make that kind of decision? How do you decide what's best for you? How can you know what the right decision to make is? The yeshiva decision is just one of many other decisions I will have to make in my life, all of them probably equally as hard, if not harder. The truth is, I have no idea how I did it.

Luckily, that is exactly what the Baal Shem Tov talks about on this week's parsha (On a side note. It amazes me that I had a thought this morning and then that day learned about it with my chavruta that afternoon).

The Baal Shem Tov asks a similar question. How can one know if he is on the right path, making the right decisions? לוט's daughters thought the world was destroyed and they were the last human being alive. Were they making the right decision? What aboutבני ישראל at מעשה פעור? They thought they doing the right thing but got severely punished. So how can one know what to do?

Charedim or Dati Leumi? Right or Left? Raanana or Kiryat Shmona (the yeshivot I liked)? And many more personal or general dilemas.

The Baal Shem Tov starts by stating that in reality, it is very hard to know whether the thing you choose is the right one or not.

However, the way you make the decision is very important. There is a big difference between rushing into the decision and sitting on it for a while. There's a difference between frantically pushing for an answer and calmly choosing. The way you make the decision, is what decided what the outcome will be.

More so, it doesn't end there. Once a person calms himself (the Baal Shem Tov says a good way to calm yourself is by learning Torah), there is one more thing needed. Hashem. Inspiration from above.
Lightning won't strike and make the answer suddenly become clear. Hashem won’t choose for you. But he will certainly guide you to what you really want, what's really good and what’s really right. Now the question is: are you able to receive his guidance? Are you panicking and making an irrational choice? Or are you slowing it down, calmly and logically making what you think is the right choice.

And that's what מכת בכורות is about. At midnight, possibly the first half of the night or the second.

Exactly in the middle. A ספק. In the still, calm atmosphere. That's when Hashem will make his move.

That's when he intervenes.

It's a very small technical difference, but it drastically changes everything.

It's true whether you're deciding on switching to a different path or staying where you are. Choosing what profession to focus on, or where to live. Whether to dramatically change everything or keep walking the same path.


Tuesday, January 9, 2018

The Israeli press are ablaze about the terrible things Bibi Netanyahu's son said two years ago. I find myself torn: on one hand, he's a private citizens, and happens to be the son of the Prime Minister (and his political opponents don't care about how they attack Bibi. They just hate him.) On the other hand, my mind keeps coming back to a famous story at the very end of Masechet Sukkah.

The last Mishnah in Sukkah, in the context of discussing some of the perks that the Kohanim received when they served in the Beit Hamidash, notes that one Mishmar - that of the Bilgah Watch - was put into permanent punishment, having their locker priveleges suspended among other minor inconveniences.

The Gemara asks what prompted the punishment. What did the Kohanim of Bilgah do to deserve the public dressing down? The Gemara (Sukkah 56b) explains:
The Sages taught in a baraita: There was an incident involving Miriam, the daughter of a member of the Bilga watch, who apostatized and went and married a soldier [sardeyot] serving in the army of the Greek kings. When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, she entered with them and was kicking with her sandal on the altar and said: Wolf, wolf [lokos], until when will you consume the property of the Jewish people, and yet you do not stand with them when they face exigent circumstances? And after the victory of the Hasmoneans over the Greeks, when the Sages heard about this matter and how she denigrated the altar, they fixed the ring of the Bilga watch in place, rendering it nonfunctional, and sealed its niche.
In other words, because a daughter of Bilga, who had abandoned Judaism and married a Greek soldier, the Sages permanently punished the Priests of the Bilga Watch. The Gemara asks the obvious question:
...According to the one who said it is due to Miriam, daughter of Bilga, who apostatized, do we penalize the entire watch of Bilga because of his daughter? Abaye said: Yes, as people say, the speech of a child in the marketplace is learned either from that of his father or from that of his mother. Miriam would never have said such things had she not heard talk of that kind in her parents’ home.
The speech of children in public does indeed teach us a great deal about the way their parents speak at home.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Where Are the Women? In Haredi Comics, Women are Nowhere to be Found

This past Shabbat, my daughter discovered a book that had been sitting in our library for a while. "A Yiddishe Kop" is a very popular puzzle book, which asks the reader to look at beautifully illustrated pictures and decipher puzzles hidden throughout the book. My daughter spent hours poring over the pictures trying to find clues and answers to the very clever questions, and asked me at one point to help her. The author, Gadi Pollack, is a talented illustrator, and the pictures jump off the page.

I've seen the book before, and enjoyed some of the sharp puzzles. But this time, as I sat next to my seven-year-old, one question jumped out at me from each and every page: Where are the women? In the vast majority of instances, they are nowhere to be found. Here's a sample page I found on the web:

No women on the street, perhaps. But the book has a large number of scenes. I get that there are no women in shul or cheder. But no women at the doctor's office? No women at home? The clever way he gets out of that one is by creating a scene where the mother has just given birth, so the hapless father is stuck in kitchen. There is a woman at the zoo, but you can barely see her hidden in the golf cart. (I can only imagine a zoo where they let patrons drive around in goft carts!)

