Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Audio Shiur: Parshat Yitro - Is it Racist to Call Ourselves the Chosen People

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Yitro - Is it Racist to Call Ourselves the Chosen People

The topic of the shiur was originally, "Did we make the right choice to raise our children in Israel?" But it's really about the issue of racism in the Religious Zionist community, and the difficulty of preaching against racism in a country where every citizen is a potential target of terrorism. This led to the difficult question of whether calling ourselves "chosen" is an invitation to hatred, and an amazing piece from Rav Neria (which you can download here) on the implications of accepting the Torah. Sheets are attached. We conclude with a fascinating insight about Moshe's children, and why we raise ours in such a challenging environment.

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Monday, January 25, 2016

Facing the Difficult Questions – A Thought for Parshat Yitro

Over ten years ago, when I was a community rabbi in Metro Detroit, I invited a the Rosh Kollel for the Kollel Torah Mitzion, to a brief meeting.
“Rav Shlomo,” I said to him, “the programming at the kollel is incredible. You guys have so much energy, passion and excitement. The community members really love you. But I need to you to do something for me.”
“Sure,” he said. “What do you need?” He never saw the next sentence coming.
“I need you to stop talking about Aliyah.”
He seemed momentarily stunned.
“What do you mean ‘Stop talking about Aliyah’? That’s what we’re here for. We believe passionately in the value of Aliyah. Why would we stop talking about it?”
He was right, but so was I. Many community members, tired of hearing the same message over and over again, were simply tuning the members of the Kollel out. I wanted the Kollel to continue to have an influence over the members of the community, so I encouraged them to broaden their message.
I often feel that same estrangement from Diaspora Jewry today. If I write a piece about the importance of living in Israel, the response I get is tepid, indifferent, or hostile. “You made a choice for yourself” – they say – “but why do you insist on imposing your ideology on us?”

I preach Aliyah, of course, is because I believe that it’s the right thing to do.  If so, why do we tune out the messenger when we don’t like what he has to say? One answer lies in a quality of Moshe Rabbeinu that emerges from advice he receives from Yitro.

After settling in during his visit with Moshe in the desert, Yitro decides to join his son-in-law at the office. There he finds an intolerable situation, as the people stand from morning ‘till night, waiting to speak with Moshe. Yitro doesn’t mince words: לא טוב הדבר אשר אתה עושה – “the thing that you’re doing is not good.” (Shemot 18:17) Yitro gives Moshe what would seem to be obvious advice: You need to delegate. You can’t handle everything on your own. It’s not good for you, and it’s not good for the people either.

Moshe heeds Yitro’s advice and establishes a system to allow lower judges to handle the “easy” questions, while the more challenging queries made their way up the line to Moshe. If we think about it, Yitro’s advice isn’t all that unusual nor surprising. Wikipedia calls delegation “a core concept of management leadership.” If it’s so obvious, why didn’t Moshe think of it himself? And, if we assume that he did – which I believe is a fair assumption – why did he not delegate until Yitro came along and insisted that he do so?

According to the Harvard Business Review, “There are plenty of reasons why managers don’t delegate. Some are perfectionists who feel it’s easier to do everything themselves, or that their work is better than others’.”  It’s very easy to see Moshe Rabbeinu fall into that trap. After all, he really could do it better. The people really did want to speak specifically to him. Who wouldn’t want to talk to Moshe about their problems or questions? If the people want to wait, why should he stop them?
When Yitro insisted that he delegate, he also forced Moshe to ask himself some challenging questions: Why wasn’t he delegating? Why hadn’t he implemented the obvious system to deal with the impossible crush of people? It’s not easy to ask yourself questions like these, and many times we simply don’t want to hear the answers. They’re deeply personal, and oftentimes, the answers reveal aspects of our personalities that we’d rather leave unexplored.