Pollack just released the second volume of the series (which I learned is also avaiable in English). Here's the sample page:

Again, boys, girls and men. But no women! In the park! In America! (They do not have minivans like those in Haredi communities in Israel.) What happened to the women?

I'm not entirely sure why Pollack feels the need to erase the women from his illustrations. After all, he can draw them as modestly as he liked, in wigs, snoods, however he sees fit. Does he really feel that mere drawings of women will hurt sales of the book?

Modern families must fight back. They must go to their bookstores and tell the owners that they won't buy books, clever as they may be, that erase women from every possible situation. They must send the clear message that until women are portrayed properly, they won't expose their children to this type of media.

Until they do that, the media in which women are absent will continue to expand.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

In Those Days and In Our Time

In his powerful essay Kol Dodi Dofek, Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik outlines what he views a six "knocks" – divine messages from heaven which a sensitive Jew must hear, recognize and incorporate into his or her religious worldview. He writes,

First, the knock of the Beloved was heard in the political arena. From the point of view of international relations, no one will deny that the rebirth of the State of Israel, in a political sense, was an almost supernatural occurrence. Both Russia and the Western nations supported the establishment of the State of Israel. This was perhaps the one resolution on which East and West concurred [during the Cold War era]. I am inclined to believe that the United Nations was especially created for this end — for the sake of fulfilling the mission that Divine Providence had placed upon it.

The Rav reminds us that sometimes political events, especially related to the Jewish people, represent something greater than simply the decisions of individuals. They reflect the guidance of the Divine, bringing blessing to the Jewish people and to the world.

I believe that this past month we experienced just such an event. For the first time since the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple, the individual who represents the most powerful nation on earth (the President of the United States) officially recognized Yerushalayim as the capital of the Jewish State, the homeland of the Jewish people.

Some will argue that nothing has changed. Currently, they may in fact be correct. The US State Department announced that it has no plans to recognize my daughter (who was born in Hadassah hospital) as having been born in "Jerusalem, Israel" on her US passport. (As of now, she was only born in Jerusalem.) But if it's so unimportant, why did tens of thousands of Muslims protest in Indonesia? Why is the President of Turkey up in arms? Why is Egypt introducing yet another UN Security Council resolution aimed at declaring the American recognition illegal? Politics matter, and have very real consequences in world. While the President of the United States' statement was just, in his words, "a recognition of reality," it also established a new reality – one that Israelis intuitively appreciated and understood.

As religious Jews, we must ask ourselves: What is our religious response to this declaration? Have we responded spiritually in any way at all? I'm not referring to Facebook posts or WhatsApp messages. Rather, has this recent news affected us spiritually? Have we reacted religiously to this great gift to the Jewish people?

Orthodox Judaism is notoriously (and justifiably) conservative. We don't like change, and don't adapt to it very well. Our strength lies in our allegiance to our traditions; to adhering to the way things have been done because that's how our parents and their parents did things. We're reluctant to introduce new liturgy which makes us inherently uncomfortable (I'm still uneasy reciting parts of Lecha Dodi on the eve of Yom Ha'atzmaut). At the same time, that reluctance to innovate and introduce seems downright inappropriate in the face of historic events. If we can't or won't give thanks to God when our Holy City is recognized internationally as belonging to the Jewish people, what does that say about us as a religious people? I believe that one answer to the pull between these two values lies in coming to a new understanding and appreciation of a blessing and prayer we already recite throughout this entire week of Chanukah.

When we kindle the Chanukah lights we recite two blessings – the first on the rabbinic commandment to light the candles – a birkat mitzvah. Tradition teaches us that we recite a second blessing as well.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אלקינו מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם שֶׁעָשָׂה נִסִּים לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם בַּזְּמַן הַזֶּה.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe who made miracles for our ancestors in their days in this time.

This is of course a reflection of the opening to Al Hanisim where we give thanks,

עַל הַנִּסִּים וְעַל הַפֻּרְקָן וְעַל הַגְּבוּרות וְעַל הַתְּשׁוּעות וְעַל הַמִּלְחָמות שֶׁעָשיתָ לַאֲבותֵינוּ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם בִּזְּמַן הַזֶּה:
[And we praise You] For the miracles and for the redemption and for the mighty deeds and for the victories and for the battles that You performed for our fathers in those days at this time.

In his Levush commentary on the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayyim 682), Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe writes that in his opinion, one should add a "vav" to the last two words of this sentence.

We says, שעשית לאבותנו בימים ההם ובזמן הזה – "That you have done for our forefathers and in our time"...[through this language] we give thanks for the miracles that [God] did for our forefathers in those days, and we are also thankful for the miracles that You have done for us in this time, for each and every day He performs among us revealed and hidden miracles, as He did in the era of our forefathers...

The halachah does not follow the position of the Levush; the Taz (O.C. 682:5) rejects his suggestion and we don't add the additional "vav". Nonetheless, I find his sentiment inherently appealing. In addition to giving thanks for the miracles that occurred centuries ago, we must also give thanks to God for those miracles that take place in our time. And, if the author of the Levush – who suffered great persecution and exile, had no problem seeing hidden miracles in his lifetime, how can we, who live in the era of the greatest renaissance in Jewish history, not see even greater miracles today?
Commenting on the timelessness of Chanukah Rabbi Berel Wein writes that,

The Rabbis framed one of the blessings over the lights of Chanuka as recognizing the events ‘bayamim hahem,’ in those days’ bazman hazeh,’ in our time. We always have to look at how past events play themselves out in the current scene.

When we recite Al Hanisim and the second brachah of She'asah Nisim, we must concentrate not only on the miracles of long ago, but those taking place literally in our time – this year, and this month. It is incumbent upon each of us to add a special kavanah when reciting these brachot, to give thanks that dominion of the Jewish people of Yerushalayim has been strengthened and reinforced across the globe.

Finally, we must also give thanks and recognize that this small but significant declaration brings us closer to the day when the Jewish people will light the candles of the menorah not only in their homes, but in God's true home as well.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Praying for Rain in an Age of Desalination

The Chief Rabbinate has issued a directive to add Anenu (an additional prayer for rain) to our shemonah esreh. This makes perfect sense and follows a long line of halachic tradition, from the Mishnah Taanit down through the Shulchan Aruch. Rain is a critical element, fundamental to human life. When periods of drought threaten, we must cry out to God and beseech Him for mercy to bring the necessary rain. While it has rained a bit, it hasn't been nearly enough, and halachically, this call is a response to a crisis situation.
Except it's not. There is no water crisis here in Israel. With four major desalination plants online producing vast quantities of fresh water at very reasonable prices, the country is not in any crisis at all. We've gotten no directives to cut our water use in any way. No one has even asked us to cut the watering of the lawn, nor have water prices risen. There is no water shortage.
So we're left with a situation where we're supposed to recite a prayer of supplication and anguish, of great need due to a technicality, where there really isn't that great of a need.
This is not meant as a criticism of the Chief Rabbinate - far from it! It's an expression of a sense of frustration from a disconnect between ritual and reality. Sure, Jews around the world will add Anenu. But will that translate into religious fervor? Will the words reflect any real feelings?
Is it better to add something to davening when it will just be one more paragraph that you don't really feel strongly about? How does this affect our connection with the rest of our davening?
There are many, many things about which we need to cry out to God. A terrorist stabbed a security guard yesterday. Hamas shot rockets this week. The Israeli government decided to subsidize televisions rather than education yesterday.
But until the Water Authority tells me to take shorter showers and stop watering my lawn, we don't have a water shortage. Why then are we praying like we do?

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Audio Shiur: The Avodah on Yom Kippur

Audio Shiur:
The Avodah on Yom Kippur

The Avodah represents the pinnacle of service on Yom Kippur. The Mishnah dedicates seven out of eight chapters to the service in the Beit Hamikdash. What actually happened? Why was it so dangerous? What message did Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi convey to us about religious leadership through the language of the Mishnah? And does God control every single thing that happens in the world?

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Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Audio Shiur: Ein Ayah on Ki Tavo - Finding the Spiritual in the Physical

Audio Shiur:
Ein Ayah on Ki Tavo - Finding the Spiritual in the Physical

From the Mitzvah of Mikra Bikkurim we move to a powerful piece from Rav Kook about the purpose and meaning behind the recitation of Brachot

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Thursday, August 3, 2017

Audio Shiur: Parashat Vaetchanan - Seeing the Positive in Judaism

Audio Shiur:
Parashat Vaetchanan - Seeing the Positive in Judaism

All too often, we allow ourselves to focus on the negative, failing to see the amazing positives in Jewish life. Despite facing difficult news, Moshe never allows himself to fall into this trap. Ever the optimist, Moshe Rabbeinu, through his language and message, encourages us to see the good and act upon it.

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Thursday, July 27, 2017

Audio Shiur: Parashat Devarim - Why Do We Need a Second Torah?

Audio Shiur:
Parashat Devarim - Why Do We Need a Second Torah?

Why do we need a "Second" Torah? Isn't that concept a bit problematic? We also study the beginning of the Abrabanel's introduction to Devarim, where he poetically describes the destruction of Spanish Jewry?

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