The greatness of Moshe lay in the fact that rather than ignore Yitro’s advice and put the challenging questions aside, Moshe confronted them head-on. He was willing to honestly ask himself: Why don’t I ask other people for help? Why haven’t I changed? And, after asking the questions (and discovering the honest answers), he exhibits a willingness to make the appropriate and obvious course adjustment.

If you’re still with me, you probably can see where I’m going here. If you’ve read this far in this D’var Torah, you’ve either made aliyah, or appreciate the fact that aliyah must be a strong priority in the value system of every Torah Jew. Yet, too many people fear the difficult questions that they’d have to ask themselves if they actually confronted the issue head-on. (Why don’t we make aliyah? What am I really afraid of?) So they shun the messenger (or the message) and tell them to stop preaching Aliyah, and instead ask their scholars in residence from Israel to share fun stories about the IDF from the pulpit instead.

The story of Yitro’s advice teaches us that greatness stems not from knowing all the answers, but from the ability and willingness to confront the most difficult, challenging questions inside of us.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Audio Shiur: Beshalach - The Sting of the Needle

Audio Shiur:
Beshalach - The Sting of the Needle

The murder of Dapna Meir hy"d this week left us all reeling. In this shiur we discussed some of the different messages relating to how the Jewish people dealt with the pain and trauma of loss; the desire for revenge, the overarching need for faith in times of distress, and the recurring theme of suffering and its connection to growth.

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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Lessons from the Daf: Just Because I Have a Sevara Doesn't Give Me License to Paskin

In the middle of an involved discussion on Pruzbol, the Gemara raises the question of whether Shemittah would nullify a written loan contract with a lien against real estate. (Yes, it's pretty involved.) Reish Lakish and Rav Yochanan suggest that Shemittah would not cancel such a loan, while Rav and Shmuel disagree, and rule that Shemittah would cancel this type of loan. The Gemara also brings a proof from a Beraita which explicitly supports Rav Yochanan's position. The Gemara (Gittin 37a) then relates the following story:
A relative of R. Assi had a bond containing a lien clause. He came before R. Assi and said to him: Is this cancelled [by the seventh year] or not? — He replied: It is not cancelled. He left him and went to R. Yochanan [and asked the same question]. [R. Yochanan] replied: It is cancelled. R. Assi went to R. Johanan and asked him: Is it cancelled or not cancelled?
He replied: It is cancelled.
[Rav Assi asked] But you yourself [once] said that such a bond is not cancelled?
He replied: Because we have an opinion of our own [different from what we have learnt], are we to act on it?
Said R. Assi: But there is a Baraitha in support of your opinion?
[Rav Yochanan] replied: perhaps that follows Beth Shammai...
Rav Yochanan's comment is more striking in Aramaic: וכי מפני שאנו מדמין נעשה מעשה - "Because we imagine (or think) something to be so, should be act upon it? Commenting on this strange phrase Rashi writes, נראה בעינינו וכמדומין אנו כן ולא שמענו מרבינו - "It seems to be correct in our eyes, but we did not hear it from our rabbis." Rav Yochanan even rejects a clear proof text to his legal theory, suggesting that it might not be a normative opinion.

The story represents a fascinating tension between theoretical interpretation of a text and actual implementation. Rav Yochanan teaches us that while learning in the Beit Midrash must be honest and open, translating that theory into action requires great care and precision. You don't make changes without the approval and instruction of your rabbis.

To me, this message seems especially relevant in the halachic climate in which we live today.


Thursday, January 14, 2016

Audio Shiur: Parshat Bo: Fake it Till You Make It

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Bo: Fake it Till You Make It

The recent Lottery craze with a billion-dollar jackpot got me thinking: How does focusing on winning riches affect people? This led us to study in depth a famous essay from the Sefer Hachinuch on the nature of the mitzvot, and why God commanded so many detail oriented mitzvot. Like always, it's tricky to find a good balance.

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Thursday, January 7, 2016

Audio Shiur: Parshat Vaera - Hail to the Chief

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Vaera - Hail to the Chief

A careful look at the plague of hail reveals a great deal about the structure of the plagues altogether, and one understanding of the psychology of hardening Par'oh's heart.

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Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Raising Religious Zionist Children: A Question of Education

So much of what takes place in the Jewish world revolves around education – or the lack thereof. The recent controversy surrounding the "Hilltop Youth" is to me, first and foremost, an education issue. Somehow, teachers, rabbis and educators failed to reach these young people before they abandoned home and school for the "freedom" of the hilltop. At the same time, the growing alienation between Israel and America also relates to education and a failure to properly communicate critical values through both parenting, but also our educational system.

Nowhere does education play a more significant role in the Torah than in the story of the exile and subsequent redemption from Egypt. God tells Moshe explicitly that education must play an essential role in the process of the Redemption and the formation of the Jewish Nation. God tells Moshe that He has hardened Par'oh's heart,
וּלְמַעַן תְּסַפֵּר בְּאָזְנֵי בִנְךָ וּבֶן-בִּנְךָ, אֵת אֲשֶׁר הִתְעַלַּלְתִּי בְּמִצְרַיִם, וְאֶת-אֹתֹתַי, אֲשֶׁר-שַׂמְתִּי בָם; וִידַעְתֶּם, כִּי-אֲנִי ה'. (שמות י', ב')
So that you will tell in the ears of your son and your grandson what I have wrought upon Egypt, and My signs which I have placed upon them; so that you may know that I am the LORD.' (Shemot 10:2)
We are also commanded to teach our children about the story of the Exodus on the night of Pesach – the ultimate educational experience.

But what happens when education is missing? What happens when parents and teachers don't provide the education that our children need and deserve? To answer this question, I share a novel answer to a classic question from the beginning of Sefer Shemot.

At the outset of Shemot, we learn that a new ruler arose to lead Egypt, אשר לא ידע את יוסף – "who did not know Yosef." (Shemot 1:8) This raises the obvious question: How could it be possible for a ruler to arise over Egypt who had never heard of the man who single-handedly saved not only their country, but the entire region from starvation? Rashi suggests that, "he made himself as if he did not know Yosef" – meaning that, like so many world leaders that followed throughout history, Par'oh chose to ignore the past in his desire to persecute the Jews. Yet, that's not the simple meaning of the words. Rabbi Yosef Bechor Shor explains simply that he neither "recognized him, nor knew of him." This of course only begs the question: How is this possible?

I found a very simple, compelling answer in a commentary on Chumash called “Meir Einei Yesharim” written by Rabbi Meir Schwartzman, who served for many years as a rabbi and dayyan in Winnipeg, Canada. (You can download the full Sefer on Hebrewbooks.org here.) He explains that it is indeed possible that the new king never heard of Joseph. How is this possible? He suggests that a new Pharaoh would never have heard of Joseph because a previous government erased any memory of Joseph’s existence. Rabbi Schwartzman writes,
When a new party succeeds in wrestling the bridle of government from a rival faction...then it removes from their positions all of those officials that were appointed from the previous government and it appoints only those officials who it trusts to fulfill its demands, and all the laws that were enacted by the previous ministers and legislators are annulled...and even the textbooks in the schools are switched...so that the students do not learn the story of the greatness of this hero or that warrior…
When Marshall [Jozef] Pidulski was exiled from the Polish government (1923-1926), his adversaries removed his picture from the official schoolbooks... and when Hitler arose at the helm of Germany, they revised and printed new school books and encyclopedias... so that in an instant someone who had been a hero and redeemer was transformed into a rebel against his people and country - a liar and a traitor... those who could not be tainted were totally erased from the historical record, as if they had never been born...
This, I believe, is what happened in Egypt. Even though a new king arose over Egypt, nonetheless he did not know of Joseph and had never even heard of him, for the enemies of Pharaoh who ruled when Joseph was young later took control of the government into their hands...and the entire story of Joseph’s greatness and how he saved the nation from famine, all of which was undoubtedly found in the national record... all of this was hidden or intentionally destroyed.
According to Rav Schwartzman, Par'oh never heard of Yosef because a previous government erased him from Egyptian history. How could Egyptian children know about a man if they were never taught? By that very same token, is it really that surprising to see Arabs refuse to acknowledge Israel's right to exist when Jewish history has been erased from their school curriculum?

Here in Israel, Religious Zionist parents assume that our children will not only assimilate our passion for the Land, but that they will also acquire our love for the State – the government and the rule of law – with all of its warts. Yet, the "Hilltop Youth" are teaching us that while we might be channeling our religious fervor to our kids, for some of them, we are failing to communicate the values of democracy, equality and freedom for all crucial to civil society.

By that very same token, while we might believe strongly in the importance of Eretz Yisrael, I am beginning to think that we don’t teach that passion properly, in a source-based manner, especially in the Diaspora where Zionism and Religious Zionism are often not properly emphasized or valued. I remember a number of conversations with parents who sent their children to non-Zionist yeshivot, and then expressed surprise and disappointment when those children returned home with values that did not include a love for the Jewish State. I would often caution parents: "Don’t send your children to a school and expect them not to absorb the school's ideology." It seems so simple and obvious. And yet, so many parents make this very mistake.

In the end, it boils down to education. If it's important enough, we teach it to our children, with love, patience and clarity. If not, we should not be surprised when we recognize that they lack the passion and love for Israel that we hold so dear.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Thought for Shemot: Paroh's Plan was Destroy the Jewish People through Intermarriage

Paroh's plan doesn't really make any sense: why kill the only the Jewish boys, and not every Jewish baby? Ohr Hachayyim (on Shemot 1:16) makes a startling suggestion: he was hoping to enslave the Jews through intermarriage:
והנה עצה חכמה יעץ פרעה בדבר זה, לבל יוכלו עלות מהארץ, והוא כי באמצעות שיהרגו כל זכר ויתרבו הנשים והן האשה טב למיתב טנדו ויתחברו נשי ישראל עם המצריים ויתחתנו בהם, ומעתה אין מציאות לעלות מן הארץ כשיהיו לעם אחד. גם יפגימו הנפשות הקדושות בערבוב הנפשות הטמאות ויהיו שם עד עולם ב''מ. And behold, Paroh offered sage advice in this matter which would prevent the Jews from leaving the land by killing all the males and increasing the [percentage] of females. Since it is known that "it is better for a woman to be married [than remain alone]", the women of Israel would associate with the Egyptians and marry them. From that point on, there is no possibility for them to leave the land as they would be one nation. Moreover, their holy souls would be blemished through the intermingling with the impure souls [of the Egyptians], and they would forever remain as a minority [in Egypt].

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Audio Shiur: Parshat Shemot - Bringing Children into a World of Misery

Audio Shiur:
Parshat Shemot - Bringing Children into a World of Misery

Perhaps the most amazing aspect of the slavery in Egypt is the fact that Jews continued to have children over the decades of slavery. Why did they continue to reproduce? According to the Midrash, they almost didn't want to, and we almost did our job for Paroh. Along the way, we also discuss how Paroh thought that his plan to kill Jewish boys would work, when things don't really seem to add up.

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Conversion Standards, and the Debate about Private Conversion Courts in Israel Today

Over the past several months, the media in Israel has made a great deal of noise about the private conversion court convened by Rav Nachum RabinovitchIt seems clear to me that there's a great misconception about how gerut takes place here, and the standards for conversion. Truth be told, I myself did not really understand the full picture until I heard a talk from Rav Yisrael Rosen of Tzomet during a Yom Iyyun at my son's yeshiva. Rav Rosen has been intimately involved in the Rabbanut Conversion Courts for many years.

Rav Rosen speaking at the Yom Iyyun in Ma'aleh Adumim
First we must ask ourselves: why is there such a thing as a conversion court at all? Why not just go to the regular Beit Din? With the first waves of aliyah from the former Soviet Union, it became clear that the normal batei din were not equipped or willing to handle the kinds of cases that were coming before them. Applying the regularly accepted (and rather stringent) standards that are common in Chutz L'aretz made the process impossible, and a dayyan who wished to be lenient would be criticized by his colleagues. Ask a dayyan today from the "regular" battei din - from any stripe - RZ, Chareidi, etc - about the giyyurim and they'll immediately say: "I don't have anything to do with giyyur." These battei din are a separate entity, not related to the Beit Din structure. The only official connection that they have is that they require the Chief Rabbi's signature to be acceptable in the secular context of the State of Israel.

Rav Rosen explained that in the early 90's, Rav Bakshi Doron approached a number of leading RZ rabbis asking them to deal with the giyyur issue. They established a beit din system as well as a framework of machonei giyyur - essentially giyyur seminaries - aimed at training potential candidates for conversion. These rabbis explicitly view these conversions not only in a halachic framework, but also in an ideological framework, hand in hand with the Religious Zionist view of the State itself. He quoted one explanation that the אובדים מארץ מצרים would be non-Jews who were lost to their ancestry over time, and would one day return the Land.

For this reason, these Batei Din do not see their role as adversarial to the potential convert. They never ask any "gotcha" questions, and see themselves as guides, looking to help people who wish to join the Jewish nation. A very high percentage - well over 90 percent - of the candidates who apply to convert are in fact converted in the framework of the conversion courts. He explained that they're not looking to "catch" anyone, and if someone declares the intention to keep the mitzvot, then they take them at their word. 

This is the basis for most of the conversions taking place in the framework of the rabbinate. The situation is even more "lenient" (for lack of a better word) in the IDF, where candidates in the Netiv program study a three-month program about Judiasm before conversion. It is common knowledge that a very significant percentage of these converts do not keep Shabbat or kashrut in any normative manner. This is not to say that they don't keep mitzvot. But we would not consider them Orthodox. Rav Rosen actually lamented that not enough people convert in Netiv, where they're easy to target as candidates for giyyur, as they're stuck in the army anyway.

Let me be clear: the current standards already in place for decades are far, far below the standards of any Beit Din in the United States that I am familiar with - and intentionally so. The entire network of Batei Din for giyyur was created specifically to encourage as many Russians as possible to convert. This also explains the entirely legitimate criticism of Rav Sherman (from the regular battei din) and many of his chareidi and non-chareidi colleagues, who disagree entirely with the methodology and ideology that created the batei din l'giyyur, and question their validity. The only reason these many thousands of conversions are accepted today is because Rav Ovadya Yosef accepted them and was willing to sign the conversion certificates.

The new conversion court in session
When Rav Rabinovitch ruled that in his opinion a beit din can convert a minor child despite the fact that his mother is not a Jew nor converting herself, he wasn't deviating from accepted halachic norms in the Beit Din system. The issue isn't that controversial, ironically. Even Rav Moshe allowed the practice. (In an interesting twist, Rav Kook explicitly forbade such conversions.) But Rav Rabinovitch is deviating from the Rabbanut policy, one that Rav Yitzchak Yosef doesn't accept. Rav Rosen and Rav Druckman actually agree halachically with Rav Rabinovitch's psak. They just don't think that he should attempt to implement it with a private Beit Din because of the legal ramifications here in Israel. Essentially they're afraid that if the Israeli Supreme Court allows Rav Rabinovitch's (and Rav Riskin's) unlicensed conversions, what's to stop a Conservative Beit Din from doing its own conversions that would then have to be accepted by the State? (Good question. Answer: nothing.) 

To sum up: The new private Beit Din isn't a geirut of a different standard than the current rabbinate standard. That ship sailed long ago. It's a political fight about power and control (as is almost always the case), with the current Chief Rabbi (Rav Yosef) unwilling to sign on giyyurim that Rav Rabinovitch feel's are a critical and relatively simple tool - giyyur kattan - for addressing an ongoing demographic problem in the Jewish State.